USA Greco

EDITORIAL: Navigating the Uncomfortable

Photo: Tony Rotundo

Hardly uncharted waters in the sport of wrestling, particularly in these United States of America, are contested outcomes. On-the-mat results giving way to legal or procedural disputes is practically a tradition. The ledger in this country, it’s a long one. Well-known wrestlers claiming incorrect match governance, or ineptitude, or plain wrongdoing, has become…commonplace over the past few decades. No one blinks an eye with regard to these situations. And if they ever did, they don’t anymore.

But this one feels different around here, as it should.

Not counting questions asked during interviews, pieces in our Christian Faith category penned by contributors, and various other inquisitive material, articles released on this platform are constructed in a third-person narrative. The word “I” is not used, because “pros don’t use prose”, something like that. Five Point Move is not a blog; it is not operated like one, nor is it seen like one. As such, there is a purposeful abandonment of first-person language and opinion-laden content. That does not mean articles and recaps are unanimously bereft of angles, nor does that directive spurn veering towards a specific message at times. What it means, simply, is that this writer shudders at the thought of injecting personal perspectives into published works of literature, be it wrestling copy or otherwise.

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That approach just is not going to cut it given the texture of the moment. Avoiding pretense always trumps avoiding usage of the word “I”.

By now, most of the American wrestling public have encountered the circumstances regarding John Stefanowicz‘s (87 kg) victory over Joe Rau (TMWC/IRTC, world #5) from their best-of-three series at the Olympic Trials. Stefanowicz, 29, was credited with decisioning Rau by scores of 6-5 and 3-2, respectively.

People have short memories, shorter still in this digital era where social media drives the majority of conversations, and is responsible for delivering most of the news users consume. It is a shame, really, for no one is talking about Stefanowicz’s performance on the first day of action in Fort Worth. He had defeated, in order, Barrett Stanghill (Minnesota Storm); reigning National champ Alan Vera (NYAC); and three-time World Team member Patrick Martinez (NYAC). Three extraordinary wrestlers, three exceedingly impressive wins in a weight category that rarely receives the attention it deserves — this, despite my own constant attempts to highlight 87 throughout the quad.

We could keep going on about 87. I’d much rather prefer to do so. I would love nothing more, honestly, than for the US Nationals, and the string of age-group Trials and whatever else coming up far too soon, to be pushed off for another month and change just so that enough space would be available to thoroughly unpack even more under-the-surface gems pertaining to 87 (as well as a few other weights). Like say, Martinez, whose back was so badly wrecked six weeks before the tournament that his hips and torso didn’t align with his trunk. Or Stanghill, who had moved to Georgia following a summer full of work in Montana and entered the tournament on a patchwork training plan. Or Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP), a wrestler who everyone hopefully understands is a major part of the future in this weight category and for the US program at large.

All of that material? That’s the wheelhouse. Combining those follow-ups with an array of quick-hitting pieces on newly-minted Olympic Team members should stand as the priority. And, unfortunately, certainly, that original content plan is being shoved to the back burner on an already-overcrowded stove because we are close to stepping into a quagmire of potentially troublesome proportions.

Which again, is kind of a tradition.

Setting the Table

If at any point this little work-up betrays even a drip of self-importance, stop reading. It’s fine for others in wrestling media to make stories about themselves. Each of us has our own styles, our own methods for “journaling”. I cringe when even imagining writing about my own take on this sport. The podcast, maybe then there is a space to verbalize some opinions, which are usually shelved until the final segment of each episode. Other than that? No dice, ace. God didn’t bless me with the keys to this website so that I could seek out fleeting morsels of attention. 5PM is about inching towards a greater good via building exposure for Greco-Roman athletes and coaches; and by extension, being graced with opportunities to share the Gospels. This I know is true.

To steal one of Daniel Miller‘s most prolifically-wielded verbal ticks, at the end of the day, this entire endeavor centers around fellowship.

And lengthy, detailed recaps.

But that fellowship component, it is enormous. If not all-encompassing. Relationships are part of the engine that powers 5PM. Some are longstanding, a few are newer, all are cherished. That is what separates 5PM from the pack. People think it’s the whole “Greco-only” identity. Sure, super. Except, athletes, mostly the Seniors, are invested in the platform to varying degrees. They all have free reign here, complete and total transparency. The athletes are the only lot with whom I open the books and let in on short and long-term plans and goals, and many of them come with ideas which are later executed publicly. Not to sound, but no other platform can replicate this in quite the same manner. We’re a tight-knit little posse because it has to be that way.

Max Nowry (55 kg, Army/WCAP) recently said on the podcast how I’ve “had my time to sit back in the shadows”. Nowry was teasing, just trying to prod me towards socializing with him and Hall in Fort Worth. But he’s right. I like the calls, the jokes, the laughs, and the eventual writing after all of the jokes and laughs have been exhausted. What I don’t is being seen too much, heard from too much. I just want to do the best job that I possibly can covering the athletes while wearing my hood up in front of a desktop, with fingerless gloves guiding my keystrokes.

And see, Rau, he gets that. Probably because he’s a fricking weirdo, too. From the very beginning of 5PM, Rau understood, better than most, what this thing could be if produced, packaged, and managed correctly. He relished the idea that there could be a place where Greco-Roman athletes — long at odds with the “culture” of wrestling in the US — had the freedom to say exactly what they want and how they want without fear of reprisal or censorship. A place where nothing is really off the table… Where tales of struggle and depression, improvement and regression, inspiration and triumph, could all coincide with actual by-the-book results coverage so that the audience might glean the full scope of what it is US Seniors endure.

It did not take long for Rau to become involved in a significant capacity. Martinez, too, he was a big part of 5PM in the earlier days. But Rau really took the ball. In the autumn of ’16, approximately eight months post-launch, he engineered this piece with Bisek that ranks among my favorites of all time. It captured perfectly the high’s and low’s of a top-level athlete. Some of the dialogue is hilarious. A lot of it, most of it, is sledgehammer-to-the-ribcage painful. And…that’s Rau. That’s his zone.

Then along with Nate Engel, Joe got himself over to Paris for the ’17 Worlds where they both served as correspondents. Their work was outstanding, incredible. Legitimate, much more so than any other coverage from any other place. Their interviews and insights allowed us to crush that tournament. The US didn’t have a great performance in Paris. But our coverage? It set a standard that was almost too high for 5PM unless it were to be repeated year after year after year, which is admittedly difficult to do.

In the years since, Rau’s role with 5PM has only increased. Wherever he is, I can depend on calls, photos, videos, interviews that are conducted by him. I don’t even ask. He just does all this. I had to create a semi-serious title, Athlete Contributor, due solely to his zeal. When I remember, I send him a stipend so that he can adequately feed himself. Then I go to my Google Drive and download the files.

Naturally, it is not a secret within the National program that my dynamic with Rau is one of friendship. There is no one who is unaware that we are personally-linked. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people are going to read this, so let that be clear: Joe Rau is one of my closest friends. I do not hide this, nor do I apologize for it. And not once has it affected my objective duties when it comes to covering him in competition. I’ve written about Joe winning matches, and I’ve written about Joe getting demolished inside of two minutes. And in each instance, I did not experience even the dullest of visceral reactions. For though we are close and our friendship important, an accurate, detailed recap that is going to be consumed by a rather expansive user-base is decidedly much more important in the moment.

Here’s Johnny

For the life of me, I don’t get why Stefanowicz calls himself “Johnny” or why others might refer to him by that name. I’m from Northeastern New Jersey. I know what a “Johnny” looks and sounds like. You ever hear this guy talk?

Stefanowicz is pretty special to me. He has gone through a lot. Joe? Yeah, he has gone through a lot, too, and what people face in their lives is relative and customized to who they are and their respective circumstances. But Stefanowicz is by no means “normal” for his generation. Married with two kids at an age younger than most of his ilk. Had to step away from competing for a Marine assignment that spanned a couple of seasons. He was back for the 2016-17 campaign. Stefanowicz was solid competitively prior to his deployment, but there was no logical athletic reason for him to have been seen as a strong contender for the ’17 World Team. He had been peaced out for two years, give or take, while other guys were active and improving.

You could thank Jason Loukides, in part. All of us should. Loukides is currently the best full-time Greco-Roman coach in the country, although Spenser Mango and Bisek have now entered the argument. USA Wrestling, maybe they know that. Let’s say they do. Let’s even go ahead and assume that they absolutely, 100% without a doubt know Loukides is #1. Well, they can’t keep giving him the award for Coach of the Year. If they were to go in that direction, then they might as well just plan on giving it to Loukides for as long as he feels like coaching, and doing so would eliminate opportunities for others to receive the plaque.

One part of it is Loukides. Another part is Stefanowicz himself. They both meshed, comprising an unreal tandem of athlete and coach who seem to understand each other’s capabilities as if through osmosis. Loukides, apparently, entered Stefanowicz’s life at the perfect time, as well. That helped. Stefanowicz was very hungry to compete upon his return, and so he readily embraced Loukides’ methods, which in turn resulted in one of the more startling, right-before-your-eyes progressions of a wrestler witnessed in recent memory.

I did not have any expectations when I first got to know Stefanowicz. Not that it was a concern. One of my advantages, one of my many blessings, is that when I get in touch with an athlete, even if we don’t know one another, it’s going to go just fine. They understand that I’m here to help. And if they don’t know me yet, they can ask around. But with Stefanowicz, it was one of those things right off the bat where he talked like he already knew me. No preamble. Immediate conversational exchanges. Stefanowicz had recently taken fifth at the Hungarian Grand Prix after a super-exciting, kind-of-hosejob loss to Zurabi Datunashvili (SRB). The narrative at the time hinged on that one match but was intended to paint Stefanowicz’s sudden candidacy at the Trials by piecing together his past, and sewing it to his then-present. The timing of that article could not have been better. Later that month, Stefanowicz beat weight-class favorite Geordan Speiller in the World Team Trials semis. Cheyney Haight (NYAC) eventually won the spot, but Stefanowicz had firmly cemented his status as an extremely serious upper-weight competitor.

But no, I’m not here to do yet one more in a long line of Stefanowicz career overviews. This is human stuff. Over the past four years, Stefanowicz has morphed into one of a select few athletes with whom I’ve allowed the line to become blurred. We talk about our kids, our daily lives. He loves horses, my wife loves horses. I don’t particularly care for horses because I’m allergic, but you get the picture. I know that his duties off-the-mat are a step or two above overwhelming for him at times, but that he also refuses to complain for to do so would, in his mind, come off as ungrateful for all of the opportunities with which he has been blessed. Be it Marine tasks, husband/father responsibilities, college coursework, or the seeming dozens of committees on which he sits, sleep for him lately has been found all too scarce.

Joe and I were in touch a lot through most of the winter and regularly until the last week leading up to Trials (Kuwait City). Stefanowicz, I saw him on April 3, the morning after he had won the Challenge Tournament final. He said, “This is surreal to me.” I responded that I was proud of him, which I was and am. But I looked at him like he was nuts. Surreal? How? He was a returning World Team member who has defeated a decent number of top foreigners on overseas trips. I didn’t know exactly what to say, so I added, “No, you are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

Is This a Problem?

Naïve. I did not foresee the possibility of a controversial outcome at the Olympic Trials finals. Each of the six best-of-three series featured match-ups that could be easily rationalized, regardless of who prevailed. This is a sport, after all. When you watch it enough, know the athletes well enough, you tend to compare and contrast according to a vast catalog of parameters. This is more common for lightweight match-ups, and a little less for upper-weights. Anything above 77 kilos is simpler. What do we say on here all the time? It is a “turn and not get turned” sport for everyone, but that especially holds true for the bigger guys.

Rau versus Stefanowicz? Okay, whoever of the two doesn’t get turned probably wins. See how easy that is? When you say that you anticipate par terre to “loom large” or “be a factor”, people will nod in agreement and we all move on with our lives.

Yes, matches can easily be rationalized based on the athletes, but the wildcard is governance. That is something for which no one should have to account prior to competition. I will warn you straight off, however: I am not using this very rare opportunity for prose to opine on the issues at hand in terms of scoring, what was perceived as just or unjust. And my goodness, the last thing I would ever want to do is publicly call out an official, someone who is a father, former athlete, and retired servicemember. It is not right. It isn’t correct to weaponize the entire goal of this piece, which is to wade through the thickets of wrestling’s humanity without having to once break out a machete.

But optics do matter. And it’s not a fantastic look when a referee who was a Marine and wrestled on the All-Marine Team is officiating an Olympic Team Trials final match that includes an All-Marine wrestler.

How do we know if I’m correct? How could I possibly peg that accurately, even if I don’t know Jim Speelman on the slightest personal level?

Because he has become as much a part of this as the athletes, which is something that should never, ever happen — but in the United States, happens far too often.

It doesn’t make a difference if Mr. Speelman is an otherwise fine official. I’m not here to character assassinate him, anyway, but he must not be too terrible considering that he has officiated in a lot of significant events over the course of two decades. Right? The disenfranchised bunch shall commence with their sardonic thoughts upon reading that sentence. I have not broken any of this open with Hall yet, believe it or not, and I can hear my mind’s rendering of his voice reaching a verifiable howl. We argue about items such as these regularly.

What cannot be argued is that Mr. Speelman should not have been assigned to Match 1 of the 87 kilogram final. I don’t care if ref assignments are determined in advance; as soon as Stefanowicz edged Martinez on Friday night, those who don black shirts should have immediately recognized the faintest potential for a conflict of interest and spared Mr. Speelman from being in that position. There are, actually, plenty of other professional, suitable referees in this country who would have skated through six minutes of Rau and Stefanowicz, and then the only thing we’d be talking about today is the result, nothing else. Even if the snafus in question remained, such as Rau’s front headlock and a subsequent caution, at least no one would have the right to suggest potential bias — which, if we’re going to ruminate about optics, is admittedly difficult to sidestep given Mr. Speelman’s unnerving admonishment of Rau that was accompanied by aggressive physical contact. I was sitting in Section 110’s press area when that bit happened. From a substantial distance, I was taken aback by that behavior. It was overly emotional on his part, as well as unbecoming and unwarranted.

The header above asks ‘Is this a problem?’ Whatever transpires from here on out, whichever side of the fence you’re occupying (and we’ll get to that), Yep, it’s a problem. A problem with which neither athlete should have had to contend in the first place.

What Next?

If I cared to demonstrate occasional swipes of literary polish, I would lay out the particulars. Hard to do when I’m not sure what is going to happen next. I have been told by several “close to the situation” that legal remedies have been explored, discussed, etc. Honestly, I was planning to wait just a little longer before touching this publicly. Stefanowicz is receiving an aberrative amount of mainstream-type attention. Heading in this direction so soon did not feel right out of respect for him. None of this, not one ounce of it, is his fault. All he did was put together a string of hardcore impressive matches and gain the Olympic Team spot.

On the flipside, and in spite of my naivete, I realized inside of that first post-Trials week that this was indeed growing legs. Before I departed from Fort Worth, people had a lot to say. By the time I arrived home, more than a handful of athletes were themselves up in arms over Joe having taken his shoes off — but that whole scene was impulsive. He hadn’t planned on retiring for a small but appropriate list of reasons. That much I knew. Joe is Joe. He feels everything; and I think once he had heard enough encouragement from contemporaries, he decided to voice his displeasure and signal the desire to seek recourse. I should insert here that we have not spoken, nor have I reached out on the matter other than to check on his wellbeing.

Will this go to arbitration? Will there be more than that? Will John and Joe wind up having a wrestle-off? If so, will it be scheduled expeditiously enough so that it doesn’t interfere with the Pan-Ams and everything that comes after? Or will nothing happen, with the parties involved shaking hands and agreeing to disagree before expending considerable time and resources when both are at a premium?

Again, next steps at this stage are, from where I sit, relegated mostly to hypotheticals. I’ve received a healthy number of text messages from an assortment of wrestlers (as well as a few coaches) depicting any number of possible pathways towards resolution (provided this goes forward). Sure, there have been several real-life verbal conversations, too. Stressful ones. Normally, my roundtable of off-the-record phone calls revolves around maybe a couple of semi-pressing issues, and the rest is humor. Literally 90% of my calls for 5PM are mainly a comedy show where making fun of whatever and whomever is the standard baseline for communication. Over the past two-plus weeks, the laughs are not as plentiful as usual. Most of that banter has been replaced by Trials aftermath, with this here dumpster fire popping up as the primary topic.

Why Write All This?

Consider this piece a missive (or appeal) for unity, and not the preemptive chalk outline of a positive vibe for the Olympian at 87 kilograms.

I just looked: we’re over 3,500 words into this. How many of them were necessary? We’ll never know. And all I’ve really done thus far is sketch out a pair of relationships and bulletpoint one aspect of their beef. The only skillful measure employed is that I have managed to neglect describing wrestling-based details from Match 1 despite my natural inclination to pound out that kind of material.

I’ve prepared myself for feedback. I am ready for Rau supporters to ask why I won’t share video clips (one reason is because footage is owned by NBC Sports, they are sharks, and I’d rather like to avoid our platform getting pinched for copyright infringement). I’m ready for Stefanowicz supporters to read the first third of this article and then stop, just so they can claim I’m biased towards Rau. I am very on top of all things 5PM, and will defend our platform whenever necessary. That said, I don’t mind criticism at all, so long as the arrows are aimed at me or a contributor, and not at an athlete. We have a savvy audience. For that I am grateful. They are informed and can make up their own minds. It is also a very, very passionate audience. Recognizing this, I am A-OK with disagreement. I don’t expect much in the way of negative remarks, but even should they arrive I will somehow still fall into a slumber each night.

But — above are the words “our platform”. I might do the lion’s share of the writing, but this is, has been, and shall remain a community endeavor. And part of that endeavor means nonstop supporting our athletes and the US National program, in general. Supporting our athletes and the National program by extension therefore means calling for nonsense to cease before it flounders out of control.

This situation is inching closer towards creating damaging divisiveness that may prove a hindrance as Team USA Greco prepares for Tokyo. Think that is a little too dramatic? Think that, ‘Nah, they’re professionals, however this shakes out won’t affect their ability to compete’? Maybe in the strictest terms of isolated variables, that’s true. The athletes on the Team? Absolutely, they will plow ahead with blinders on leading up to the tournament. Don’t even sweat it. But fans? Families? Friends? They are, by and large, definitively not professionals. Fans, families, and friends encompass the metadata which generates enthusiasm for our program. When they are on the same page, their support is invaluable. When they are not, we get online bickering, insults, hurt feelings, and a reduction in enthusiasm.

Do you really believe the US program can afford that? Can United States Greco endure stiff-necked tribalism with an Olympiad around the corner? Spare me Sydney 2000 and Lindland/Sieracki. First of all, that Team was hardened, experienced, and souped up for a breakthrough. Second, Lindland/Sieracki occurred in a completely different space in time. A bygone era. Do you know what they had back then? Message boards. And…that’s about it. Was there not still fallout from that case? Twisted feelings and singed relationships? Hall had a thing with Jim Gruenwald at that Trials, as well, but it was nothing compared to the 74 kilo duo; plus Hall and Gruenwald had been at war dating back to when they both carried lunchboxes to school. How was an Olympic Trials series between them supposed to end? Smoothly and without incident?

The Sydney Team got past it. Lindland got past it. It was not a ruinous saga, partly because Lindland had a monster performance, and partly because the conversation surrounding the legal battle ebbed and flowed in a much smaller public square. It won’t go down that way this time unless everyone begins taking care of their words; unless everyone starts remembering that neither wrestler is to blame, and that both require your allegiance.

As of this moment, Stefanowicz is the Olympian at 87 kilograms. Perhaps that will not change. He deserves your unconditional support. Right now, Josef Patrick Rau is not the Olympian at 87 kilograms. And yes, he still deserves your unconditional support. No matter where this goes, if it goes anywhere or nowhere at all, they are both devoted, marvelous wrestlers who have sacrificed far too much throughout their lives and careers to act as inadvertent targets for derision from those outside of their eco-system. This situation sucks. It’s okay to say that. It does, totally. It is, in an understatement, uncomfortable. But regardless of where your thoughts are on all of this, and to which athlete you feel a sense of loyalty, remember that it is not about them. It is about something else, and whatever that “something” is need not initiate an ill-contrived blood feud.

That’s how I see this. That’s how we’ll handle it. We’re all in this together. We have to be, now more than ever.

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Listen to “5PM47: Nate Engel and Xavier Johnson” on Spreaker.

Listen to “5PM46: Taylor LaMont and Jessy Williams” on Spreaker.

Listen to “5PM45: Chatting with Dennis Hall and Max Nowry” on Spreaker.

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