The Illinois Regional Training Center, hosted on campus at the University of Illinois in Champaign, became a hot attraction the very moment its doors opened back in 2018. A deep talent pool in the state did not hurt the IRTC’s instantly-high profile, but most of the buzz centered around the coach — who is recognized by most smart people as the best in the nation.
In The Year of Our Lord 2021, the IRTC made significant strides on the Greco-Roman front with four athletes appearing the US Olympic Team Trials — Joe Rau, Travis Rice (60 kg), West Cathcart (130 kg), and Tanner Farmer (130 kg). On the Junior level, Luke Luffman (130 kg) made the World Team, his second such honor after representing the US as a Cadet in ’18. The Senior Greco circuit also welcomed in the emergences of Dane Durlacher (55 kg) and We Rachal (63 kg), which aided in bolstering the IRTC’s presence in the lighter weight categories.
Headlines kept coming even later in the year. Farmer, a quickly-improving neophyte, placed third at the September Trials, thereby cementing his case as a problematic heavyweight contender; and just last month, ’17 Junior World Champion/four-time National champ Kamal Bey was brought on board as an IRTC athlete.
It’s a lot to unpack, but IRTC head coach Bryan Medlin does so thoroughly in this latest report.
There are “catch-up” topics presented for Medlin, leading off with what he has gleaned from the Rau/Stefanowicz controversy from April, and which eventually led to Rau’s retirement from active international competition. An update on Rice is available, as well, for the proud Illinois product is in the midst of a hiatus. From then on, it is all about development, philosophies, and a subject of which coaches and fans seemingly can’t get enough: peaking wrestlers according to their specific needs and the schedule at large.
5PM: What did the Joe Rau situation from the Olympic Trials finals series teach you, just in general?
Coach Bryan Medlin: I guess what I learned from it is that if you sense something wrong, it’s never too early to voice it. Because I knew — just talking to Andy Bisek and we’re sitting there before Joe came out — that something wrong was about to take place. It was happening.
Hindsight is 20/20, but I wish I had just walked out onto the mat. I wish that I would have disrupted it, I wish that I caused a scene. I mean, that is what people are telling me I should have done. They ask, Well, why didn’t you stop the match? And I’m like, “Because it’s an official.” I don’t really know what I could have done within the rules. But at the same time, just act on your conscience. I sat there thinking about that (challenge) brick knowing that by the rules and what they were doing that they were probably going to be able to get that point and get him put down. At the same time, you could have voiced your concerns about what was right, and what was wrong.
5PM: Travis Rice, he’s pretty much your OG at the IRTC, your first Senior athlete there, and you have a longstanding relationship with one another. He is now taking some time for academic pursuits and is gone for a while. What has it been like not having him around?
Medlin: I miss him. I miss him as a person. He was good for me because I did have a relationship with him since he was eight or nine-years-old. Having him around gave me something to look at and say, Okay, you’re still building. You’re still creating this thing that started when he was young. And watching him progress was awesome.
I do miss him. I miss his personality and him being in the room. He was always down to do whatever. He had no ego and would just do whatever was asked of him. That is pretty rare in an athlete sometimes.
5PM: The heavyweights from the IRTC were one of the major stories from last year with West Cathcart having re-asserted himself, Tanner Farmer’s rapid development, and of course Luke Luffman making a second World Team. But regarding Cathcart and Farmer specifically, it was also a challenging year I’d imagine. There was a lack of events, which in one way was good because it gave West more time to recover. Yet there was Farmer, who was new and might have jumped at every opportunity to compete. What is your perspective on how that affected them given your room is the best room in the country for heavyweights?
Medlin: I think both of those guys, they are a little older. I mean both of them; even though Tanner wasn’t wrestling, he was playing Division I football which can wear on your body as much, if not more, than wrestling when it comes to hips, your back, your knees, and things like that. It was difficult because it was weird. There wasn’t this ability to peak and taper like you would normally for a Trials process. It was a little bit different where you had to kind of hold that middle ground for a while, and then take a bunch of time off so that they would be healthy enough to put in a good training cycle. I just tried to be intelligent with them. They both trusted that they were doing the right thing and followed the plan pretty well.
I think West’s body kind of gave out on him a little bit towards the end. He has had some time here to get himself right and hopefully he will be back. Tanner, every day that you watch him, he is just better than the day before. He is getting tougher. There is a difference between “football shape” and “wrestling shape”. Everyone understands that, but there is also a difference in the mentality. As a football player, you can go really hard for ten seconds at a time and then there is a long break between plays, or whatever. That is not how it is in wrestling, and that’s the thing. That mental side of it is where he is also improving. He is learning to put six minutes together and to keep attacking, keep pressuring. He can blow anybody off the blocks. If it was to see who could get the first push-out, I would take Tanner over pretty much everyone in the world. But that was the thing he had to get used to for six minutes, working and pushing.
5PM: Even forgetting his physical ability, We Rachal clearly has the instincts and understanding for timing with where he sees attacks. If he were a running back, you would say that he has excellent vision…
5PM: 63 kilos in our country is a pretty condensed weight class in terms of talent. As a young athlete, We is starting to gather more steam as a Senior. What is it that you look for in him as far as his markers for progression?
Coach Bryan Medlin: I think this year was great for him because he understands now that he’s not that far off. He understands exactly the distance and what he is going to need in order to close the gaps. There are non-negotiables in Greco. You have to be able to stop guys when you are on bottom. You have to be so confident and aggressive when you go on bottom that you know this is a chance to try and demoralize a guy. He can’t be afraid of that position.
So I think that for him, personally, his biggest thing is that. He has some intangibles to where you can add par terre defense and pummeling skills, and then he can take off as a star of the sport. But he needs those non-negotiables. Especially in America, we’re too apt to just be like, We can try this other thing, we don’t need to defend and can instead just try to escape. Those are non-negotiables. You have to defend, and you have to keep doing it until you get it right and can do it against everyone in the whole world. It just gives you that confidence. Even on your feet. You can say, I don’t necessarily know how the match is going to play out but when I’m put down, you’re not scoring. That’s all there is to it. When We gets that, he’s going to turn a big corner. He is going to work on that.
5PM: The 55 kilogram bracket, despite it being non-Olympic, we are trying to re-develop that weight class here and Dane Durlacher is playing a role in this cause. He has taken some lumps, which is just fine. But 55 is important here, it’s a good landing spot. What do you like about him at this young phase of his Senior career?
Medlin: He isn’t afraid. There are a lot of guys who wrestle folkstyle, they wrestle Division I, and they go out there and are afraid to put it on the line. He’s not. Dane understands what he needs to do. He takes ownership of it. He puts things in perspective really well. I think he is going to make bigger gains as he goes along. Dane is not one of those guys you can taper too early because he does take responsibility for what happens on the mat and puts in the work to fix them. And obviously, I was pretty decent friends with Lindsey and I think it is awesome to be able to work with his nephew and seeing that legacy live on. That is a big deal to us as well as it is for the entire wrestling community.
5PM: Recently, it was announced that Kamal Bey had become an IRTC athlete. Given that Kamal will also be Army/WCAP, that puts him in the same boat as Max Nowry and Ellis Coleman — two other IRTC guys who are Army wrestlers. Would you explain for the audience’s sake exactly what this means?
Medlin: The big thing is that a guy like Kamal or Max, they come out here for specialized training. Also, Army right now doesn’t have the funding to send them to all of the places that they need to go. For example, Max needed to go to the Pan-Ams last year, and there are some upcoming trips where we want to make sure that they get the funding that they need — so they can get the training and competition necessary to win World and Olympic medals.
Those three guys came up through Illinois. A big part of why I took this job is so that I can make sure the guys who came up through this system have the tools they need to be successful. Making sure they get overseas training, making sure they get overseas competition, and making sure that they have us for additional specialized training. It is just specifically based upon what they need individually. We have pretty good athletes out here who can push them in different ways. It is a situation that can help both sides. I think, obviously, their success is a big deal; but at the same time, making sure that they get exactly what they need is our main mission.
5PM: The Illinois RTC is an actual, legitimate RTC for Greco insofar as there are several Division I wrestlers who are also devoted to eventual Senior success. That means they have college seasons. When college season ends, here comes the US Open and various Trials tournaments. Meanwhile, you do have full-time Seniors who aren’t in college and Greco is all they do. How do you manage periodization and peaking for these segments of athletes throughout a competitive season, considering their differences?
Coach Bryan Medlin: It’s a lot of planning. The big thing I have realized is that when a kid is 18 or 19-years-old, his body reacts differently compared to someone who is 28. Being able to put a plan together for an individual is something that I love to do. I love to sit down and think about how this person just came off of the NCAA’s and now he has three weeks to prepare for the US Open — which can presumably happen to a guy like Zac Braunagel next year. You hope that they are injury-free and you can put together a good training cycle in three to four weeks. Then, you’re going to need a week off, and then the US Open I think is exactly a month after the NCAA’s… So it is about being prepared and being able to put the pieces together. It is not about just going hard. A lot of good potential athletes have been ruined by just going hard blindly.
What’s good for us is that we know Luffman very well, we know Braunagel very well. We know what they need to work on in that little bit of time. You don’t have to put together a training camp with a ton of high-intensity training that breaks their bodies down because you already understand their needs.
The differences are that college-aged athletes are a little more elastic. Their bodies are able to recover from things, but you do have to be careful with Senior-level guys. You can’t just work them. Max, for instance, has had injuries from which he is recovering. You can’t blindly throw caution to the wind and do two-hour grind matches with a guy who a little bit long in the tooth for the sport. As long as you are smart, you can keep peaking. I think all of our guys, especially our older ones — like Max, Ellis, Tanner, and West — they’re not done yet. They just have to be smart regarding how they prepare their bodies for competition.
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