Should Greco Have Held a ‘Stop-Gap’ Tournament for Seniors This Winter?

michael hooker, army wcap greco-roman
Michael Hooker -- Photo: Army/WCAP

The ongoing winter tour for US Seniors, which will run through the end of February, leaves behind in its wake dozens of Greco-Roman wrestlers who have not competed since the fall. Most prominently among the country’s Senior base are those from the Army’s World Class Athletes Program, which as presently constituted features a pair of 2021 World Team representatives, two Tokyo Olympians, and four more who garnered US National Team honors at last year’s Olympic Trials. And for the second consecutive year, Army Greco wrestlers will be entering a selection process on the heels of a sizable gap between competitions.

It was not supposed to be this way.

As reported previously, eight Army athletes were originally on the roster for the European trip that began towards the end of January. The situation then changed in a hurry. Mere days before the American delegation was to depart for Croatia, Army brass decided to remove all of their competitors from the trip, citing “elevated security concerns” due to the geopolitical posturing involving Russia and Ukraine. The concern for Army officials was not, at first glance, the Croatian leg of the Euro getaway. It was instead Bulgaria, which on a map is, of course, much closer in proximity to both Russia and Ukraine. Those US athletes who did spend time in Bulgaria arrived on or about February 14 and left this past Monday.

For the eight Army/WCAP wrestlers who watched as what was expected to be a six-week tour become wiped away in a near instant, it was dejecting. But, it wasn’t just them. The majority of regularly-active US Seniors have occupied a similar position.

In total, only 17 Americans have gone to Europe since January (counting the group of five who arrived in Sweden parts of four days ago). What this means should not prove difficult to decipher: most of the Americans who will enter the ’22 Bill Farrell Memorial in early-April have not competed since the fall, or significantly longer than that; and the reason why this stands as a potential issue is because of the Farrell’s designation as the selection tournament for the Pan-American Championships roster. Adding onto the event’s status is that all USA Pan-Am medalists will receive top seeds at the World Team Trials in June.

In other words, the Bill Farrell Memorial/NYAC International stands is a potential key component for ’22 World Team selection — and approximately 90% of the Greco-Roman wrestlers who enter will be operating on a competitive layoff exceeding seven months, if not more.

Which begs what is perhaps an easy question: should the United States have instituted a “stop-gap” tournament or event this winter in order to keep its Senior base sharp for the season’s most important domestic stretch?

One athlete who thinks so is Captain Michael Hooker (72 kg, Army/WCAP, 5PM #4). Hooker, a recent National Team member and World Team Trials runner-up in ’19, was not on the winter European tour roster and the last time he competed was at the September Trials. Therefore, he has known that, no matter what, he would be flying to NYC in April following a longer-than-usual hiatus.

“Seven months is a very long time not to have any competition,” Hooker said on Tuesday. “I feel like us here in the USA get used to it, especially USA Greco. We get used to having a break.  It used to be that after the World Championships we’d have New York, Dave Schultz, then if you are in the military there was Armed Forces, the US Open, and the World Team Trials. Over the past two years if you’re not going overseas, the US hasn’t done that much, in my opinion, to get Greco guys matches unless you are going overseas and are not constrained by anything. And, you have the funds.”

A dearth in competition affects athletes differently, and is dependent upon numerous factors such as age, experience, injury history, and training environment. One might question how another extended layoff would even influence the performance of Army/WCAP in light of their consistent success and collection of established names. However, such a line of thinking assumes that results are either automated or taken for granted, which Army assistant Spenser Mango does not hesitate to shoot down.

“Of course I worry about it,” Mango responded when asked if he is concerned about about bringing wrestlers to New York and elsewhere after another long mid-season layoff. “It’s one thing to be practicing in the room, but competition is a different beast. The anxiety that comes with it, getting your body ready to compete, perfecting your warm-up — everything is different.”

So then, what if there had been an event of some kind to keep athletes engaged during the winter along with availing the chance to make necessary adjustments prior to Pan-Am selection?

“I think there should have been a tournament that people could have entered,” said Hooker. “Even if it were just something like the Minnesota Storm (Holiday) tournament they used to have, where it might not have meant that much, but it was still a tournament people could get in over Christmas. It was still mat time, you could still get film on yourself and see your mistakes. Because, everything is theory until competition time. Everything is theoretical until you are actually on the mat.”

While Mango agrees with his wrestler, he was also quick to caution that it’s not that simple for WCAP given the levels of approval athletes and coaches require to leave the state of Colorado. “In a perfect world, it would have been nice to do something like that,” Mango said, before adding, “but we (the Army) can’t do last-minute stuff.”

Nothing can be done about it now, anyway. Greco-Roman athletes from across the country who have remained landlocked throughout the season are plowing ahead with their minds on the Farrell (despite the fact that the tournament is still without an official date and is as of press time unlisted). They aim to have readied themselves appropriately for when the time does eventually come to compete again, which for most will be the first time this calendar year. It’s up to them, after all, as well as their coaches, to maintain a proper attitude regardless of less-than-ideal circumstances.

“It is going to be challenging, but at the same time, we’re playing the cards we were dealt and making the best of what we have,” Mango declared. “We’re controlling the things we can control and hoping for the best right now.”

That’s all they can do.

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