The 2018 Grand Prix of Zagreb in Croatia, one of Europe’s more compelling Senior events, is right around the corner and the US is sending in the Marines — literally.
Virtually the entire delegation of American athletes set to compete at the event is comprised of representatives from the United States Marine Corps, with the lone exception (as of now) being OTC resident Michael Rodgers (NYAC).
Entering its fifth year, the Zagreb Open annually offers a loaded field of top international competitors from all over the map and 2018’s running should be no different, as invited countries include Serbia, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Japan, and Hungary, among others. There is also one notable added wrinkle: for the overwhelming majority of participating athletes, the 2018 Grand Prix of Zagreb will be their first tournament under the new Greco-Roman rule-set. Throw in the accompanying camp that takes place the week prior, and it is easy to see why Marine Corps head coach Jason Loukides wants his guys involved.
“I like the camp, they’re going to have a camp beforehand, so our guys will be going to that,” Loukides says. “It’s a chance to test themselves and to see how the rules are going to be called. There are a lot of reasons, this year especially, why we’re excited to go to this tournament. You see it in print, but we want to see how they’re going to call it, too.”
Johnson & Walsh
Two of the All-Marine Team’s brightest prospects are on board for the trip — Xavier Johnson (60 kg) and Peyton Walsh (77 kg). Most US fans remember Johnson from his performance at the 2016 US Senior Nationals where — practically out of nowhere — he advanced to the semifinals on the strength of three blitzing tech falls over much more experienced competition. Johnson wound up with a sixth-place finish that day but had opened up plenty of eyes, and in the process, elevated his status to that of an instant threat in a very deep weight class.
But a strange problem would soon be realized. Johnson’s knee was missing an ACL. No, it wasn’t just torn or stretched or inflamed. It was as if the ligament never existed in the first place. The discovery put him out of action for the rest of the season. A lengthy rehabilitation period soon followed and the next time anyone saw him, it was at the U23 World Team Trials up a weight class to 66 kilograms.
“We’ve been taking him real slow because last year when he wrestled at the Open, he didn’t tear his ACL there, he found out that he never had his ACL,” laughs Loukides. “He had wrestled all that time without an ACL. He got it repaired and we’ve been taking him slow, that’s why we didn’t have him cut weight at the U23’s. He was training okay in the room, but he was still a little leery. Even at the Dave Schultz he was starting to get it back a little bit, but now he is wrestling a lot more like he was prior to being hurt.”
Johnson wields exceptional power and instincts, and despite competing above his best weight recently, still showed flashes of the dynamic ability that caught everyone’s attention some 13 months ago. Loukides witnesses first-hand all of the attributes fans and coaches have associated with Johnson, which is why he is a big believer in what his pupil has to offer.
“Right now, he has enough tools to where he’s dangerous,” Loukides acknowledges. “If he catches you wrong with some of his moves, the match is going to be over with. In close matches he can still make some mistakes, and it’s not even that he is so new to Greco, he is just new to wrestling in general. He wrestled in high school in South Carolina for three months a year, or whatever it is, and that is all he did prior to getting into the Marines. So, Johnson is getting his feel as he goes along and he is picking up Greco really fast. He has a mind to lift. He can lift anybody, even three weights above him.”
Walsh is another Marine who many regard as possessing a limitless future. A former three-time NCAA Division I National qualifier while at the Naval Academy, Walsh has already demonstrated the same kind of intense competitiveness and offensive flair that served him so well in college. Last month at the Lavrikov Memorial in Russia, he earned his first international bronze. A week later in Finland, Walsh was unable to score a medal, but he did notch a win over returning Haavisto Cup bronze medalist and former Swedish Junior World Team member Artur Vardanyan. To put it simply, Walsh is impressing people, and a second tour across the Atlantic this season seems to be a great chance for him to keep building up his Greco foundation at a brisk pace.
“Peyton is right at the stage where he is competing better than he is wrestling Greco,” informs Loukides. “He is still learning Greco, but when it’s time to compete, he is a hard wrestler to beat because he has a good pedigree from college and he is a strong, in-shape guy you’re going to have to fight the whole time. Him getting to feel what guys who have been wrestling Greco their whole lives are like, he will learn faster. He has a good enough base that he’ll benefit from the camp and competition a lot. He developed quickly in St. Petersburg and then in Finland. He’s definitely a good competitor and he is going to keep growing fast.”
Diaz & Miller
If Johnson and Walsh are two of the Marine squad’s greener international athletes, then German Diaz (67 kg) and Daniel Miller (97 kg) are on the complete other side of the spectrum.
Diaz comes with a unique situation. He is a US Marine through and through, but as a competitor he represents his native Puerto Rico. His career as an athlete is also an extensive one. Diaz earned a bronze at the 2011 Junior Pan Ams and has made several appearances in the Senior version of event. Most recently, he took a fourth at the Dave Schultz Memorial in November, falling to Jessy Williams (NYAC) in their high-scoring bronze medal match.
Miller requires little preamble. Like Walsh, Miller wrestled collegiately for the Naval Academy and initially experienced a lot of the same growing pains most folkstyle crossovers endure once they set out on a Greco-Roman career. However, that hasn’t stopped him from taking his place as one of the country’s most formidable weapons against foreign opposition. Miller earned a bronze at the 2016 Zargeb Open, just as he was getting his feet wet. Last year ushered in a mighty step up. In 2017, Miller scored medals at three events — the Paris International, Hungarian Grand Prix, and the Haavisto Cup last month — making him one of only five US Seniors with three medals or more on the year.
There are two points of interest currently surrounding Miller. The first is how the new same-day weigh-in procedures might affect him. Powerfully-built from head to toe, Miller is not a small 97 kilo guy by any means. Wrestlers who have to contend with significant weight cuts would appear to be in the crosshairs with these changes, but it’s not an area Loukides is too concerned with regarding his upper-weight star.
“Miller has been fine with it, but he has to prepare, he can’t just eat terrible right before (a competition),” says Loukides. “He seems to not lose any strength when his weight becomes lighter. He was plenty light the other day and his lifts were still strong. He can clean 155 kilos or something like that. He is pretty strong, and he’s going to be fine at that weight.”
When it comes to Miller, it is difficult to bring up his name without mentioning his being known as an outlier. Most American Greco Seniors, particularly those without many years logged in the style, tend to struggle internationally. For Miller, it has been the opposite. He’s earning medals abroad, but not at home. It’s obviously a facet of his game he is trying to correct and Loukides has a front-row seat to that process.
“A lot of what we stress to him is trying to stay calm and not get frustrated, because a lot of what he has trouble with is an agile, more folkstyle-standing person who is fleeing, jumping in, and things like that,” explains Loukides. “If they call the (passivity) rules the way they suggest they’re going to call them and that becomes ‘negative wrestling’, I would think it makes it much more like his international matches. Then, what he is doing now will transfer over already. But if it’s not going that way and they aren’t calling it, then it is about getting him to not press too much, to stay within himself, and to stay confident that he is going to have his own opportunities in a match.”
2018 Grand Prix of Zagreb — February 3rd, Zagreb, Croatia
USA GRECO-ROMAN ROSTER
Xavier Johnson (Marines)
Colton Rasche (Marines)
German Diaz-Maldonado (Marines/PUR)
Peyton Walsh (Marines)
JayShon Wilson (Marines/PUR)
Vaughan Monreal-Berner (Marines)
Daniel Miller (Marines)
Michael Rodgers (NYAC)
Trent Osnes (Marines)
Jason Loukides (Marines)