Olympic Trials: New faces, same game: The younger look of USA Wrestling

BY CODY GOODWIN | APRIL 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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Jesse Thielke has a look about him — a solemn, pensive facial expression.

He carries it with him into every wrestling match, and it never changes during his time on the mat. He's strictly business during his bouts.

"You have to get over being nervous in this sport," he said. "I know when I go out there, I have the advantage. Only I can take myself out."

This is normal for a weathered veteran in the sport — but Thielke, 19, showcased it at his state championship match a year ago.

While Thielke may not have realized it, the match may have been his springboard onto USA Wrestling's center stage. Looming in the air is a potential shift in which Thielke and three similarly young wrestling buddies could be a part. The change is causing an abnormal youth movement in the current wrestling landscape.

Thielke was sporting a blue singlet from Germantown High and looking for his fourth Wisconsin state wrestling championship. Thielke, one of several fresh faces to watch this weekend at the Olympic Trials in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, collected two pins and a semifinal technical fall en route to his state finals match.

He carried his expression with him into the state finals, where it only took him 77 seconds to dispose of his opponent and become just the 11th four-time state wrestling champion in Wisconsin high-school history.

But with Thielke, humility prevails.

"I had been in high-pressure situations before," he said. "It was no big deal."

He left the Kohl Center in Madison excited but still focused. He knew one of his goals had been met that night, but he had bigger aspirations. He left the state a few days later to continue his circuitous route to the Olympic trials, where he hopes to wrestle his way onto the U.S. Olympic Team. But maybe — just maybe — the future Wisconsin Badger has done more than just that.

Maybe he's already one of the preeminent pieces to the future look of USA Wrestling.

Young guns make a splash

A story such as Thielke's is hard to come by. A nearly perfect high-school campaign punctuated with four state championships and numerous national titles and junior world-team appearances along the way isn't likely to appear often.

Nor is the fact that he's only 19 years old and competing this weekend.

The average age of the U.S. Olympic athletes in the 2008 Beijing Games was 26.8. Wrestlers were older than the collective average, at 27.6 years old — and the Greco-Roman team's average age was 28.5.

In comparison with the average age of the Greco-Roman Olympic team from the 2004 Athens Games, it's clear that the age of the Olympic teams is slowly decreasing — the 2004 Athens team's average age was 30.71. This year, the odds are greater than ever the Olympic team could be younger. Much younger.

Four younger Greco-Roman wrestlers are at the forefront of these 2012 Olympic trials: Ellis Coleman, 20, Ben Provisor, 21, Jimmy Chase, 21, and Thielke. All four have made their presence felt throughout USA Wrestling.

Coleman was the 2011 Sunkist Kids International Champion at 60 kilograms (132 pounds) in October 2011. Provisor was the 2011 U.S. Open Champion at 74 kilograms (163 pounds) in April 2011. Chase wrestled four years ago in the 2008 trials and placed fourth at 55 kilograms (121 pounds).

The cause of this sudden youthful spark — it seems, at least — is unknown.

But then again, maybe not.

Sparking the fire

In 2008, then 18-year-old Jake Deitchler shocked the U.S. wrestling world when he defeated two-time World bronze medalist Harry Lester in the semifinals of the Olympic trials in the 66-kilogram weight class.

Sports Illustrated hailed him as "Kid Dynamite," and rightfully so; he went to the finals of the 2008 trials in Las Vegas and downed another veteran, Faruk Sahin, to earn a spot on the Olympic squad. The Minnesota native became the first high-school athlete to compete in the Olympics for the United States in 32 years.

"I'd like to think I helped [the trend] in some way," Deitchler said. His Olympic experience was a rough one — he lost his only two matches in Beijing.

The former Kid Dynamite is now retired from the sport because of recurring concussion symptoms; he helps out coaching a Minnesota youth wrestling club called PINnacle Wrestling School. Many of the best youth wrestlers in Minnesota train there, and the school produces some of the nation's best grapplers. He may have only witnessed a small number of wrestlers, but Deitchler said "it's evident" that the younger athletes are progressively getting better.

"Kids are getting better at a younger age now," he said. "A lot of them come to the forefront a lot faster than they did, say, five or six years ago."

But this burst of youthful talent isn't out of the norm, said USA Wrestling Director Rich Bender. He said the way these young athletes have approached their journeys to the trials is different from other paths he's seen in the past — especially Thielke's.

"There's someone who made a commitment right out of high school to build a foundation, specifically in [Thielke]'s case, in Greco-Roman and to put him in a position to contend," Bender said. "He'll be in the mix at 55 kilograms for sure."

Bender praised Thielke for his decision to go to Colorado Springs, calling him a "gifted Greco-Roman wrestler." To take advantage of this opportunity, Bender said, only helps the development of the future of USA Wrestling.

"A lot of that's due to him coming in and focusing an entire year on [elite] Greco-Roman wrestling," he said. "And he's someone who's going to be in the mix to make the team this year and, hopefully, through the next several Olympic teams to come … The future is bright."

Double-edged motivation

Bender has been around USA Wrestling — the national governing body for wrestling in the United States — for quite a while. He has seen trends come and go and great stories unfold. He has witnessed the beginning of Olympic dreams.

He said the experiences of the four young athletes competing in Iowa City sets them apart from young wrestlers in the past. But he was quick to point out he wasn't speaking of experience in terms of total time accumulated but what the athletes encountered and took away in that time.

"They're young in the sense of traditional age of the World and Olympic Teams," Bender said. "But I think in terms of experience, they aren't that young."

Deitchler remembered his trials experience four years ago and all that led up to him making the team. He and Michigan's Eric Grajales both traveled the world with the Greco-Roman Junior World Team a year before the 2008 Olympic trials. They went to Bulgaria and China to wrestle against some of the best junior-level Greco-Roman wrestlers in the world.

Deitchler said those experiences prepared him and Grajales for both the senior level and the trials.

"We were young, and kind of edgy — but we said that we could beat [senior-level] guys," he said. "We wanted to show the world how good we were at such a young age. It was kind of mission, you could say.

"One of the guys I coach with now, Brandon Paulson, told me before the trials, 'You know, don't respect them just because they're older, but show them you belong.' "

Deitchler said the same mantra applies to this year's young wrestlers.

"There's something to be said about the young athletes — they have a lot of energy, and they might be a little naïve," he said. "They may not know everything about those older guys, but those older guys don't know anything about them. It's great for both situations."

Bender said the young athletes' motivation stems from their drive to be the best — not just nationally but internationally. He said fame and fortune aren't part of the sport, so the athletes' focus and the goals they set are the reasons wrestling is set apart.

"It's that unrelenting desire to be the best in the world," he said. "The young athlete is going to know he's going to step on the mat with the same chance as his competitor, and it'll be up to him to perform at a high level and make the team."

The unrelenting desire Bender noted isn't only in the hearts of the young grapplers. The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is filled with wrestlers both young and old with varying styles.

He loves that both younger and older wrestlers are meshed in the same room and said this model works well in other countries — most notably in Russia. Bender said the Russian wrestling model places top-tier wrestlers around the younger athletes to serve as role models and practice partners. Both groups of wrestlers strive to become better by battling each other, he said.

"The older athletes' perspective is that they have young guys pushing them, and that takes our program to a higher level," Bender said. "If I'm an older athlete in our program, I'd be motivated to work just as hard because the younger guys are in the room. Those younger guys are trying to take my spot.

"What we tell anybody who walks into our wrestling room is to enter with an unrelenting sense of urgency. Whether you're a young, up-and-coming athlete who's competing to be on future teams, or if you're an older athlete who has that sense of urgency, knowing there's four or five athletes at your heels trying to take your spot, just motivates you all the more."

What makes them so special

"I remember when I was kid," Deitchler said. "I said, 'I'm going to do what nobody else does.' And I worked my butt off, and I paid that price, and it paid off. You have to have dreams. That's what makes the sport fun — chasing your dreams."

One man helping the young wrestlers chase their dreams is Steve Fraser, USA Wrestling's Greco-Roman head coach. Fraser lives in Colorado Springs among the athletes. He, too, has seen many athletes come through USA Wrestling — some more talented than others and some more hungry than the rest.

Fraser is in the wrestling room with the athletes day in and day out, teaching his technical expertise and helping them get better. He knows the four young wrestlers well, from both on and off the mat, and said the time together has shown him what makes these young guns so special.

"What I love about these younger guys is their hunger for the sport, their hunger for success, their hunger for knowledge," he said. "All of them are very, very coachable kids. And as a senior coach, it's always a good thing to have people in there that are hungry for coaching, hungry for knowledge.
"They're pliable. That's one thing I really appreciate about the younger guys."

Those aspects are common among elite wrestlers everywhere, but Fraser said there's something different about this younger group. All great wrestlers are committed, he said, but that commitment must be taken to a whole new level when it comes to the dedication needed to excel on wrestling's biggest stage.

He said that they're all training at the center demonstrates their loyalty.

"For them to pull stakes to move out here for a year or longer — in Coleman's case and Provisor's case, they don't plan on going back anywhere from here — it's that commitment to the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling," Fraser said. "I'm not taking anything away from [other talented wrestlers], but I think it shows that by moving out here, committing 100 percent, and taking some knocks … takes fortitude, toughness, and commitment."

But just because the four have put in the time and effort doesn't mean they'll be handed Olympic team spots. Working hard and being dedicated are only half the battle.

The young grapplers will have to earn their spots on the Olympic team. That, Bender said, is what makes wrestling so compelling.

"One of the things about wrestling is that the athletes are going to decide who's going to represent our country," he said.

Bender and Fraser both applauded the young athletes and said they admire the quartet's determination and fight in Colorado Springs. Athletes such as Provisor, Coleman, Chase, and Thielke set an example for younger wrestlers now — they're the role models for future Olympians who might still be in high school or youth wrestling.

Bender said he believes these younger wrestlers are only getting their feet wet.

"This is going to set us up for London and Rio [in 2016] and beyond. The field is full of a lot of talent in our country," he said. "The tradition of wrestling in the United States is starting to bear fruit now with the young guys who are chasing Olympic greatness at a somewhat young age. It's great for our sport."

Stepping toward a goal

Thielke's future was well-secured before his final state tournament win more than a year ago. He spent a few weeks in Europe with the Junior World Greco-Roman team, training and continuing to progress. He had previously made the Junior World Team in Greco-Roman but failed to bring home a medal.

He shot off to Colorado Springs upon his return to the States to train for this weekend. He received this opportunity through connections he made with the Junior World Team. Thielke then spent the next year training with America's best Greco-Roman wrestlers. But he also continued to travel and compete — he qualified for his spot in this weekend's trials in December when he placed fourth at the U.S. Open Championships.

He said he has noticed his improvement over the last year. He smiled when he talked of how his training went.

"It was hard at first," he said. "A lot of these guys are older and are adults, and I'm this kid who had just finished high school. But I know everybody now, and I'm really comfortable."

Comfortability wasn't the only thing Thielke gained by living out at the center. He said he's learned a lot, both on and off the mat. Living in Colorado Springs taught him a lot about being a champion, he said, and how winning the big matches takes a whole different kind of dedication and perseverance.

"I learned to never let up, no matter what," Thielke continued. "During the grind, you'll have those days where you don't want to do anything. It's when you work hard during those days that make the difference."

These lessons are exactly what his future coach, Barry Davis, wanted him to learn. The Wisconsin wrestling coach said Thielke's plan was on the table before he began recruiting him and that there was no stopping him.

"It's helping him mature a bit before he comes [to Wisconsin]," Davis said. "He's becoming technically better. He's training and competing at the highest level, and he's making adjustments all the way."

But not everybody was happy about Thielke's leave from Wisconsin. He has only returned home twice since he moved to Colorado Springs: to walk at graduation in May of last year and to be with his family on Christmas.

The time away from home has been tough on him, even though he knows what he's chasing. But he said his absence has been even tougher on his family.

"It's been a little hard," he said. "It's been stressful for Mom, since she's not on the sidelines anymore, cheering for me.

"But the way I looked at it, it's just another step."

'I do what I do'

Legendary former Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable made an appearance in Waterloo on March 30. He was in town to watch the final U.S. Olympic trials qualifier at the UNI Dome.

The 1972 Olympic gold medalist remembered not too long ago when Rulon Gardner made his gold medal run in Sydney during the summer of 2000 and how Gardner was a name that captured the attention of the American people in the months leading up to the Games. He said special names such as that — even if they come from his era — are wrestlers America won't ever forget. He said such names as Chris Taylor and Rick Sanders, and even Gardner's, are "so well-entrenched that they still carry on."

"That's what we need," Gable said. "We need a good year, a good Olympics to where we get some new names that will carry on the sport for a long time."

When Gable's words were repeated to Thielke, he was surprised at first. That serious facial expression — it seemed, at least — broke for a moment.

He chuckled.

"Well, I do what I do for a reason."

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