Change becomes a lot easier to accept when it is a choice. Or amid rigid circumstances, embraced. Sammy Jones (63 kg, Sunkist/Colorado Top Team) sees it both ways, mostly because he has experienced it both ways. He is…adaptable.
Jones, 29, dismisses worry and instead replaces it with faith whenever the tides become turbulent. He has learned that, so long as God remains at the center of his life, baseline needs will be met and then some. Jones’ first “man-level” lesson in this regard occurred following high school graduation. It was the summer, he had a home-schooled upbringing, and thus required a season of discovery. He was cared for by a few Christian collegian roommates in not-so-luxurious environment. They all lived together in a single-wide trailer, and their degree of support and compassion towards him not only brought about a rekindling of faith, the experience also reminded Jones of his love for wrestling. He eventually enrolled at Northern Michigan’s then-Olympic Training Site, and soon after getting settled earned bronze at the University World Championships.
So, Jones knows Who to trust, and it is not the voices of convention.
What we do now is skim forward a little bit.
In the heat of pandemia and lockdown craziness, which is to say just under three years ago, Jones and wife Natalie left NMU and ventured out to Utah. By then, “Wildman Sam” was a three-time National runner-up, clearly one of the country’s top competitors, and things overall appeared to be going just fine. He did not know that an alteration in scenery was a necessity, either for his career or for his wife, until he conducted a mini investigation and took the step. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Natalie was more than five months pregnant with their first child; plus, the couple legitimately enjoyed Marquette and its tight-knit community. But Natalie encouraged the move, and off they went to Utah Valley, where Jones would link up with Taylor LaMont (60 kg, Sunkist) and Dylan Gregerson (63 kg).
Not long into their stay, Natalie gave birth to River Lee Jones. The new dad was all sorts of over-the-moon, naturally, and put forth a very strong showing at the Olympic Trials two months hence, though the result fell short of his expectations. A stumbling block, sure; except, just weeks later, Jones emerged with his first Senior National title. Five months after that, he made his first Senior World Team.
Utah was nice. The people, the training, the landscape. But it was just a place, ultimately, and, in a relatively short turnaround, the Jones family opted for a return to Michigan, albeit not NMU. Rather, Jones pieced together his training alongside other athletes, including fellow ’21 World Team member Peyton Omania (67 kg, NYAC/West Coast Greco RTC), who was down in East Lansing. Again, solid were the circumstances, but…just a place.
Just a place… Just a place… Just a place…
Jones couldn’t quite put his finger on it for a minute. In ’22, he had won a second-straight Open crown but was defeated by Jesse Thielke (Army/WCAP) at Final X (i.e., World Team Trials best-of-three final). There were no hardcore reasons for him to hang his dreadlocked head; but there was a sense of uneasiness. Something, something, was missing. Call it “consistency” with regards to training, call it “reliability”, call it walking a fine line between appreciation and dissatisfaction. Jones himself wasn’t totally sure, not really. At least not until World Team camp ’22.
A confluence of events. During training camp, Jones realized two critical items: 1) as an athlete staring down the potential homestretch of his career, he needed an actual home as well as personnel who would be equally devoted to his objectives; 2) he found unsettling the inability to take full ownership of said career and being subjected to the whims of those from outside of his inner circle. It just so happened that Joe Warren had been a presence in Colorado Springs throughout parts of World Team camp, and Jones — who had become familiar with Warren previously — took the opportunity to work with the ’06 World Champion whenever scheduling space availed the possibility.
The rest isn’t history. No, it is indeed only starting. Warren was in the midst of helping Leister Bowling lay the groundwork for what is now the Colorado Top Team School of Wrestling. The duo offered more than just training. They brought to the table stability as well as a customized setting in which Jones could function as a professional. They told Jones that the focus will be on him, which he feels is paramount considering the scope of his aspirations. Warren — for whom the word “intensity” is an understatement — delivers both the mental edge and technical nuance Jones desires, whereas Bowling serves as the coordinator who minds the details and imparts cohesion. Just as importantly, Natalie and River, they, too, have assimilated well in Firestone, what with the abundance of acreage and accessibility to the CTT gym.
You can look at it from a distance and claim that Jones with the Colorado Top Team is the result of a choice he made. Or, you may see it as an existential riddle. After all, we think more than we know, and rare are the times when we are correct. Jones was not seeking a change for change’s sake. He never has. He was, however, presented with an option that aligned with how he views the optimization of his career. In that sense, he might not have even had a choice, lest he risk succumbing to the scattered winds of a National program that lately can’t seem to get out of its own way.
It is why when you examine the situation closely, the concept of change is not what drives any of Jones’ decisions. This entire time, it has been about the object of his faith, the needs of his family, and what is best for his career. To him, as you will see below, it is comes as a packaged deal. The only change involved in any of that has transpired on the exterior. Inside, Jones’ goals have remained the same, and he has been brave enough to pursue them accordingly.
5PM Interview with Sammy Jones (63 kg, Sunkist/Colorado Top Team
5PM: You have gone through a lot of change over the past few years. You went from NMU to Utah Valley, then from Utah Valley to Michigan, and now you are in Colorado. Within this time frame you also became a father. It’s different being both a husband and father as an athlete in this generation because there are not a whole lot who are in that station in life. With your family growing, and with you having broken through in your career with two World Championship appearances, how have you been able to compartmentalize this degree of change and growth in a short period of time and still compete at a super high level?
Sammy Jones: Compartmentalizing my life is something that doesn’t happen, it’s all one thing (laughs). My relationship with my wife and my son I think has made me a better athlete because it has made me very intentional with everything that I do. My time is limited, my energy is limited, and my mental capacity is limited, so I have to be very intentional with what I do. The relationship I have with my wife and my son is extremely important to me, so I prioritize that. That being said, wrestling is my career. I have very high goals and aspirations for myself. I’m very disciplined in my training. It takes up a lot of time. Really, since being married and having a child, I’ve had to learn how to say ‘no’ to a lot of things. It has made me a better athlete, and a better husband and father — in my opinion. Now, you’d have to go and ask my wife and son, or you would have to look at my training and the way that I wrestle, and then you tell me if it has made me better.
But I don’t really separate them. I don’t compartmentalize them. I think it’s all together. I wake up, do my family stuff, go train, come back, spend time with my family, do some work, go back and train, and return home at night for more family stuff. My life is very simple but that has been a benefit. It has kept me very focused.
5PM: Has any of this growth brought on stress or the realization of the stakes being raised? Because as a father, it’s like every decision you make requires thinking about how it is going to affect your family as a whole.
SJ: Yeah, the stakes are definitely raised. Every time that I leave the country or go to a training camp, I’m saying goodbye to the people who I love the most. That has definitely served as a motivator. I’ve used it as a positive motivator to get the most out of every trip and training opportunity. I’m making sure that I am grabbing the best partners, I’m asking questions… I’m trying to be a professional. I love being with my family and when I have to go away from them it’s very hard, so I’m not going to waste that time. I’m not going to take it easy in practice, I’m not going to mentally tune-out. I am going to be present and make sure that I am getting as much out of this training as I can. That’s a positive thing, for sure.
5PM: How did you first learn about Colorado Top Team, which I’m guessing came over the summer. How did you take this information?
SJ: Truthfully, it all started with Joe Warren. I had reached out to him just because I wanted to wrestle and learn some technique. When we had this World Team camp for the World Championships that were held in Serbia, we did not do a lot of wrestling, and that was a concern to me. So I reached out to Joe and he came in on an off-day to wrestle with me. Then he told me about this Top Team place for whom he had been coaching. At that time, I think it was relatively new. He had a core group of guys he was working with and he was starting to work with the kids club. He just invited me up to check the facility out and to meet Leister (Bowling). At the very first practice wrestling with Joe, Leister sat there the entire time recording. After our training, Leister was like, Okay, you hit so many attacks from the right side, you favored this, you’re weak here, you only went to the left side a handful of times… He basically called out the whole practice. Joe and I had play-wrestled for 20 minutes. My first impression was like, Well, that’s really helpful. Someone just watched me wrestle and told me where my weak spots are, where my tendencies are, where I’m good, and the number of attacks I pulled off. I appreciated that, so I started driving up there with Joe twice a week during World Team camp. All we did was play-wrestle and work very specific positional techniques.
During that time, there really wasn’t this idea of a Colorado Top Team RTC (regional training center) in my head — or at least no one had brought that up. But as I began to work with Joe and grew more comfortable with Leister, it was like, I want to be around y’all. I really like training with Joe, I really like Leister… I get a lot of my technique and match mindset from Joe, and Leister helps me tease it out and make sense of it all. He also checks in mentally, such as, Hey, how are you doing? How’s your family? He makes sure you’re all good. That relationship has been built gradually. That whole time we were working together in the beginning, we were all on the same page. It was sort of like, Okay, let’s see how this goes, let’s see if this is a good fit.
After Worlds, I immediately came out to Top Team to train with Joe. I think I took maybe a week (after Belgrade) and then came out here for another two weeks to train with Joe and Leister. During those trips, I just decided that I need a home and need a one-on-one coach. Really, my experience at the World Championships in Serbia impacted my decision to move here. I needed to have some structure. I needed to have a customized plan that was tailored to me. Joe and Leister basically said, We can give you that. We want to invest in you, we want to build a program around you. Joe is new to coaching at a high level and he was like, I want to have a champion. There are stakes in this for him, too. If I succeed and he’s my coach, then that bodes well for him. If I can be at a young club where there are high schoolers and kids coming in, then the impact I can have on that wrestling community is pretty big and it’s special.
It kind of grew organically, I would say. It has just been positive. We are just like, Okay, let’s keep growing it and growing it. Now we are at a point where Otto Black is a full-time resident, I’m a full-time resident, and there are guys who come in every single day to train with us. And we are actively looking for more residents around my weight. A bigger guy would be great. We are actively looking for someone to be here full-time. The more partners, the better.
5PM: Joe is a World Champion and well-known for his intensity and the aggression he brought as a competitor. Just as much as his wrestling ability, he was recognized for his attitude, his mindset. You are an offensive-minded, aggressive wrestler yourself, but more docile than him off the mat.
SJ: Yeah, I turn it off (laughs).
5PM: What have you gleaned from him the most when it comes to mindset and match approach thus far?
SJ: I think anytime that you can be around someone who has accomplished the goals you’re striving towards, it’s going to be a benefit. With Joe being our last World champ that the United States has had and that he won it at 60 kilograms — which is the Olympic weight in which I will be competing — I want to be around that person. I want to be around that mentality and see what that’s like. And, Joe is intense. He is very passionate about what he has to teach. The thing that he has pulled out in me is how during a match to slow your mind down so that you can think. Joe is very technical. Sometimes, guys might have a hard time communicating with him because his mind is constantly going, but we have really found our stride and in our ability to communicate with one another. It just clicks. I like his energy, I like being around him.
What he has brought out in me is my intentionality in a match. Where I’m going specifically. This is the position I’m going to, this is how we respond if we get taken down first, this is how we respond if we go out of bounds… I think that Joe is the best corner coach I have ever been around. Even if I could just have Joe for the :30 between periods, it would all still be worth it. His ability to talk to me in that time, I don’t know…
5PM: He can reach you.
SJ: Yeah, he can reach me. I think that’s the biggest thing. We get each other. Not everyone is going to have that in a coach but you need that one-on-one. That has been encouraging. I haven’t had a personal coach in a long time. Not since I was in high school. I think you have to have that. To be the best, I think you have to have a team that is trying to make you the best in an individual sport.
5PM: We have a fractured model here.
Sammy Jones: Our model is that we want to have our entire Team together, and I agree. But that’s not reality right now. I would love that. But at this point in my career, I can’t jump on the bandwagon and be like, Alright, I’m going to do what anyone tells me. We saw how that played out after this last World Championships and the athletes were blamed for the outcome, even though we did everything we were told to do. That was really eye-opening for me. I will take complete ownership for the decisions that I made. I totally followed suit, and I totally did everything that I was told to do. And after that experience, I learned that this is my career, and I have to take complete ownership of it. So if that is going against the grain a little bit, or if it comes off a little selfish? Well, I have to do that. The window of opportunity for me is coming to a close. I’m not guaranteed any extra time to be able to compete. No one is. I have to eat what I kill to provide for my family, so the stakes are high. I can’t assume that anyone is going to give me the tools I need to win, so I have to go out and find the people to surround myself with who I believe are going to help me win.
For me, that is being around Joe and Leister. I do really value the (Olympic) Training Center and the coaching changes that are happening. I think that there are really positive changes in USA Wrestling. I’m here for it — but at the same time, that change is going to happen slowly and it might not come to fruition while I’m still competing. I don’t know how long it is going to take for everyone to live at the Training Center and train there 12 months out of the year. That is how the rest of the world does it and it is why the rest of the world is better than we are. So I think it is the right direction to move towards, I am just not sure if I’ll still be around to see it happen. That is why I have to pick and choose, and grab the resources that I need while I can. A big part of my decision-making process is the quality of life for my family. We live on 80 acres of land. There are ponds, it’s beautiful, my wife and son could go on walks, and they can also work out at our training facility. My son gets to be around me all the time while I’m wrestling, and my wife gets to work out, too. We’re comfortable. That is a big part of my decision, as well.
5PM: The way you put it, how you have to “take complete ownership” of your career, is interesting because that has been the main criticism coming from the previous generation of athletes who are Warren’s age and older. That is what they say, that not enough athletes of today’s generation take command of their own careers and, because of that, there is a lack of accountability.
SJ: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I blame other people because I’m the one who still has to live with not accomplishing my goals at this point.
5PM: And wouldn’t you rather blame yourself anyway?
SJ: Yeah, and that’s just being an adult. You have to take control of that which is controllable. Blaming other people might make you feel good in the moment, but it changes nothing. That’s just not who I am. I’m not going to blame anyone else. That’s why I love wrestling, because it’s all on me. If I win, it is because I was superior. If I lose, it is because I got beat. You could say, I got caught, the ref was bad…whatever. But at the end of the day, I look at it as, If I won, I deserved to win; if I lost, I deserved to lose. That allows me to sleep well at night. If I point fingers at a coach, another athlete, or my training partner, it might feel good in the moment because I’m blaming someone else — but it’s my career. You know? No one else feels bad for me because I didn’t accomplish what I set out to. They especially wouldn’t if I’m blaming other people. Taking ownership of my results is definitely something I’m about.
5PM: Croatia, you had been there before this most recent trip and you just came back from there recently. Croatia has really managed to elevate Porec into becoming a big-time destination for training camps in that general region of Europe. Everyone has loved Hungary, but camps in Porec have grown in popularity. How did you enjoy your time out there last month?
SJ: The Croatia training camp was the best camp I’ve been to internationally. That would be due to the partners, the structure of the camp, and also because I’m at a point in my career when I’m not just trying to survive. I know how to wrestle, and I can put my opponents in danger. It didn’t really put me in the meat grinder. I’ve been to Hungary’s camp and it’s live all day, every day. When you’re younger, that sounds so hard and your whole idea is, I’m just going to try and survive. In Croatia, we did a lot of live. Every practice was live, but I’m going to give a lot of credit to Joe for helping me become intentional with every movement. Not wasting attacks, not wasting energy, but instead being very intentional with your ties and how you’re moving your opponent. So, I felt comfortable. I was wrestling a lot of high-level athletes and scoring points on everyone.
I felt like my par terre game just went through the roof. You have to score points on top and not get turned (laughs). But you have to do that correctly. If you don’t, you’re going to break your ribs. I feel like I’ve had really good par terre defense but Coach (Ismael) Borrero worked with me at the Training Center right before this camp and we worked specifically on low guts for the whole practice. I felt like that really benefited me going into this tournament and this camp. I didn’t really get turned a lot. That was encouraging. That’s why I think it was the best camp, because I got better at wrestling. I didn’t just go out there, get a high heart rate, and try to survive. There was intention with every practice.
5PM: I’ve asked this sometimes, and you have certainly traveled enough both for competitive and training purposes: how do you bring the effects, the skills, the encouragement from camp back into the room with you after returning home?
SJ: I took note of the areas I was having success in, the positions I was scoring in. And I took note of the positions in which I was giving up scores. That is what I’ve worked on. I’m trying to make the areas where I’m strong unstoppable, and strengthen the areas where I’m susceptible. But again, you’ve got to be intentional. You can’t go and have a great experience at camp, learn some great technique, and then go back into your room and do what you always did. You’re not going to have any improvement. I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of losing (laughs). So I have to be very disciplined to not let myself go back into bad habits. I’ve wrestled in bad positions against other US guys because we wrestle differently and I can get away with it here. If you go overseas and do that, you get picked apart. If you are in poor position, you will be taken advantage of. In the US, because we haven’t had the same time in Greco, guys won’t take advantage of you being in bad position as often as a foreign wrestler would.
When I go back into the room and I feel myself in a bad position without being attacked, then I remind myself, Okay, I’ve got to get my hips in, I’ve got to keep my head up… Whatever it is, I just know the areas where I was getting beat when I was overseas and that is something I’m going to be very disciplined about so as to not allow myself to backslide.
5PM: Despite that this is not discussed frequently in the US, for whatever reason, we are in fact approaching a World Championships with qualifying available for the Paris Olympics. Is 60 kilograms in your plans for this year or are you sort of in-between with what you’re going to do through the remainder of ’23?
SJ: I know what I’m going to do (laughs). I know what I’m going to do.
5PM: You’ve been a full-time athlete for about a decade, and a highly-established one at that for most of your career here. We’ve just undergone a couple of sweeps of leadership changes within this program, and you have long witnessed up-close how things operate. So I ask, what is it about United States Greco-Roman that, as presently constituted, you feel needs to change the most?
SJ: We need to have higher goals as a country. What I mean by that is, stop telling people it is a big deal to win a state championship. Stop telling kids in your youth programs that an All-American trophy is something to be celebrated. That’s cool. Good job. But if you set your goals to be an Olympic or World Champion that is — in my opinion and I’m biased here — way cooler than an NCAA title, which is an awesome accomplishment, as well. But if you set your sights on becoming an Olympic freestyle wrestler, the odds are that you’re probably going to wrestle in college. You’re probably going to win state when you are young. You are probably going to hit those smaller goals along the way.
If I’m telling all of my youth wrestlers that being an Olympic Champion is the goal — and you get your kids to buy into that and they become excited about freestyle and Greco, and they actually train and compete in those styles — you’re going to be teaching them not to shortchange themselves. They are going to be setting really high goals; and if they don’t achieve those goals, then it’s like the old saying, “shoot for the moon and you’ll land in the stars”. Right? If I’m aiming to be the best in the world, I’m going to hit those smaller goals along the way. If your goal is to be an NCAA champion, then guess what? You’re going to have to wrestle Division I. You’re also going to have to start, and you also have to have a winning record. So, having that as your goal as opposed to ‘I just want to wrestle D1′, then what happens when you make the team? Also, if that is the ceiling you’re putting on yourself, you are going to have so much pressure going into your wrestle-off to where I don’t know you’re going to win that. But if you go into it saying, ‘I’m going to be a four-time National champ’, when you go into your wrestle-off you will have a lot more confidence because you’ve conditioned your mind into expecting more out of yourself.
Greco in the US right now is kind of viewed as, Oh, I guess I’ll do Greco. Or, I’ll fall back into Greco. It’s not this way for all of us. For me, I loved it. I was young, I had a very unique career, and I loved the style. It fit into my personal wrestling style and mentality, and so I chose to wrestle Greco over folkstyle and freestyle. But for a lot guys, they just kind of fall into it and are like, I think I might have some success there. And we have had some great wrestlers do that, but if we have more youth wrestlers going to Greco, it will create more and more competition. It is going to increase the skill level across the board. If we have more people competing, the cream is going to rise to the top. It’s the same for me. When I go into a Senior-level tournament and have two matches? Man, that’s not great. I should have to win six or seven matches to earn a National title. But then I go to Nationals and I have to win three matches? I mean, I can’t make people sign up and wrestle me, I can’t make people train, but it would be a benefit to me. It would be a benefit for our sport. It made me better wrestling the Mango brothers (Spenser and Ryan). They were better than me, and so they beat me, and that made me get better at the sport. Now I’m in a position to where I’m looking for training partners, I’m looking for guys to push me, I’m going up and wrestling heavier weights against guys who can beat me. Why? Because that’s the only way you can win, by competing against guys who are better than you. You’ll either become forced to quit or you will find a way to not get beat anymore.
This is how I see Greco becoming as successful as men and women’s freestyle. I would love to see our country win all three styles. That is what we love as Americans, being the best. I think if we start winning, people are going to want to sign their kids up for Greco. If we bring back medals, that’s fun, that’s exciting. Kids will be like, Oh, that’s fun, let’s do that. Let’s try to throw people. We have to get people interested in it. It’s a long game, and it starts at the developmental ages.
5PM: In my own mind, I’ve pegged you as hitting the prime of your career, which I would suppose fits well currently timing-wise. But the way you see the sport, your perspectives, I think a lot of people admire you for that and relate to the way you put things. I also think a lot of people wish they saw the sport the way you do because you’re someone who knows how to fall in love with wrestling all over again. It gets renewed inside of you. What kind of advice would you have for kids when it comes to navigating what this journey takes and how to make the most of it?
Sammy Jones: Obviously, my faith impacts everything that I do. For me, I see wrestling as something that I’m passionate about, something that I’m good at, something that I enjoy. It’s my thing, right? Not everyone has the luxury of finding that when they are eight-years-old. I didn’t always look at this way; but as a man, and as I’ve matured as a believer, I believe that anything we do — it doesn’t matter what it is — can be an act of worship. It can be an act of experiencing God, it can be an act of experiencing His love for you. For me, that’s wrestling. So, the way that I go about training, the way that I commit myself to competing, to preparing for competition, it is all wrapped up in a relationship. It is saying, This is me giving the best that I have.
It is simply that. It’s an act of worship, so I want to give the very best that I have. If I go out there, then I am going to commit myself to giving my very best. And if you can do that, whether you are a believer and have a relationship with God or not, it will spare you from experiencing regret. That, I would say, is something that I am very intentional about not experiencing when I conclude my career. When I step away from wrestling, in my mind and with the way I conduct myself now, I will be able to do so and say, You know what? This was my career. Look what I created. It was sincere, it was beautiful, and now let me move on with my life. I never want to look back and say, Oh man, this one match where this ref hosed me, I made a bad decision and now it’s haunting me for the rest of my life. The decisions that I make, whether they are good or bad, I try to be very purposeful when I make them so that I don’t have any regrets. That way I can say, It was my decision. I did this. I take ownership of my actions.
I try to give everything I have with what I’m doing. I try to be present and in the moment. I try to be all-in with everything that I do. If I say that I’m going to commit to something, then I’m going commit to it. And if the result isn’t what I wanted, well then at least I’m not going to be up all night thinking about it. Because, I did everything that I could. I can walk away with a smile on my face. Now, my career is not over (laughs). I still push myself and I still get frustrated by losses. I am still very unhappy with my accomplishments. But that is the one thing I would say to an athlete who is just starting to crack open his career, to live in such a way that you have no regrets.
The second thing: don’t doubt yourself. Never doubt yourself. If you set your mind on something, don’t waste time second-guessing yourself by asking, Is it going to pan out for me? Will I have success? You cannot judge something while it is still in the process of being made. Judge it once it’s done. Look at it after it is completed and then judge it. I’ve seen it in my own career and with other athletes where you are constantly analyzing how things are going, how you are feeling right now. It’s like, Dude, you’re in the middle of it! You have to go through it. Don’t let that doubt creep in. You have to be consistent in whatever your process is. Sometimes, you might have a day that is difficult, or maybe there will be weeks that are difficult. That’s okay. You just say, Alright, this is normal. It is part of the process. I’m not going to doubt this.
One thing that I’ve reflected on at this point in my career, and something that I recognize now as a mistake, was how when I was younger my thought would be, I’m new to the Senior level. My time will come, I’ll be ready to win when I’m older. This is something that I wish I handled differently. No — win now. Don’t shortchange yourself, don’t say that it will happen in the future. You can do it now. Train with a mindset that says ‘I can win right now’. Years and years of training that way, thinking that way and living your life that way? Man, it might take you ten years to get there, but once you get ten years down in the road it will be so ingrained in your mind that it will happen. That is something I would say to younger athletes who are just stepping on the stage, to have that mindset right away, right now. Whether or not it happens doesn’t matter, but you’re training yourself to think that way.
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