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Native American Heritage Month: Spencer Woods and his unique journey to chasing his Olympic dreams

by Joe Wedra, USA Wrestling

As a part of Native American Heritage Month, USA Wrestling is spotlighting Native American athletes, past and present, who have made an impact in the sport both on and off the mat. Today, we feature Spencer Woods, a 2021 U23 Greco-Roman World team member and member of the Army WCAP program.

After waking up every morning in high school in 50-below weather to start up his snow machine to get to school, Spencer Woods might not have seen wrestling practice as the hardest part of his day.

Growing up in Shungnak, Alaska, Woods experienced plenty of unusual childhood routines.

Most kids don’t come home from school and help their dad with his dog sled team, full of 54 dogs. Most don’t wonder if the day’s after-school activity would be helping take care of the caribou that was brought home that afternoon.

But Woods, whose father is a full Inupiaq Alaskan native, is proud of the lifestyle that helped build him into the person and wrestler he is today.

Growing up in Shungnak

For Woods, doing difficult things became commonplace at an early age. Going through his early years in Shungnak, which is 50 miles above the arctic circle, having to work for everything you had wasn’t an inconvenience – rather, it seemed normal.

For Woods and his family, that was merely everyday life.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Woods said. “There are no roads there, you have to fly into town. Growing up, [everyone else] can go to a Walmart and get what you need. We would have to load up a rifle, get on a snow machine and find dinner. In the summer, you’re at a fish camp and working all summer to try to get ready for the winter months. You’re always going out and getting your own firewood… If you need something, you have to go get it.”

Woods’ father, retired Army Major Raymond Woods, served in the Army for 22 years and is now a bilingual coordinator for the school district in Alaska. He teaches youth how to hunt, cold-weather survival skills, setting traps and other skills that, according to Spencer, you’d see on “any Alaskan TV show”.

He and Woods’ mother, Stephanie, who was born and raised in Texas, were fully supportive of Woods’ wrestling career from a young age.

Even if it meant unique travel, there was always an emphasis on making sure Spencer was able to compete.

“I started wrestling when I was seven in Shungnak, but I really didn’t think I could have a career for a long time until high school. There are no roads up there… so to compete and to travel when I was living in Shungnak, we would get on a little bush plane and fly around to the village next to us. We’d have a little tournament there and then we’d fly back. So even now at the national level, the only thing that has changed other than the level of wrestling is that the planes are bigger,” Woods said with a laugh. “I’ve been doing this since I was 7 years old.”

For Woods, wrestling and life were truly a family-first effort. In Shungnak, there are only a couple hundred people total living in the village.

To do anything meant to work together. And when it came to attacking wrestling goals and dreams, that fact became incredibly true.

“My parents, I owe them everything,” Woods said. “Even though I’m the first person in my family to wrestle, just growing up in a household that was really culturally-centered, the Inupiaq values were really prevalent in my house. Growing up with that kind of mindset and wrestling through with those values in mind, I think it definitely helped me with being mentally tough and being able to persevere and overcome adversity.”

Making the decision to enter WCAP

After an impressive high school career in which he won two Alaska state titles, Woods went on to train at the University of Maryland in 2016. He spent time there before moving to Northern Michigan to train Greco-Roman full-time at the Olympic Training Site.

As his interest in Greco-Roman wrestling rose and turned successful – placing at multiple events including a third-place finish at the 2018 Junior World Team Trials – Woods continued to build a passion and accomplishments in his Greco-Roman competition.

After time training with Northern Michigan leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Woods had an idea that doors would be opening up that would make the Army World Class Athlete Program a possibility.

His father, grandfather, four uncles and many cousins are in the Army. When the time came to make a decision on where to take his career once training shut down due to the pandemic, the choice became rather clear.

“When COVID hit, I already had WCAP sparking some interest, knowing that it was always an opportunity. Once it hit, nobody was competing and it was really hard to find places to train. That was the best time for me to go through boot camp and get down to Colorado Springs as soon as I could for this Olympic year.

“It’s kind of cool going back into the family heritage,” Woods continued. “Growing up in this specific lifestyle, we’re all able to go into the same path. We were all family before, but now we’re these brothers in arms. To me, it gives me a huge sense of that family feeling.”

Olympic goals and life-long work

Woods took fourth at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at 87 kg and was the U.S. representative at 87 kg at the 2021 U23 World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia in November.

After winning both the Senior Nationals and U23 Nationals this year, it’s no secret that the Shungnak product is one of the rising young names in the sport in the U.S., something Woods understands. They aren’t expectations he runs from, rather embraces.

As has been the case his whole life, great challenges are viewed as things to be embraced.

Moving ahead, Woods isn’t shifting any major elements of his approach. He’ll always be thankful. He’ll always be driven. And he’ll always be the athlete known for his effort.

But now, he says, after a busy year of competing and performing well, his goals are much more focused.

“The goal is not to go WCAP and now I have a paycheck, everything is taken care of and now I can just relax. No, my goal is to win and not to just look like I’m doing well,” Woods said. “Not to sound bad, but I don’t care what people think or if I look like I’m doing good or bad… At the end of the day, I want to get my hand raised. So, the goal is 2024 and making the Olympic Team at 87 kilos and going to Paris and winning an Olympic medal. That is written down in my brain.”

Off the mat, Woods has his hand in a bit of everything.

He’s currently working toward his degree in biology at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. He has plans to potentially use his studies as a way to enter a dental program (his mom, Stephanie, is a dentist in Alaska).

Above all else, he’s adamant about keeping his options open. He’s a 12K plumber in the Army now, another area he plans to continue to focus in on.

But at the end of the day, the love of wrestling keeps Woods waking up each morning, ready to lean into his dreams.

These days, he doesn’t have to fire up the snow machine or put on as many layers.

For now, it’s about the journey to 2024 and looking ahead to a potential life around the great sport of wrestling.

“I want to wrestle until I can no longer compete and then once that happens, I want to coach until I can no longer coach,” Woods said. “I want to be around wrestling for as long as I can.”