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Claire DiCugno Q&A: Learning at Junior Worlds, Colorado Mesa feeling like home, a passion for wrestling

by Joe Wedra, USA Wrestling

Photo of Claire DiCugno by Tony Rotundo

This year, will interview one collegiate wrestling athlete each Thursday as a part of a new Q&A series for the 2021-22 college wrestling season. Stay tuned each Thursday for a new feature, spotlighting these student-athletes both on and off the mat.

This week, we talk Colorado Mesa standout Claire DiCugno, who was named the NWCA Southwest Regional Wrestler of the Month for the month of December. DiCugno, who is from Lake Tapps, Wash., was on the 2021 Junior World team and is a four-time Women’s Nationals All-American.
Below, DiCugno discusses a variety of topics, including what she learned at Junior Worlds and why Colorado Mesa has such a special environment.
Q: What was your experience like at Junior Worlds, being able to compete in a high-level and meaningful event?
A: To be honest, it was almost like a dream come true. My goal has always been to win those tournaments… but, I didn’t put two and two together that said ‘Oh, if you win Women’s Nationals, you get to go to Russia." I didn’t put those two together in my mind, so it was all just a bonus. So, every time – when we got the gear, it was surreal. Putting on my USA singlet for the first time, it was all just amazing.
The team that was there supported me and the coaches, they gave me everything I could have asked for and more. They believed in me to place at my first Worlds and all of that. Unfortunately, I didn’t perform as well as I would’ve liked at Worlds, but it was definitely a learning experience and I know I got so much better from it. I’m so happy I got to go through that, and I really hope to again someday soon.
Q: How do you think the experience as a whole was able to help you grow as an athlete, being overseas and competing in a World Championships?
A: One thing that definitely helped me improve vastly was just seeing that people could be that excellent at wrestling. Seeing how good someone really can be, and mostly what was the most beneficial was the week we spent in training camp in New York before we went to Russia. Being there and practicing with the other girls, I got to practice with the Blades sisters, the other World team members, and I got to see what they have done to be that great at wrestling where they are winning World Team Trials at multiple age divisions and winning World titles.
It also opened up doors and opportunities for me to train with many different people back in my hometown. I had Brenda Reyna and Emma Bruntil coming down to help me train, get ready and see how they did that. Every person I wrestled with, I was able to learn so much from. It made me so excited to be able to learn more now at the college scene, where every person I’m really able to learn from.
Q: Is it a new idea for you to be able to look around and take a little something from everyone you’re around, or is that something you’ve always done?
A: I think it’s something I’ve always done, and not by my own accord. My coach-dad – I always call him coach-dad – he has always been very big on the fact that I need to be coached by other people. I can’t just be coached by one person. I can’t be coached by just my high school coach. We’d travel all over and try to wrestle with a new person. When I was in eighth grade, I’d go to all of the National Team camps, and I had a friend who would take me to a different camp it almost seemed like every single weekend. I think that’s where I started to learn that I could do that.
Q: What was the process of choosing a college like, and what ultimately sold you on Colorado Mesa?
A: The process was actually extremely difficult, and it was made very difficult by COVID. Most visits that I had planned got cancelled about two weeks before or a week before, and I only got to take one visit which, funny enough, was Colorado Mesa. I wasn’t able to visit any other schools. And also, since there were so many people coming back for their COVID year, there is less money and fewer scholarships available.
It ends up being very complicated as well, because my offers drastically changed after I made the World team. Going into the World Team Trials, I wasn’t a prime recruit… After making the World team, that completely changed. But what eventually sold me on Colorado Mesa was the school environment. I of course wanted to wrestle, and that is what my decision was made on, but the school at Colorado Mesa and the environment with the team, no one can compete with it.
The team is so supportive in every way. They are so kind and so caring. When I was wrestling at the World Team Trials, I was not committed to the school. I don’t think they were even on my radar at that point, but I had gone on a visit and they knew who I was, so they were all cheering for me throughout the tournament just because they knew who I was and they thought I was cool. It’s just a super supportive environment. We have people cheering for each other at all ends of the mats no matter where your match is happening. That’s just something that I really wanted to be a part of.
Q: What do you think are some of the driving reasons why the culture is so strong and so supportive?
A: I would definitely say that the driving reason the culture is so strong is because the coaches do such a good job of recruiting. They know who is going to add to the environment. You may not be the best wrestler in the nation, in your state or even on your team, but you definitely have something you can add to our team. I think they’ve done an amazing job of finding those people who can add to our team in that way.
Q: You are from Washington, and there always seems to be a great pride for wrestlers who come from the state. What do you think drives that great pride in being from Washington?
A: I don’t know where it comes from, but I have to agree and say that I definitely have state pride. I would have to say that our team camps are very fun and our National Team coaches in the past have done a good job of fostering that team camaraderie. We break out after every practice and we’re all a team. It’s very fun, because we all competed for separate teams in our high school season, but going into postseason and going into Fargo, we’re all one team. We all have the same goals.
The camps are also very fun. We do random stuff. I remember one time we played volleyball with singlets on, and those things just help contribute to the team culture. It also helps that the leadership in Washington was really great during my high school years. We had Phoenix Dubose, Payton Stroud, Viktorya Torres, it all contributed to us enjoying.
Q: You seem to have such a great passion for wrestling – could you just talk a bit about the sport and what it means to you?
A: This sport has given me so, so much. My dad wrestled in college and my younger brother and sister both wrestled. The sport has given me a purpose that I can give glory to God through. It’s something I’ve been able to work toward, consistently, for many years. It’s shown me what hard work is, how to support people, how to deal with heartbreak, how to deal with victory. It’s taught me what hard work really is and how hard a person really can work, and how smart work is always better than hard work. It has given me so many of my closest friends who I know I’ll have forever, and really has given me the relationship with my family.
Q: As you look ahead to this college year for the team, what are you most excited about over the next couple of months?
A: The thing I’m most excited about is just to continue wrestling. I want to wrestle for as long as I can. My dad always used to say that we compete in the postseason so we can wrestle as long as we can. If that means wrestling to the finals, to third place, to the seventh-place match, it’s wrestling for as long as you can and as many matches as you can. Coach Travis Mercado (Colorado Mesa head coach) emphasizes how our goal is to perform. So, I’m very excited to give glory to God through my performances and wrestle as much as I can with this team. I want to show what I’ve been working toward, what I’ve been learning and the new moves I’ve developed.
Q: When you look ahead at your career, how would you describe your goals and what would you say is highest on the list of things you want to accomplish?
A: It’s a good question, and it’s one I do have an answer to. I’m planning to wrestle for as long as I can in life. I chose my major in college, and I’m doing an accounting major so I can work part-time and still definitely make enough money to support my wrestling career for as long as I can. I would love to make the Olympics one day. I would love to make a Senior World team. But, a lot of work goes into that, and there’s a lot of luck that goes into that. I am going to put 100 percent of my effort toward that.
I’m going to plan accordingly, eat accordingly, work accordingly so that I give myself the best chance to achieve those goals some day in the future. So to answer the question, I want to do as much as I can for as long as I can.