Flying High Back to Reality: Ellis Coleman IS Who You Thought He WAS

ellis coleman, 2017 US World Team Trials champion, 66 kg
Ellis Coleman -- Original image: Tony Rotundo

It wasn’t “The Case of the Disappearing Man” or anything. Ellis Coleman had still been around. Maybe there were times when his body wouldn’t cooperate and an injury would land him on the shelf for a spell. Common in a sport that is at its best when two unarmed combatants are beating, bruising, and throwing each other for a living. That kind of thing, it happens. Regularly. But you’ve seen Coleman enough. Or better put, you saw who Coleman was, back when he sent shockwaves through the Juniors and lept over another man’s head only to toss him right over. Back when he began throwing his chips on the felt at the Senior level and making his first Olympic Team at 20 years of age. You saw this. You did. 

No, he didn’t cease being successful, either. Coleman, the physical virtuoso who is now 25, has long established his place in this generation of US Greco-Roman wrestling. He could always still beat the top guys, but there seemed to be something missing awhile ago. Sort of, anyway. And no, he never stopped unveiling those can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him laser shows. It’s just that you didn’t see the same guy every time. The fire in the furnace was burning as hot as ever. There wasn’t another man who competed harder. Nevertheless, this athlete, he was tethered to some burden, some nameless, faceless wall of confusion and discomfort that weighed down his ability to do the one thing that got him to where he is — be himself. 

You can’t tell a man who knows the value of his gifts that he hadn’t been using them unless you have an inkling that he knows it, too. This discovery has to be organic. It is all too difficult to force a superb athlete into finding that crawlspace where the magic resides. He or she needs to happen upon it on their own. Serendipitous, to be sure. And fortunate. Not just for Coleman, but for every fan of American wrestling. Ellis Coleman, the prodigal son, has found his way back to the one place where he is most comfortable and it’s a zone only few can say they’ve ever encountered. 

This is an era where itchy fingers do most of the talking in a digital dialogue, meaning there have been plenty of opportunities over the course of the last seven or eight months for Coleman to plead his case in the court of public opinion. Many were casting him aside. They thought that maybe his time had passed, forgetting just how crazy of a notion that is at this point in time. But he kept quiet. Coleman didn’t bother himself with the noise. He was on a mission. There was a turning point before that mission was accomplished. Now that he is once again on the precipice of US Greco history, Coleman wants to say “I told you so”, but he also wants you to know it’s not personal. He needs you, believe it or not. He likes company. And he wants to take you along for what very well might be the ride of his life. 

5PM Interview with Ellis Coleman

5PM: This isn’t the first time you’ve made a World Team, obviously far from it. But when you think about your World Team Trials performances in the past, be it the Junior World teams, the 2012 Olympic Trials, whatever you want, where do you rank making this particular World Team? Is it special?

Ellis Coleman: Personally, I think that this one, the 2017 Trials, is special because I was coming back from previous performances that didn’t go so well for me. I think it was me being resilient and bouncing back. I don’t want to say that I had to prove something, but still showing that I’m Ellis Coleman and that I’m still capable of doing what I was able to do before. I just had to overcome some adversity, but I am still the same guy or even better than I was before, if you include the fact that my mental game is better. For me, it was showing the world and everybody else that I am still this guy. The fact is, I had to sit back and take the second row to a couple of wrestlers for a couple of years now and I’ve had to battle injuries often. It’s been like that my whole career. So this one has been special to just show everyone and prove myself.

5PM: Are you saying, in other words, that you think there were a lot of doubters going into this year and specifically leading into the Trials?

EC: 100%, yup. I’ve had some pretty bad matches as far as what everyone is used to. But there were a lot of doubters, I think, concerning my wrestling and where my career is going to go. I even had a coach come up to me and say, “I’ve heard people say that you’re not the same, they don’t think you’re going to be what you were and that you might be done here soon.” I had a coach come up to me and tell me that. In my mind it’s like, Where is all of this coming from? Have I really sunk this low? Did I really hit rock bottom? It was amazing, the feeling that I had, being able to do everything that I wanted to do and wrestle how I wanted to wrestle.

5PM: The cast of characters changes depending on the year or the quad but there are always one or two guys at most weights who become rivals of sorts. For you this year, it was (Alex) Sancho who everybody locked onto. Did it matter to you at all? Did it make a difference to you that you had to beat Sancho to clinch your spot?

EC: Yes, I believe it was natural that I had to beat him. It was pretty blatant. Every single person you would speak to knew that the finals were going to be me and Sancho. Everybody knew that. Personally, I think people had him on the radar more as far as being a World Team member and that he was the favorite, even though I had the accolades that I had. But he beat me twice, so why shouldn’t he be the favorite? I think that definitely mattered. I’m sure he knew and I knew that it was going to be going us against each other in the finals.

5PM: Okay, then the next would be the fact that once again, you are the number one guy, it is undisputed. Do you like having one or two other guys in your weight constantly on your heels or vice versa? Do you need to have other guys inside this country who are going to push you and bring out your best performances? 

EC: Initially, before, previous Ellis would have said ‘no’ to that question just for the simple fact that I want to be dominant in my wrestling. I don’t want anybody to be close to me in my matches. I want to get to the point where I tech everybody, at least in the US — just because I think overseas is pretty tough, tougher than wrestling in the US. I want to get to that point where I can come to the US, wrestle here, and just crush everybody. And if I can’t tech them, I still at least put on a dominant performance.

But then I got to this year and Sancho, being the improved wrestler that he is, he has gotten a lot better and you can see that with his competitions here and overseas that he is one of the top guys. So, having a guy like that is only going to elevate my level, and that’s what it did. It elevated me and propelled me into the wrestler that I am. I had to think outside the box and do extra while improving on the small things I never worked on before, to improve my mental game and work on my stretching, all of the extra small things I never did. It only made me better. And then I was able to go overseas and wrestle really well, I went undefeated. It just brought me to a whole other level. You always know that there is a higher level, but it is so hard to see sometimes when you’re training and stuff like that. But once you reach that level, you see that there are even higher levels to attain.

I think that now, being the person that I am, I love it. I love the fact that I have somebody, two guys, even three or four guys, who are good at the weight I have to channel myself and compare myself with each and every time I train and compete. It’s only going to make me better. It is going to make me the wrestler I need to be.

5PM: You said that coming into Vegas you wanted to show that in essence, you’re still who you were, which is one of the best wrestlers in the country at any weight. Is there any pressure associated with that, especially given all of your previous success? Did it feel like there was a weight on your shoulders that had to be nudged off of you?

EC: That’s a big thing with me. I always feel like there is something, or I’ll make myself feel like there is something to nudge off of me. Particularly in Vegas, I felt like that was a big thing. I said that I felt like I needed to prove myself, I felt like I was taking a second seat to Sancho, and it came from when they pulled the rankings out. I don’t know who made those rankings or whatever, but he was ranked first and this was after I beat him at the Nationals. The seeding for the Trials is what you did at the Nationals and I beat him at Nationals, which means I’m the number one guy in the US, I took first at that weight. And he was ranked one and they ranked me two. That just showed a lack of respect to me or the confidence people had in him. So I’m thinking everyone is thinking that, not just the person who made the rankings, that he’s still the top guy and the one to beat.

I felt like I had to prove myself here. I’ve had to do it before and I have no problem with having to do it again. I had to prove myself and show them that I am still capable of doing the things that I was capable of doing before and that I am going to be able to take that top spot and be number one again.

5PM: In March you went to Thor Masters in Denmark. Over there, you were obviously on a roll and ticketed for a gold medal match perhaps. You looked alive out there. You were moving in ways I hadn’t seen from you in awhile to where it was like, “Oh wow, he’s back now, this could be a medalist in Paris if this is how it’s going to be.” Then you had the match with Venckaitis Lithuania, who you wrestled before, and he wrenched your shoulder after it was clear you were certainly going to win and definitely the better wrestler. Did that put a scare into you that it was another injury that could potentially put you on the sidelines?

Ellis Coleman: No, I’ve had a lot of injuries before and a lot of surgeries, so I know the extent of my injuries and how bad they are. Most of my injuries come from me already having an injury and being persistent because I’m a hard nosed bastard. I like to keep going and train through everything. I fight hard, I’ve got that gritty mentality. So I told myself, The biggest thing is to train smarter. Everybody knows you have to work hard. I can work hard, I’m the hardest worker in any room I step in. Coaches always tell me, Maybe the best thing for you is breaks. You only have an ‘on’ and an ‘off’ button, you don’t have an intermediate level. You’re either going 100% or you’re not going at all.

I told myself that the biggest thing for me to keep my career going is to be smart. So when he did that to my arm, I heard something pop and my arm and shoulder were hurting pretty bad, but it was something I still knew I could wrestle through. But I told myself, Nah, I’m not going to even push it or anything like that, I’ll just rest and rehab it when I get back and get ready for the Trials. Because that was the next big thing coming up.

I think that personally, I might have been able to go on and wrestle the rest of the tournament, but not at 100%, and my next match probably would have been my toughest match, it probably would have been the Denmark guy. Was it worth it to go out and do that? Because if it did get hurt worse I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. So, no — I told myself I was going to train smarter and go about my injuries and recovery smarter. I am kind of glad I took a step back after that.

5PM: That notwithstanding, it had to have felt like a good win anyway, no?

EC: That actually felt like a great win. I knew he was a good wrestler. He beat me before at the Curby Cup. He’s a top-ranked wrestler, he is a (World) bronze medalist. I was pretty dominant in that match, he got one passivity point, but I was pretty much bullying him the whole time. At that point, that whole tournament, that whole performance, I came back to the US rehabbing and stuff, and I told Coach Spenser (Mango), “Spenser, I’m getting a medal this year.” He said, “What?” I said, “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I get a medal this year.” He’s like, “I don’t want to bet you because I want you to get a medal this year.”

There was just something about that tournament, something about the way I felt, my confidence. I mean, I started off slow in my first match, but with my ability to move, I just felt alive. I hadn’t felt like that in a long time and that tournament just kind of brought me back to reality. I had been struggling a bunch, mental stuff, for a couple of years. That match solidified it for me. It made a complete turnaround for me. Not just that match, but the whole tournament. I was like, These are the top guys from overseas. I have been overseas a lot and I’ve done okay from my perspective. But here, I felt like I did really well. I feel like I was completely dominant in all of my matches. I was able to move, hit ducks, reach-arounds, and hit my techniques.

It’s so different wrestling overseas than in the US. In the US, the guys you wrestle you have to prepare for. You see these guys all of the time. Overseas, you don’t get a lot of chances to wrestle these guys so you can open up more. And I was able to just be me and be alive, listening to my music, dancing, and moving around. I got back to that old Ellis from the Junior Worlds, just dancing and getting ready. That made a complete turnaround for me for my wrestling. Once I felt like that, I was ready. I was ready for the next step and I’m pretty confident in what I am going to do.

5PM: It’s really interesting to hear you say that because if there was one slight criticism that maybe I’ve had it was, “Hey, does Ellis remember what he can do?” I think from the outside looking in, it’s just that you’re the type of person to where we’ve seen you do it before, so it becomes, “He remembers he can do practically whatever he wants to on a mat, right?” So what you’re saying here, correct me if I’m wrong, is that you recognized it, too?

EC: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I recognized the fact that I can go back to being me and I had a little bit more to add to it. It was there, it was always there. I knew how to wrestle like that but it was fading, it was gone. I don’t know if it was the fear of losing or what, but it was hidden. I hadn’t used it in a long time. It was more just me pushing people around and wrestling hard. But where was me being alive and being able to open, and just going out there without thinking and just hitting moves? It came back to me. I can’t even explain the performance that I had at that tournament. I put my headphones on and just paced back and forth every single match. After I won, I put the headphones on right away, put the music on, and just start bouncing, getting ready and thinking about the next match. It was a good feeling.

Ellis Coleman, 2017 Thor Masters Invitational

Coleman (blue) was constantly in on Edgaras Venckaitis (LTU) during their match at the 2017 Thor Masters Invitational. Coleman won the bout, but was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to an injury he sustained when Veckaitis wrenched his shoulder as time was running out. (Photo: PI-Photo-dk)

5PM: Coming out of the Nationals in December, you knew your schedule. You knew you had Armed Forces in February and then the next week you’d be overseas. When January 2017 hits, are you looking at everything coming up as preparation to make the Team in April?

Ellis Coleman: Yes. Always, if it’s before and it’s not far out. I told myself at the beginning of the year that 2017 is the start of a new year for me, it’s me turning it around. I won Nationals in December and then after that it’s 2017, a new year starts. From then on out, the first biggest competition was going to be the Trials, so I saw it as, Everything here is to prepare me for the World Team Trials and measure myself against all of the competition in the world. Step by step, match by match, I found myself in a groove and in a comfortable position. It was a nice little spot to be in to get ready for Trials.

5PM: How has fatherhood changed your perspective on your career?

EC: I have something to look forward to more. I look at my daughter playing and going about doing everything that she does. I see the things that she does that I did as a kid, and the things that I do now she tries to mimic. It’s pretty much everything. She wants to do everything that her daddy does and her mom gets mad sometimes (laughs). Just seeing that and seeing her smile and being so happy to see me every single time and knowing that this little person is going to love me as much as she possibly can. That she is going to love me and think the world of me no matter what.

She doesn’t know winning or losing or anything like that, but I know that every time I come back home, she is going to love me. We get so caught up as athletes caring about what everybody thinks. Caring about what coaches think, caring about what the fans think. Everyone. People may act like they don’t, but everyone cares about what the next person thinks of them. I can hide. That’s my place away from the world. Because I know no matter what, she is going to love me. She may not know better, but she’s going to love me. So whenever I have a bad day at practice, a bad match — whatever, I come back home and I have my wife to console me and my daughter is going to have the same personality like nothing’s ever happened and nothing has ever changed. Just being able to see that and feel that drives me and it makes me happy. There is no love like a father-daughter love, or for any kid. There’s no love like the one you have for and receive from your kid.

5PM: Does having a kid raise the stakes? Or does it liberate you, knowing you have that love at home for your child you feel like you could take on the world, that sort of thing?

EC: Definitely. It makes me feel more free. There’s no feeling like it, having the love I get from her and the love that I give her. Some people, they could take it one way or another. Because a lot of people take anything you tell them or anything they see, they can take a negative or a positive, and I’m an optimistic guy. A lot of people who I talk to, they would be like, Oh, I have a kid now, that’s trouble. Or they say, Wow, you have a kid now and you’re 25 years old, that would be the end of the world for me, I don’t know what I would do. People don’t know unless they are actually in that situation. I probably thought the same thing when I was 17 or 18, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

It helps so much with everything because I know whatever mistake I make in life, this person is not going to judge me, she is going to love me no matter what. Everybody wants to feel loved. Everybody in the world loves to feel loved. That’s the best feeling in the world that everyone longs for and when you have that, and you know it’s never going to leave and you’re giving it to someone you love so much, it takes everything away. It’s a big, big weight off your back that you won’t have to deal with.

5PM: What is it about your relationship with RaVaughn (Perkins) that is unique? You guys coming up were natural rivals and it’s wound up forging one of the better-known friendships in this sport in this country.

EC: Yes, it is. Ray-Ray’s my brother. I love him, I love him to death. I love him like a brother and I treat him like a brother. He’s family. He and his brother come to my house and my mom cooks for them. We do all of the regular things a natural family would do.

I’ve known Ray-Ray since I was a kid. I met him freshman year, that summer. We were going to a tournament, Northern Plains. I heard of him once at Schoolboy Duals, but I never knew him. He was like, the “big” wrestler but we never competed. And then we ended up wrestling each other at Northern Plains when we were kids and I beat him, but it was a super close match. I don’t think he had ever heard of me yet. We were arguing after the match. I was like, “I told you I was going to beat you. Get some,” just talking trash to each other. And from that point on, it was funny. He was just like me. He was super competitive and we were both great wrestlers. He was mad that I beat him and I was just talking trash and we made fun out of it.

We met again in Fargo and he was in my weight class. He lost to (Josh) Kindig and I made it to the finals and ended up beating Kindig. Then I saw him outside and he started talking trash and then started talking trash and I walked up to him saying, “I told you this was my weight,” just small talk (laughs). He was like, “Okay, then we can wrestle.” I had my plaque in my hand. He goes, “We could wrestle for that plaque right now.” So we started wrestling and he headlocked me in the grass and he’s like, “Yeah, I told you! That was mine, that should have been mine!” Then we got up and started walking around and we were cool.

I hadn’t seen him for a long time after that and then we ended up wrestling each other at the Trials to make the Junior World Team. He was out in Colorado and we were hanging out all the time. But we even talk about it and we know both sides of the spectrum. the public lifestyle and outside of where we’re from. He knows about the streets and also everything outside of the hood, everything we both know about, because we both have a lot of street knowledge about stuff like that. He was raised around it, grew up around it, and I had it in my life, too. The other side of that is us being able to travel and do things we’ve never done before, and us not coming from a lot of money. And at the same time, being African American, too, and being able to do all of this stuff while having a similar background and upbringing made our love grow for each other.

We’ve even fought before on one of the trips, Uzbekistan. We were wrestling around and just talking trash and when we got up we just started swinging at each other. Me personally, if I’m being completely honest, all of the best friends I have, I’ve fought before. All of my best friends, the guys who I deem to be my very, very, very best friends.

5PM: If you can’t fight with your best friends, who can you fight with?

EC: (Laughs) Exactly. Those are the people I’ve fought, they are my best friends. I can call them anytime, they are my friends for life. Ray-Ray and I, we have that relationship, that bond, and I think that is kind of what made it tough for us if you saw us wrestle at the Olympic Trials. It was a very low scoring match and neither one of us opened up. I remember talking to one of my coaches and he said, “You’re both not wrestling, you’re just leaving it to the refs or a last-second score.” Because when you go to battle with your brother, you’re going to be scared to hurt your brother. You’re not going to be the same. You’re not going to wrestle the same against your brother as you would against someone else. So the coach identified that to me and I was like, “Yeah, you’re kind of right.”

That is what kind of happened to us at the Trials. I didn’t want to beat him as much as he wanted to beat me, but I have to because I want to make this Olympic Team. That kind of changed the whole World Team Trials thing for me because from that point on, he knew he was bigger, I knew I was smaller. And we’ve never been on a team together. He knew he was going up in weight and that I was going to stay down. He said one of his coaches talked about how it would have been cool if both of us were on the Team and it’s like Yeah, but we didn’t get on the team together. We were going to get a medal, that is the biggest thing and it’s going to be so cool. That’s the biggest thing we both cherish. As much as we do this for our country and ourselves, it’d be nice to be on a team together and have both of us get a medal.

5PM: You would probably be where you are without him but it almost seems like that potentially might not be true. You two are looked at as a nucleus, like you’re both living the same lives together at this stage.

EC: That’s exactly how it is. We’ve living the same life together. It is kind of like we’re partners. Even though we don’t train together all of the time because we’re with different clubs, he helps me raise my level and I help him raise his level. And it’s not just on the mat. Just in general with the lifestyles that we live. Like I said, the mental aspect of every sport is the biggest part of it and the relationship that we have helps. He has two brothers and I grew up wrestling with my brother, and that helped me a lot, wrestling with my brother. Having someone I deemed close to me and who I love, having success is always better with somebody else than being successful by yourself. Winning as a team always feels better than winning alone.

I have that feeling with him. Every single match I had at Trials, he had to wrestle the next day and he was there with my wife. He warmed up with me before the tournament and he said, “What do you need?” I asked him the same thing and I was there at all of his matches. We told each other what this person does or what that person does, and we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We’re just there for each other.

5PM: It has been a few guys recently who we’ve talked to from Illinois and since I asked them, I have to ask you. What is about that developmental program that has been such a significant part of all of your success? Everyone brings up Bryan Medlin and Mike Powell, so let’s have at it. I’m guessing you realize what a fortunate occurrence it was for you to be able to come up under that kind of wrestling situation. 

Ellis Coleman: Oh yeah. Coach Powell is pretty much like a father to me. He helped me, I would say be the wrestler I am today, but he also helped me become the man I am today. He took care of my brother and I from eighth grade all the way on and still to this day. He and Coach Medlin message me to ask me about my matches, what might be wrong, how I’m preparing for a tournament, what my plans are, and they are behind me until I die. Coach Medlin, the same thing. Outside of Coach Powell, who I saw all of the time and lived with him, Coach Medlin was the offseason coach for me when Coach Powell wasn’t around. He was the same exact person Coach Powell was, just three hours away (laughs). We lived in Oak Park, close to the city, and Coach Medlin lived all the way out in nowhere with farms and stuff like that. But he was the same as Coach Powell, just far away. You know how you see another person who is just like you somewhere else? We travel so much and you’ll see a wrestler from a different country and you’ll be like, Man, that dude is just like me.

Coach Medlin is a replica of Coach Powell — same mentality, same love, same coaching aspect…everything the exact same. And I grew the same under Coach Medlin as I did Coach Powell and he was huge. He’s the best Greco coach ever. He is really big on my Greco-Roman wrestling and he helped put me in the position I am in now. He pushed me into wrestling Greco during college instead of folkstyle and all of that. They helped push me into becoming the wrestler I am now and every single other Illinois Greco-Roman wrestler.

It wasn’t just the fact that we were great wrestlers. The thing that was so unique about them, and I wish they were made National Team coaches, but the thing that made them so awesome was that they found a way to bring everyone together all of time. They made it fun. We would go to Greco tournaments cheering, acting like fools, and just having complete fun while we’re five’ing and tech’ing every single state. Illinois was there at the Junior and Cadet Duals, and we’re just tech’ing and crushing everybody, and we were all just having the best time of our lives.

And they were right there with us, as if they were high schoolers having the same fun we were having. That’s what made me love Greco. It’s what made everyone from Illinois want to do Greco, the passion and fun that they bring to it didn’t make it seem like it was a big competition or some big weight you had to carry around. You were just having fun doing what you love and that’s the most important part about wrestling in general. If someone can have that, what can stop you, who can beat you? Even if you do lose, you don’t lose your mind, you don’t lose your heart because you know you are doing what you love and you’re having fun doing it. That’s what they brought to the table and that’s what makes Illinois wrestling so unique, especially Greco-Roman.

5PM: Maybe that’s why sometimes you don’t see the same participation at the age-group from some places level during the spring and summer, because they aren’t having any fun. They’re seeing it like an another opportunity to lose.

EC: Right. That’s 100% accurate. I mean, consider the fact that when you’re young, Greco and freestyle are treated as the offseason. It isn’t treated like folkstyle. In folkstyle, it’s, Oh man, I want to win a state title, and all of these fans come to the folkstyle state tournament, not nearly as many come to freestyle and Greco state. Nobody is going to wrestle worse in Greco or freestyle because it’s not during the year, it’s not during the season. You’re still going to try to win. Every time you step on the mat, you’re always trying to win, it’s not like you’re going out there to lose.

You should be serious about wrestling, but it’s on a whole nother level of being serious and knowing how to do it and having the right mindset. They (Illinois coaches) were serious about Greco. They were adamant about getting the wrestlers better and they had camps all the time. But the thing that made it better for us, that catapulted it to a higher level than most other states was the passion and the way they made competition fun. It starts in the rooms. They found a way to make us compete with each other all of the time by playing games, going camping, hiking, doing all of this other stuff. And when you make competing against another man fun, who’s not going to want to do that, who’s not going to want to win? And they do a really good job at doing that.

Ellis Coleman, 2012 Olympics

Coleman (red) battling in the ties against Ivo Angelov (BUL) during the 2012 London Olympics. (Photo: John Sachs)

5PM: Coming off of your impressive Junior career and becoming a full-time Senior competitor during an Olympic year, did you have high expectations right away?

Ellis Coleman: Yeah, that was my second Junior World medal. I talk to people all of the time about the Junior World Championships and wrestling overseas when I was young. It was my first time doing that, going overseas, doing all of that stuff in 2011, and I found out that there were not that many Junior medals at all. Spenser was the last guy to do it in a reasonable time range. I knew I was close when he took fifth one of those years, so I knew too.

For me, I knew I had to make that cut because I had wrestled 66 (kilos) and I knew I was a small 66. Coach Momir (Petković) had told me to just go naturally to my weight class, so the next year I was like, I’m going to make that cut down to 60 kilos, which is where I initially started out at the Senior level before I started wrestling 66 at the Juniors, like, I’m just go back down and give it a try. I had just gotten my second medal, I wrestled (Joe) Betterman, who was top guy. The first time we wrestled before, it was a very close match. So I was like, I’m going to make that cut. If that’s the guy I have to beat, I’m going to do what I have to do to try and beat him and make the Team.

5PM: Was making 60 kilos in 2012 a terrible, terrible cut?

EC: 60 was a tough cut. It was probably the hardest cut I’ve ever done in my life. Actually though, my mental game was so strong then that everything that could have been working for me was working for me. There’s no question about it. Every single thing was working. I thought I was the best guy in the world. I was just at a very high level mentally and I think that helped me. Those two Junior World medals boosted my confidence very high and showed me what it took. It helped me bring my mental game up so high that even when I was losing weight — I mean, that was the hardest cut of my life — but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was able to push through it and make the weight. I did extra work outs. Honestly, I think that cut helped me. All of the extra work I had to put in to make that weight class made me a better  wrestler and shot my cardio up to make that Olympic Team. Everything went hand-in-hand. It couldn’t have played out any more perfectly, except for the fact that I didn’t get a medal. But aside from that, it couldn’t have played out better.

5PM: Everyone knows how life is going to change with the two-hour weigh-ins and all of that, but let’s go outside of the box a little bit. Maybe it’s really outside of the box. Would you like to live in world where you didn’t have strict weight classes to make, no weight to cut for? Or do you like having something to cut for?

EC: I like having something to cut for. I like the weight classes. Like I said before, I’m an optimistic person. It’s funny how every single time something changes I find a way to be like, Hey, this works for me, this is great for me! Par terre changes? I have one of the best gutwrenches in the country. Par terre is out, Oh, theses are great rules for me, I’m good on my feet. I find a way to adapt. They change to a two-hour weigh in, Oh, I’m a small 66, this is great for me! I’m so optimistic that it’s crazy. I am so optimistic that I feel like every situation plays out in my favor. I don’t know if that’s optimism or is it narcissism (laughs). Maybe it’s a little bit of both. I guess I love the fact that I am like that.

But I think weight classes are great. They hold people accountable and that adds more to it. For example, Sancho is a big guy. I think he is a pretty big 66. That’s a big cut for him, and I am able to bang and just go hard. If you’re cutting all of that weight, everybody who has ever wrestled before knows you are not the same person when you’re cutting. So I love the fact that it makes people accountable and you have to deal with all of that extra, those other parts of combat sports that you battle with outside of the actual competition. I love that and if you take it away, the sport isn’t the same. It adds so much more discipline and meaning to everything, and I love that part of it.

5PM: Everyone also knows what the new weights will be next year. Is 65 kilos still the plan? You’re an optimist, but that is another kilo to consider. Is that still right in your wheelhouse?

EC: Oh, 100%. All the way. I will be going 65. I eat whatever I want now and I walk around at 70 kilos. I finish practice at 69, 68 kilos if I’m eating good. But me having a solid diet and just being full-throttle about doing everything right, I probably walk around at like 68 kilos. I’m trying to get bigger, so I’ve been eating whatever I want. Still, if I do everything right, I won’t have to cut any weight to make 65, no problem. I plan on playing around with both weight classes. I’m going to wrestle 65, for sure. I’m going to wrestle 70 so I can try to get competition in with the other guys like Ray-Ray, Sancho, and the other guys to help me get better. But for main tournaments and competitions, I am definitely wrestling at 65.

5PM: You’re a WCAP guy now for a few years. As one of the highest-profile athletes in the country, I’m sure you had options as far your training environment and where or who’d you represent. What was it about Army/WCAP that was attractive to you?

EC: I would see them at the tournaments and they were always together, they were always a group, and it was so powerful, you know? They were led by (Dremiel) Byers. They stuck by each other and cheered each other on like a family. The coaches would also be really into it fighting for calls and getting kicked out of tournaments. It was just like, Man, I want to be a part of that. I would train at the OTC and for awhile Coach (Shon) Lewis would try to recruit me and I was like, Nah, I’m good.

I just kept training at the OTC and then two of my buddies, Spenser and Harry (Lester), that is when I finally gave in. They both called me up and were like, Hey, we’re doing the Army thing, why don’t you come with us? I was still like Nah…. But then I watched everything they were doing and how they were at the Worlds the next year and I said, “Okay, I got you, I’m in.” Those two were the biggest influences for me going to Northern Michigan. They both brought me under their wings and took care of me, looked out for me, along with Coach Willie Madison, who was just in my ear every single day and by my side. They helped me become the wrestler that I am, so once they joined, the deal was sealed.

5PM: To some in the sport who may train other places, the perception sometimes is that WCAP is like an off-limits society that keeps to itself. Have you encountered those kinds of whispers before?

Ellis Coleman: Yeah, I still feel like some people do not like WCAP that much. People think that we are separate, that we try to isolate ourselves, but it isn’t like that at all. If that is what’s portrayed, I’d be crazy not to tell you that it isn’t like that at all. But the first thing is one team, one fight. So, we’re a big family. You know how it is with soldiers. We always have to look after one another and take care of each other. That means if I know a teammate has to wrestle this dude, I am going to help him out and cheer him on.

Every single person has their entourage, their group, but this is our profession we’re talking about. This is our career, this is our lives, but when you’re a soldier, there is a whole different aspect of it. Soldiers fight for each other, soldiers die for each other, we fight for our country, and we’re a family. You go through the whole process at basic training where you learn that, it’s instilled in you, and we have to show that we are always together. You can’t break us apart and you can’t break our bond. If that means a teammate is enemies with another person, it doesn’t mean I’m enemies with that person, too, but I won’t be best friends with you either because this is my brother. We’re soldiers and we’re a family.

It’s kind of transitioning, to be honest with you. We’ve got a lot of younger guys coming in now and me being one of the leaders on the team coming up, I’m a super-social guy, I want to be friends with everybody, and I’ve always been that guy. I’ve always been the guy to dance at tournaments and get prepared in the open, and things like that. I still have my life and my beliefs about our program and my brothers, and I’ll still take care of them, but I’m friends with everybody. If you guys want to come and hang out, feel free. And the coaches know that. I have high energy, I guess, and I bring that out so that people can know that we’re cool, we’re nice people, we just have to carry a more professional persona because we’re soldiers first. It’s a little tough when you think about it that way because a lot of people only see us on the wrestling side. But we’re soldiers first. We have to carry that persona and lifestyle with us and people don’t see that because we’re at tournaments, we’re competing. It’s our job. But at the same time, people need to understand that we’re soldiers.

5PM: What are you looking forward to most about this upcoming training block leading to the World Championships?

EC: I think Coach Lindland does a really good job of getting the team together and team-bonding, and making sure we’re having fun while training hard at the same time. We have a bunch of guys who I’ve traveled with before, so I know it’s going to be a great time, whatever we do. I’m looking forward to training in Europe. That Hungary camp, I’ve been there a couple of times before training and last year, particularly, I was there and we had just a helluva camp over there. It was really tough. We wrestled live a lot. Live wrestling, to your room. Live wrestling, to your room. We go to our rooms, sleep, hang out with each other, but when we’re not doing those things, we’ll probably be wrestling hard the whole entire time. I remember going to that camp last year and I was struggling a little bit, that’s when I wrestled at the Grand Prix. It was kind of tough and I was trying my hardest to get through it and do what I had to do, and measure myself against everybody else.

But now, it’s like I’m coming from a whole different perspective, a whole different zone as far as my wrestling and my training. I just feel great about everything, especially training overseas and with foreigners. I just want to go back and wrestle, and see all of these other guys come in and measure myself again. I want that opportunity to show them where I’m at now compared to where I was last year. Like you said, I wrestled Lithuania and I beat him, so I’m clearly at a different level than I was in previous years.So I just want to go back there and dominate them, walk around with my chin up, and show them that the “Flying Squirrel” is back.

5PM: That is actually why I wanted to ask you that. Maybe I don’t want to go so far as to say you’re reborn, but you are certainly rejuvenated. It’s clicking at a great time for you it looks like.

EC: It is definitely matching up at a great time. I’m grateful. I’m very grateful and I am speechless about everything that is happening right now, but I always give glory to God first, and everybody around me — my training partners and my coaches at WCAP at everything. Without their help, I wouldn’t be the man that I am today.

Everything is lining up and fitting perfectly right now and I just want to continue to grind it out and keep the same perspective training for the World Championships. Try to stay healthy and do what I can to keep myself at 100% for all of the competitions, because we have a couple of them coming up. I know we’re going out to Tbilisi in Georgia and that’s a tough one. That is going to be the first stepping stone where I have to do what I have to do and make my adjustments before the World Championships. Because that’s a big tournament, it’s a tough tournament, and it’s great that we get to go there before the Worlds and measure ourselves, and it’s great that I am where I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually right now. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Ellis Coleman, 2017 US World Team Trials

Coleman (blue) defeated Alex Sancho (NYAC-OTS) two matches to one to win the 66 kg spot at the 2017 US Greco-Roman World Team Trials. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: How important is the team-bonding experience for an event like this to you? Is it vital?

Ellis Coleman: It’s pretty important because like I said before, I want to win together. There is just something about winning as a unit that is definitely better than winning alone. If I win a gold medal, it’d be great, it would be awesome. But if I win it with somebody else it’s like, We won it together, let’s party together. It’s a way better feeling. I think that the bonding brings everybody up. It brings everybody’s spirits up, it brings everybody’s energy up. Robby (Smith) feeds off of me, so if he sees me working hard, he sees me yelling and I’m doing the same thing for him, Ben (Provisor) and everybody else is going to see that and be like, Damn, we are one team, and if we are all going to have high energy like that, it is every aspect of wrestling that matters, every aspect of any sport that matters. Other countries see that and say, Wow, USA is a powerful team, look how much they help each other, and that is going to hinder their confidence.

Every little small thing that matters helps out. Robby cheering for me and everybody else cheering for me when they have friends who are in other weight classes, but they’re supporting me, that helps me, you know? And then it helps the next man, and then I’m helping him. It brings everybody up, me caring about him winning a medal and him caring about me winning a medal. Let’s do this together, let’s go. We’re fucking Team USA.

5PM: You sound very much like a leader. Has this always been you or did you grow into a more leadership role a your career progressed?

EC: It started in high school, Coach Powell instilled that in me. It taught me to work hard and through all that extra work I was doing I realized it because I was a great wrestler who hung out with all these JV wrestlers in high school. My brother and I were popular because we were great wrestlers. So I noticed how much of a domino effect it had on others that all these kids wanted to hang out with us because we were such great wrestlers. I was open to everybody. We didn’t care. Some people don’t hang out with athletes who aren’t as good as them, but we hung out with everybody. And these wrestlers started to get better. And then these wrestlers started to get better. Now, they’re helping other guys get better. By the time I was a senior in high school, our team won state. I was the captain of the team and that’s what started it. People feed off of hard work and performance and great athletes feed off of other great athletes. But I’m a great athlete who hangs out with anybody and everybody. Just knowing that, feeling that, and experiencing it has brought that upon me. Coach Lewis gave me a call and said, “Ellis, you’re a leader, you are one of the leaders on this team and I need you to step up.”

Actually, more alive this year than I had ever been, I started being vocal and getting back to my self again and yelling. I never, ever, ever did that at the OTC or at WCAP until this year. Yelling at people in the wrestling room, yelling at teammates, getting emotional, hitting the mat one day yelling and just telling everybody, “This is my fucking mat, this is my practice, and no one can beat me here! If anyone has a problem, step up.” Everything came out of me this year and I brought that everywhere, and it all just started going hand-in-hand. And I wasn’t doing it to be cocky or to be arrogant. I was just doing it at the time because everyone was coming at me hard, which I liked, I love. I want to get better and I want them to come hard. I was still battling, I was still doing what I had to do, and I wanted them to see that because I am huge on getting better together and us winning together.

I love that feeling. I felt that with my teammates in 2009 and there is no better feeling than that in wrestling. I’m a person who doesn’t like to be alone. I love the company of other people. I want somebody, I need somebody to do it with me. I can carry the torch. If you need me to, I can light the way. I can guide you, I can do everything I need to so if you need the answers, just follow me and do what I say and you can get to where I did. That’s the mentality that I carry with me. I am not going to close myself off to you. I’m always there, so if you don’t want to take it and you see me doing what I have to do and I’m succeeding, by all means, I’m going to keep coming to you until you push me away.

5PM: You might have had this leadership inside of you along with the experience, but athletes sometimes reach a phase in their careers where they realize that being vocal also raises their own games. Did you feel this building up inside of you gradually?

EC: Yes, it was all building up. Just coming from the success this year year at the tournament, our team and the new people who joined our team, the majority of my team being my buddies and getting back to my old self — all of this together, it was just all building up. Like you said, you become more vocal. You just want to scream, you want to shout, you want to let people know how you feel. The reason why I felt more vocal too, aside from that, is because I already hit my lowest lows before. I’ve hit rock bottom. I’ve been injured so many times that essentially, I’ve only wrestled like one whole quad. Of all of the years I’ve been at the Senior level, I’ve only wrestled one whole quad because I’ve spent more years off the mat than on due to injuries. It’s crazy when you think about it because most people probably look at me as a vet because I’ve been around so long and started so young. But I’ve been injured so much that I actually haven’t been able to train and compete consistently and I’ve had to rest.

Losing yourself at rock bottom and finding yourself again, you just want to let people know. And I want to bring people with me. I want to let everybody know it’s me, Ellis, I’m the same guy. I’m back. Thoughts become words, words become actions, and I was letting everybody know what I was thinking, what I was feeling, and that I’m still here. I had to prove myself and it started in the wrestling room.

5PM: When somebody brings up your name, whether it’s ten years from now or 100, what is the first thing you want them to say?

Ellis Coleman: That man was a very hard wrestler but he was also a great dude who I’ve always had the most fun around and he always made my wrestling career easier. Because for me, results are huge, results are big, especially when you’re chasing a dream. And you compare yourself and you see people do things you haven’t done yet. That is a big thing people do, they like to compare themselves to others. But the big thing Coach Powell told me and that I always carry with me is that it’s about the journey. That’s all it has ever been about and that is all it will ever be about. You can’t really have hindsight on anything until you’re done.

Right now in my career, I am just pushing towards my goals, but I have to keep in mind to be grateful about all of the things I get to do and the people I get to spend time with. Every single little aspect about me competing as an athlete, all of these things I need to do. I get to travel to other countries I never would have imagined in my life. I never thought I would travel to another state coming from where I started. Meeting all of these people, learning different languages, having a daughter, and just having the most fun possible, it’s every single thing about my life and wrestling, and everything that goes with it. This is just the process, the journey, and you should cherish it. Those are the moments you should love. Those moments are the actual gold medal.

We chase our dreams and you get caught up in it looking for treasure and materialistic things. You win a gold medal and it changes your mind, your whole perspective on everything, I won a gold medal. And everybody gets to see that. But it’s not about the gold medal, it’s about the process you endured, the journey you took to win that gold medal. That’s a big thing for me about the sport and that is something I love about the sport. I was taught that and I’m always going to preach it to whomever I am around and try to instill that in them. And have fun with it.

Follow Ellis Coleman on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule. 

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