If you bother to take a peek at the top of your browser, the category level of this article’s URL reads “all-marine-wrestling”. As in, ALL MARINE WRESTLING, or the All-Marine Team — or, better put, one of the cornerstone programs for United States Greco-Roman throughout the sport’s modern era.
Unlike the “All-Marine Wrestling” category on this platform, which will in some fashion remain alive and well, the formal collective that comprises actual Marine wrestling is, until further notice, neutralized. You wouldn’t say “dead”, for it might not be gone-gone. Perhaps, the All-Marine Team may function akin to how the Navy has in recent years — i.e., converge for two or three weeks prior to the Armed Forces Championships before promptly getting their doors blown off by Army.
And that would be the best case scenario, if the AMWT is to trudge along in the coming months as crackly autumn leaves become replaced by icy winter winds, and the annual Armed Forces event starts providing conversational fodder. This, of course, is assuming Armed Forces indeed occurs. Not a given.
Make no mistake about it: a Marine team that trains for only a few weeks between late-January and mid-February would not render a real Marine team. We’d applaud the participation anyway, despite the uneasy sense of illegitimacy. A gaggle of well-intentioned but impossibly outgunned service-member athletes led to slaughter, with nary a whisper in the shadow of their program’s most successful run in history. “At least the event provided an opportunity for Marine wrestlers to train and compete again!” That is what we’ll all say. We won’t mean it. But we will say it, because we’ll have to say something about what just happened.
Such is how it will go.
There is sadness to be found in every facet of the situation. The wrestling careers of several prominent, established competitors and more than a few promising prospects are over. Over. Optimism only appears in the middle of sideways discussions that are intermingled with the idea of continuing on if — for some reason — Marine brass comes to their senses and another iteration of the program rises from the ashes. Talk of the Armed Forces at the moment is just that, talk. As these words skip from line to line, a Marine delegation in February is nothing but speculation. What is not speculative is how a handful of excellent wrestlers are being forced to exit stage left during the primes of their respective athletic lives. “They signed up to become Marines, not wrestlers”. That is the canned defensive response, and one that ignores the value and positive public exposure for which the latest group of Marine Greco wrestlers were responsible.
There will also now be an enormous Senior developmental void. The United States Greco-Roman National program, held together with so much glue by a devout head coach (who himself is an optimist by nature), has just lost one of its most reliable pools of potential talent dating back decades. Greco in America, perpetually scratching and clawing to uncover diamonds in the rough, does not have a built-in, automated scholastic feeder system. Greco is different, and requires different tactics and positioning, not to mention a different mentality when it comes to competing internationally. The Marine Team always seemed to understand that directive.
Those in and around Camp Lejeune understood all the more when, in 2014, Jason Loukides signed on as the head coach.
During his tenure at the helm, Loukides was — according to this platform and plenty of his peers — the best Senior coach in the country.
Like so many other outstanding coaches, Loukides never sought his own honor. One might wonder if he even knew how to take credit for what he had managed to achieve. Loukides, while with the All-Marine Team, watched as athletes who had never before competed in Greco-Roman transformed into National-caliber monsters. He ushered guys who had only a sliver of prior relevant experience towards milestones few believed plausible. Or possible.
All the while, he behaved like a retroreflective panel. Shine praise at him, and the light would bounce off and land on one of his wrestlers. In between, he preferred to demonstrate gratuity for the Marine Corps, which provided the resources necessary. But he not once ever took a bow. Not when Daniel Miller won his first National crown in ’18, not when Ray Bunker shocked the field a year later… Not when John Stefanowicz (87 kg, 5PM #1) became an Olympian, or when Xavier Johnson (67 kg, 5PM #6) started making finals of foreign tournaments. Not when Peyton Walsh, who had zero Greco miles logged entering the ’17-’18 season, finished second at the Open.
The list, it could go on. And on. Soon enough, it will.
Loukides is still currently under the employ of the Marine Corps. Just not as a coach, or the coach of the service branch’s wrestling program. Because they don’t really have one anymore, it only exists as a concept. Only cascades through thought patterns via long-term memory. One manner in which to describe Loukides’ status is “transitional”. Maybe he gets another gig doing something else for the Marines.
What he should be doing is coaching.
However, the most effective way to explain why Loukides was successful as the Marines’ coach, and why he was revered, is by highlighting perspectives straight from those who were under his charge.
We begin with the two Marine Corps athletes who know him best.
“He cares about you. He understands that, obviously, people want to win. But at the end of the day, you have to care about the individual.
“For example: right now we have about five wrestlers in Russia. One of them, (Terrence) Zaleski, was with me at Officer Basic School. He doesn’t have my situation, he doesn’t have any kids, he doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Take me for instance, I’ve been gone with him for about nine months training, I have barely gotten to see my family, so he (Loukides) understands that me coming back and then going straight off to Russia isn’t going to make me happy and isn’t going to make me a better wrestler at this moment in time.
“He understands people and he treats everybody differently. Terrence? Terrence comes back, Loukides is like, Take off for Russia, go wrestle in Russia. He sent me to Colorado because it’s a three-day trip and I come back, and I’m wrestling here twice a day, but I also get to rebuild that foundation with my family. He understands that and he treats everybody according to their situation. He doesn’t treat any two people the same because you just can’t do that.
“That’s what I love about the guy. He understands people and he genuinely cares about people, and how that works out. Even though I’m wrestling for him, he also genuinely wants my Marine Corps career to prosper along with my wrestling career. He’s not selfish in any way to where he’s like, I don’t care what you do in the Marine Corps, that’s on you, you’re here to wrestle. He’s not like that, he wants both aspects to prosper. Whatever is better for me, even if that means focusing on becoming a better Marine Corps officer, he’s not going to have any hard feelings. He doesn’t care about stuff like that.
“But he cares about winning just like everybody else. I don’t know, it’s hard, he’s just such a great guy. You have to understand that this is the same guy who when the UNCG (University of North Carolina-Greensboro) program was canceled, he took it upon himself — he could have went to coach anywhere, anywhere he wanted to — but he took it upon himself while everybody was in the room and was like, Hey, who wants to keep wrestling? A couple of us raised our hands, a couple of us didn’t. But he made sure people went off to different schools. Like Purdue, or a couple of guys went to Pembroke… Just whatever they wanted to do. And then those few, myself being one, were like, I started with you, I kind of want to finish it with you. He was like, Fine.
“I think it was two months or a month and a half later, he called us up and said, “I’ve got a gym.” So we go into this gym, it was old, rundown. I think it was like an old truck station or something. He bought mats, he bought weights, gear, he had his wife’s brother put a shower in — all on his own time! He had a wife and kid, a wife and kid, but he’s the type of person who is like, No, you guys stay here and wrestle and I’m going to be here for you. He flew us to Texas, New York, Florida, all over the place, out of his own pocket (laughs).
“When you have someone doing that for you and on top of that they believe in you, you’re going to wrestle unbelievably. When you go out there on the mat and then look in your corner, you know this guy has got your back. It’s like, Come on, it’s Loukides! You better sack the eff up and get the win! When I was going over to the Schultz, he said, “Have fun.” But in my head, I was like, I’m bringing you back a medal. He has a bunch of stuff that I have won. Whenever I get an award from a big event, I give it to him, but I told him I am going to keep the Olympic medal, though (laughs).
“I do it because it’s not just me out there. I am a representation of him, and I just try to portray that as best as I can on the mat.”
Terrence Zaleski — October ’19
“There were so many times when it was just a group of us — like five or six of us with YES Wrestling — when we just wanted to quit because weren’t getting any results. Loukides would pay all this money for us; he would drive us to (Colorado Springs), the World Team Trials, US Open; fly us everywhere on his budget, however he got the money. And we would go 0-2. Back then, Caylor Williams was the face of the YES Wrestling program and earning all of the trophies and medals, and you had the rest of us just trying to figure it out.
But he (Loukides) would never let us quit. He made sure that we stuck with it, and it slowly paid off. Anytime he gives me advice or has suggestions, I am always open-ears to that man because I owe a lot to him. I would not be as successful in my personal life right now without Coach Loukides. I say that with an open heart because that man has looked out for everyone who he has been around. That includes me, Jamel, and my friend Santonio (Thompson) who competed at the US Open a couple of times, as well. He definitely cares about our wrestling careers and our personal lives. You can’t ask for a better coach than that. To me, that’s what coaching is about. I coached at Fargo this year and have helped out at high schools here and there. I always try to emulate what Loukides does for me with those kids, because that’s how you truly impact the sport and their lives.
“He takes a system that takes time, takes grit, perseverance, and all of those other great motivational words to truly believe in — but the second you see that sliver of hope, you are a believer, and everyone is going through it. (Ray) Bunker is going through it, (Daniel) Miller is going through it, I’m going through it, Jamel (Johnson)… Look at Xavier (Johnson), look where he was two years ago and look where he’s at now. We all went through our plights but Coach Loukides invested fully into each one of us, and once you believe in that, there’s no going back.
“I think everyone on our team would easily follow him anywhere and no questions would be asked. At the same time, I have every other coach in the country asking me, What weight are you going next year? I honestly don’t know. If Coach tells me to go 97 (kilograms), then I’m going to go 97. If he tells me to go 72 or 67, then I’m going to try my best to do that. I’m going to go wherever he tells me it’s good to go. When the time comes and he tells me to start gaining weight or losing weight, or to change my diet, I’m doing that. He tells me to wrestle 82, so I’m wrestling 82.
“It’s the kind of thing where everyone knows their place on our team because we are an actual team. People want to say this is an individual sport. Okay, yeah, it is an individual sport. But it’s more than an individual sport to us, and that is where we fall off of everyone else’s cookie cutter idea of what a wrestling team is. We are a team — we live, work, eat, breathe, and travel together. We do all of that stuff together. It holds more water for us than other teams.”
“The loyalty and the family that goes into this. We all have different ranks, different roles, different styles of wrestling — you name it. But what brings us together is respect and our support system. There was a point where I was thinking of leaving the Marine Corps. Then Sergeant (Trent) Osnes and I felt that our best chance to make an Olympic or World Team was with the Marine Corps and Coach Loukides. We have a great support system and that is probably one of the hardest things to find in the sport, someone who will lay it all on the line for you. Coach has definitely changed things around with the training, the facilities, and the tournaments. He believes in his guys. It’s hard to find that sometimes and that is what it takes to reach the top.”
“When you step on the mat in the room, no matter who the guy is or his skill level, he’s going to give you his 100%. And the next guy you have is going to give their 100%. And I believe everybody is buying into this process. That’s why you can see that the program is on a steady incline. When you see that, it really makes you proud to be on this team because you can see where it started. You see onesies and twosies grabbing it, and now this side is grabbing at it. Everyone is buying into this process and they are believing in each other. It’s not just one guy, everyone is getting better, no matter what the outcome is.
“That is what the coach is instilling in this process. And this is a daily thing. It’s not just before a tournament or before the Armed Forces. It is really preached to us to believe in each other and give your all, because if you’re not doing that, honestly, we don’t need you on the team. We have a really good group of guys. We have warriors. All of them have that warrior mentality. That’s why I believe everyone, and I’m pretty sure even a blind man can see, that the Marine Corps team is inclining. And that is solely because of the inspiration our coach has given us.”
“Coach Loukides is very good at making sure we get the training we need as individuals and making sure we get training overseas. A lot of times, overseas is where we get the best training. In the past few months, I’ve been over to Croatia and did a camp over there. Phenomenal. The partners over there were great, the coaches over there were great, and the competition was good. I didn’t have a great performance over there, it was the first time under the new rules and they are called differently everywhere. They were called differently in Croatia than they were at Armed Forces, and they were called differently at Armed Forces than they were in New York. They were called differently in New York than the Nationals, and they’ll probably be called differently at the Pan Ams than they were here.
“That’s something as an athlete you have to be willing to adapt to and it’s another great thing Coach Loukides does, he makes us practice all of the different situations. There were :10 left in the Dalton Roberts/Mike Fuenffinger match and Fuenffinger was on top and needed to get a turn because he was down by two. We were sitting in the stands with a bunch of Marines and I had about three or four of them turn around and look at me and they were like, Well I’ll be damned if this isn’t a situation we practice in the room for Coach Loukides. And it’s a situation we’d practice where you would say, When is this ever going to happen in a match? And there we were, sitting and looking at a situation that we’ve practiced but never expected to encounter, but here it was. He prepares you for what you don’t expect. He prepares you for things you don’t think are within the realm of possibility. When am I ever going to have fresh start from top with :10 left and down by two points? It’s impossible, why would I practice this? It is possible. When you think you’ve seen everything in wrestling, you haven’t seen anything. The possibilities are beyond what anyone can think of or grasp, and that is why situational practices are so great and why live wrestling is so great. There is no substitute for mat experience and practicing different situations.
“That’s a huge thing that we do overseas, as well. For anyone who has been to an overseas camp, they know that generally, we’re doing live wrestling. It’s a heavy workload when you go overseas because those coaches know that the only way to get put into certain situations is by continuing to engage in live wrestling. When you get put into those situations again, again, and again, you will continue to understand not only how your opponent performs from that position, but what the best option for you is from that position. While there might be five different options, it could be that only two work for you and one works better than the other. Those are the kinds of things you learn in that style of training.
“Conditioning-wise, a general rule of thumb I’ve abided by in my training that I took from college is that the exercises you hate the most are the ones that are best for you. That’s what Coach Loukides does — he finds what you hate the most and that’s what he makes you do (laughs). It is the best thing for you. And while I struggle through those workouts and I’m gassing and feel like I can’t push for another second — let alone another minute or another period — that is what pushes me through the matches. That is how you develop the conditioning to push you through any situation. A big part of my conditioning for this tournament and why I looked like I was in great shape was also the result of me keeping good position in most of my matches. Anyone who has wrestled Greco will tell you that the guy who is in better position will use less energy. And I think I was in better position than my opponents, and therefore, I used less energy in every one of my matches.
“In addition to that, it is the conditioning that drives you not to the edge, but over the edge. Past where you think you can go, past where you’ve been before everyday — that’s the conditioning that will take you places. That’s the conditioning that will drive you when there are 30 seconds left in the second period and you need to freaking grind it out. When you don’t think you have it in you, but you know that you do because Coach Loukides has driven you past where you thought your physical limitations were, those are the kind of conditioning exercises that we do.
“We individualize on many levels in our room. Coach Loukides, he understands that each athlete has different abilities and limitations, which means that each athlete has to be pushed beyond their limitations in different ways. He develops the training plans, executes them, and any time I look at him wide-eyed and ask, You want me to do what?, I do what he says and I surprise myself. I might feel like death at the end, but I’ll also feel like I accomplished something when practice is over. Because, I knew that I was able to do something where earlier I thought, I don’t know if I can make it through this. That’s what makes the difference at the end of those matches. ”
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