Northern Michigan

Gurule Talks U23 Trials Win & ‘Rocky’ Montage

jonathan gurule, 63 kg, 2024 u23 world team
Jonathan Gurule -- Image: USA Wrestling

What had already been a very strong season of Greco-Roman wrestling for Northern Michigan University’s National Training Site continued last Friday when Jonathan Gurule emerged victorious at the U23 World Team Trials in Geneva, Ohio. Gurule’s triumph was his second at a World Team selection event (’21, U20); his tournament win also meant that NMU has (at least) two athletes on the ’24 U23 World roster, as Max Black will assume the 60 kg spot due to his status as a Senior National Team member.

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Black occupying 60 kilograms signaled a change in weight class for Gurule, who went up to 63 for the U23 Trials. He was not alone. Two-time U23 World rep Phillip Moomey (Spartan Combat RTC) — who had defeated Gurule in the finals of last year’s tournament — was also at 63, and so too was Paxton Creese (Minnesota Storm), one of the nation’s best young lightweight prospects. Gurule advanced to the semifinal against Creese and won via technical fall. He then had to go toe-to-toe with the talented Moomey once again. After dropping the first bout of their best-of-three series, Gurule went on to sweep the next two matches.

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The achievement for Gurule was, is, important to him for several reasons. For starters, Moomey is a terrific and accomplished Greco competitor in his own right, and the two have forged a fun rivalry over the past year. Another is that Gurule’s performance provided a glimpse into the type of resolve that could elevate him to even greater heights on the Senior circuit. When staring at an 0-1 series deficit, Gurule, along with NMU coaches Andrew Bisek and Parker Betts, adjusted the game plan for Moomey and the wrestler adhered to its tenets amid the series’ most crucial moments. And, of course, there is the fact that Gurule has now made his second World roster in three seasons as a full-time Greco-Roman athlete. A significant achievement at still such a young age in the sport, although it is not one upon which Gurule is resting. There is more work to do and more lessons to learn. After Gurule and other members of the U23 World Team return from the Pan-Am Championships (June 21 in Rionegro, COL), the main training phase for the World Championships will commence.

For now, there are details surrounding the U23 World Team Trials for Gurule which are indeed worthy of further exploration and he provides a thorough and intimate account into what it took, and takes, in order to stand at the top following such a challenging and demanding tournament — as well as what his plans might entail when it comes to preparing for another shot at World hardware.

Jonathan Gurule — 63 kg, NYAC/NTS

5PM: With your teammate Max Black taking the U23 World Team spot at 60 kg due to being on the National Team, 63 kg at the Trials not only had you and Moomey, but also Paxton Creese. Everyone naturally felt that you three were the biggest contenders in the bracket, but you had only wrestled Creese once before. What was your thinking this time going into that match-up?

Jonathan Gurule: I was thinking to myself, I can appreciate that. I respect that these guys are here to make World Teams and aren’t just doing this for fun. But leading to the match-up with Paxton, I was like, This is going to be fun. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m also thinking, I’m going to rip this dude’s head off. Like, I’m going to tech him. I didn’t know how that was going to happen, but it was, This is going to be a fun match.

5PM: Well, you got a big five from a suplex. That made the score 6-0. Six points is a nice lead to have but he can be dangerous. He is very quick and he has been doing this a long time himself. What is your mentality up 6-0?

JG: You just get these thoughts like, Don’t mess this up. You know what I mean? Obviously, you want to be smart. You don’t need to be going for crazy things right now. You’re up 6-0, you know? You can out-pummel through the match and win it by wrestling a smart match. So, what’s going through my mind is — because I know from last year, and I know that he’s quick — I have to keep my elbows in tight. I had to focus on keeping the pressure on him, getting to my underhooks, keeping my elbow up, and focusing on my positioning.

My training partners, they’re quick, too. Max Black, Kenny Crosby, these dudes have really good ducks. So I’m like, If I can stop their ducks, I can stop Paxton. I was just trying to stay good and not get over-extended. To just wrestle smartly and not change up a whole lot of things. To keep constant pressure on him and overwhelm him. That’s what was going through my mind. I didn’t think it was going to end like that. I think he tried a duck, or something like that, and then he kind of lost his balance and I ended up in a front headlock. I think I was just focused on trying to keep good positioning and trying to score from what was there. And it just opened up like that.

5PM: Then you get Moomey, someone with whom you are quite familiar. And right away, you go for a headlock. Essentially, that attempt from you led to all of the points he scored in Match 1, and those points held up. Was that headlock try just instinctive? Or did you want to make a statement early in the match?

JG: It was both. I wanted to make a statement, and I also thought I could get it. Going into the match, my coach scouted him, I scouted him, and we felt like there was one position that he liked to get, a pinch headlock. We weren’t particularly there — but when I was in that position and attempted to hit the headlock, it just felt like it was there and I miscalculated it. I had to switch up my mentality. For the whole entire tournament up until Moomey, I was just like, I’m going to go score some points. And I had that against him at first. I was thinking, I’m going to go out there and tech this dude. I’m going to go score some points. Let’s do this. When I tried to hit that headlock, missed it, and then he got that two points, I had to switch up my game plan. But yeah, I was just going to try and score some points right off the bat and go for it.

5PM: Ironically, in Match 2 he’s the one who goes for a headlock, you hang back, cover, and turn him. By and large, that gave you most of your points, just like your headlock attempt in Match 1 gave him his. You win Match 2, which means that you have a third-and-decisive bout against a guy who is very, very tough. What is the conversation like between you and your coaches before Match 3? And what is the conversation that is probably going on inside your head before that match, as well?

JG: Match 1 was a hard match. Match 2 was hard. I didn’t even know what was going to happen in Match 2 towards the end or anything like that. I was listening to the Rocky theme song “War” before the whole thing, and I was just thinking about how Rocky defeated Ivan Drago. He was losing at first and then he came back. He won with heart.

So, going into this third match, my coaches told me to get a quick cool-down and to relax a little bit, and then we would talk about what the game plan was. We were kind of debriefing and (Andy) Bisek said, “You don’t have to stay stuck on going for this straight lift.” Because, I tried to hit a straight lift in both of the first two matches and wasn’t able to get it. He told me that if I try to hit the straight lift with Moomey defending really hard on one side, then I could hit a gut on the other side. Like a quick-change gut, or something like that. But his point was to not get stuck on the straight lift. I was like, Okay, okay. And then he was telling me about getting to my underhooks better and pushing that elbow aside. To really keep the pressure on Moomey.

We just talked about the game plan. I relaxed. I got secluded. I just kind of sat down and was listening to music, thinking about my montage. Thinking about all of the training and all of the stuff I had done in the past, all of the people who have affected me and supported me. I had this sort of little montage in my mind of all of the stuff that I have been through, all of the adversity, and how I was thankful to be here. I was thinking about what I was going to say if I won the thing, and what I was going to do. I didn’t know what was going to happen, I just knew that I had to give it everything I had. It was, I just have to be on him for all six minutes and I can do this, you know?

I was listening to music and trying to hype myself up — which, I was already pretty hyped. But I also felt really calm. I wasn’t nervous at all. I almost felt like it was a repeat from last year. We had wrestled in the same best two out of three. Like, total recall and all that stuff. It was deja vu a little bit. But I thought, I have the choice if I want to win this or not, and I can win. I was thinking about Payton Jacobson and how he did it. When he wrestled Spencer Woods (in the Olympic Team Trials finals), Payton won the first match and lost the second one, and then the third match was a battle. So, to me it was, If Payton can do it, I can, too. I was also thinking about what some of my past teammates had told me. They would say that if you want to be the best, then you have to win these moments. How this is just stuff that you have to do.

I was ready to go. I was focused on the game plan of keeping good position and staying on him for six minutes. I was focused on having heart and just not giving up.

5PM: What was your mindset entering the second period up 3-0? Were you looking to maintain position and pressure? Or were you still hunting for multi-point scores?

JG: You can’t just focus on holding on. This is just what I’ve learned. I can’t just focus on holding on and being defensive, having my head down, and stuff like that. Because in the past and having learned from experience, that just doesn’t work out. They call you for passive, he gets a point, and he could get a gutwrench or something like that. It can completely change the match. I wanted to continue what I was doing. My coaches were telling me in the corner, ‘You’re doing great. Keep the pressure on him. Get to your hooks, make sure that you have your head up, and continue to wrestle‘.

What’s going through my own mind is, I don’t want to just hold on. I’m still working but I’m focusing on keeping good position. Because, I knew that he was tired, and I was also tired. And I didn’t want to give up bad position just because I was tired. I was focused on keeping good position and then whatever happens, happens. I was thinking, I’m going to try to score, but I’m not going to try to hit a bodylock and throw it over my head, or something like that. One of the game plans I was talking about with Bisek was just going for two-point takedowns. In the first match, I had tried to hit a headlock right away. So, I wanted to take a step back and relax, and just trying for two-point takedowns worked out for me. I was sticking to the game plan.

I knew that Moomey had a few good throws, so I wasn’t counting him out. I just wanted to stay on him and keep the same game plan. I was focused on keeping good position, to not let him breathe, and to just be mean.

5PM: The whistle finally blows and there it was, you had made the U23 World Team, two years after making the U20 World Team. Your second World Team Trials win. Is this second one a different feeling compared to two years ago?

JG: I feel like in the moment that I was just tired. I was exhausted. It felt a little surreal. I don’t know. It was a really good feeling, though. The first one is always the best. I’m grateful. I’m not downplaying it. It was a good feeling. Definitely afterwards I was thinking about it. On the drive back, I was just reflecting on it and how it feels like it was pretty inspirational for me. It’s good to know that I did that, but it wasn’t as shocking as the first one. This is what’s expected, you know? It was, Cool, this is great — but I have to refocus for Pan-Ams, and then refocus from there on the World Championships.

I made sure to tell my teammates and my family that if it were not for them, I wouldn’t be here. It’s more than me. It is because of my teammates and the people who have supported me, believed in me. But I was just exhausted after it. There was a lot going through my head. I almost didn’t know what to think. You’re tired, and then you have to get the USA Wrestling interview, and all of your friends are excited… It is a good feeling. It’s a good feeling for sure.

5PM: You have two years more experience than when you went to your first World tournament. What did you learn from training for your first Worlds that you would expound upon while training for the U23 Worlds this year?

Jonathan Gurule: We did a lot of par terre for U20. Ivan (Ivanov) was there. Max, Payton, and myself trained a lot at the OTC (Olympic and Paralympic Training Center). So, I’d like a lot of par terre and finding ways to score on the feet, and at least getting into control ties and controlling the match. I think that will help me out. I also felt after I lost at U20 Worlds that it would have been better if I could have had more training as far as wrestling guys overseas. I didn’t feel like it was that much of a skill gap; and yes, I had prior experience from going to Budapest and training at their Olympic training center. But I feel like going to Pan-Ams is good for getting kind of a feel, and then using that as a blueprint for what I need to work on. And then just getting my diet better, and getting stronger.

I read this article, more of a newsletter, that Andy Bisek recommended. It discussed how there are all of these things that an Olympic champ does… Like what Michael Phelps did to make sure he swam 1% better. Whether that is eating right, lifting right, or getting the right amount of sleep — all of that stuff, even if might only move the needle marginally, it all adds up. That helps out a lot.

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