Interviews

The Affirmation of a Dream: Chris Gonzalez On Stamping Down His Spot

Chris Gonzalez, 71 kg, NYAC
Photos: Left, Frank Gioia; Right; Tony Rotundo

When you’re Chris Gonzalez, you can’t afford to play games. 

Gonzalez, always a bright Greco-Roman prospect who in the beginning had trouble getting out of his own way, was someone seen by the masses as a “could be”, but there were likely a few “probably not’s” thrown in there, too. Why should it have been any different? Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States might have its revolving doors at certain spots, but once a few athletes jump up to the top of the heap, they usually stay there. Gonzalez was, at least initially, not one of those athletes. 

But something funny tends to happen when a man starts to realize that chances in this life are fleeting, that guarantees for further opportunities are the stuff of fairy tales laughed away. Call it self-understanding. You don’t have to know everything about everything. Simply comprehending the fact that the sand in the hourglass will always fall at the same rate is enough. The only promises which matter are the handshake deals you make inward. A body wasted, ability shown the door prematurely — that’s okay, happens regularly. It is decidedly different when we’re talking about the disposal of a dream. Few are lucky to have one. Even fewer get to live one. 

So when Gonzalez went ahead and emerged as the 2016 US World Team Trials champion in New York City, he not only earned the right to represent America at the World Championships a month later, but he also kept his dream intact. He’s big on dreams, this kid. He’s also big on confidence. Most elite athletes are. Though, confidence is only as good as the capital used to acquire it. The oft overlooked work that coexists in lockstep with such a notion is only ignored by the unaware. Those on the inside of the bubble are all-too-familiar with its value. You can’t have one without the other. Achievements are merely acknowledgements to the past. What you see in the windshield matters much more than the objects in the rearview mirror. They are not always closer than they appear. 

Which is why Chris Gonzalez is still working. Hard. Harder than ever before. He wants his dream, still carries that confidence necessary to make it happen. Because Greco-Roman wrestling is, at its best, a meritocracy, Gonzalez is the recipient of a precious gift. He gets to try and prove himself all over again next weekend at the 2017 US World Team Trials in Las Vegas, a six and a half month turnaround from that first revelation in NYC. Unusual circumstances, to be sure. Sometimes, you just have to own the circumstances. Here they are. Challenges are everywhere. That’s a good thing for the 25-year old. Gonzalez needs challenges. They are how he knows he’s onto something. 

5PM Interview with Chris Gonzalez

5PM: Before the Non-Olympic World Team Trials in November, we wrote that you were smart, that you’re a smart wrestler. Is that something you look at as one of your strengths, as part of what you bring to the table?

Chris Gonzalez: Most definitely. Me having so much less experience than most, I mean honestly, I have less experience than all of these guys, that is something I always focused on as I developed as a wrestler. I’ve had people, great influences, even while I was up at Marquette, I had a World Champion in Aghasi Manukyan. He would tell me that I have all of the tools and the physical assets and that mat awareness, situational awareness, is what is going to help me eek out a lot of matches I might normally not be able to win because of my lack of experience. So yeah, I would definitely say so.

5PM: You’re not a “tweener”, you are definitely a 71. You are built for it, you look like a 71 kilogram guy, you wrestle like it, too. How did you approach the Trials in November, knowing it was going to be an especially deep tournament given its timing?

CG: Yeah, you know that weight class was definitely stacked. I said it previously, going into every tournament, there are a few guys I expect to run into at one point or another who I feel I need to prepare for. Guys like Ellis (Coleman), I expect to see. Guys like (Alex) Sancho, RaVaughn (Perkins), Pat Smith, these are the guys who I prepare for. Heading into those Trials and coming off the Olympic Team Trials, when I cut down to 66, that was just a bad weight for me. Like you said, I am not a tweener by any means. I belong at 71, I am designed for this weight class. 66 was a lot, I cut 14 kilos in a week and it showed when I was wrestling. The first three minutes I looked like I belonged and the last few minutes, my body didn’t have it.

Going into the 71 kilo World Team Trials, the way that I looked at it is that I was made for this weight. I was going to be stronger than, in my opinion, 100% of the people I might wrestle. I’m faster than most of them, I’m more athletic, so I was just going to rely on my natural abilities and that mat awareness we talked about. Just keep it close and rely on those key assets that I have to get those victories.

5PM: One of the reasons the tournament win wasn’t surprising is because from the outside looking in, you could see this happening. Maybe before you were still a little green, but the timing was starting to sync up. New quad, there’s a freshness about everything. You also knew it was going to be one of the other favorites in the semis and you had Smith, who is extremely tough to deal with. Did you look at a showdown with him as a potential gamebreaker?

CG: I was really looking forward to wrestling Pat Smith. I wrestled him at the Olympic Trials and I was really looking forward to wrestling him at a weight that was healthy for me and getting that redemption and asserting myself as the number one guy. I feel I did that in New York. I didn’t leave any doubt, I feel I did everything pretty well. I lost my first match with Sancho but other than that, I didn’t make any mistakes. I went in there with a game plan and I executed it. And it worked out.

5PM: You had a hernia surgery earlier this year, correct?

CG: Yes, I had a hernia operation about a month and a half before all of the guys left for the Zagreb Open and those tournaments.

5PM: Was the hernia something that just popped up and you got it taken care of right away?

CG: No, you know what, I actually had that. I had a double hernia, a bilateral hernia, and I had it for close to six years now. And it is something that limited me in the past as far as being able to utilize my explosiveness and athleticism and getting to certain positions was uncomfortable for me a little bit. After the World Championships, I felt like that was a good opportunity for me to get that addressed so that I could make those improvements and be in those positions I am normally not comfortable in and I can hit moves I usually was unable to hit. The difference pre and post-procedure has been night and day. My explosiveness is on another level. I can now hit things I always knew I was capable of hitting, but because of the hernia I either couldn’t hit or didn’t feel comfortable doing so. It was something that limited me for a long time. I think making the World Team and having as much success as I did with that, it only gives me more hope and room to grow.

5PM: You won your first Trials and made your first team six months ago and right away, here comes another Trials tournament. Do you feel like a win here stamps what you did in 2016 or is everything brand new again?

Chris Gonzalez: I definitely feel like I have something to prove. One of the reasons I think I have improved is that I have never been complacent with my accomplishments. From my first National tournament three years ago where I took seventh to winning the World Team Trials this past go-around, I come into every quad and every year looking to improve. And I’ve done that to this point. First, it was taking seventh. Then it was taking fifth, and then fourth at the last Nationals before Olympic Trials. I kind of laid an egg at the Olympic Trials and then I came back and won the World Team Trials. Now it’s time to do it on the World level. I already know I’m the best in the country, now it’s time to go to Trials, handle my business, and do what I’m supposed to do. I know what I am capable of doing.

There have always been people who are doubters and naysayers, and there always will be. That just fuels the fire. I’m just going to go out there and do what I fucking do and let people know that it wasn’t a fluke, and let them know that I am here to stay. It doesn’t matter if RaVaughn wasn’t in the weight class, or anybody for that matter. If you are on that mat with me, there’s no excuse. If you’re there, you’re there, and come April 29th I am going to prove I am here to stay. This is my weight class and it’s going to be like that until I decide to hang up my shoes or whatever the case may be. So I definitely feel like I have something to prove.

Chris Gonzalez vs Alex Sancho

Gonzalez (red) and Alex Sancho engaged in a grueling three-match series to decide the 2016 World Team member at 71 kilograms with Gonzalez coming out on top two matches to one. (Photo: Frank Gioia)

5PM: It’s interesting you say that. Did you contend with a narrative that RaVaughn’s absence was a benefit to yourself and others? Or is that something in your own head, that people maybe think that?

CG: I mean, that’s just the God’s honest truth. RaVaughn hasn’t lost at a World Team Trials or the Olympic Trials in the last three years. So you know, for him to not have been there [in November’s Trials], it wouldn’t be honest of me not to acknowledge that. Heading into this World Team Trials, I’m aware I am the number one guy, I am aware he is in my weight class, and I train with him every day. We’re competitors and we want to be the best in the world, both of us. We have the same mindset, the same goals, and we train together. I respect what he has accomplished and I think to be the best in the country or the world, you have to go through the best and I’m ready to do that.

These are definitely things that have been on my mind since the World Championships and the World Team Trials. RaVaughn and I, off the mat, he’s one of my best friends. On the mat competitively, we’re enemies. There’s no friendship in war, that’s just how it is. I respect everything he’s done. But the way I see it, it’s my time to shine. I’ve been fourth, I’ve been fifth, I’ve been seventh. I’ve been in the shadows and I have stepped in the light, and I like how the sunshine feels.

5PM: I know RaVaughn was definitely pulling for you at the Trials.

CG: After I lost that first match against Sancho, he came up to me and told me everything I need to do. He helped me with my strategy. If it’s not me, I want it to be him and it works both ways. At the end of the day, we both want to be the best in the country, but the goal is for everybody representing every weight class to be the best in the world. We come into practice everyday and it’s not like we don’t help each other and just do what we do. We go in there and help each other improve on a daily basis that way when him or I win this weight class, when we go to the World Championships, we’re going there to medal. This is about positivity. We’re brothers. We all want to be the best and you’re only as good as your partners.

5PM: The World Championships, you always about a first-time guy how they’re going to respond in that first match. You did pretty well, especially considering it was also your first major overseas event of any type. What was it? Were you excited for the Worlds? You didn’t seem nervous and hesitant, particularly in your first match.

CG: No, I just think that I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long and when it finally came, the way I saw it is, I don’t anything to fucking lose. Nobody expected me to be here, let alone perform. The way I saw it was, Leave it all on the mat, go balls to the wall, and do everything I can to get the ‘W.’ I really want to put US Greco-Roman back on the map. We’re the biggest, baddest country in the world and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be here dominating. And I just went out there with that mindset. In the first exchange that we had, I kind of got a good feel for it and I knew I belonged there. There were no nerves. I might be nervous all the way until I step on the mat but once I shake your hand and that whistle blows, there is no room to be nervous. I read a quote the other day and it was Will Smith talking about going sky-jumping with some buddies. The whole time he was terrified, but the moment he jumped out of the plane, all the fear was gone. You can have all of this fear leading up until the time comes and then it’s just gone. Fear doesn’t really help. It helps you respect your opponent and it keeps you motivated to train hard. Some people can thrive off of it, but there is no reason for me to be nervous. I had nothing to lose.

I still feel like I have nothing to lose. Until I am the Olympic gold medalist or World Champion, I have nothing to lose. All I can do is go out there and prove my case and solidify my spot. That’s the kind of guy I am. I don’t have anything to lose. I’m not the number one guy in the world, so there is only room for improvement.

5PM: Let’s go there, then. You might not be ranked as the number one guy in the world, but you just wrestled in the World Championships, which at least put you among the best in the world. That being said, that was your first legit overseas event and it was trial under fire. 

CG: Yes, and it is still my only international experience.

5PM: Right, so my question is, you also went to training camp over there in Hungary, so that probably helped.

Chris Gonzalez: Yeah, we were there the week before and I got a good feel for a lot of those guys. Not too much, because I was cutting weight for a lot of it, so it was a lot of weight-cutting and things of that nature, but I definitely got to wrestle around with some of those guys. I had one three-minute go with (Balint) Korpasi, who wound up winning my weight class at the World Championships.

5PM: What do you like about wrestling with foreign guys?

CG: Oh, they’re just not afraid to go out there and scrap, man. They are not afraid to hit throws, give up points and put themselves in uncomfortable positions, and that is probably the biggest thing I took away from it and it is also the biggest thing that I have incorporated into my training since the World Championships and since my hernia procedure. Just not being afraid to give points up and not afraid to make mistakes or anything like that. Just go for shit. That’s what makes wrestling exciting. When people go out there and are all tentative and passive, winning 1-0, 2-0, yeah, that’s cool, but I want to make Greco exciting. I may not have been the most exciting wrestler in the past when I win, but I am definitely looking to add some highlights coming up soon. That’s the biggest thing I’d say.

5PM: When you look back to say, three years ago or whenever, did you see yourself where you are now? The World Team Trials are a week away and you are one of the major names at the tournament. If there was a marquee in front of the arena saying “Appearing Tonight”, you’d be on there.

CG: I definitely always see myself on this level and I think in order to be an Olympic Champion, a World Champion, a World Team member, you have to see yourself there before anyone else does. I’ve always known that given the right coaching staff, the right training environment and the right mindset and focus, I could do anything. I could go be in the NFL, honestly, and I adamantly believe that. That’s just a mindset I’ve always had not just in wrestling, but also in life. Whether it was running track or playing baseball, whether it’s brewing coffee, I know I can be the best. It’s something that burns inside of me. I think it’s a fire that some people have and I’ve got it.

And I’m not content with my performance. I had a really close match with the Romanian, I was up 2-0, I ended up losing that match 2-2 on criteria. He ended up bronzing, but that was my match.

5PM: Both of his points came in the second period. 

CG: Both of his points came in that second period. I gave up a last-second push-out not realizing I had given up a passivity point. So I’m right there. I am going to keep improving and doing what I’ve got to do. Like I said, I didn’t start wrestling until I got to high school. I don’t know if you’ve heard the saying by Michael Jordan, but the ceiling is the roof for me. I have so much room to improve and in the Greco world I’m still really green as far as everything goes and I use that to my advantage to motivate me to train because I know I can get better. Some people are as good as they are ever going to be right now. But that’s not the case for me, so I use that as fuel to keep training hard.

5PM: You’re another Illinois wrestler. You look at it and it’s Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois as the main Greco states it seems. Especially from that Chicago area, you turn around and it’s like eight of you guys right now. 

Chris Gonzalez: But you know what? I grew up with Joe Rau, I grew up with Ellis Coleman and I grew up with Kamal (Bey). All of the guys you’re seeing out of Illinois who are having this success at this level, we all came from the same program. We were being coached by Bryan Medlin, Mike Powell, and Jason Butler and it’s because of them and only them. Then you’ve got Eric Wetzel, who was the head of Illinois Greco-Roman wrestling. That’s what it was. We were in there every day and you’re only as good as your practice partners. Coming up, the only reason I got good was because I went and trained with Ellis every summer. That’s how I got good, I went and trained with one of the best guys in the country and the world, every summer. Joe Rau got good because he was in that room. He was the dark horse. I remember and I don’t know if you know this, but the first year he won Fargo, our coaches had a mock draft for who they were going to coach at the Fargo tournament and he was picked last out of every fucking kid picked. He was the third 215 pounder to be picked. He was last. Then he goes out there and he wins it. That’s what Illinois is about. From the first pick being Ellis Coleman to the last pick being Joe Rau, we’re all capable doing these things at any given time, and Joe’s been doing it better than most people in the country have for quite some time now. I definitely respect what Joe has done, he’s quite the story.

Chris Gonzalez, 2015 US Nationals Trials Qualifier

Gonzalez goes to work on 2012 Olympian Ellis Coleman at the 2015 US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier. Both Coleman and Gonzalez are products of Illinois, one of the strongest states in the country for Greco-Roman wrestling. (Photo: John Sachs)

5PM: I asked Rau if it was partially the culture and the environment or if it was the coaching, or both, and he went in the exact same direction as you did. It might be partly because of the area but it is definitely more because of the coaching. Now, you’re the latest World Team member from there. Is this how it’s going to be from now on, Illinois constantly supplying National-caliber Greco wrestlers?

CG: I sure as hell hope so. I don’t see any reason why it can’t be headed in that direction. The thing about Coach Medlin and Coach Powell is the time they invested into Illinois Greco-Roman wrestling, getting these kids out of less fortunate circumstances and putting them into these programs and buying into them and showing them another way. Coaches are finding these kids who they want to see do better and make something more of their lives. They (kids) aren’t being shown it whether it’s parents or a bad upbringing. They are finding these kids and putting time into them. The countless hours Bryan Medlin and Mike Powell put into Ellis and Lilishawn (Coleman), myself, Joe, Mark Stenberg, and Kamal Bey, we could never repay them for what they have done for us. And they don’t just do this for a handful of kids, they do this for 120 kids year in and year out. So I don’t see why we can’t take over every other state. I don’t see why we can’t four years from now, eight years from now, 12 years from now, have every spot on the Olympic Team. That’s now a possibility. We have the talent. We have the talent, we have the coaches, and other resources out there along with our success. And we’re just scratching the surface of what we can achieve.

5PM: The Cadet and Junior duals you really notice it, the Illinois kids wrestle with an edge to them. 

Chris Gonzalez: Sure. A lot of us kids from Chicago, we have something to prove. A lot of us don’t come from the most fortunate circumstances, so when we get a moment or opportunity to shine, we seize it nine times out of ten. We have that edge because we do feel we have something to prove. We want to have better lives and athletically is usually the best way for a lot of lives.

5PM: I’ve asked about you before and the report back was that you’re a super nice guy, very respectful. Your character is something people have been bringing up.

CG: Thank you. That hasn’t always been the case. I went to college, I was very green, and I kept to myself and I got kicked off a college team. I had some character issues and some character flaws. Even while at Marquette, I had some character flaws. But not just in wrestling but also in life, that don’t define you. I don’t let those mistakes I’ve made in my life define me. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has ever invested their time and energy in me. I just try to grow from my mistakes. I have a little brother and a little sister who is the number one high-jumper in the country right now and she looks up to me. I just try to set the tone. I haven’t always made the best decisions and I’ve paid the consequences. I don’t allow those things to define me. Sometimes, my past issues give people the wrong impression of me, so it definitely makes me feel good inside if that’s what you’re hearing.

5PM: Who are some other athletes, Greco or not, that you looked up to or learned from?

CG: Growing up I actually wasn’t a wrestler, I was a baseball player my whole life. My dad’s from Cuba, I’ve got a crazy Cuban grandmother, things like that (laughs). That was the route I thought I was going. But growing up, the athlete I looked up to the most was Derek Jeter. I remember this story about Derek Jeter, he was in middle school or something like that and they had to write down on a piece of paper what they saw themselves as when they became adults. They put it in a container and they buried it in cement and 20 years later, they dug it up and Jeter said he wanted to be the shortstop for the New York Yankees. He wrote that when he was about 12 years old and he’s one of the best shortstops ever in my opinion. He won multiple championships and he foreshadowed that for himself. Me being a kid from the Southside of Chicago growing up, I really admired that. It gave me hope that where I was wasn’t going to be where I ended up.

So Derek Jeter. Obviously, Michael Jordan for the competitiveness. If I could have half the success in wrestling he had in basketball, I would be A-OK with that. Those two, for sure. I didn’t have too many idols outside of those two.

5PM: How would you describe the attributes of wrestling and Greco-Roman in particular to those who may be unaware?

Chris Gonzalez: The biggest way that I would probably try to sell Greco as opposed to basketball or football, which are way higher-profile sports, is that wrestling is a lot like life. In wrestling, there are no excuses. You can’t point at a teammate over a bad play. You can’t blame anyone but yourself. Life is the same way, you’re going to get out of it what you put into it. It may not be the most financially rewarding, but there are a lot of wrestlers who lead lucrative lives post-wrestling just because of the mentality that is required to be a successful, dedicated wrestler. That transitions to every realm of life. If you can have that tough mentality, that never-quit-I’m-willing-to-grind-out-life attitude, eventually you’re going to find your niche and excel at it.

It’s a very self-fulfilling sport. This isn’t something to do if you want to get rich quick. You’re not going to get a six-figure contract out of college or anything like that. It takes a lot of life values — hard work, dedication, responsibility and accountability. If you’re someone from Chicago or anywhere else in the world and you struggle with those things, and these are traits you want to develop, give wrestling a shot.

5PM: What about the marketing of the sport and in this context, specifically Greco? Why should people watch it?

CG: Greco-Roman wrestling is one of the greatest and first sports man ever invented. There’s nothing more rewarding than two men stepping on a mat to grind it out, just going out there and going to war. Anyone can respect that. Anyone can respect two men, or two women, stepping in the circle and one walks away victorious. We’re the modern-day gladiators. It doesn’t get any tougher than what we do on a daily basis. The daily grind is ridiculous. Everyone I know has some injury or something wrong with them, but that doesn’t stop us. The heart that we have to do what we do every day requires it and it’s something a lot of people aren’t capable of doing. If you can respect two men testing themselves like that, then Greco is for you. But if you can’t handle that, then turn on The Golf Channel or something (laughs).

5PM: How can the US sort of regain its foothold internationally in Greco-Roman wrestling? The floor is yours. 

CG: One thing that could definitely help US Greco improve and be more competitive worldwide is if we were paid financially to where we didn’t have to supplement our income and our livelihoods. You have people like Andy Bisek, who is a two-time World bronze medalist, but instead of on his free time recovering and doing what he had to do to be successful, he’s working a part-time job as a clerk at a liquor store. The US Women’s Hockey Team, they boycotted because they were making $1,000 a month, just like we are, the number one’s in the country. That’s $12,000 a year. That’s poverty. Luckily, USA Hockey got together and said they were right, now they’re making $70,000 a year. That is something that can allow them to train and be dominant.

People say they want to see USA Greco succeed, but what are you doing to help us succeed? You have programs like the OTC (Olympic Training Center), which is great, yeah, we have free housing and free food. But what if you have a family? You don’t want to live in a college dorm-style thing, you know what I mean? You want to have a house and not have those worries. You have a lot of people who are good wrestlers switching over to MMA because there’s just no money. You have people making a living as USA representatives, the head of USA Wrestling and things like this, they’re making a living and they can take their time out of the day to be the best they can be at USA Wrestling. Meanwhile, I’m supplementing, I’m working a full-time job on my off-days. Tomorrow’s a recovery day for me, I’ll be working. Saturday’s a recovery day for me, I’ll be working. I think that would definitely improve the United States of America’s Greco-Roman program, if we had more funding for the athletes.

5PM: How has becoming a full-time Greco-Roman wrestler shaped your life? Not only have you become a Senior competitor, but you’ve also started to come of age, as they say. As these things have coincided, how have they shaped who you are now, today?

CG: It definitely brings a level of maturity that I didn’t have before. Quite honestly, I’ve only been a full-time Greco athlete the last year and a half. I’ve been a full-time college student, I work(ed) a full-time job, and training when I could. I missed so many practices at Marquette. It’s just allowed me to focus on what’s important to me and just grow and mature.

I think another big thing about my success is there have been a lot of times when I’ve had opportunities taken away from me. When I was at Marquette, I was fortunate enough to have Coach (Rob) Hermann give me a second chance. That really just put things into perspective, which is what I would say. Now I have perspective with my life and social life. I have a game plan. I know what I want to do with my life, I know how to get there, what sacrifices need to be made, and that’s the biggest thing. It’s all a process. You don’t just wake up one day and are given a handbook on the do’s and don’t’s of life and wrestling. It comes with trial and error, and I definitely have my fair share of errors, so it brings a lot of perspective for me.

5PM: When you look at this time in your life, I’d assume it’s special, with everything going on. 

CG: Very much so.

5PM: Do you enjoy the moment?

CG: Some days I do, some days I don’t. Some days I’m very hard on myself. Few and far between do I give myself credit that I probably should give. But I think that mindset is what has always helped me continue to grow. I’m never content, I’m never happy with my performance. Making the World Team wasn’t good enough. I never really had an opportunity to sit there and enjoy that, the World Championships were like, a few weeks later.

But you know, I do enjoy the moment. I’ve come far in life. I get calls from my little brother on Facetime and he’s still back home doing his thing. I know sometimes he’s bored or stressed out and he may not see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I just keep trekking and I try to use that as motivation to grow myself and brand myself, and try to bring as many people with me as I can. Whether that’s my little sister and my little brother, or putting USA Wrestling on the map.

A lot of times I’ll question myself. Right after the Olympic Trials, I considered switching over to MMA full-time. I didn’t really have the performance I wanted. I gave it another shot and it worked out, thank God. But I use my siblings and my parents as motivation to keep going to eventually make enough money in this sport or MMA to where I can take care of them. So I’m far from where I want to be, but I’m happy where I’m at this point in my life given where I started ten years ago.

Follow Chris Gonzalez on Twitter and Instagram to keep up-to-date with his career and competitive schedule.

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