SEND ‘TURBO’: Ty Cunningham Willing to Discover What He’s Made Of

ty cunningham, u23 world championships
Tyler Cunningham -- Photo: Tony Rotundo

On Tuesday, October 18, Ty Cunningham (82 kg, MWC) will make his first-ever appearance in a World-level event. He won’t be alone in that regard. The 2022 United States U23 World Team consists of several athletes who are preparing to introduce themselves to global competition. How much, or how little, newness matters on the cusp of big events is conjecture. Most of us who spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with this sport (and the US program) enjoy trumpeting prior experience as if it were some secret weapon. Tis the trap of conventional thought, along the lines of ‘Since so-and-so has been there before, he will not be intimidated by the stage and therefore have a better chance to potentially compete well.’ While that is probably true, or should be, it is also accurate to suggest that experience against top international opponents is not a prerequisite for success.

Neither is slick technique, or pretty lifts and rib-snapping gutwrenches. Having a foundational understanding of tactics preferred by Europeans helps, but again, not totally necessary. Not even adequate par terre defense, the one phase of this discipline most mouth-breathers insist is the downfall for the American program, matters as much as the masses are led to believe.

not all roads lead to gold, jim gruenwald

Instead, the one commonality all medal-winning US reps share — and have for decades — is altogether so baseline simple that it boggles the mind how often it is overlooked: willingness. That’s it. Nothing more. The rest are details, and can only be added subsequent to willingness.

The willingness to do whatever it takes to sufficiently equip one’s self with the skills necessary to achieve an objective. Now, you can dress that phrase up any way you’d like and bejewel the verbiage to make it sound more sensational or motivating, so long as it drills down to that one singular concept. And if Cunningham has proven anything in his first year of full-time, this-is-really-it Greco-Roman competition, it is that he has been willing to find out what he is made of and what he needs to do as his career progresses.

Dubbed “Turbo” as a child due, purportedly, to behaving hyperactive as all get-out, Cunningham certainly did not waste any time in declaring his presence on the Senior circuit this past spring. In his opening event, the Bill Farrell Memorial, he placed third. Next came a solid performance at the US Open, and after that an opportunity to compete in the Pan-American Championships. Cunningham earned bronze in that showcase, and before long closed out his initial Senior season at the World Team Trials. The American domestic campaign in ’22 centered entirely around Team selection for Belgrade, which meant that every tournament was a pressure-cooker. That Cunningham emerged from the scene having made such an enormous impression is a clear indication of how zealously he approaches competition.

He did not stop there, as everyone knows. His last stop was the U23 World Team Trials in June, where he bombed the challenge bracket and defeated Jake Hendricks (Pennsylvania RTC) two matches to one to clinch the spot. Ever since it has been training. And training, and training, and more training. Cunningham hasn’t let up, other than for whatever the periodization concerns have been on the part of his coach, Zac Dominguez. Now he is days away, as it were, from yet one more opportunity this calendar year to demonstrate why this whole journey kicked off in the first place. It’s not about medals yet, not really. Such a thing is plausible in Spain, but not the sole reason Cunningham is engaged. Rather, it is because he is willing, and make no mistake, that is how every great story begins.

5PM Interview with Ty Cunningham

5PM: Your first full-time season coincided with competing in a weight class that was very healthy this year in the US with Ben Provisor, Spencer Woods, and the rest of them. By the end of it, if not before, you positioned yourself as a legitimate World Team kind of threat. Did you realize at the time how competitively effective you were?

Ty Cunningham: Kind of. In a way. Like you said, it was my first time on the Senior scene with the guys who have been doing it for… I don’t know, let’s throw them a minimum of four years even though it is probably more.  But yeah, being able to compete in my first year of full-time Greco has really been eye-opening for how much I’ve missed by going to college at UN-K (University of Nebraska-Kearney). Don’t get me wrong, I loved it there. But sometimes I do wish that I started wrestling Greco full-time sooner. I’m just happy being able to compete and seeing where I fit into this 82 kilogram weight class.

5PM: Do you fight with those kinds of feelings, how if you had started sooner it might have made a difference in where you wound up this season? Or is it more a matter of that you didn’t expect to enjoy full-time competition as much as you did?

Cunningham: A little bit of both. I would definitely have to say a little bit of both because I loved my time at UN-K. I’ve come to love Greco full-time a lot more, I’d say. I’ve always had a passion for Greco. Coming back to it from wrestling in high school and getting a few tournaments while I was in college compared to now wrestling Greco full-time, being able to wrestle Greco day-in and day-out, I love it. But then also on the flipside, as you were saying, it putting me a little bit further ahead? Yes, I absolutely do wish that I started a little sooner full-time. Maybe I could be #1, #2, or #3. Coming up just short in my first year, I’m not very disappointed in that, but I also know that those guys are beatable.

5PM: Was there ever a point during this past season when you felt like folkstyle maybe wasn’t so harmful to your development?

Cunningham: Yeah, I’m not saying that folkstyle harmed me in any way at all. More so just that being able to train the specific techniques continuously compared to folkstyle where you are grabbing legs and on bottom you actually have to get up — which I honestly think is the worst part of folkstyle, unlike Greco where you get to lay there. But no, I don’t think it hurt me too much at all.

5PM: It seems like we used to be a little better at translating folkstyle into Greco than we are now. Where and how did your folkstyle tactics help you this year? When I ask this question to others, I always come back to how well college wrestlers know how to grind and persevere.

Cunningham:  Yes, and that is what I was about to say, where my folkstyle and Greco style started to mesh is when I got to college. In college, they like to grind. As a young student athlete going into practices, it was the older guys’ jobs to beat up on the younger guys a little bit, just because that transition from high school to college is so different. Those older guys beating up the younger guys will either push them away or push them to improve. I equate my situation with Matt Malcolm, who was my partner at UN-K. When I was a freshman, he was always picking me to wrestle and I had no idea why because he always beat the crap out of me for the first three quarters of the season. But once we got towards the end of that season, I had grown tired of it. He was always hand-fighting me and I couldn’t hand-fight. Finally, something clicked, and I started to hand-fight back with him. That was when in my folkstyle I had begun to develop more, and it also meets my style for Greco, which is where you have to constantly be in that hand-fight. Because, if you push away, then you can get called for negative wrestling. I don’t ever want to be called for that, I always want to be pushing for my next move and hand-fighting while setting up my techniques.

That is when my styles matched up. Plus, I have always loved throws. I have been told that I have some pretty good hips. But the hand-fighting helped put me in positions where I could throw if I really had to, and it also helped my offense for folkstyle with my high-crotches and singles. Now it is more that I know I can throw from there, it is just a matter of executing that position precisely to get that beautiful five-point throw.

5PM: Your size increase usually comes to mind for me because when I was first introduced to you as a wrestler, it was the fall of ’17 Dave Schultz Memorial and you went 63 kilos. You’re now a monster. I get that you had probably just grown in conjunction with obvious strength training and whatever else, but it is still quite a jump. How did this transformation take place?

Ty Cunningham: Five years ago, when I went to the Dave Schultz here in Colorado Springs, I was going to be a senior in high school. Zac (Dominguez) goes, “We’re taking you to a tournament and we’ll see how well you do.” He was also bringing Camden (Russell). We were both like, Are you for real? These guys are like, 30-years-old. Zac said, “Yeah, we’re going to do it. Alright.

Jumping into that, I think I had to cut a little weight to make 63 kilograms. Then I ended my high school career weighing 138 pounds. Over that summer going into UN-K, I think I was around 165. I made 138 for Fargo that summer, too, right before I started college. But I was cutting anywhere between 15 to 18 pounds, and I hated that cut. It was one of my worst cuts, I think. After that, who  really helped me was my coach at UN-K, Dalton Jensen. He told me to start eating, to lift, and to get strong. He told me that they weren’t worried about me cutting weight. I walked into the preseason at 165, we began working out, and then I naturally got down to 157. I was walking around at 160 on a normal day.

It wasn’t a bad cut my redshirt freshman year at 157. As that season progressed, Coach Jensen just said, “Keep eating, keep lifting. We’re not worried about your weight right now.” I was like, Okay. Then I jumped up to 165, and looked like a better 165 than I did before the season started. He went on to tell me that they were going to wrestle me at 165, as well. I didn’t have to cut weight to 157 and wrestled the rest of that season at 165. Again, over the summer, it was the same thing: keep eating, keep lifting. I never ate bad foods, I just tried to keep it clean and simple. I just kept growing naturally ever since my senior year of high school. It kind of stopped after my third year in college.

During my second year, I was still wrestling 157 but cutting from around 175 by that time. I didn’t feel as strong as I had at 165. I was bigger but felt like I should be stronger. Naturally, I just didn’t wrestle as well because it felt like I was cutting too much weight. Then there was the hiccup with COVID and we ended up not wrestling one of those seasons. Or at least I didn’t, because I wasn’t starting. I tapered off at around 190 after that. I felt strong, felt good — but I wasn’t working out as much. Just this last year, in ’22, I was weighing around 190. Ever since January, I’ve been in the room with Zac. It started just a few times per week but as the Bill Farrell started coming we increased our workouts. Then there was the Open, the surprise of going to Pan-Ams, the Senior Trials, and U23 Trials. Just going through all of that until now, I naturally walk around at about 185, 187 at the most. I feel good about my training. I don’t over-work to keep my weight where it is. For me, it’s just about consistency why I think I have grown all the way from 63 kilos. It is just the consistency of not having to worry about cutting so much weight and instead wrestling at the weight where I feel strong, where I feel good.

5PM: Does your size and strength help you feel comfortable against the Seniors at 82 and thereabouts?

Cunningham: Yes, I definitely feel comfortable. There are times when it is hard to move someone like Ben. Or Spencer, for that matter. I know that they were both at 87 at one point, and then down at 82. I feel comfortable in there, but I definitely think there is a strength area I can still grow in.

5PM: What would you say was your favorite match, thus far at least, from this past season?

Cunningham: My favorite match? Alright… There are two in my mind that stick out and I’m not sure which one is better. I’d have to say it would probably have to be my bronze-medal match at Pan-Ams. It was my first international medal. I kind of came out on top due to penalties against a guy who was more of a freestyle wrestler. But still, that whole experience of being in a bronze-medal match and winning it is why I’d have to pick that one.

5PM: Knowing that you were right there with the best Seniors I would think provided ample confidence for you heading into the U23 Trials.

Cunningham: Definitely, just for the simple matter that I know a lot of these Seniors dedicate the majority of their time to Greco. Being able to compete with them, I had a lot of confidence going into U23’s. I just knew that I had been training since January while many of those guys either had been, or were still, wrestling in college. I had three or four months more of training and tournaments under my belt compared to anyone else who was in my bracket. I would assume that I did. I mean, I don’t know, but I just assumed that I had already proven myself a little bit. But I went in with a lot of confidence and just let it fly, really.

5PM: Making a U23 World Team is a milestone with regards to your career up to this point. Did you recognize that immediately, or did it take a while to sink in?

Ty Cunningham: It kind of took a little while, for sure. When I was starting up in January, I just knew that I wanted to do this full-time. The goal, futuristically, was to make World and Olympic Teams. After wrestling at the Bill Farrell and going against the top guys there — and coming in third like I did — definitely made me think about it a little more. Kind of like, It’s not out of the question to make a World Team this year. Of course, that was what Zac was saying, too. He was saying, You’re right there.

I had wrestled Ben in Iowa, who was #1 obviously, and lost to him 7-1. I had him again at the Open and closed the gap a little bit and lost 2-1. That gave me even more confidence to where I was thinking, This is actually the real deal, I could actually make a Senior Team possibly. That changed my mindset. Whether it was a Senior Team or a U23 Team, that was what we were looking at since we started. Talking with Zac, our mindset throughout this whole season was to make World Teams, and further on from that we want World medals. We had to go through the gauntlet to get there, of course. I had Spencer Woods, who, honestly, beat the crap out of me at the Trials. But yeah, it was definitely something that happened and I didn’t recognize it right away. I’m glad that I eventually did.

tyler cunningham, 82 kg, 2022 u23 world championships

Cunningham (with MWC coach Zack Wilcox in the background) after prevailing over Jake Hendricks in the best-of-three finals at the 2022 US U23 World Team Trials in June. (Photo: Sam Janicki)

5PM: You were able to participate in the Senior World Team camps over the summer. How did being part of that experience influence you?

Cunningham: It was huge. It was different compared to everything that was going on, from what I was used to. But I kept an open mind about it and, there I was, training with the best. They were people who had beaten me but I was learning from them and really starting to compete. It was no longer just competing in tournaments, we were now competing in the room. That was huge for me, being at the first Senior camp and the second one. I had taken a little break because I went up to Fargo to help coach Team Nebraska. But yes, it was huge for me.

5PM: You have been with Zac Dominguez for years, since you were a tot, basically. Things are different now I’d have to guess, what with you being a Senior. Has that dynamic changed between the two of you?

Cunningham: The dynamic has definitely changed but it has also brought us a lot closer, especially because there were only four of us in the room at that time. It was me, Camden, Van Schmidt, and Corbin Nirschl. The dynamic did change. We began talking more strategy and things were coming off a little more blunt because they were hard truths. We’re adults now. We’re not teenagers anymore. We are at a level now where we are wrestling grown men, and the difference is either a World medal or not a World medal. So, things come off a little more blunt, but in a good way. It is always pushing us to do more.

There are other coaches who coach on World Teams, but I am just blessed that I am able to have Coach Zac Dominguez. He goes over to World Championships and checks out the competitions. He knows how we train in our country and can see how they train overseas. He can then come back to us and give us that information. Sort of like, This is how we need to be training. We’re close, but we’re not there yet and we need to make adjustments. I think that is huge, especially for Camden and I leading into this U23 World Championships because Zac was able to go over to both Sofia for the Juniors and then Belgrade for the Seniors. Zac came back and strategized with us about how we were going to train a little differently. We weren’t going to change our styles completely, we were just implementing adjustments to help us be successful. It has been huge. That dynamic is something that I didn’t get as much as a teenager because I wasn’t competing at that level quite yet.

5PM: Some wrestlers going into big tournaments, even a Worlds, take it as “it is just another tournament”, and some elevate it due to obvious reasons. What is your perspective on the U23 Worlds and how you prefer to see it?

Ty Cunningham: It has transitioned from one thing to the other. Of course at first it was, Oh, it’s the World Championships, this is a big deal. But again, it is just another tournament, with opponents who happen to be from other countries. It is just like any other match I’ve ever wrestled. There is going to be one other guy out there standing in front of me. It is just going to be me versus him, which is how every match I’ve ever wrestled has been — and how every match I ever wrestle in my career will be.

Granted, it is the World Championships, and yet it is also just another tournament. I am just going to go out there and show them what I do best. With my style matching up against theirs, I think it will be good. Training at MWC with Zac, he goes overseas and comes back to us with his own assessments. We then implement adjustments into our styles. Our styles remain our own, but these adjustments are what is going to help us maybe become more successful than if we were doing it another way.

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