Same, But Different: Spencer Woods Talks Pre-Trials Mentality

spencer woods, mentality
Spencer Woods -- Photo: Larry Slater

There is news. Spencer Woods, the “Alaskan Assassin” and 2019 National runner-up, is no longer planning on entering the 77-kilogram field at the upcoming US Olympic Team Trials. It is not because he cannot make the weight. He certainly can. Already has. Woods hit the 77 mark without much of an issue for the ’19 Bill Farrell Memorial, where he placed second. That performance is what qualified him for the Trials. It also came on the heels of an impressive gold-medal-wining run in Sweden, which was preceded by his even-more impressive run to the Open final six months prior.

Oddly, Woods’ decision to change weight categories is actually not a headline grabber. At press time, similar chatter is circulating regarding several other athletes who are on the fence about their own weight classes for April’s big show. Perhaps if wrestling had never grinded to a halt in the wake of the pandemic, these items would elicit more eyebrow-raises. That is not the case right now. Ask around. An uneasy feeling still hangs over the proceedings, as though everyone is just hoping the Trials are held sans last-minute postponement. Things look pretty good — but you really can’t blame the slight skepticism given the amount of cultural conditioning the nation has endured over the past 12 months.

Woods opting to move up to 87 kilograms is fun to consider because of that weight category’s longstanding depth and what he might bring to the table against a sea of plodding monsters. Plenty can be done about this. A lot of words could easily fill a page to describe how 87 — somehow, someway — has a knack for presenting the most intrigue heading into a Trials tournament.

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It’s just that when you talk to Woods, his weight class is nothing more than a footnote. For him, it is not an emotional decision. He assessed the situation, felt that he will perform with more vitality by sidestepping a draining weight-cut, and that’s all there is to it. The language was different when he broke the news, but he essentially packaged it as, This is what I’m doing, this is why, let’s move on. So we did.

What is far more interesting pertaining to Woods during this Olympic Trials homestretch is his seriousness. You can still get him to laugh, pump out a few jabs, trade a few jokes. But whenever the topic returns to on-the-mat perspectives, humor is absent. Then, the jokes stop. In a relative instant. His voice doesn’t simply trail off, his diction completely changes. Phrases are accented inside of nearly each and every sentence as an emphasizing mechanism to ensure that you understand full-well how important all of this is to him.

When Woods waved goodbye to Northern Michigan University last summer in an effort to join the Army’s World Class Athletes Program (his orders become official on March 8), he began seeing competition in a different light. He was always a “locked-in” wrestler; passionate, driven, and fiercely-competitive. Those attributes, he claims, were gifted in the womb. Part of it is also that he has an Alaska-sized chip on his shoulder. That’s a good thing, too. But now as a servicemember athlete, Woods observes a need to elevate his career in a manner befitting of a true professional. To him, that means ratcheting up accountability to new heights. It means approaching competition as an opportunity to represent both his home state and the nation at large to the absolute best of his abilities not just during tournaments, but everywhere in between.

Woods has made a name for himself because of what you see, which is a combination of uncanny athleticism, sharp Greco-Roman instincts, and country miles’ worth of fight. The message he is trying to get across these days centers around what you don’t see. Woods, he takes this sport and all of its trimmings rather personally. It’s not a game to him. Whatever he does, however he performs, is a reflection of the mental foundation to which he is beholden.

Recent successes have their place. So do weight class discussions. Neither matter as much as heart.

Spencer Woods — 87 kg, Army/WCAP

5PM: Did you have any experience working with Ivan Ivanov prior to Suples camp earlier this month? Also, how did your body respond to all of Ivan’s training methods?

Spencer Woods: It was my second time in Boise and I think maybe third or fourth time working at a camp with Ivan. And, that guy? I mean, we talk about guys with high wrestling IQ’s and Ivan is like the Albert Einstein of wrestling. He explains everything. It’s like, I do a throw over the chest or I do a throw over the back; I also do a side lift and then I do a reverse lift. That’s what I train for and all of his tools were to help train those aspects. He gets that we’re not going to be running on treadmills or lifting barbells and dumbbells. Instead, we are going to have all of these tools that condition us for wrestling.


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And it’s fun. I am not complaining about anything else that I do but I would say that when you walk into one of his practices there is a lot more anticipation to wrestle than normal. Because, you’re not just running around in circles, grabbing a partner, and then pushing a little bit. No. We’re going to have a crazy warm-up and a crazy workout, and then he’s going to kill us before we have to leave. It was such a good training experience. It was so much fun. I’m really happy that I was able to go.

5PM: I guess it was a product of the times, but what was the key attraction in your going straight from Boise to Arizona? Was there a specific purpose? Were there training partners you singled out as a reason to go back-to-back?

Woods: Well, now that I am with the Army and will soon become part of WCAP, this is my profession. Before, it was what I did; now, it is a full-on career and I want to do it for a long time. So, this was a business trip. A great investment.

What attracted me was how small the camp was and how many coaches were going to be here. The small amount of athletes brought a lot to the table. Are you kidding me? I got the invite to go wrestle with Alan Vera, RaVaughn Perkins, Jesse Porter… I mean, just the accolades they bring. And not only is Matt (Lindland) here, you’ve also got John Matthews and Jim Martinez. For the month of February, this was just the icing on the cake. It’s training. It is about getting better, which is what I’m trying to do.

5PM: You just mentioned how this has become your profession instead of a mere athletic endeavor. Did you adopt this approach as soon as you graduated AIT? Or has it occurred gradually over the past few months as you assimilated into your new situation?

Woods: I think once I started. An accumulation of good fortune is how I’d put it. A lot of people have helped me out and a lot of things have went my way. Call it God’s blessings, if you will. Just coming off of 2019 and going into 2020, and then 2020 happening, you know? There was a lot of time for contemplation and reflection on what I really wanted. And what I really want is to get as much out of this journey as it can possibly offer.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I want to win an Olympic gold medal because, even if I’m the only person in the world who believes that, I have the confidence that it can happen if I believe in myself. It may not be 2020 or 2024, but I am in this for the long run. WCAP definitely gives me that confidence that I’m in the right spot in the world to have all of these crazy endeavors — which to me, doesn’t seem crazy. It seems like in due time.

When I was a freshman in high school I had dreams of becoming an Alaskan state champion. To me, that was everything. Maybe elsewhere around the US, an Alaskan state champion is an easy first-round pin (laughs). But to me, that was all I wanted, and I went 0-2 at the state tournament in Alaska as a freshman. I was making no waves. My sophomore year was a weird year. I had actually wrestled eight months with a fractured ulna and got called all kinds of names from my coaches. But after I realized that I had just placed at the state tournament — in wrestling with a broken arm — it showed me how powerful your mindset is, how powerful your thoughts are. That was when I realized how wrestling had opened a lot of doors so far and that I wanted to take this as far as I can.

Next, I won two state championships and told myself that I was going to wrestle at Division I Big Ten school. Then another door opened up and I decided to train at the Olympic Training Site. I’m going to travel the world and win tournaments. That success brought me to the best team in the country.

It has been amazing to see how small hinges swing big doors. That’s what it is. I get somewhere and it manages to bring me better, stronger opportunities. That is where I am now. I think I am in the right spot in the world. Like I said, it may not happen this year or next year. But I tell myself. I write it down, Spencer Woods, you are going to be an Olympic gold medalist. 

I thoroughly believe it. I dream about it, it’s in my subconscious. It’s not something I am putting on posters. I am not in this to look like I’m winning. I’m in this because I truly believe I can do great things in this sport.

5PM: As a member of the Army team, you have watched as several opportunities have passed you by due to the travel restrictions and it has now been a long time since you last appeared in a tournament. How have you managed to maintain a competitive mentality?

Spencer Woods: That’s interesting because I haven’t competed since January of last year, but for me that’s that’s not something I lose. It is something fun. I mean, I would like to compete. I know how to wrestle. I’ve been in wrestling tournaments before, I’m no stranger to what comes with that. It is just the little things in your day.

The Army, aside from WCAP, the Big Army, has really helped me. At school I was a creature of habit but now my entire day is routine. Everything is about dressing right, everything is neat, and everything is squared away. Just having that accountability on yourself is where confidence comes from.

There have been fun things, I guess. Like when I was in Boise, all we did was play Mario Kart back at the room (laughs). But I have been also creating confidence by playing a lot of chess lately. I brought a chess board with me and you can kind of compete in that way.  But for the most part, I really don’t think that is a trait I am going to lose. I was born competitive, I was born stingy. I had to learn good sportsmanship because I really, really hate to lose. That’s all I need.

It’s not fear of losing that drives me, obviously. It’s not the hate of losing that drives me. I try to focus on the more positive things about the sport. When I wake up, I visualize myself winning. I visualize how it is going to look when they call my name to get my gold medal. The mind is a really powerful tool. If I train countless hours in the gym, that will only help; but for me, personally, it is keeping my mind sharp that is going to be my biggest tool.

Pretty much the beginning, middle and end of it is my mentality. I want to give credit to all of my coaches who were at Northern. I want to give credit to all my coaches at the Army, and I want to give credit to my coaches at Maryland.

But who really planted the seed were my high school coaches Mark Lane and Marcie Van Dusen, and that’s exactly why I’m going to see them next week in Wyoming. It’s not too much going to be a physical training camp, but those are the people who I need to be around in order to get my mind right for this last push.

They started it for me at a very young age when I was a freshman and in high school. They were talking about goal-setting, visualization, positive thinking, concentration, and energy management. They gave us a homework. At first, I’m like, you know, This is wrestling, it’s just a physical sport. I’m just going to get bigger biceps and pecs than the other guy and I’m going to win. But they really engrained it into my mind that before you go out on that mat, you are going to decide if you will come off of it as a winner or not.

It is those tools that keep my psyche in check — the goal-setting, visualization, mental imagery, the positive thinking. All of that. Those two people, they have helped me out so much.

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