You would’ve had to been living under a rock. A big one, a two-ton boulder measuring 30 feet in diameter. The size of this mass would had to have been large enough to obscure all sunlight and radio waves, so encompassing in its grandeur that any lingering feelings of claustrophobia were replaced by a very real and desperate need for oxygen. Or perhaps you were in a coma for a decade, all but dead to the Greco-Roman world around you. Either situation would suffice as an excuse if you missed Marco Lara‘s time on the Senior circuit.
For well over ten years, Lara stood his ground as one of the most consistent and classiest Greco competitors in the United States. You saw him. How could you not? He was everywhere. From those University Nationals appearances back when he was a newbie plugging away at Northern Michigan to his rise atop the Senior ladder as a member of the Army’s World Class Athletes Program, Lara fought his heart out against the nation’s best, and more often than not, made a mighty impression on those who watched him. There’s something to be said for a guy who employs the same max effort every time out regardless of the stakes, and that was Lara. A true warrior appreciates the presence of his counterpart in battle. That was Lara, too. He wrestled each match like it might be his last, until one day, it actually was.
Lara originally targeted the 2016 Olympic Trials as his endgame. All of these years later and no matter how many times his hand had been raised after matches, the Olympics were still all that mattered to him. The way Lara figured it, if cashing in on a trip to Rio wasn’t going to be in the cards, then he might as well walk away. So that was his plan. If he didn’t win the Olympic Trials, that would be definitively that and he’d move on.
Well, Lara didn’t win the Trials, a quarterfinal loss to 2012 Olympian and WCAP teammate Ellis Coleman washed away his last hopes of finally achieving his career-long dream. But the then-32-year-old was so wrapped up in the result he had forgotten to engage in the time-honored wrestling tradition of his taking off his shoes and leaving them on the mat, something he felt strongly about doing. It’s a way wrestlers signify that their careers are ending on their terms, that it’s their choice. If it was going to end for Lara, he wanted it to be at the Trials, particularly due to the prestige and emotional relevance the event carries with it.
“It’s just so exciting,” Lara says of the Olympic Trials. “It’s just such a big event, every match is like a finals match. Wrestling in the Olympic Trials is just a wonderful experience. When I was getting done with my match against Ellis Coleman, I completely forgot. I was so in my head about the match that I forgot to take my shoes off. And by the time I got to the locker room to change, I realized that my shoes were still on my feet and I was kicking myself in the butt for not taking them off. I missed my chance.”
Odd circumstances, right? All Lara was aiming for was one last try at a spot on the Olympic Team. He wasn’t delusional about his chances, either. He knew the deck was stacked against him, that his best days were now flickering memories taking up space in the rearview mirror. But that’s precisely why if the journey was to conclude, he wanted it to be right there in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I always thought it was like this for everyone and maybe it isn’t but it certainly was for me, and that is the Olympics was the reason you wrestled after high school,” says Lara. “That’s why you do it, for the Olympic Games. That’s supposed to be everyone’s purpose. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it definitely was for me. If it’s not for the Games and it’s not for a medal, then any other reason doesn’t seem as worthy of my time. It’s best I get out of everyone else’s way who does want that. Why take up a spot from someone who can achieve greatness, especially if I’m just in their way? I don’t deserve it if I’m not trying to do the same thing. I figured if I’m too old for it, then maybe it’s time I leave.”
Of course, he didn’t leave. Not yet, anyway. Instead, he kept going. Lara maintained his training schedule for the next eight months and ticketed the 2016 Senior Nationals in December as his swan song. Las Vegas, that’s where it would happen. That’s where those shoes would be untied once and for all, where he would wave goodbye to 13-plus years of chasing down the ultimate prize. Coming in as the second seed, Lara got caught by Chase Nelson in the quarterfinals, won his next three to advance to the bronze medal match, and then it was Nelson again, who prevailed over Lara for the second time on the day.
Fourth place at the Nationals is certainly a more than respectable finish for most athletes, just not for Lara. Not anymore. After the final whistle screeched through the arena and the ritualistic handshakes were over with, Lara calmly strolled to the center of the mat and began untying his laces. Onlookers immediately rose to their feet in applause. The moment, rightfully, was his, and the fans in attendance acknowledged him appropriately.
But to Lara, retirement was more about practicality than basking in fleeting adoration.
“At the Nationals, the real reason (I retired) is that I was hoping for the opportunity to go for a medal,” he explains. “And if I went for a medal, I would take my shoes off, and that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t want to be that guy hanging out wrestling, like a spider, forever. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just, what am I here for? Am I here to win an Olympic medal? Or am I here to just hang onto some glory? So me taking off my shoes signified the end of my trying to make an Olympic Team, trying to win an Olympic medal. I knew I was out of the running, so that was it for me.”
The Comeback…But Don’t Call It That
The wrestling world moves on fast. No doubt about it. Lara exited stage left, others did too, and the 2016-17 season continued without a hitch because life is not static. The winter gave way to the warmth of the spring, and all of the sudden, National-level Greco-Roman wrestler Marco Lara was no more. In his place was Lieutenant Marco Lara, the US Army officer who was growing increasingly acclimated to a routine that centered around many of the same concerns most work-a-day types contend with. Wake up, get ready, go to work, come home, eat something and hey, let’s all do this again tomorrow, if not for the rest of our lives.
Was it a smooth transition? Pretty much, although Lara had no choice but to find ways to keep challenging his body. You don’t just saunter into a new lifestyle and forget those many years of programming. As a competitive athlete, it was Lara’s responsibility to sustain a pristine physical condition at all times. This is a man who was used to two, sometimes three practices a day dating back to the first Bush administration. It was only natural for him to resist the notion of somehow mailing it in just because life took a different turn.
“I started having to squeeze in workouts when I got off of work at 5:00pm,” laughs Lara. “It’s kind of hard to motivate yourself to train after a day’s work. After a long day behind a computer you’ll be like, Should I go train? Or should I go rest? It’s getting harder and harder to go train. It’s not even called ‘training’ anymore, it’s really just going for a workout.”
This is how it had been for months. And months. Lara remained in touch and in-tune with Greco and his WCAP teammates, but it wasn’t the same. How could it be? He had resigned himself to a new, productive life sans competition, and while a fire still occasionally kindled in his belly, the thought of stepping on a mat again never seriously entered his mind. Sure, he couldn’t help but imagine how he’d fare in various competitive scenarios whenever an event popped up. But for the most part, he was comfortable with his decision to step aside, a man at peace looking forward to fresh adventures that didn’t involve using his body as a battering ram.
But they needed him.
There is no Senior Greco-Roman program in the United States that can match what the Army brings to the table in terms of resources and overall depth. If we’re talking about talent in the room, coaching, and success both recent and historically, Army WCAP is almost akin to the Yankees. But it is a program that does not rest on its laurels and with 16 consecutive team titles at the Armed Forces Championships entering 2018, the goal of winning its 17th straight this past weekend represented — of course — an extraordinarily high priority. So high in fact, that ahead of the Armed Forces, Lara was called out of retirement in effort to further bolster Army’s already-imposing lineup.
“They weren’t sure if they had a full stack, something that would guarantee a win, so I decided to jump in,” Lara begins. “They said they needed me and I was more than happy to help. Sitting at a desk all day and then just thinking of it, like, Yeah, one more. Why not? Screw it. I had been out of the game for a little bit but they told me they needed me, so you better believe I was ready to come back. It was both flattering and exciting.”
As “flattering” and “exciting” as the proposition may have been, Lara’s participation at the Armed Forces Championships also proved to be a success. He went 3-0 on Saturday, with one of those wins coming against an experienced and skilled German Diaz in the Army’s title-clinching dual with the Marine Corps. Forever humble (and unfailingly honest), Lara’s assessment of his victory over Diaz pulls no punches. “I’m an old guy, I can’t rely on my athleticism and my in-the-moment thinking, so I definitely scouted him out on video and studied his moves so I could try to beat him and make it as predictable as I can.”
The Army won, which to Lara was the most important takeaway from the weekend. After all, contributing to the cause was what drew him out of retirement in the first place. But there is an obvious personal component that can’t be ignored. Like virtually all retired athletes, Lara missed being part of the action. And he missed wearing that WCAP singlet when pitted up against the other service branches in a feverish atmosphere. He missed wrestling. What Saturday’s performance did for Lara was live up to its expectations, and for that he is understandably grateful.
“It was so amazing,” he shares before pausing. “Imagine if you could go back and relive a moment in wrestling, it was like that, Let me do that one more time. That’s exactly how it felt, and with it being the Armed Forces and the energy of the tournament, everyone was there for one reason and you feel like you’re with family again. It just felt good, it felt wonderful. Like if I could take a cherished memory and actually relive it, that’s exactly how it felt.”
Obviously, the next question is an easy one — was this really it? Wrestlers retire and come back, it’s not some groundbreaking concept. And it is clear that Lara loved every minute of what went down at Camp Lejeune on Saturday. It is fair to ask, especially considering how viable Lara felt and how well he performed. So was this really the last time US Greco fans will have seen Lara compete? Or is there another shot down the road, say when next year’s Armed Forces event approaches on the calendar and the Army needs to lean on a grizzled vet to climb out of the woodwork to potentially save the day?
“I told the coaches I wouldn’t do it again and I’m going to try and make sure I’m on an assignment,” Lara chuckles, but he’s only half-kidding. “Because the allure of it is so strong, if I am anywhere near the proper shape to compete and I’m near a mat, my body is going to tell me to do it. So the answer right now is no, I can’t do it. But the reason I can’t promise that is, well, you know how it is. The old bubbles rise back up and next thing you know, you’re trying to wrestle again.”
He laughs once more. Lara knows you get what he means, one of those “you wish you could but you better not” sort of things.
What he should also know is that his career mattered, and that his temporary return didn’t deserve to be obscured. Hopefully, it wasn’t.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock.