This weekend out in Concord, California is the 21st running of the Junior Greco World Duals. Typically, this is not an event that gets a ton of publicity in the US. It sort of flies under the radar, an equally unsurprising and unfortunate fact of life given the current general perception surrounding Greco-Roman wrestling in this country. Under the radar — yes, a two-day event pitting some of the most dedicated and accomplished Junior age-group wrestlers from the US against talented and often more accomplished athletes from overseas just doesn’t seem to invite the same teeming breadth of ink that is usually reserved for state-level folkstyle championships around these parts. Such is the unnatural order.
No matter. The Greco-Roman wrestlers who will be taking the mat Saturday and Sunday at the Community Youth Center in Concord are much more concerned with improvement, competition, and camaraderie than they are press clippings. Those three core concepts take priority and according to CYC head coach and event director Mark Halvorson, they are the basis for why the annual Junior Greco World Duals are so unique.
“There’s a lot intensity for winning, but it’s the camaraderie and everybody is here to get a lot of matches, so it’s interesting,” said Halvorson, who along with a being Cadet and Junior World Team coach previously was also an assistant for last year’s Rio Olympic Team. “One match might be 5-1 and in the semis it’s 5-4. Things tighten up because they wrestle each other twice. From a mental side of it, you really have to prepare yourself and be ready to go the hard matches.”
When Halvorson says “hard matches”, he might have done just as well to say a lot of matches. That is because if there is one thing the Junior Greco World Duals doesn’t skimp on, it is the amount of competition athletes in attendance can expect. Brackets are often crammed. If a wrestler wins his first match, he’s in the top four and then advances. Should a wrestler lose early, he is still going to get his money’s worth with at least three matches, since there are wrestle-offs to eighth place. With a full bracket, wrestlers can find themselves in up to ten matches, five on each day. It’s grueling, to be sure. The level of competition surrounding competitors is extraordinarily fierce. But the payoff developmentally may very well be second to none. “One year I had a kid who went 1-7 here and later on that summer, he was in the finals in Fargo at the Cadet level,” noted Halvorson. “It’s very competitive.”
The duals may take center-stage, but there is also plenty of training to get done. It is Friday, the day before the event officially kicks off. However, as is the case every year, wrestlers have already been in Concord training for a couple of days. Tonight at the CYC, 2016 US Olympian Jesse Thielke and brand new European Championships gold medalist Alex Kessidis of Sweden are putting on a clinic for the attendees. Following the tournament on Sunday, there will be three more days of training before the delegations say goodbye until 2018. Train, compete, train. That has been one of the Duals’ main attractions for over two decades.
Swedish coach Ganne Olen has coached numerous Cadet World-level competitors and sees a lot of benefit in bringing his charges over to America each year. 2017 represents Olen’s seventh year coming to the Junior Greco World Duals. “This is a wonderful trip for us and it’s why we come back every year,” Olen said. “We take the best Cadets and Juniors from Sweden and this is a perfect event for us because the Nordic Championships are the week after.”
If love is considered the universal language, wrestling can’t be too far behind. Especially in this case, since Greco-Roman is the most commonly practiced style of the sport worldwide. When the Junior Greco World Duals descend upon Concord each spring, it not only means top-flight competition, but also, bonds that have a tendency to last awhile. This year is no different, as the circumstances lend themselves to fostering close dynamics amongst one another.
“We home-stay a lot of the kids with families, so a lot of our wrestlers are taking them home and doing things off the mat,” explained Halvorson. “They’re getting to know each other, becoming friends, and working on techniques before practice, after practice. We’ve had kids make connections and go over to Europe even after (the Duals) and then continue to be friends. We’ve also had a lot of kids who have wrestled in this tournament go on to make World Teams, both US athletes and kids from Hungary, Sweden, and Norway. That way when we go to the World Championships, it’s, ‘Hey, I know that guy, I wrestled him in Concord.’ It isn’t like it’s a different environment for them because they have already been around everybody and that helps, too.”
Olen sees it the same way. “It’s not just the wrestling. It’s the culture and friendship.” Though, he does point out one physical aspect he feels is of use to his wrestlers. “American wrestlers, they have energy, you know? The speed they wrestle with, they’re not as tired. The American guys are a little bit stronger, I think. My wrestlers will tell me, ‘The Americans are strong.’ So I think this prepares them. It’s a very tough tournament, ten matches in two days. The level couldn’t be higher and it prepares our guys very well. I don’t know of any other tournament where you get that many matches in two days.”
The high number of matches can take its toll, even on the heartiest of wrestlers. Halvorson has seen it all, and knows an increase in focus can go a long way throughout the weekend. “I’ve seen high-level kids peter out towards the end because they don’t have the mental capacity to stay in eight hard matches. It’s the challenge of the mental side of it, the eight hard matches, and that is where a lot of the growth comes from, to stay in the fight and compete in that many high-level matches over two days. ”
Halvorson is devoted to the cause. He is the man behind the success of the Junior Greco World Duals, which means that a significant portion of his time the 51 other weeks of the year is spent getting things in order for the next one. He’s happy to put the work in simply because he believes in the impact it makes. Several of the country’s best known Greco athletes, including popular Olympian and four-time World Team member Robby Smith, have blossomed under Halvorson’s instruction and the opportunities the coach provides. The Duals act as an annual breeding ground young Greco-Roman wrestlers can rely on to test their mettle. For most US kids, it’s also a chance to mix it up with foreign opponents when they otherwise would not have.
“This is one of our biggest weeks in Concord. From a development standpoint, it’s something we look forward to because we can get a lot of kids in the region exposed to international wrestling,” Halvorson said. “From doing the clinics, we get a lot of younger kids who don’t know a lot about Greco-Roman and they learn some stuff, and in a few years, hopefully they’re wrestling here.”
2017 Junior Greco World Duals — Community Youth Center, Concord, California
Saturday, May 20th — Session 1 duals
Sunday, May 21st — Session 2 duals, individual tournament
Kansas (with athletes from Wisconsin)
Team Scandinavia (Austria, Sweden, and Norway)