As you are likely aware, the US Army clinched its 17th straight Greco-Roman title by defeating the All-Marine Team at the Armed Forces Championships on Saturday. In the third and final dual to decide the team race, the Army got big wins from (most of) their big names, guys like two-time Junior World bronze Ellis Coleman (67 kg), Michael Hooker (77 kg), Courtney Myers (87 kg), and Toby Erickson (130 kg). You know the drill.
Was there more to the story from Saturday’s proceedings? You bet. Former multi-time US National Team member Marco Lara (72 kg), who retired at the 2016 US Nationals, picked up his shoes and put them back on. All he did at the Armed Forces was go 3-0, with one of those wins coming against the always-tough German Diaz (Marines). John Stefanowicz (82 kg, Marines) had finished second a little too often at this event for his liking, but now that streak is over with. Stefanowicz emerged undefeated, as did teammates Xavier Johnson (60 kg) and Daniel Miller (98 kg, who also earned their first Armed Forces Greco golds.
Getting back to Johnson, he is the athlete who delivered the biggest win of anyone at Camp Lejeune. Taking on 2008 Olympian/2017 US World Team member Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP), Johnson brandished the same explosiveness that helped him earn a bronze in Zagreb earlier this month. A zooming high-dive that led to a four-point throw caught Hafizov off guard, though Hafizov would be heard from again in the second. Nevertheless, Johnson hung in there for the remainder of the contest and was able to hold onto a 6-5 lead that was nearly in serious danger of evaporating. That the victory came in what was a team loss for the Marines doesn’t buff away any of the shine.
Raymond Bunker (Marines), the reigning University National champ at (the former) 66 kilograms, dropped a competitive bout to Coleman in the decisive dual, but that is almost irrelevant. Bunker’s level of experience isn’t anywhere close to Coleman’s, yet somehow, he has managed to stick with the superstar two straight times dating back to last April’s World Team Trials. The aforementioned Hooker, as for-real of a talent as it gets, scored a surprising throw-to-pin over surging prospect and Naval Academy grad Peyton Walsh (Marines) after he had already notched a grinding decision against Brandon Mueller (Air Force), another unmistakably viable competitor, even if Mueller is still without the benefit of a full-time training environment.
Last but not least is Max Nowry (Army/WCAP) and his quest to stamp down the 55-kilogram weight class domestically. Nowry wants matches. Well, he got three in at the Armed Forces and outscored the opposition 26-0 with all three arriving via tech.
So there was a lot going on behind the boxscores on Saturday and because the Armed Forces Championships is such an important and treasured event — and because a ton of our coverage from the weekend was devoted to the US Seniors in Denmark — it felt fitting to give several of the military athletes who competed the opportunity to share their perspectives directly with the audience in effort to provide a more authentic account of just how impactful this event really was for them.
2018 US Armed Forces Championships — Athlete Accounts
Max Nowry — 55 kg, Army/WCAP — 3-0
“I wasn’t sure if the other three branches would have athletes at 55 kilos but they all showed up with guys, which was great. We’ve been working on a lot of stuff on our feet back home at Fort Carson and I’ve been very anxious to get back to competition and apply the changes we’ve made and improved on.
“We as a team were thrilled to come out to Camp Lejeune and keep our title. Our coaching staff, Coach (Shon) Lewis, Coach (Spenser) Mango, Coach (Bruce) Robinson, Coach (Glenn) Garrison, Coach (Ali) Asgary, Coach (Dremiel) Byers, and Coach (Jermaine) Hodge prepared us for a long time for this competition. They prepared us to be ready to come in to this year’s Armed Forces Championships and to be ready to battle and fight. We take great pride in this competition and it shows.”
Raymond Bunker — 72 kg, Marines — 2-1
“This dual meant a lot to our program and I wasn’t wrestling for myself out there. I was wrestling for Coach (Jason) Loukides, for all of the Marines, and for everyone there who was supporting us. I didn’t get the results I wanted, but like I said, this wasn’t about me. When it comes time for this season, I’ve been working on a lot of things and I got to demonstrate some of them. When I wrestled Ellis, I wrestled a full day and then the team needed me at 67 kilos, so I had to cut five kilos at night after wrestling for a full day. Your mentality is everything, you’ve got to be as tough as nails.
“That’s all I really have to say. I’m not very pleased with my performance. I gave up some points I shouldn’t have. I wrestled with my game plan and made adjustments in the matches, so that’s what matters the most. But I’ll have my day. My day will come. I’ll meet Ellis again. He and I have a good history. He’s a good person, he’s a great wrestler, and I just love the fact that I get to battle with him because it’s all about Team USA. He’s going to make me the best in the world and I’m going to make him the best in the world. It gives me something to wake up for everyday, to train and push harder. Next time, I need to seal the deal and that is what’s going to happen.”
Michael Hooker — 77 kg, Army/WCAP — 3-0
“Adjusting to the weight has been good. I like the weigh-in procedures because you don’t have to cut a ton of weight the day before. I just make sure to be more disciplined throughout the year and eating healthy. So for me at least, I don’t have to eat healthy and still lose 15 pounds the day before, which is always nice.
“Just like when I went down to 66 (kilograms), there is no point, at least in my mind, to wrestle and become comfortable at a non-Olympic weight. That’s just my opinion.
“I just knew I had to stay in solid position and keep moving forward. When we’re at the Armed Forces, it is a totally different environment than normal wrestling. At this tournament, you don’t really think of yourself as an individual competing against the other wrestlers. You think, This is all about the team, the team has to win. So I didn’t really think about (Brandon) Mueller, to me he was just an Air Force wrestler. I didn’t really think about (Peyton) Walsh as the excellent wrestler he is and was from the Naval Academy. Instead it was, This is a Marine. I saw him as his branch, the Army versus the Marines. That’s why, in my opinion, it’s the best tournament of the year, the rivalry.
“I wrestle for the Army and every time I put on that Army singlet, especially when it comes to competing against the other service branches, I want to win. That’s just the mentality Coach (Shon) Lewis, Coach Bruce (Robinson), Coach Spenser Mango, and Coach Glenn Garrison instill in us. When we put on that singlet at Armed Forces, you win — no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. That is the kind of mentality everyone takes on because for the other teams — the Marines, the Air Force, and the Navy — this is their Super Bowl. And we want to make sure we spoil it for them every year.”
Brandon Mueller — 77 kg, Air Force — 2-1
“Last year going into it, I knew I didn’t want to get headlocked. I still got headlocked. This year again, I didn’t want to get headlocked. I really wanted to set the pace, but under control. I gave up two big throws at the Schultz to start off matches and I didn’t want to go there again. So, under control and setting the pace was where I wanted to be and then try to open up some body attacks and arm drags, and that kind of stuff. That was my game plan.
“I knew he (Walsh) was a good college wrestler but I didn’t see any of his Greco matches, so I just went out there knowing he was going to be athletic. I expected a grind match. I was just like, Hey, let’s stick to your normal strategy and try to open up your typical offense.
“The little injuries I was dealing with after the Schultz are better now. Leading up to this I didn’t do much par terre work and that position cost me the match against Hooker. So that for sure is going to go back to being an area that I will focus on, both on top and on bottom. And I worked on a bunch of lessons learned from the tournament, positions where I need better attacks. My hand-fighting, Walsh was winning the hand-fight to begin that match. I need some more partners who provide different looks. I noticed a lot of my training partners are left-leg leads. Everyone I wrestled at Armed Forces was a right-leg lead, so I need a different look in the room, whether my partners wrestle me with opposite-leg leads or getting more partners to train with, that is one of the things I am going to focus on the next two months.
“I’m still working more than I’m training. I was in Albuquerque from the Schultz until three weeks out from the Armed Forces, just training around my work schedule. Luckily, my boss has been pretty flexible so I’ve been able to get a decent amount, at least one practice a day unless I’m traveling for work. The three weeks when I was out at camp I was working, doing emails, telecoms — all that stuff — in between practices. But I was able to get the same amount of practice as everyone on the Air Force team.
“I did apply to WCAP and I’m optimistic there could be a chance that I am able to move to Colorado Springs later on in the spring.”
Toby Erickson — 130 kg, Army/WCAP — 3-0
“What I liked about my performance is that I tried to dominate and hold my position. I wanted to focus on where I was at in the fight and just see what I can do. It’s been a long layover since any of us last competed, so this was a really good test to see what I need to work on and where I need to get to. A big thing that I liked is where my condition lied, because between each match I just felt comfortable. I could breathe fine and I could move really well, I felt. That aspect of my wrestling is where I want it to be at right now, and by April, be able to push further.
“What I didn’t like about this weekend wasn’t so much my performance, it was the lack of understanding of the new par terre rules. We had several different people doing several different things, so it’s just frustrating how we’re always changing our rules up and then playing catch-up to understand how these rules are going to work. That was what I didn’t like about the competition. It was a little frustrating seeing how these new rules play out.
“As for where I’m at, my conditioning is right where I want it to be. My strength is right where I want it to be. I just want to keep fine-tuning. We’ve got the Nationals coming up in April, we have another test tournament next month. We’ll use the Bill Farrell as another test tournament to see what I need to work on, what I need to do. As for everything else, just gearing up, ramping up, and getting excited for what’s coming up in April and after that.”