The life of a collegiate wrestler is not an easy one. Multiple practices a day just about every day of the week. Classes. Homework. Dorm life. You’re independent, but not really. You may feel like you have some semblance of control over the fabricated landscape inside of your fishbowl, but it’s an illusion. For athletes, college tends to offer more of a crash course in accountability. Because you’re part of a team, there are extra folks to answer to, and by and large, that’s doable. This is a centralized brand of accountability, though; it exists on campus but in most cases, nowhere else. It’s a station in life most point to that indicates adulthood, at least in a legal sense, but come on: they’re all really just kids.
Chris Anderson is laughing.
Anderson, 23, is not only a collegiate wrestler, but a full-time Greco-Roman collegiate wrestler — a breed so rare in the US that there are only about 70 of them walking around. To top it off, the native Texan is also a father to a 10-month-old boy named Ryan and a soon-to-be husband to his fiancee Mariah. So no, the Chris Anderson story is not a typical yarn about a scholastic athlete fighting the good fight just so that once the dust settles, he’ll have a college degree and a lifetime of memories. That’s all part of it, most assuredly, but to understand Anderson’s journey requires gaining a sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary his situation truly is.
How It Starts
While a student at Summer Creek High School in Houston, Anderson was mentored by 1996 US Olympian Derrick Waldroup. Their relationship was a close one. It still is. Of course, due to this dynamic, Anderson was practically forced to become acquainted with Greco’s hard-charging mechanics. He was a standout scholastic competitor, but that style didn’t mesh nearly as well with his more aggressive nature. It was a contrast in approaches that made an impression on him immediately. “The first time I tried Greco, it just felt right compared to folkstyle and freestyle,” Anderson says. “That grind, it just got to me in a good way and it has always been my favorite style from high school on.”
Despite Greco becoming Anderson’s preferred style, that wasn’t where he focused his attention upon graduating from high school. He initially attempted to continue his scholastic career at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The small NAIA school, some 475 miles from his home in Houston, offered what appeared to be a solid opportunity for Anderson to still set out to accomplish his goals on the mat without having to completely break the bank in order to do so. The problem was, he didn’t like it. At all. Not even a little bit. Rather than hang out for a while to see if there was a sliver of a chance that Bacone would grow on him, Anderson bolted. He had seen enough to know that it just wasn’t going to happen for him out in Oklahoma, so why waste any more time?
“I got there and immediately didn’t like it,” explains Anderson. “I didn’t see it as a place where I would be able to progress and become one of the best in the country at that time. So I pulled out and came back home.”
Like many American high school grads caught in between, Anderson bounced around like a basketball on hardwood. At first he worked. There was no choice in the matter. Money was a need, and plus, the registration deadline for a nearby community college had passed. Anderson jumped into jiu-jitsu classes at an MMA gym as a way to stay active and keep the heart-rate up. It wasn’t wrestling, but close enough.
A secondary education never stopped being the goal, however. The fall of 2014 saw him enroll at Sam Houston State University, a move that in an academic sense, could have been seen as a step up. Only, he didn’t last there, either. Anderson was rooming with some friends and they were his lifeline. Since they were graduating, and thus, leaving campus, he didn’t have anywhere to stay.
So he came back home. Again. Anderson registered for classes at Lone Star Community College, the school he originally wanted to attend after leaving Bacone. Count ’em up — that’s three campuses over the span of 18 months, give or take. Finding the right situation wasn’t easy for Anderson. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. He wanted to get in the collegiate mode, but it seemed as though every time he began to settle in, something got in his way. “Sorry,” Anderson offers with a chuckle. “My college career has been kind of hectic, so it’s tough to get it all in order.”
Hectic? No, there would be time for hectic later.
Finally, a steady, productive pattern unfolded. Anderson was taking classes at Lone Star, working to pay for said classes, and wrestling was even back in his life. Mariah, a competitor in the sport herself, wanted to keep training, so Anderson drove the both of them to Waldroup’s club, then known as the Elite Wrestling Academy, in Huffman. There, he could feel part of it again; part of the sport, part of a cause.
Eventually, Anderson started assisting at the club. He had been working out with the kids, and passing along his knowledge kept him engaged. Helping younger athletes push through grueling practices, dishing out tips to concerned high schoolers, and being around Waldroup all served as a rekindling of the flame. Anderson didn’t want to be done with wrestling, not yet. That’s when Waldroup offered a solution.
“I was focusing on being an assistant coach at the school and he asked me if I was interested in attending Northern Michigan,” Anderson recalls. “My buddy David Prado decided he wanted to train there, and I had to think for a second if I still wanted to compete and go through all of that. I realized that I’m still young, so yeah, I did. I have my whole life to live and I can’t compete forever. That Greco had always been my favorite style added to it.”
Unless you are entering the room at Northern Michigan University boasting years of top-flight age-group experience, the dynamics at play can present a shock to the system. Forever labeled as a “developmental program”, what goes on at NMU is anything but. While there are plenty of young, green recruits from year to year, the training environment is such that all wrestlers are demanded to pay close attention to technical intricacies as well as demonstrate the discipline and effort necessary to achieve peak physical conditioning. The National-level stars who take on leadership roles might be willing to hold your hand when the sledding is at its roughest in the beginning, but sooner or later, you have to be ready to meet their intensity.
The only reason why Anderson didn’t find what lied ahead at NMU to be a wildly-daunting endeavor could be credited to his time with Waldroup. The coach had long before impressed upon him the importance of bringing pressure, of taxing every cell in your body until fatigue ebbs its way into becoming an opaque concept rather than a source of fear. That doesn’t mean Anderson wasn’t about to hit a wall or two or three, just that he at least understood what the wall looked like.
“Throughout high school, he (Waldroup) pretty much put us through extensive training and really tough practices day-in, day-out, and year ’round,” Anderson says. “I expected the same type of training at Northern and then some. The biggest thing I was anticipating was that it would be the toughest competition I could possibly get here in the US.”
He was right on both accounts. Anderson’s tenure at NMU arrived with the onset of 2016’s spring semester. There was a lot of learning to get done in the upcoming months. Anderson’s introduction to the world of full-time Greco-Roman involved tweaking more than just his technique. Part of what makes the style so confounding to relative newbies is that it requires a strict adherence to proper positioning. Scoring holds, throws, and takedowns are rarely snagged from a distance. Fighting to assume worthwhile positions and then capitalizing at the earliest available opportunity takes some getting used to. It’s not about moves — everyone knows the moves, mostly — it’s about forcing action and taking chances when the time is right.
The learning curve being what it is, Anderson unsurprisingly struggled coming out of the gate. An 0-2 performance at the 2016 University Nationals popped the cork on his Senior career, but really, the idea was just getting out there to see what he was working with. Rawness be damned, Anderson was starting to see results in the room and he grew optimistic. The gang at Northern accepted him and close friend Prado was there every step of the way, both eager to embrace a new way of life that was slowly becoming second nature. This was the plan — keep wrestling, get that education, and then continue down what for all intents and purposes appeared to be a smooth ride towards an untapped future in the sport.
Anderson, now completely eased into the routine as a full-time Greco athlete at Northern, was about to see yet another detour in his collegiate career. Only this time, registration deadlines for classes and organizing schedules to accommodate wrestling practice would pale in comparison.
“Mariah started saying that she was feeling sick,” Anderson begins. “She wasn’t feeling well and it carried on for a while. Soon enough, they started to seem like symptoms of pregnancy. So she took two pregnancy tests and they came back positive.”
Compounding the instantly life-altering news was the distance. Anderson, well, he was in Michigan. Mariah, every bit the wrestler in the relationship that Chris is, was busy with her own competitive exploits down at Lyon College in Arkansas. It was a swirling storm of confusion — of course. The only item in the entire swirling storm that offered anything vaguely representing clarity was the baby. As for the parents, comprehending exactly how to proceed in the short-term loomed as the preeminent hurdle staring them both in the face.
“It was like, Alright, what do we do from here?” acknowledges Anderson. “We were just trying to figure out what would be best. For her, she had to stop wrestling, obviously. Me, I decided I would finish out the semester, come back home for his birth, and go from there. Maybe I’d take classes back home and try to compete on my own, or just basically see where life takes us.”
Finding out you are going to be a father, at any age, brings with it a spectrum of emotions. Joy is and should be one of them, which was the case here and why Anderson found himself all of the sudden once again entertaining a future without wrestling. He knew that his own needs and desires now occupied a distant priority. Whatever was going to be his next move had to be determined by how it would affect the cohesiveness between he and Mariah. Between he and another little human who represented a crossroads Anderson didn’t expect to navigate so soon.
Anderson was 22 — the average age of a first-time father in the US, as of 2015, is 30.9 years of age. It’s not hard to figure out why. Modern parents want to establish themselves first, get everything all set up before starting a family. They want to finish college. Anderson? He had just begun to grow accustomed to the prospect of completing his education sans the chaos that followed his first two years out of high school.
Peace could be found on the mat. Wrestlers, regardless of life situation, can always depend on the structure and physicality the sport offers to divert their attention away from the goings-on outside of the practice room. In Anderson’s case, training at Northern conveniently brought with it an intense focus on improvement. He couldn’t just go through the motions, he was very much still an apprentice. This is how it went for months. Practice, class, practice. Anderson could lose himself in the daily itinerary and then check in with Mariah every chance he had, even if he knew deep down by then that checking in with each other wouldn’t be good enough too much longer.
On the surface, a 1-2 performance at the 2016 Senior Nationals doesn’t exactly indicate a wrestler “lighting it up”, but for Anderson it was a step in the right direction. He competed well in spots and got to see firsthand what the top domestic level looks and feels like. And he wanted more of it. How that would be able to happen going forward, no one really knew.
Anderson’s time as a student athlete seemed to be reaching its conclusion. It wasn’t just the impending birth of his son. Finances, or the lack thereof, entered into the equation, as well. Attending Northern Michigan did not come free for Anderson, and it wasn’t like he could work a whole ton — certainly not with the majority of his waking hours devoted to classes, training, and the observation of a racing mind. The logistics, the miles separating a young man from the mother of his child, rightfully assumed center-stage, but it was really a cavalcade of obstacles all crashing down at once that made leaving Marquette the only move left to make. “A lot of it came down to finances,” Anderson confirms. “I mean, I had everything else going on, but that wound up being the deciding factor.”
For Anderson, the winter of 2017 meant two things: the baby would soon be arriving and his collegiate career may be over. Needless to say, one mattered more than the other. He got himself back down south to be by Mariah’s side for the birth — that joyous occasion came three weeks earlier than expected, as Ryan warmly greeted Planet Earth on March 1st at five pounds, four ounces. The typical frenzied machinations new fathers go through all presented themselves in short order, though they were ramped up a little more for Anderson. Their first concern was getting Ryan on track to bring home. Once that was all set, the drill practically established itself, as it is wont to do. Sleepless nights, diaper changes, and worrying over every imaginary tiny-but-seemingly-gargantuan scenario that could possibly go wrong. First-time moms may have their own adjustment periods with a newborn, but dads are usually overwhelmed for double however long that is. There’s no other time in one’s life more fulfilling, and often, no other time more anxiety-inducing.
With Ryan beginning to settle into a groove, Anderson had to rediscover his. Options didn’t appear to be plentiful and wrestling, while still a desire, parked itself momentarily on the backburner. The chief source of consternation centered around education and working. Would one have to be sacrificed for the other? It looked that way for a second. After having attended numerous schools and grabbing every decently-paying job available that didn’t completely interfere with his goal of earning a degree, Anderson had to survey the landscape once more. Lucky for him, at around the same point when his journey encountered its peak turbulence, another program emerged to offer the most reasonable and attractive incentive to forge ahead.
The fall of 2016 saw Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas announce that it would be forming a Greco-Roman team the following year. Championed by Kerry Regner, the school’s first wrestling coach in its history and who is now the head at Millersville College in Pennsylvania, the WBC Greco program immediately snared national headlines even before it was fully functional. Up until this year, the only other such program in the US was Northern Michigan. Regner, himself an NMU alum, saw the value in an attempt to bolster college-aged depth around the country and Williams listened. Wouldn’t you know it, but Anderson did, too.
“Chris was asking the right questions,” informs Regner. “He didn’t just want to come to Williams and wrestle, he wanted to make sure that the same level of coaching was going to be available. More than anything, he was serious about finishing school and being in an environment that was going to make sense to him and his family, and Williams Baptist checked all of those boxes.”
As good as it all sounded, it wasn’t a slam dunk for Anderson right away. Regner did his best to assuage any surface fears and the news that Jonathan Drendel, another former NMU’er and Junior National champ, had accepted the head coaching gig, brought with it the added assurance that this was all as serious as he had truly hoped it would be. But Anderson still needed to talk to Drendel, if only to solidify the direction in which he was veering. “I was a little skeptical at first,” concedes Anderson. “But once I spoke to Coach Drendel and asked him how it was looking for guys on the team, I started to feel more confident about being here.”
New Team, Same Dream
Anderson made his way out to Arkansas determined to take full advantage of this most fortuitous turn of events. The timing, could it have been better? How? Life is a ball of chaos. Plans aren’t really plans, they’re ideas. They can be compartmentalized on paper or on a smartphone calendar, but until Point A intersects with Point B, everything is a hypothetical. Pivots are necessary. It’s just, what are the odds that a Greco-Roman wrestler in the United States of America who was able to practice the style in college at one institution would get the chance to do so at another? And in the midst of the most life-changing event known to humankind? Any other previous year, Chris Anderson is likely resigned to a much more cookie-cutter outcome that sees the love for his sport all but passed by. Becoming a father and a student at Williams Baptist — in that order — certainly weren’t in his plans, but it doesn’t mean the big picture is obscured.
“I’m lucky that Williams is here,” Anderson concedes. “I’ve thought about that a lot, if this program didn’t open up. I probably would have tried to train at home with Waldroup, which I did for the World Team Trials anyway, but I wouldn’t have had the partners or the schooling.”
That is no longer a problem. Anderson is taking on a full tilt of classes at Williams and he has training partners, though not a wide assortment of them. Even that isn’t so much an issue. The WBC practice room might not boast the same depth Northern offers (currently, there are approximately 55 wrestlers at the Olympic Training Site in Marquette), but what Williams lacks in numbers is made up for in closeness. This is a unique bunch. All of the athletes share a similar baseline in terms of overall Greco-Roman skill and knowledge. They also comprise the first-ever Greco team in the school’s brief wrestling history and a lot is riding on their shoulders. Throw in the close quarters as well as the somewhat isolated confines of Walnut Ridge, and it’s easy to understand why the Williams Greco athletes have fashioned an unmistakable bond.
“We have our own little differences on some topics and ideas, but we’re all brothers on this team,” stresses Anderson. “We’re dedicated to bettering each other and bettering ourselves. Being at Northern, it was nice having so many people to work with. Here, there aren’t a lot of guys, but that forces everyone to work even harder because we know it’s just us right now, and we are aiming to be the best we can be. Focusing on our techniques, high intensity, whatever that may be, and encouraging each other.”
The man in charge bears much of the responsibility. In Drendel, Anderson has found a coach who, first of all, has been there and done that. Before he stepped away from competition, Drendel, still now only 28, was beginning to crack through more and more on the National Senior circuit when his body stopped cooperating the way it used to. Thanks in part to his being brought up in the hard-knock system that Ivan Ivanov installed at NMU, in conjunction with his time under Regner as an assistant, Drendel entered into the head coaching role at Williams with a clear vision of how to mold a squad of ferocious, well-conditioned Greco-Roman wrestlers. Perhaps that’s why Anderson feels like he hasn’t missed a beat.
“His coaching style reminds me of my first semester at Northern,” Anderson says. “The way he runs practices is very similar to the way Rob (Hermann) and Aghasi (Manukyan) would. He pushes us to high intensity and correct technique. He doesn’t want 50% from us. If we’re going to do something, he expects it to be 100% every time. That’s how he is as a coach. I’m dead tired after most every practice. Being here isn’t that much different than being at Northern when you compare practices. They’re very similar.”
A mutual respect has blossomed. Drendel understood Anderson’s circumstances prior to his arrival. It’s not like there were any secrets. That being said, a casual, run-of-the-mill conversation between coach and prospective athlete wasn’t going to be enough, not for either party. Anderson, forever as easy-going as a leisurely stroll through an orchard, had become used to describing his recent life milestones the same way a gas station attendant doles out directions to a lost traveler. He is matter-of-fact to the core with just a tinge of Texas good ol’ boy simmering just beneath the surface. But it didn’t stop him from getting his point across to Drendel how important this all was. Anderson laid all his cards out on the table and Drendel walked away impressed with what he heard.
“He had a lot on the line here, which just showed me his commitment level,” Drendel notes. “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t committed to his family, but he knew his career was dependent on weighing a lot of options. This is something he had thought through and planned out. It goes to show he is operating at a high maturity level, and he wanted to step back into the game and take this seriously. And honestly, get back the career that he lost.”
A few adjustments to the domestic Senior Greco-Roman schedule heading into the 2017-18 season resulted in some early challenges for the Williams boys. Aside from an exhibition event held in Nebraska this past fall, the wrestlers have endured a prolonged absence from competition. The calendar alone can’t be blamed — many WBC wrestlers had run into various issues securing the paperwork required to participate in November’s Dave Schultz Memorial, an event where United World Wrestling licenses are a must. The red tape proved too thick to cut, so rather than send only a smattering of wrestlers, everyone from Williams stayed home. The next target is the Bill Farrell Memorial/NYAC International Open set for late March in New York City. It is there where Anderson, his teammates, and a generous number of America’s top Greco competitors will converge for the last Senior event held on US soil prior to the World Team Trials.
For now, they are preparing like mad down there in Arkansas. It has been this way for months now. Salty puddles of sweat adorn random spaces on the mat. Nothing a mop can’t fix, but why bother to rush when you’re going to have to repeat the process again and again every other minute? No, they won’t just leave it there, someone could slip. They’ll try to wait it out for as long as they can to avoid disrupting the painful lessons of a struggle that needs to be loved at the base level of its existence. There is little fanfare in this trade. The Williams Baptist Greco-Roman team operates in near-anonymity compared to other programs. So they work. Constantly. They bruise, they bleed, and they learn. Even without having so much as sent a single guy out on the mat in a sanctioned event just yet, you get the sense that Williams wrestlers have given up on the idea that they need to earn the respect of their peers. With how hard the group is working, it appears they are much more ready to demand it.
But as with any team, each Williams athlete has his own individual goals. Whether it is achieving a certain placement at a tournament, qualifying for a big event, or witnessing tangible improvement in day-to-day technique, every wrestler is chasing a desired result. It is one of those aspects of a hyper-competitive sport that often brings a team together. Motivation is what differs. Personal perspectives and sources of inspiration rarely cease in their uniqueness. Athletes carry pieces of everyone in their lives with them. If that doesn’t sum up Chris Anderson’s reasons to continue on, what does?
“Every time I open my phone, I see my son and it reminds me of why I’m doing this and who I am doing this for. It has dawned on me that I have to grow up quick. I have to keep my priorities in check and get everything done that I need to get done. It is the greater sense of responsibility that comes with school, being a father, a soon-to-be husband, and trying to be a better athlete.”
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