Interviews

In This Moment: The Reboot of Sammy Jones

the reboot of sammy jones
Sammy Jones -- Photo: Richard Immel

To really get to know Sammy Jones (63 kg, NYAC), it’s a good idea to ignore everything you thought you knew about him to begin with. So you throw out the accolades, the matches won, the medals earned, the break-neck pace of his toil, and strip it all down to basic humanity. Not in a trite “what makes him tick?” kind of a way. It’s not necessary. If anything, such an approach would mean there is too much effort on your part. If you try to deconstruct Jones whilst employing even an inkling of pretense he will cut you to pieces. He might only be 24, but there’s an unassuming wisdom available in his candor. And since Jones is already willing to let you in, a verbal game of “tag” is completely counterproductive.

Jones may have always been a forthcoming individual but it is reasonable to assume that he is even more so at this stage of his life. Chalk it up to self-discovery. Wrestlers, especially those who devote their competitive careers to Greco-Roman in these United States, are often obliged to dump their previous identities in hopes of becoming better acclimated to the landscape. It’s not as dramatic as say, entering the Witness Protection Program; more like resettling on the Island of Misfit Toys. Bonds are formed and together they and set off sail on a new and exciting journey in search of acceptance. Or world domination, what have you. The past isn’t forgotten, but reaching back into the memory bank can prove costly, for there is danger to be found in taking one’s eyes off the sea.

What distinguishes Jones from most is that he didn’t feel a sense of urgency to dismiss the string of events which led him to Greco and Northern Michigan University. Quite the opposite. Having grown up homeschooled in Louisiana, Jones’s formative years provided him with a unique viewpoint of life both on and off the wrestling mat. He entered college with a grasp of what true independence looks and feels like and soon became armed with the understanding that there is indeed a world much bigger than the one most in this country are aware of. But even with that, Jones couldn’t let himself glance at the rearview mirror all that much. He was growing and improving — quickly and constantly. It’s just, experiencing success didn’t embolden him the way you might expect. A World medal, of all things, wasn’t enough to convince Jones of his potential specialness. So he forced himself to move on without ever fully embracing that achievement for what it actually meant.

This initial resistance didn’t halt Jones’s gradual progress, though the argument could be made it temporarily stunted his trajectory. He concedes that. Of course, it’s about more than one medal, or one match, or 80 matches. For all of Jones’s athletic attributes, of which there are many, most point to his aggressive-if-not-reckless nature as their favorite. That is what he is known for, always being willing to bring the heat, to go big when convention dictates otherwise. But this level of bravado was compartmentalized to a degree. Jones is and forever has been a fearless and ferocious competitor. That was never the problem. The issue stemmed from the pockets of doubt every athlete inevitably encounters. Even as Jones managed to climb the ranks in the US, he still wasn’t entirely sure his name belonged in the same breath as the others.

Now in his seventh year navigating the waters as a full-time Greco-Roman athlete, Jones is no longer unsure about where he stands, what he’s capable of, or what he deserves. The road getting to this place has had its share of twists and turns. But through it all, Jones has stayed the course as one of the most complete wrestlers in the US and a legitimate contender for a spot on the Senior World Team. He credits maturity for his continued excellence as well as his embracing of the community around him. Jones is at home, finally. At peace. And a peaceful version of Sammy Jones is looking to be the most dangerous one yet.

5PM Interview with Sammy Jones

5PM: 63 kilograms is probably not as grueling of a weight cut, but does it feel like it’s just a better overall fit at this point in your career?

Sammy Jones: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the weight cut is a huge thing. I’m just enjoying the sport more at this weight right now. Pretty much every wrestler diets year-round, keeps themself healthy, but not having to worry about cutting as much weight as I did at 59 has made the sport more enjoyable. I’m enjoying practice more and not having to get extra runs as much. I am also able to work on stretches and that sort of thing, and just different techniques, as opposed to everyday thinking, Oh man, I have to cut weight. So I am enjoying it from that aspect, for sure.

5PM: What about tying it into the performance element? There have been a good amount of studies over the past several years talking about the dips in performance related to weight cuts, how athletes lose a significant percentage of their power and stamina from dropping down. Has anything like that ever crossed your mind, the performance standpoint along with you just generally feeling more comfortable?

SJ: You know, it has a few times. I’ve had tournaments before where the weight cut was pretty much always the same. I did it as best I could most of the time. I’ve had some weight cuts that were better than others, and I’ve had tournaments at 59 (kilos) where I felt great. And then I have had other tournaments where I felt strong but didn’t have a gas tank, and by the second period I felt exhausted. What I’ve noticed at 63, and I have only had two tournaments at this weight and strength-wise I’ve felt consistent at whatever weight I went, but I have noticed that my conditioning is better.

Now what I will say is that Andy (Bisek) has an intense conditioning regimen that he’s got us on and that plays a part in it. But also, not having to run as much and kill my legs a couple days before and resting up. Andy has a lot of the guys working out once a day leading up to the weigh-in and keeping us on top of the diet. So there are some new strategic things that he’s introduced I had never done before that I think play a role, but I do agree that not having to cut as much has helped with performance so far. I’ve only had two tournaments, you know? It’s hard to say how much of a difference, but I just know I feel better in that I’m enjoying myself more. So I look at that and say, Yeah, I feel better.

5PM: You’re 24, so depending on what kind of gauge you use, technically speaking, you’re not at your athletic prime yet. I’m sure you have goals for Tokyo, but do you look ahead? A lot of athletes are concerned with this year or this quad and go from there. Some have very grand plans in their heads stretching into multiple years or even quads. As we stand now on the doorstep of the US Open, when you let your brain wander, do you think past Tokyo going into 2024? Or do you like keeping it in the moment, lack of a better term?

SJ: The way I plan it out is that I am going to wrestle as long as my body feels good and as long as I’m enjoying the sport and loving it. I think that’s the most important thing to me, is that I am enjoying what I’m doing. If I’m passionate about wrestling, then I am going to give it everything I have while I’m healthy and enjoying the sport. As far as planning it out, I’m not promised the next tournament. I felt that last year at the (World Team) Trials rolling my ankle. I thought that I was a shoo-in and set to do well at that tournament, and mentally I was ready to go. But then it was an injury, something that was completely out of my control and having to come back from that. Then we were set to go to Iran for the Clubs Cup in December and we were pulled out because of political and security reasons, which was a tough decision the coaching staff had to make.

So what I’ve learned is that I’m not promised anything as far as health, mentally where I’m at, or what life is going to throw at you. I have an idea in my mind of what I want, but I hold fast to the belief of taking it one day at a time, being as present as I can, and soaking up each practice, each go. That’s how I approach it in wrestling and outside of wrestling, I just try to be as present as I can be. I feel like I get the most out of what I’m doing without looking too far ahead.

5PM: Obviously I know that the death of your coach (Aghasi Manukyan) affected you deeply but then there was a quick turnaround to the next competition. I’m not inserting or assuming an excuse for you, but was there a weight, a heaviness to having to compete so soon after experiencing emotional turmoil like that?

SJ: I would say there is a weight from the death of Aghasi and it is something that will stick with me and each one of my teammates and everybody else who has known him. As far as did it negatively affect my wrestling? I can’t say that. I went out and wrestled with what I had and to blame it on one thing, I don’t really know if that was a cause related to how I performed in New York. With Aghasi, it has influenced just the way I’m thinking about wrestling. Like I said to the previous question, it’s about just being present. There is not a single day that is promised to us. Not one.

It was definitely on my heart and on my mind going into that tournament. It was something that I definitely was trying not to bring onto the mat just because it was an emotional experience, which can be used for good, but it can also have a negative impact on your competition. I’m not going to say that it had a negative influence just because I think mentally you should put those things to the side. When you step on the mat, I feel that’s a place where you have to put everything to the side and just be there to wrestle. That’s what wrestling has been to me since I was a kid, putting everything that I was going through to the side to just wrestle. I feel that I was able to do that in that tournament. It kind of put a pause on whatever was going on in my mind and I just tried to let it flow.

5PM: Speaking of when you were a kid, you certainly don’t come from a place defined as a Greco hotbed. Walk through your initial zeal for Greco-Roman prior to finding yourself in Marquette, Michigan.

Sammy Jones: Okay, yeah. Well, I was homeschooled as a child all the way to my senior year of high school. My mother was a teacher before she had kids and then her and my dad decided to homeschool my older siblings. I think it was when my brother was in first grade that it was decided she would stay home and teach. The reason they did that is because we were raised in a Christian home and they felt that the best way to give us a Biblical worldview was to keep us there. So, our curriculum was heavily based out of Scripture. That was the foundation of what we were taught. That’s what I was raised in and that allowed me with sports, specifically wrestling, to travel. My dad took me all over creation for wrestling tournaments. He drove me to Iowa several times. That was a benefit of wrestling, being homeschooled. And I do want to put it out there that my mom was no chump when it came to schoolwork (laughs). Homeschooled athletes get that rep of, Oh, they don’t really go to school. Well, my brother is a lawyer, my sister is a published author, and my mother was a tough teacher (laughs).

But with wrestling, I started when I was eight and my parents put me in wrestling to get energy out and I was also getting into little scuffles as a kid. They wanted to find something for me to do. I jumped into wrestling, loved it, and I would say I had some natural talent as a little kid but there was really no success. That’s because Louisiana wrestling, it is growing, but at the time, compared to the rest of the nation it was not a hotbed, as you said.

Being homeschooled, I had the best of both worlds because I did not belong to a specific school where I was influenced by one coach. I had ten coaches from Louisiana all pour into me at different times in my life. So, when I look back at the coaches who helped get me to where I am, I’ve got five right off the top of my head who really influenced me. During my eighth-grade year, my parents were deciding as to whether I was going to stay homeschooled or not. It was something they felt a lot of conviction about, and in the end, they decided that I was going to remain homeschooled throughout high school. That was actually really tough for me because it meant that I was not going to be allowed to wrestle in high school, since the LHSSA (Louisiana High School Sports Association) at the time did not allow homeschoolers to compete. The only way I could really compete was by traveling to national tournaments or international tournaments, and at that time I was not being invited on international trips. I didn’t have enough success by that point to warrant getting invited and I wasn’t making teams to go overseas (yet).

But going into my freshman year I met Jonathan Orillion, who had just stepped down from an assistant coaching job at Jesuit High School, which was and still is a powerhouse in Louisiana. We ran into each other at an open mat practice and he asked me what I was going to do since I wasn’t going to be able to join a high school team. As a naive eighth grader I told him, Yeah, I want to be an Olympic champ. I can’t wrestle folkstyle so I’m just going to go after the Olympic styles. From that moment, he kind of latched onto that, Okay, I believe you. So he started training me. We would train in his parents’ garage on one of those little circle mats. I would drive over to New Orleans. I grew up on the North Shore, so it was like a 45-minute drive, and I’d go workout with him. But he eventually got an assistant job at Archbishop Rummel, and after he would coach their practices I would come in. Because I wasn’t part of the team, I wasn’t allowed to attend their practices. Jonathan started traveling with me to national tournaments and that was when I started to see some success. He was the best coach I ever had at that point and I owe a huge amount of my success to him even now at Northern Michigan.

Rob Hermann would actually come down to Archbishop Rummel because their facility was actually donated by Jim Ravannack, who was the president of USA Wrestling. He knew Rob and would bring him in to do kids’ clinics. This was when Rob was the head coach of Navy, so he would come from Pensacola to New Orleans a couple times a week to do kids’ practices, and that is when I met him. We started to build our relationship and he would run Fargo camps and things like that. When Rob took the head coaching job at Northern, Willie Madison had been the assistant there under Dennis (Hall) and he was from New Orleans. Willie would come down and train, so now I had met him, I already knew Rob, and I just had a bunch of guys feeding into me without even going to a school I belonged to. All of these coaches, they would just start scrapping with me and I really began to pick up that Greco feel from Rob and Willie. And then Jonathan, he was such a student of the game, so he would soak up everything they were teaching me and act as my training partner when they weren’t there.

I placed at Fargo a couple of times. I had a couple of folkstyle schools looking at me, but no one really offered me anything significant. I had a relationship with Rob and he believed in me from an early age and offered me a scholarship. However, following my senior year of high school I decided to step away from wrestling. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do as far as that went. Having been homeschooled, I guess I felt a little bit confined towards the end of my high school career. I took a year off, and then after a year of being a normal college kid, I realized, Man, this is NOT what I want to do. I actually miss wrestling. I love the discipline, the training, and how tough it is. So I reached back out to Rob and asked him if he would consider having me come wrestle for him. Originally I was like, I’ll try it out, I’ll come for a semester and we’ll just feel it out. Rob said, “Absolutely, come up here, try it out, and if you don’t like it you could always move back.”

I made it through the first semester and then it was, Okay, I’ll stick around for another, and that is kind of how it’s been ever since. One semester more… Even after I graduated in 2016, I thought I’d be out, out of Marquette and done with wrestling. But then it was, Alright, I’ll stick around for maybe one more semester to train. Now, I am in this place where I love the community of Marquette and I’ve developed some really good relationships, so I’ve got that going for me outside of the wrestling room. That is also keeping me up here. Like I said, I’m loving the sport and I am just doing it as long as I love it.

5PM: Have you ever thought about what would have happened if you were allowed to compete for a normal high school and did the whole four-year grind? You know what I’m saying? What would have happened if you wrestled in a traditional four-year program, what that might have led to? You might have wrestled for a folkstyle college, you might be done with the sport altogether, you might not have ever even thought about Northern. Is that something that has ever crossed your mind?

SJ: Many, many times. Man, where I am today has been a series of very tiny, seemingly insignificant decisions that have built up putting me in Marquette. Even outside of wrestling, I believe I was put where I was in a homeschool family with parents who had a strong conviction. In that moment when I was going through it, I was very much against it and put my parents through so much grief growing up. But it was something they believed in, they held fast to it, and they didn’t let me buck the system, I guess you could say.

With the folkstyle wrestling, absolutely. Because I wasn’t allowed to compete, I didn’t have to go through that grind of having to make weight every weekend or do that whole folkstyle thing. I was able to focus on Greco, I was able to travel more, and go to different camps and stuff like that. I kind of bypassed all that folkstyle stuff that Greco guys always say leads to bad habits that you get, just because folkstyle is much different than Greco, the positioning is just different. I never really picked up those bad habits because I only did folkstyle from when I was eight until when I was in eighth grade, however many years that is.

So yeah, I think that had a huge impact and I definitely don’t think I’d be where I am. What I also think about a lot is where I was mentally coming out of my senior year. I truly believe that if I would have pushed through it and maybe made it up to Marquette right after graduating, that I would not have lasted. Mentally, emotionally, where I was at spiritually — I wouldn’t have lasted. There were a lot of outside factors and I was pretty much just growing up. I mean, everybody has got their experiences that have shaped who they are as a person. I really believe that if I were to have moved up here after high school without taking that year off, I would not have been able to make it.

Going a little bit wide, the summer after graduating from high school, I moved out of my home. I wasn’t necessarily homeless; I was crashing at friends’ houses and that sort of thing. I then wound up moving into a trailer part with some guys from my college. They needed a roommate and four of us lived in a single-wide trailer, and it turned out these guys were devout Christians. Two of them were worship leaders, another was a campus ministry leader, and at that time in my life, I certainly wasn’t walking in that lifestyle at all. Because I was homeschooled with my parents having a Biblically-focused background, I had a lot of head knowledge. I understood Christianity, but it was something I didn’t really hold fast to as my own at that point. So when I moved into that trailer park with those guys, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. They were pretty much the embodiment of what Christianity is. That’s what those guys were to me. They loved on me well. They helped me go through whatever it was I was going through.

After a year of living with those guys, I really felt that passion and love for the sport again. I missed it, I just wanted to come back and that’s why I’m here now. So that is why I say there were so many little decisions, so many things that happened which were completely out of my control.

Yeah, I think about being homeschooled and not wrestling in high school all the time. I even think about wrestling getting me up here. I have this dream of making the Olympics, being the best wrestler in the world. I think about wrestling getting me up here and having this community that I’ve built around here, and the growth I’ve experienced as a young man and individual off the mat. I think about that all the time. I think about how fortunate and blessed I am to be in Marquette. This place, the last place I ever expected to want to live, has become a place I am very thankful for.

sammy jones, 2016 bill farrell memorial

Jones attempting a lift at the 2016 Bill Farrell Memorial in New York. (Photo: Frank Gioia)

5PM: Let’s backtrack a little. I never experienced the homeschooling situation, I don’t know much about it. What is it like being homeschooled during the high school years? You didn’t have class bells to abide by telling you where to be so how does this take place I would imagine. You come downstairs in the morning, walk into the kitchen, and that’s first period? 

SJ: (Laughs) It’s funny because it’s not something that is normal to you but it is totally normal to me, like, Yeah, that’s how the day goes. But when I got to high school, you know, you start to have a lot of classes. Chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, physics, calculus — those upper-level classes — and I had a lot of tutors actually who I would go to throughout the week. So maybe twice a week I would go to a tutor for calculus and she would give me homework. Homeschooling, once you get into high school, you do a lot of work on your own. You pretty much teach yourself and then you have someone review your homework. If you have to take tests, they review those and then help you with whatever you’re not getting. I had a science teacher who would teach about 20 kids from our community and she was a retired professor who just offered her time. She would teach the science curriculum once you got to those classes. I would do a lot of seeing other teachers and doing a lot of the work on my own. I also did dual-enrollment when I was a senior in high school at a community college. I took English 101, math, and whatever else.

But yeah, how it would look is you’d wake up in the morning and do whatever you had to do as far as chores. My family was all about pitching in, so we did a lot of chores. The way I had it was my mom would make a lesson plan for each week and I had a workload that I needed to get done by the end of the week, and she had broken it down into daily workloads. I knew I had to be at practice by 4:30, so I needed to be done with school by 3:00. However I wanted to do it, I had to get it finished by 3:00. And if I didn’t do it, my mom would look at my work, see what I got done with my work, and if it wasn’t done, I couldn’t go to practice. She was very strict about that. If I couldn’t go, I’d have to call my coach and tell him, I can’t come to practice today because I didn’t finish my schoolwork. So I had a lot of motivation to get my work done. I mean, you’re at home all the time as a high school kid, you want to get out of the house, right? I had a lot of motivation, I wanted to get my work done and leave (laughs).

Sometimes there were other things, too. Let’s say we wanted to take a vacation in November. Well, then I would have to do work in the summertime so I could take off in the middle of the school semester. You have a lot of freedom with homeschooling, but a lot of it requires you to be self-motivated once you’re past the adolescent age.

5PM: That’s probably advantageous entering college, where your hand isn’t held as much.

SJ: Oh, yeah. I feel like homeschooling definitely prepared me well for college. Time management was never really an issue. I worked very well off of schedules. We have two practices a day — 6:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon. I knew I had class in between and that I had to balance my homework. When I moved up here, I was just very driven to lead a successful lifestyle. I was very into doing my schoolwork. School on top of wrestling is a lot, but having a packed schedule kept me in line once I got up here.

5PM: Early on into your tenure at Northern you go ahead and break big, you wound up medaling at the University World Championships. That had to have felt both satisfying, and maybe even in its own way, vindicating in regards to your decision to move up there. That it happened so early on, did it give you a Whoa, I can do this at a high level kind of feeling, too?

Sammy Jones: Yeah, there was. It was definitely an exciting accomplishment. Now, I was very aware that this was the University World Championships and not the Senior World Championships…

5PM: Nope, I don’t even want to hear it. When you look at who performs at the University Worlds year-to-year, a giant percentage of them wind up breaking big as Seniors if they haven’t already, and chances are they have already performed very well as Seniors before wrestling at the Universities. It’s a big giant deal. 

SJ: Well yeah, I mean, I was aware that it was the University World Championships, and I think that I mentally hindered myself because I talked it down. Like, Oh, it’s just the University World Championships. Although I was so stoked, I kind of talked myself out of it a little bit and that hindered a little belief in myself. I was a little surprised — but I didn’t allow myself to feel like, Man, I’m really in this. That was something I had to work through, to understand that this wasn’t just a lucky thing, that I do have this talent my coaches have been speaking over me about all this time.

So now looking back, I look at the guys who were in my bracket…

5PM: (Kanybek) Zholchubekov is the best in the world right now.

SJ: Yes, I understand it now, but at that moment, I don’t know if I was being overly humble…I don’t know. I was excited, for sure. It’s so awesome. But then, I also knew I hadn’t beaten Spenser (Mango) or any of those guys, and those were the guys I was coming home to and had to wrestle on the Senior level and it was like, Man, this is a stacked weight. And now having been in it, 59 kilos all across the board, throughout the whole entire world, was one of the most stacked weight classes. Now stepping into 63, that’s just as tough. That is just how it has always fallen into place. So yeah, it was exciting for sure. It has served as a motivator in more recent years than it did in that moment. I wasn’t really able to wrap my head around it too much at that time. I was real good at talking myself out of things at that young age.

5PM: So what you’re essentially saying, if I have this right, is that you couldn’t derive the full encouraging benefit from having placed at the World Championships due to self-talk? Like, you couldn’t blow it up, I placed at the Worlds, because it was at the University level and the fact that you still had to come home and deal with the likes of Spenser and whomever else?

SJ: Yeah (laughs). Essentially, yes. I think because I had that success after just stepping back into it, like, Wow, I took a full year off and I’m having success right away, I didn’t feel the gratification of, I don’t want to say not earning it, but that is kind of what I spoke over myself. I just wasn’t mature and taking hold of it or letting it fuel me as much as it could have. But that’s in hindsight, that’s in the past. I just have to use it as fuel now.

sammy jones at olympic training center

Jones training at the US National Team camp in January of 2017. (Photo: Richard Immel)

5PM: 59 kilograms had no choice but to become a really deep weight since it consolidated everyone from 55 and most from 60. You were dealing with that on a domestic level and our 59’s were by and large fantastic. But you’re someone people have thought very highly of, saying things like Jones is right there, Jones should be right there. Having watched you for some years, it’s easy to see what people are talking about. But I don’t know what the missing piece is. Not everyone in the country can do what you can, but the results haven’t followed yet to the World Championships. Ability-wise, you’re always in the argument in our country, so are we entering the phase of your career now when it is all starting to come together and you’re seeing all of the things seemingly everyone else has already seen?

Sammy Jones: Yes, absolutely. I have been told things by many coaches from my freshman year at Northern. Aghasi would tell me all the time, I believe you could be a World Champion and accomplish your dreams. Rob would tell me the same thing. Andy has spoken these things to me. You know, I can’t give you a definite reason why I haven’t been able to take hold of it, but there was definitely a click after 2016 and then a kick after World Team Trials last year where it was, Okay, enough of doing this sport just for the training and experience. I believe this is something I have been gifted in and something that I work very hard at. I feel as though not only do I believe I can accomplish it, but that I deserve to accomplish it. That’s the mentality switch that has taken place. It is definitely something that has been a hindrance, I would say, in the past.

People talk to you about being mentally tough and growing into becoming mentally tough and believing in yourself, but that’s not something you could just say and then it happens. You have to work through it. I believe that definitely, mentally where I am outside of wrestling has played a huge role — or is playing, because I haven’t accomplished those dreams yet — in changing the way I wrestle and carry myself in practice and competitions now. I think a lot of it was just maturing as a man and what I believe in, what I’m about, on and off the mat. I believe it all goes hand-in-hand: your relationship with God; your relationships with your community; and yourself, because you have to believe in yourself when you’re on the mat and when you’re off the mat. You have to be comfortable with who you are, and that is something I have definitely been learning and evolving in over the last year.

Like I said, the past two years I have seen a lot of growth, primarily off the mat regarding my relationship with God, and there are a lot of other relationships that have been restored. Now that I have that kind of healthy lifestyle off the mat, I am seeing the benefits on the mat. I’ll keep saying it, but I’m enjoying wrestling more that I ever have over the past two years. And I feel like I’ve experienced more adversity with injuries and frustration on the mat the past two years, but I am still loving it more than I ever have. Part of that could be not having school, not having as many distractions off the mat. There were a lot of things that have been removed which were playing a huge role.

5PM: It sounds like you’re talking about achieving balance. It’s kind of a funny topic in terms of Olympic-level Senior wrestling because athletes have to be driven and focused towards competition. But even with that, doesn’t there have to be something else to look towards when you walk off the tarp after practice to engage in. Coach Lindland has talked about this, the concept of balance. Is that part of this, too, interests?

SJ: Absolutely. When I’m not at practice, I’ve mentioned several times the community of Marquette that I’ve really grown to love. I’m part of a fantastic church and I’ve got some deep relationships that have been cultivated with past roommates. For the past two years I have been out of the dorms. I live in town and that has allowed me to invest in the community, be it the local co-ops, the coffee shops, meeting the residents, or finding trails. I picked up rock climbing, I really enjoy climbing and I do it quite often. I took surfing out in Lake Superior, I started doing a lot of yoga, and those are things about finding balance outside of wrestling that allow your mind to not always be on wrestling.

It was hard the first couple of years up here. It was just wrestling and school, and I lived in the dorms. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I’ve realized the tremendous benefit of having an escape from wrestling. That’s not the only thing that I do, I have an outside lifestyle. Because I was homeschooled, I was never submerged into the team aspect. Not to say that I’m not a team player, I just never associated with Oh, I am wrestler or that jock mentality, because I was different than everybody else. And now I feel like I’ve come back to that sort of thing because I never attached myself to the idea that I am just a wrestler. Wrestling was just something I did. But I really enjoyed being outside, in the swamps, out on the river, snake hunting, and that sort of thing. I guess I’ve kind of gone back to those roots. Wrestling is something that I really enjoy and that is how I look at it. It’s a sport that I’m passionate about and dedicated to, but mostly I do it because it makes me feel healthy, I enjoy my time on the mat, and I enjoy the guys. But I can go home and go rock climbing the next day, surf — whatever — but I’m not defined by it.

5PM: Other guys’ performances, other guys’ matches, how much do you pay attention and do you break down video to strategize and things like that?

SJ: No, but maybe I should (laughs). I never have. I’ve tried many times to be a student in that aspect of watching film and seeing what other guys do. For me, it just gets me too focused on what my opponent is going to do and I would much rather spend time tweaking my own techniques. It’s enough for me to walk off the mat and ask Andy or Rob, What did you see? What did you see me doing well and what did you see me not do well? They’ll tell me, I’ll go to work on that, and that’s enough.

I really look at the sport as something that is so much more about competing against yourself than your opponent. I think the hardest match is trying to get yourself to perform at your best. That’s something I’m always trying to work on, just being able to wrestle to the best of my abilities and the cards will fall where they may. I feel if I can accomplish that, I will achieve all of the goals I’ve ever had with wrestling, if I can just be the best that I can be. So no, I don’t scout anyone really, the toughest opponent is me out there, that’s how I look at it.

5PM: You competed at the Dave Schultz tournament in November and a little over a month later it was supposed to be Iran, but that didn’t happen. Fast-forward to the end of March and bam, there it was, New York. Was a long gap in the schedule a specific challenge for you?

SJ: In a way. I am certainly grateful that New York was New York and not the US Open or World Team Trials, so I am glad that I had kind of a tune-up. I wish we had more competitions but it wasn’t something mentally that I had to deal with. Growing up homeschooled, it’s not like I was going to tournaments every single week. I was going to tournaments once every other month. I’d go to the Southeast Regionals in the summer and I’d go to Fargo. That was it. You had your small freestyle and Greco tournaments as a kid, but that was what, a couple of weeks during the summer and that’s it? So I am pretty used to competing few and far between. I didn’t really bat an eye at it. I like to compete and I wish we had more tournaments to go to, but it wasn’t a significant factor. During the wait period, I didn’t feel like it was a significant factor for me.

5PM: The US Open is practically here and then seven weeks or so is Tulsa. Approaching the Open, what is your mindset? Is it solely about winning? Or are there certain things you want to work on also, be it getting to your positions, trying out wrinkles, what have you? Is it a “victory is the only option” type of thing, or are there items you want to test out along with winning prior to the World Team Trials?

Sammy Jones: I want to win, first and foremost. That’s why we do this, so I certainly don’t go in there thinking about spitting in the wind, seeing what happens, and trying a few things. I will say that each tournament I enter that I am trying to compete with more my own style of wrestling, which I am still creating. I am still creating my dance, lack of a better way to explain it. I see wrestling as a dance, a way of how I compete. I am looking forward to rolling out more of how I compete in practice and piecing together those days you have in the wrestling room where you feel like you had the best day of your career. That’s what I’m looking forward to. You learn from tournaments past and maybe changing the pace a little bit is another thing I’m looking forward to.

But yeah, the goal is to win and that’s what I’m focusing on. I want to just wrestle perfectly. That’s what I am striving to do at this tournament. That is what Andy is preaching everyday in the wrestling room, every position being perfect in. That is what I’m trying to do at this next tournament. I’m piecing together how I wrestle just naturally, which from seeing me wrestle you know I am either going to win by a lot of points or I am going to lose by a lot of points because I am going to throw everything I have at you. That’s how I’ve always been as a kid, just wide open or nothing. But at this level, learning to be strategic with that kind of ferocious approach is what I am trying to work on everyday.

Being an exciting athlete is something I pride myself on. I don’t want to have boring matches. I’d rather get tossed, I guess, trying to win, trying to score, because it’s just exciting. But I am trying to be strategic with that mentality. Rob Hermann is always trying to tell me, You don’t have to throw the kitchen sink all the time (laughs). I don’t know, it’s just more fun that way for me. But if there is something I trying to work on, it is being smarter when trying to kill people (laughs).

Follow Sammy Jones on Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule. 

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