The Curtain Shall Rise: Max Nowry & The Art of New Beginnings

max nowry, 55 kg, 2017
Max Nowry -- Photo: John Sachs

This was never about “needing” a break. There are no breaks. There are no safe spaces. There are no imaginary outstretched arms waiting to clutch you in a gentle, warm embrace every time the shock of disappointment makes its entrance, every time the loneliness most understand but few talk about invades each cell of your being. The athlete…the professional combatant…the wrestler…does not enjoy the luxury of choice. Some walks of life appear to be predestined, should you believe in such a thing. But even if this isn’t one of them, it sure feels differently after awhile. After enough tears, frustration, and pain have been offered at the altar. Really, it’s all just another way of saying the only true option is the acceptance that control is illusory, and the sooner that is reconciled, the better. 

Max Nowry has spent the last few years of his career as a United States Greco-Roman wrestler fighting the good fight but stuck in a holding pattern he certainly didn’t ask for. He originally made his mark as a youth, winning Fargo and everything else in between. Then it was off to Northern Michigan University, where the Illinois native first started pecking away at the big bad Seniors who outsized and outgunned him, at least temporarily. Before long, they knew. They all got the picture. Not only was Nowry going to bite down and brawl, he was going to figure out what your biggest strengths were and take them away, like a thief staring you in the face who then slaps you for speaking up. 

It was all a whirlwind. One year, Nowry was “pretty good” and the next, “watch where you step.” In 2012, he came improbably close to the promised land at the US Olympic Trials only to be defeated by one of the generation’s most prolific competitors, Spenser Mango. It’s what happened. It’s in the books, as they say. What is also in the books is a World Championship, like the one Nowry earned later on that year. A WORLD title. He celebrated the astounding achievement for a moment. Not too long. But the foundation had been set nicely, or so it seemed. 

Up became down just over a year later. That is when United World Wrestling, the global sanctioning body, took away the sport’s lightest weight class of 55 kilograms and consolidated it with the second lightest, 60 kilograms. The new weight, 59 kilos, doesn’t sound a whole lot heavier than 55, but it is. Four kilograms, or 8.8 lbs, is quite a jump, particularly for a competitor like Nowry who was already somewhat smallish at the previous weight class. Adjustments were attempted. Nowry tried packing on some size, but given the demands training entails, the battle for more bulk was altogether incongruous. The syncopation he had been accustomed to dissipated. Once thought of as the clubhouse leader to take on the mantle of heir apparent to Mango, Nowry found himself just trying to keep his head above water. 

But the fight hadn’t left him, not even during those darkest of moments when a man’s only solace lies in his shadow. He kept going, but don’t get it twisted: walking away did tantalize Nowry, its seduction based around the promise of a future where all of those plaques and medals can neatly reside on some wall in the house as a not-so-subtle reminder of who you used to be. Or could have been. For some athletes, that’s okay. It’s fine. Life, wrestling, love, death — they’re all abstract concepts once stripped of their meaning, anyway. It’s just…Nowry could not white-flag it all away. If he chose to give up, then he’d know that the injuries, the weight class, the lesser-skilled competitors who had escaped too often by the skin of their teeth, would be the real winners in the deal. And that is simply too much to take when you’re so used to being the one with their arm raised.  

By the time 2017 settled in, Nowry’s shoulder had become his main antagonist. Can’t wrestle well without strong shoulders, of course. He flirted with easing into a hiatus, a respite to reassess. Fix some things. Maybe go on some hikes in the Colorado mountains, take that dog along on some adventures. The dog, a lab/pit mix named Rowdy, is one half of a symbiotic relationship that delivers the unconditional love humans always seem to fail at. Rowdy got the program. So did Nowry. Again. Rather than breathe out, he resumed training and rehabbed his shoulder. His strength started returning, as too did his zeal for competition. At the US World Team Trials in April, a close semifinal loss to eventual runner-up Hayden Tuma did little to extinguish the rediscovered fire. Nowry won his next two bouts to become a National Team member for the third time with a hectic, suspenseful victory over the incredible Ryan Mango serving as the clincher. 

More good tidings followed. Two months ago, United World Wrestling announced that Greco-Roman would once again present 55 kilograms as its lowest Senior weight class. Word of this change had matriculated earlier in the year, but Nowry refused to buy in until it was official. Upon the announcement, the spotlight immediately shifted back to the 27-year-old, since it is he who is deemed to be the weight class’s standard bearer, as if 55 kilograms was something he loaned out and is just now getting to touch again. Maybe it’s kind of like that. We’ll all have to wait and see. A test drive is scheduled for next week at the Dave Schultz Memorial in Colorado Springs. After that, Nowry will begin his quest for a second World Championship. More days, nights, and blurry months of preparation for the ultimate prize.

It’s really something, how this has all come back around for Nowry. He has a lot to look forward to and an opportunity to write the second act of his career on his terms. Not everyone gets that chance and Nowry knows it, which is why he is unwaveringly dedicated to the cause. The only task remaining is coming up with an appropriate ending, but he’ll have to leave that for later. He’s got work to do first. 

5PM Interview with Max Nowry

5PM: Out of everything you’ve accomplished thus far in your career, and that’s including your World title, where does making the National Team this year rank on the list?

Max Nowry: (Pauses) Hmmm, probably third on that list behind my first breakthrough in 2012 making the Olympic Trials finals and then winning the University Worlds and the Pan Ams. Right underneath that, because for over four years, I was not getting success, not to where I was envisioning as I started to progress at 55 (kilograms), so I kind of set a timeline for where I wanted to be and obviously during that timeline, I’m chasing down Spenser (Mango). And then the day I graduated AIT is when FILA came out with the new weight class changes.

So, from December of 2013 to April of this year, my career didn’t feel…there were a couple of times during that four-year span where I thought about walking away and letting the sport go because it wasn’t worth it if I’m going to take fifth or sixth place, it’s not why I do the sport. So it meant a lot to me, but National Team isn’t the goal, nor should it be the goal. Being the World Team member is the goal and going and getting a medal at Worlds is the goal. But for me, that was a big stepping stone compared to where I was the last four years.

5PM: When you say you had thoughts about walking away, was that more out of sheer frustration than just disappointment? Was it a case of knowing that you were better than the results you were putting up but that it felt like something was holding you back?

MN: Yeah, it was out of frustration and I was trying to be as real with myself as possible. At that time, I had a lot of shoulder problems, so that, along with the size difference. I started to get closer and closer at 55 and then with this new weight class (59 kilograms), I felt like I was just out there trying to survive. I worked too hard and wrestling has been my life for about 20 years now. It’s not a hobby, wrestling isn’t a hobby. Every time I go to practice I give my best, and with that, if I’m not even in the top-three, I kind of figured it might be time to walk away. It’s too much on your heart, your body, mentally, physically, and emotionally to do day-in and day-out if you’re not getting what you want out of it. Wrestling is my life, but at the same time, I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be and where I expected myself to be. Wrestling is the hardest sport in my opinion, and I’m not going to do it if I’m not within contention of being number one. That was my mindset.

5PM: Was any of this due to losing to opponents who are/were cutting down to 59 from say, 66 or more, and knowing that if everything was equal, these might not be losses? I’m not trying to make an excuse for you, I’m just figuring that had to be a part of this.

MN: No, definitely. I knew the size difference played a factor and the way I battled that was, I knew the first period was going to be tough. That was when I was going to have to grind out and the second period is when my cardio would become a factor. I battled that in some ways and I was able to win a lot of matches based on something like that. But because of that, I was prepared to grind out the first period.

I’ve been talking about the weight classes a lot lately with some friends, family, and coaches, and as shitty of a feeling as it was wrestling 59, I felt like during those four years I grew the most technically and overall as a wrestler. I had to find ways to beat the good guys, I had to outslick someone, I had to learn how to feel the push and the pull, and when someone was stepping in, giving resistance, and when to go for a move. That is when I really matured as a wrestler. It was frustrating, but I was able to learn more because I had to wrestle differently due to being the smallest one in the weight class.

5PM: We talked last year when 55 kilos coming back was still up in the air. Now that it’s back, how has it changed your preparation, if it has at all? Are you more keyed in on certain aspects of your game now than you were before?

MN: I’m going to try to not get lost with this because it’s another big one. The last two questions you asked me are topics I’ve been talking a lot about recently with friends, family, teammates, and coaches. When we talked last year, I had my fingers crossed, but I wasn’t banking on it. Now that it’s actually here and I have a tournament ten days away, it feels awesome.

When I was wrestling 59 and the team would travel to Vegas, to be honest with you, I never knew what day I wrestled on because I never had to worry about losing weight. That weight-cutting factor and being disciplined up to that point didn’t affect me. I didn’t have to worry about that part. I’d casually work out and then go grab a run in shorts and a t-shirt, and then go about the rest of my day. But now? I’m practicing in sweat pants and going on extra runs. I’m actually feeling that preparation leading up to a tournament. Now it’s getting exciting. I haven’t felt this since the summer of 2013, actually preparing for a tournament as it leads up. With all that, it’s very exciting because I am constantly preparing and thinking about something rather than going through the motions and just showing up on weigh-in day, stepping on the scale, and then waking up the next day to wrestle again. Now I am actually getting the anticipation built up as the days count down.

5PM: Is there an element of pressure? I ask because with 55 coming back in, most in the country are pointing at you. You’re the wrestler most expect to be the man at the Trials and everything else. It has a vibe like, This is supposed to be Max’s…

Max Nowry: Yes and no. It’s more that I am coming into this season with a chip on my shoulder. I’m still really frustrated over my performances for four and a half years. Now that a weight class that suits me best is back, the best way I can wrestle is with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Not that I have anything to prove…well, maybe in a way I have to prove something, but I don’t see myself as number one right now because there hasn’t been a tournament with 55 yet. So I’m not thinking ahead of anything. I am coming into this season with a chip on my shoulder born out of the frustration I’ve had with myself for not being successful the last couple of years.

Plus, a lot of the stuff I like to do is for my coaches. I like to show them what they’ve done for me. I don’t wrestle for myself most of the time, I wrestle for other people, and that is where the chip on my shoulder comes from, in a way. All of the people who stood behind me the last couple of years while I wasn’t performing, I want to be able to show them what I am capable of now.

5PM: How have you spent the last few months following the World Team Trials? Was your summer a lot of training or did you fit some downtime in?

MN: After Trials, we (Army/WCAP) took a little downtime, but I trained pretty much through the summer. I have been naturally very active, so if I’m not at WCAP working out, then I am either out hiking with my dog, going for a run with my dog, and my newest little hobby has been golfing. I try to constantly keep myself busy doing something. Golfing, I like it, it’s very fun to me. Some people don’t like it, but I walk the whole course. I am still thinking about wrestling, but it puts me at ease a little bit to where I can enjoy myself while still being outside. Overall, my lifestyle hasn’t been a lot different since February or March of this year, everything has been the same, there hasn’t been a lot of downtime. Intensity was a little low at times, but I was always constantly doing something. I changed my lifestyle up. Instead of hanging around the house and watching Netflix or TV, I have been trying to get outside more, more fishing, more hiking, whatever.

5PM: Golf I can see, because you can be actively engaged, it’s something to focus on, I think that is why a lot of athletes enjoy playing. Plus, it’s not as passive as sitting around watching TV or going to the movies. 

MN: Yeah, and I have a habit where if I am sitting around, I am constantly thinking about wrestling, so sometimes it’s nice to have a little bit of an escape, to kind of clear my mind for a little while. But even if I’m out golfing or at the driving range, I still find myself thinking about wrestling. But it gives me a little bit of a vacation for my mind in a way, because I’m not constantly focused on wrestling. Sometimes, it gets to be an overload where I’m thinking too much about something.

Max Nowry, 2017 US World Team Trials

Nowry (blue) battling WCAP teammate Hayden Tuma in the 59 kilogram semifinals of the 2017 US World Team Trials. (Photo: Tony Rotundo/WrestlersAreWarriors)

5PM: You have a tournament in a little over a week. Knowing that it’s right around the corner, does this feel differently than the usual first tournament back of the season? 

MN: Absolutely. I want to say the week after Trials, say late-April or early-May, I was hanging around 55 and a half or 56 kilos, because I was constantly out hiking, doing whatever, being active, being outside. When the weight class came about and it was made for certain, my weight kind of jumped up a little bit (laughs). That’s when it became a little more real, like, Oh man, now I have to watch.

When I found out it was going to be Dave Schultz in November rather than the New York Athletic Club, that was a positive. Even though I got a little heavier than I had been hanging out at, I got more excited because now I’ve got to focus a little more, which is going to make me prepare more mentally. A lot of it has been a positive experience, whether I am doing extra runs or sitting in the sauna working my weight down. Having the first tournament back at 55 being at home, I feel, is a big positive. I feel fortunate to have it fall into place that way. My first tournament back at 55 isn’t going to be up at the New York Athletic Club tournament where I’d have to find a hotel and different workout facilities. The first tournament back at 55 is eight minutes down the street from my house and I get to work out at my own facilities, and get ready there with my daily lifestyle — my house, WCAP, everything.

5PM: What are your plans competitively following Schultz, do you have anything locked down?

MN: To be honest, I’m not 100% sure. I heard of a couple different training opportunities, but right now the only thing I have on my calendar for sure is Schultz and then after Schultz is when I’ll hear back from my coaches at WCAP regarding what the schedule is going to be like. So honestly, I myself don’t know really what is going to come up. I heard of a couple training camps and lifting camps, but I don’t know what for sure is in store for the team or myself.

5PM: What is going to be the plan for Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic Trials?

MN: I wish 55 was in those plans, but unfortunately, it’s not. Right now, I am just focused on 55 kilos. I am not going to think about Tokyo because that’s way down the road. Right now, I’ve been given an opportunity with 55 being back, so that’s what I am focusing on, 55. Working to make a World Team and winning a World gold medal, that’s the focus right now, working to make that happen. When the Trials come around, I’ll get to that. I don’t worry about too much because to me, it’s like 59 kilos, but better, because everyone is going to have make scratch weight both days. So I don’t think it will be too much of a difference.

5PM: Athletes tick better if they are focusing on one thing at a time, right? Having 55 to focus on right now is probably liberating. 

Max Nowry: Yeah, I mean, when it all came out I thought about now and I thought about then, and I was a little bit pissed that 55 wasn’t an Olympic weight. But when I thought about it in the long run, for 2018, you get a two-kilo allowance and after that, it’s scratch weight for both days. Going from 55 to 60 kilos, it’ll be a little bit of a difference, but I’m already used to wrestling 59 kilos with a day-before weigh-ins. Wrestling 60 kilos when people have to make scratch weight both days is going to be a helluva lot better than wrestling 59 kilos with day-before weigh-ins. When I put that into perspective, I let that thought kind of take over because I’ll worry about that when it gets here, but it’s not going to be as bad as 59 was, in my opinion.

Then I started thinking back to 55 and what I can control in my wrestling to put myself in a position to make a first World Team and bring back a medal. Because that is what I am focused on right now. I finally have this opportunity to wrestle at a weight I feel I can be competitive at and bring back a medal. So that has been my main focus throughout this summer. It’s pretty much been the only thing in my head these last couple of months.

Follow Max Nowry on Twitter to keep up with his career and competitive schedule. 

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