Wednesday, February 7, 2018

National Girls and Women in Sports Day

Today is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, a national movement to celebrate the extraordinary achievements in girls' and women's sports and the positive influence athletic participation brings to their lives.   In the wrestling community, there is a call to wrestling groups to post photos, videos and stories on social media using the hashtags #NGWSD and #GirlsWrestle.

As a man in a male dominated sport, I'm not ashamed to proclaim that some of my heroes have, in fact, been women.  In life, sport and wrestling, I've welcomed the influence of many courageous women in my life.  From one of my first Olympic heroes (Karyn Bye) to the love of my life and better half (Liz (Reusser) Black) and even all the way back to my Grandma Audrey who passed away last week.  There have literally been hundreds of female athletes that I've brushed shoulders with who have greatly impacted my life.

The number one female athlete in my life has been and always will be my wife Liz.  When she made the second turn during an indoor-mile in Madison on February 5, 2000, I knew that I was going to marry her.  It took me a few weeks to catch her, but once I did, her influence in my life has been greater than any other single human being.  A lot of my initial attractions to her were as a result of her pursuits in athletics as an All-American athlete at Wisconsin.  As a female who was afforded an opportunity to pursue her passions as an athlete, Liz was able to grow as a woman and continue to move towards her purpose in life.  Her example as a student-athlete and now as a professional and mother-of-three and wife-of-one have multiplied and built into the lives of many because of sports -- specifically women's sports.

The 2018 Winter Olympics begins in only a few days.  During the Opening Ceremonies, our community and school district will again be reminded of the joy we were able to share with one of our own in Karyn Bye in 1998.  She was a member of the gold medal winning women's hockey team from the US.  She donned the cover of a Wheaties box, Sports Illustrated and several other publications with the American flag draped over her shoulders.  One of my fondest memories from that indelible February month in 1998 was a simple phone call that Karyn made to me as I was preparing for the biggest moment in my high school wrestling career.  No one prompted her to do so and I will forever be grateful that she took time to remind a high school kid that our community had my back and she was proud of what I had done.   It also served as a profound "foreshadowing" to what could happen almost 20 years later.

In 2016, I was beyond honored to drape the flag over the shoulders of another American hero and first-time gold medal winner in Helen Maroulis after a historic win in Rio.  My relationship with Helen has been a rich one and the impact she's had on my life and my entire family cannot be summed up in words.  Similar to Karyn, her impact has always been bigger than a gold medal, though.  It's the several simple acts of kindness and humility that cement her into our lives.

There have been athletes that have left their mark in my life, far too many to name.  However, below are a few that immediately come to mind.

Alaina Berube was the first female wrestler to pick-up her life and move to River Falls, Wisconsin to train.  She had big goals and we jumped into competing and training at an elite level with very little experience.  She had an illustrious collegiate career, but women's wrestling was rapidly growing and becoming more advanced.  She took a chance on me as a coach and we learned a lot about life, wrestling, coaching and the world of Jon Lantz. :). She married Clay Anderson (Jon's nephew) and currently lives in the Twin Cities.

Rachael (Holthaus) Presler was the first female athlete to win an ASICS Junior National tittle in Fargo, ND in 2002.  She was a feisty little 95-pound blonde with big goals in life and wrestling.  When she moved to River Falls to take a stab at training while attending a traditional college, she had already been a resident athlete at the USOTC and spent a year in college in Canada.  Being closer to home was one of the reasons she picked us.  She held us to high standards and pushed the pace, which was huge for our club and my development as a coach.  A shoulder injury cut her wrestling career short and we still talk about what could have been.  She's still feisty, but more accomplished and even sharper. She's a forward focused lawyer and new mom.

Emily Harper was my first "recruit."  She had competed on the Wisconsin national teams in Fargo and she was quick to attend UW-RF and pursue our WCWA-endeavors as a club team.  A few other athletes came when she did, too, but our involvement in Emily's life was much more in depth than any of the others.  She was became part of our family and we went through thick and thin while she was here.  I'm proud of the way we accepted every part of who she was with no judgement.  Accountability?  Yes.  But always in a loving and empathetic way.  Emily is also a new mom.

Deanna (Rix) Betterman moved to River Falls as a last ditch effort to save a promising career.  She had made several not-so-great decisions that put her in hot water with many of our wrestling organizations.  She came here to get her life back in order and, in doing so, ended up moving herself into elite status as an athlete finishing as high as 5th in the world and making two consecutive world teams.  What's more important than her success on the mat is her success off the mat.  She married Joe Betterman and is an active wrestling mom.

Of course, there are many others.  Victoria Anthony, Emilie Boomsma, Justina DiStasio, Dr. Kristen Kells, Kim Martori, Kayla Miracle, Sally Roberts, Team Wisconsin, River Falls Women's Wrestling, etc.

Thank you for what you do and the trails that you're blazing.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Introducing River Falls Women's Wrestling

We're taking on a brand new project in River Falls this year.  It's been a work in progress for well over a year and has been taking flight since the beginning of the school year.

Last year, one of my female athletes experienced an abundance of adversity in her training schedule.  She had big goals for the 2016-17 season that included winning a gold medal at the World Championships (after a bronze in 2016) and training at the Olympic Training Center for an extended period of time all while doing her entire class load online to free up space for training and traveling.  After a few setbacks and procedure changes left her with no place to train by January (of 2017), we were forced "punt" and spent the rest of the year scrambling for quality training and much needed structure.  To say that all of the uncertainty had an impact on her would be an understatement.  So, without hesitation, we laid the foundation for something better.  In September, she made a permanent move to River Falls along with 5 other athletes with similar goals and talent levels.

With an abundance of help from the River Falls School District, we were able to help all 6 students enroll at River Falls High School with the understanding that each of them will have several demands that are above and beyond a traditional high school student.  The administration was quick to find innovative ways to meet the needs of each student-athlete while keeping them immersed in the social settings of being high school students.  We looked at several options involving online school and all believed having these students around other students in order to give them the complete high school experience was best.

I've been around a lot of great people and great moments at RFHS, however, the big picture mindset and willingness to "go for it" with this project is the most proud I have ever been of my alma mater.

We brought together high achieving, high character individuals with aspirations of winning gold medals and created a training environment that is second to none in our country.  This group has an extensive collection of world-level medals, national championship plaques and All-American awards.  Additionally, they're exceptional students and great young women who have already made a huge impact in our community.  We're also very fortunate to bring in other top junior and senior-level talent that add value to the overall project.

From a training standpoint, the objectives are very clear.  We wanted to bring some of the top 14-17 year old athletes in the country together to train.  Most of them have been the only female on male teams and haven't trained with other top-level females aside from a handful of training camps.  These girls are learning how train at a high level together AND do life together at a high level.

It's the first time they've been on a year-round training program that is specific to their needs and competition schedule.  It's also the first time they've been a part of a program that focuses on the Total Athlete - body, mind and soul.  In addition to the physical training (comprehensive technique development, athlete-specific strength and conditioning programs, etc.), we have a vested interest in developing their mind and spirit in very intentional ways.  Our goals are centered on gold medals, but our purpose is about becoming whole hearted and knowing that we're worth far more than gold (medals).

Our preseason training is coming to a close and the (boy's) high school wrestling season is just around the corner.  Our female athletes will be training right alongside the high school boy's team.  Each of our girls have experienced a lot of firsts in the last two-plus months being in an entirely new environment - new family, friends, home, routine, etc. - and have handled it extraordinarily well.  They're familiar with the grind of a high school season and are ready to excel in that comfort zone.

Now that we're established and swiftly moving forward, we're ready to share our process with the world, so stay tuned for more updates.  If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact us.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tour Across America Blog #6

We just finished our final workout of the trip – a 30-minute conditioner in the hotel pool.  At the conclusion of the workout we had a contest to see who could hold their breath the longest.  We started immediately following some squat jumps and then tried again and again and again.  As we got further from the squat jumps, each athlete was able to hold their breath longer and longer.  We talked about controlling our breathing in a wrestling match and slowing our heart rate in order to stay focused and in control.  It was an exercise on mental toughness.  The pool was a great place to drive that point home.  On the long bus ride home, we’ll watch a video with David Blaine (magician) explaining how he held his breath for over 17 minutes.

Mental toughness is the ability to stay focused on the task at hand no matter what occurs.  It’s not physical toughness or emotional toughness.  The 10-year old on the playground who falls off the monkey bars and breaks his arm and doesn’t cry is not demonstrating mental toughness.  He might be physically tough.  Both are important, however, mental toughness is something we can develop and leads to sustainable success, consistency and discipline. 

Terry touched on this at the end of practice yesterday, too.  He used the illustration of understanding the one thing we all have in common is time.  How we use it is up to each individual.  Being mentally strong will lead to getting the most out of the time we do have.  It was a good lesson for our student-athletes. 

This trip was time well spent and I’m confident that everyone in our group will look at the time they’re given and be a little more intentional about using it well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tour Across America Blog #5

Today is our final day in Colorado Springs.  We’ll be staying in Lincoln, Nebraska tonight.  We’ll take in one final mat practice at the OTC this morning then hit the road.

We had two practices yesterday.  The first was with the national team and the second was on our own.  In the morning, Terry put the group through several drills.  We spent time working on both offense and defense on our feet, mostly using a 2-on-1.  An important message he shared during practice was to be confident in who you are and use the skills that you have rather than trying to be someone or wrestle a style that doesn’t work for who you are.  The quote we use over and over back home is, “when you know who you are, you know what to do.”  Identity always comes before activity.  Being familiar with your own wrestling style and your skillset is critical to reaching your full potential as a wrestler.  This is one of the biggest reasons we encourage our athletes to journal.  I look at journaling as spending time reflecting on and evaluating all things, but what’s more is that you’re getting to know yourself.  You have to spend time with people if you’d like know them, right?  Well, you have to spend time with yourself getting to know who you are, too.

Our second practice was just our crew.  We had the entire wrestling room to ourselves (7 full-sized mats), so we started with some games then did a little troubleshooting of our own – moving our feet, quick scores, front headlock offense.  We’re still looking ahead to being prepared in Fargo.  This has been a valuable experience on many levels and we’ve made sure they’ve enjoyed the trip and still improved as wrestlers. 

Not only have they improved as wrestlers, they’ve grown as individuals.  Spending time in the mountains, soaking in the energy of the Trials and the OTC will inspire each of them to live their life at higher levels.  They’ve spent a lot of quality time with quality individuals.  This is a terrific group of people - hardworking, respectful, grateful and kind.  They’ve been a pleasure to be around the entire week.  That’s rare when you put over 30 teenagers in close quarters.

You are the company you keep and we’re pretty lucky that the company we’ve kept this week has been the best wrestlers in the world.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Tour Across America Blog #4

We had two mat practices yesterday with the women’s national team.  A senior national team camp is currently winding down.  Several residents, national team members and world team members are in attendance and we’re fortunate to jump in as additional practice partners.  These camps are structured through USA Wrestling in order to accommodate the needs of the world team in anticipation for the world championships.  This year, the championships are 67 days away in Paris.  Practices are run by Terry Steiner (head coach).

Terry was one of my college coaches at Wisconsin before taking the head women’s position at USAW.  His influence led me into the world of women’s wrestling.  I took my first group of female wrestlers on a trip in 2005 to Beijing, China and I’ve been entrenched in the women’s program at both the development and senior levels ever since.  Terry has been an important mentor of mine over the past 20 years.

The morning workout was technique-focused.  They covered some “opportunity areas” or areas of need as a group (double leg attack defense, snap and score, trap arm gut wrenches, etc.).  The afternoon practice was live combat with 8 x 3 minutes live.  It was great to see some of our developing females mixing in with the senior level athletes.  It took a few goes to understand how to wrestle at that level, though.  It’s similar to getting on the freeway with other cars already going 70 mph.  It takes a little time on the ramp to get up to speed.  Sometimes it takes a few years to catch up, however, yesterday a few of our top Cadets took advantage of the opportunity to wrestle world team members and Olympians.  As practice moved along, they became surprised with their own ability level.  They took a beating for a bit before catching up to speed, but once they felt what was going on, it was just another wrestling practice.  I was proud of those who stepped up to that challenge.

Between practices, the kids spent most of their remaining food money on souvenirs in the Spirit Store.  They’ll be coming back decked out in Team USA gear.  We also took some pictures on campus and soaked up the atmosphere.  Of course, I went with a few other coffee junkies to the newly added Starbucks across the street.

In the evening, we gave everyone a couple hours to explore downtown Colorado Springs and try some modern, hip restaurants.  Between 8:00 and 10:00 PM, I received several pictures of elaborate meals from restaurants like Fujiyama, Bingo Burgers, Rasta Pasta and urban pizza joints.  I think most of them have their map planned out for today’s eating options.  Personally, I’m excited to go to one my favorite restaurants in Colorado Springs: Skirted Heifer.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Tour Across America Blog #3

Manitou Springs is a cute little city about 5 miles from downtown Colorado Springs.  It has gift shops, restaurants and a ton of character.  It has a unique tourist feel.  In the athletic realm, however, it’s popular for the hiking trail most commonly known as “the Incline.”

The Incline is an old cog railroad track and is approximately one mile long, going up the base of Pike’s Peak.   It’s at the trailhead of the Barr Trail which goes 13-miles to the top of the peak.  The Incline has an average incline of 45% and as steep as 70%.  The steepest parts forced some of our athletes to bear crawl.

The bus dropped us off about a half mile from the trail because the tight, twisty road was not suitable for large vehicles (more on this later…).  We walked to the starting position, snapped a team picture and started the hike at 7:00 PM.  We knew we would have to hustle to the top and hurry to the bottom because the dark would surely bring several more challenges that we were not prepared for.  Coach Chad Shilson laid down a challenge: whoever made it to the top in less than 30 minutes would get a fresh $100 bill.

Some took off swiftly while others attempted to find a steady pace.  Each step is different, so it’s difficult to develop any sort of rhythm or cadence.  Looking up to the top provides a false sense of security because the “false summit” is what you see when you begin and there is still several stairs to the top.  I started at the back and of pack and enjoyed conversations with several of our athletes as I passed them going up.  I might be getting old, but I can still work hard…

We crossed paths with a mule deer making his way around the scenery.  He even climbed a few stairs before jumping back into the trees.  That wasn’t the only wildlife we crossed paths with as we encountered a cinnamon color bear at the bottom of the trail around 10:00 PM.  He wasn’t interested in us, though, as he was digging in dumpsters.

When we arrived at the top.  We took some pictures, talked about the experience and forged a new bond as a group.  Whenever a team suffers through a grueling workout experience, they come out on the other end more unified because they have something memorable to draw from.  It was, indeed, memorable.  Several of our athletes made mention to me that it was the most difficult thing they had accomplished in their life.  One of them - Nathan - ran to the top in 29:57 and he's fortunate that Chad is a man of his word.  He got the $100 bill.

As a coach, the attitude and sense of accomplishment among the group is what makes trips like this worth it.  Climbing the Incline was hard work and everyone made it to the top, so it was a successful adventure.

Our adventure didn’t finish when we got to the bottom.  Finding the bus in Manitou Springs, making our way through the ever lingering smell of marijuana smoke, tasting the mineral spring water and taking the bus up to get the final two team members (getting stuck and taking down a fence to make the y-turn).

All in all, it was another great day for our crew.  Back-to-back life changing moments.

Tour Across America Blog #2

We loaded the bus early this morning and are cruising down I-80 heading West to Colorado Springs, CO.  We’ll spend the next four days training alongside the women’s national team at the US Olympic Training Center.

There could not have been a better event to prepare us for the opportunity to train with some of the best female wrestlers in the entire world than the World Team Trials last night.  The atmosphere was electric and the action was world class.  Indelible memories were formed by the drama that unfolded right before our eyes.   The individual performances fueled by a nation of support inspired everyone on the bus to live their lives at a higher level.  Several people online are calling it the best World Team Trials ever.  It will serve as a great lead into soaking up the energy and excitement of the US Olympic Training Center.

When USA Wrestling announced that Lincoln, Nebraska would host the men’s freestyle trials, the wrestling community knew they would be in for a treat.  Hometown hero and American legend Jordan Burroughs attended the University of Nebraska and currently resides in Lincoln.  Additionally, world team members James Green and Thomas Gilman have Nebraska roots and Olympic medalist J’Den Cox is from the Midwest.  And they did not disappoint.  Digging deeply, overcoming adversity and drawing strength from the crowd, the four men mentioned above appeared larger than life.

Other athletes showed great resolve and humility throughout the day.  Tony Ramos stood out to me as a champion who showed great class in defeat in spite of an entire arena expecting the opposite given the scenario.  We were also fortunate to bump into some admirable female athletes who were in attendance as spectators.  With a bus load of some future stars in the female wrestling world, Jessica Medina provided a spark to the girls who were fortunate to meet her.

Overall, it was a great day.  Lincoln did us well and now we’re on to another big adventure.  Today we’ll spend the equivalent of a workday on the bus (8 hours). Upon arrival in Colorado Springs, we’ll take one step at a time up the face of Pike’s Peak on the famous Incline.  It will be another game changer for these teenagers.