Interviews

STEF Before Military Worlds: “This Is What I Live For”

john stefanowicz, 80 kg, marines

Belief in yourself is nice, but it’s altogether irrelevant if said belief waxes and wanes depending on the circumstances which will no doubt play a role in deciding if you were really serious in the first place.

Unless you understand that circumstances are to be seen as temporary obstacles awaiting your commitment to their destruction. 

John Stefanowicz (80 kg, Marines) started out as a durable if not capable wrestler gunning for Greco-Roman respectability not too long ago when his military obligations came calling. The road to success, or at the very least, steady progress, had been disrupted. It’s not all that much of an uncommon tale for service members who double as athletes. Swap out the word “obligation” and replace it with “sacrifice”,and you get the precise reason why men like Stefanowicz are who they are. They’re the ones willing to stand up and leave everything on the table at a moment’s notice if it means they are needed to do their part. 

So he was forced to hit the proverbial pause button on his athletic endeavors. And he was gone for a minute, his place in line, his rung on the ladder, quickly became occupied by others. But boy, did Stefanowicz look to get his money’s worth upon his return. Beginning in December of last year, Stefanowicz resumed his full-time Greco-Roman career by appearing in the US Open. He hadn’t even practiced for the event, but still managed to finish fifth. Six weeks later the Marine was back at it again, this time at the Dave Schultz International. A few weeks after that, the Armed Forces Championships. You couldn’t miss him if you tried.

On the mat, Stefanowicz captures your attention as much as he does your imagination. Plenty of Greco-Roman’s best competitors are tireless, but a select few sprint with never-ending delight at the oncoming traffic that is their opposition. That’s a weapon of his, to be sure. But it’s more than that. For all of the clashing and brawling, Stefanowicz insists on making sure that all of his attempts matter. He may love this, but it’s not a game to him. Whatever your name is, whatever the stakes are, you can rest assured he’s coming for your head. 

The first revelation arrived in March at the Hungarian Grand Prix. That’s when Stefanowicz pushed one of the best wrestlers on the planet around throughout an entire match before scoring the winning points at the last second. Of course, those points weren’t actually counted, and the result is a dubious loss on Stefanowicz’s record. Doesn’t matter, everyone got the hint. A month later at the US World Team Trials, Stefanowicz downed the weight class favorite in the semifinals and then grinded out two tough matches in the finals to ultimately finish second. It wasn’t what he was hoping for, but he’s not the type who puts a lot of stock in hope, anyway. People who bet on themselves the way he does rarely do. 

As a hazy summer winds down with autumn’s welcome waving hello, John Stefanowicz has one more bet to make. The CISM World Military Wrestling Championships start next week in Lithuania and the Marine wrestler will be there, up a weight class and ready to assert his place among the elite. His selection to the team came about in a whirlwind, similar to how this entire nine-month run has been. Stefanowicz will be tested competitively like he never has before, which of course, is something that excites him. But he has the team, he has the support, and most importantly, a desire so deep that he can’t help but sound as if this has all been part of the plan to begin with. 

That’s the point. When you truly believe in yourself, it isn’t that obstacles disappear. You just realize they never really mattered.

5PM Interview with John Stefanowicz

5PM: If we start at December of 2016 and trace it back to now, your life both on and off the mat has been pretty hectic. On the mat, it has been a rapid re-emergence. You’ve opened up a lot of eyes around the sport the past nine months. Off the mat, you have a little boy, you got married, and now you guys are expecting another child fairly soon. It seems like a lot to go through in a compressed period of time. How have you managed to keep your head during all of this?

John Stefanowicz: It’s a lot of support, both on and off the mat. Between (Daniel) Miller, Coach (Loukides), my wife, and my family, it all comes with a lot of support from home. There are a lot of cases when it’s grinding-time and we’re getting ready for a tournament or something is going on with the family. We have that good balance with the team and the family here with my wife, to where we can keep what goes on on the mat, on the mat, and try keep the home life as separate as we can. I’m not always that good with it, but that’s what I have them there for. It’s about support. I tell my wife a lot that without her and Coach Loukides and his understanding, I probably wouldn’t be here.

5PM: To the trained eye, you had momentum going into the World Team Trials. Did you feel you had momentum going into that tournament?

JS: Oh, yeah. I felt like I not only had momentum, but also a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I had a great and amazing camp in Hungary, that I only hope I can go to next year, and an even better tournament, and a great match I felt, in my personal opinion, that I had and it was taken away.

5PM: Yeah, you got hosed. 

JS: Yeah. So, coming into the World Team Trials, whether it’s being a dark horse or an up-and-comer, or whatever you want to call it, I was just walking around with a chip on my shoulder and I wanted to prove a point. We had three USA guys in Hungary in one bracket and they were all ranked four or five at the time — myself, (Barrett) Stanghill, and (Geordan) Speiller. Speiller comes out and takes second, Stanghill wrestles and I wrestle out there, and next thing you know, a month later we’re all wrestling for the World Team spot.

So I had a ton of momentum. The training camp out there, using that level of intensity to go right into World Team Trials, that was a great setup for success.

5PM: You then went ahead and made the finals at the World Team Trials. But before that was a semifinal match-up and a clutch arm throw late against Speiller, who a lot of people certainly looked at as a very big favorite in that bracket.

JS: Everybody. It was no secret. Everybody had him as number one. I mean, technically, per the rankings, Cheney (Haight) was number one because he won the Open, but everyone in their mind had him (Speiller) winning the whole thing, which he’s a great athlete. Let’s see, he took on the former World Champ and the guy got one throw in the beginning and after that, the match was still the same. What, two months before that tournament, he beats the 2016 Olympian (Mahmoud) Sebie. And on top of that, he is a terrific athlete. Putting all of those things together, it’s not like you can blame anybody. He was the favorite. A heavy favorite, too.

5PM: So, a correct throw. An arm throw. Two points. I don’t want to say they were the biggest two points of your life, but down 2-1 and you get the arm throw and the two are confirmed, are you cognizant of the situation, say, I’m up by one, there is however much time left, he’s obviously explosive offensively — what was the pattern in your head while that was unfolding?

JS: I knew right away once that happened he was going to come back, just like he did in Hungary. We were there watching and we would see that if he got thrown or had points scored against him, in the next 12 seconds the dude is hitting fours on somebody. Completely throwing them up in the air. I knew right away he was going to attack, but I couldn’t clam up because I knew they (officials) would be waiting to hit me with a passive call and then next thing you know, the match is over right there. So it was more about just the whole position, getting in a good position and trying to find a way where he is going to make a mistake and I could score again. He had plenty of time where he could score, so me just trying to back out the whole time wasn’t going to work. I was trying to sit in a better position and look for where he was going to get himself caught, and then score again.

5PM: So you recognized that you were going to have to keep an offensive approach.

John Stefanowicz: Yeah I mean, backing out, going out of bounds, or committing to a slip doesn’t really help the sport. And it doesn’t help me as a wrestler, either. Now obviously, what I was doing worked the entire match. So why in the last minute would I change up my entire concept? I’m a power wrestler to where I’m going to get in a good position and you can’t score on me, and my goal is to get the points. I’m not going to all the sudden change up because I’m winning. I’m going to be smart about it — I’m not going to go for a huge bodylock. But at the same time, you have to keep in mind that you have a game plan. We went in with the coaches’ game plan and all I did was execute it. That’s all I did. I didn’t have anything special or a trick up my sleeve.

We talked about a game plan, we trained for the game plan before the tournament, and we executed it. That was it. What you saw was just coaching, and weeks and weeks, and months and months of sticking to the method. In the last minute, I’m not going to change that method, get scored on, or give up a passive point. And I am not known to give up passive points throughout a match, unless it’s the first minute and they’re going to hit somebody. If they hit me, that’s fine, I try not to pay any attention to it. But if you watch my matches, I’m not known for having passive points scored against me.

That’s the game plan that I have. Wrestling guys like Cheney and Speiller, you can’t just go balls-to-the-wall forward. You have to be calculated. All of those matches from Schultz to today, my wrestling has been more calculated now that I have been on the team under Coach again and he’s had time to actually get me under his wing. But it’s the type of wrestler that I am and I’m not going to do a 180, especially in the middle of a match.

5PM: What did you learn about making the World Team Trials finals, being in that position? It might not have turned out how you hoped, but what did you learn getting there for the first time?

JS: I’d have to say, having that commitment is something that years ago I didn’t quite have. I think what’s changed this year as opposed to the years before I had went back to the fleet, was that I’m learning to be more of a student of the sport. A lot of people were surprised. It didn’t really surprise me as much as it did put another check, You’re doing the right thing, keep this going, this is the game plan. It wasn’t really as big of a surprise as it was for everybody else. Coach was like, Okay, cool. Keep it going. At the end of the day, we’re not here to be a finalist, we’re here to be a champion. Once you do something for the first time and you realize you can do it, now you know where you’re at. You set a standard. You set a new bar to reach and get past. If anything, that is what it did, it set a new standard for me.

Now that I’m there, I am going one step further. Next year, it’s going to be the World Team and to see how I far I get at Worlds. The year after that, place at Worlds, take some hardware home. It’s really just another bar to set. What did I do right and what did I do wrong? And then we take those back to the drawing board with Coach, because that’s what he is known for. We’ll see what we did right and what we did wrong — how many hours of sleep did I get on an average basis?; how much time did I train?; did I over train or did I not train enough?; did I take time off? Whatever the gameplan is and being able to get through that and get ready for next year — no matter when, no matter what weight, no matter how — it’s just about preparation and it was just another standard.

5PM: You mentioned becoming more of a student of the sport. What does that exactly mean to you?

JS: Being able to take things home with you and making a full-time commitment to learning not just about my wrestling, but wrestling in general. Looking at other athletes and other countries. Taking a look at the Cadets and the Juniors and seeing what they do. The whole sport of Greco. Not just sticking to your lane, but taking the time to watch the film not only of yourself, but different people at other weight classes, and being able to physically, mentally, and psychologically put that to work. Being able to visualize properly. Being able to lift, run, and work the body in a sense to where it is actually going to improve positive outlooks on the mat.

5PM: Following the Trials, what were you doing, what was life like for you?

JS: I took a break.

5PM: A break for the body, or a break for the body and the mind?

JS: A break in general, so yeah, a break for the body and the mind. I didn’t get on the mat for about three to four weeks after Trials. As soon as I got back, I went to Sergeant’s Course, a course that I had to complete through the Marine Corps. It was one of my obligations. We were able to schedule it during one of the only times of the year where I was able to get it done, and three days after I got back from World Team Trials is when it started. For a little over a month, I was at the course five days a week for ten to twelve hours a day. I was doing that. So I literally took a complete break from being on the mat. It kind of helps with that reset.

John Stefanowciz, 85 kg, 2017 CISM World Military Wrestling Championships

Stefanowicz (left, red), shown here in the 80 kilogram finals of the US World Team Trials against Cheney Haight, will be moving up a weight class to 85 kilograms for the 2017 CISM World Military Wrestling Championships next week in Lithuania. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: You move on through the summer and a majority of the All-Marine Team were at the World Team Camp at the OTC. Coach Lindland made a point to mention the participation level of the Marines. How not only were you guys in the room during the camp to support the World Team members, but that also, the Marines were also helping out in every which way possible, whether that was working with the age-groupers or other guys looking to get extra work in. How was this experience for you and what can you draw from it going forward? Was this what you’d hope it would be?

John Stefanowicz: I would say yes for the World Team, because if you are not a World Team member at the World Team camp, and you are committed to the program and not just yourself, it can be very humbling. The first day, Coach Lindland brought every Greco wrestler there in and let everybody know that the time we had slotted, the matches that were set and the practices in general, even though we had all these guys, these were meant to prepare the World Team. So that means like, Hey, number two, you’re going to do whatever it is he needs you to do for however long. If you’re there and willing to help out Team USA and not just your own club or yourself, you’re going to do it. If you’re committed, it’s a very humbling experience.

The World Team guys, I can bet when you interviewed them, they had a very different outlook on how it was for them. Because the guys on the National Team and the guys who aren’t on the World or National Team, they didn’t quite get the same practices. Every practice was geared for them (the World Team members). They were in there the majority of the time getting their asses kicked. They were getting the most go’s. It was geared for them. They wanted the guys on the National Team and the other guys in the room fresh so that the World Team guys are going to get a better look, so the World team guys are going to get a better feel.

So from that aspect, I think it was good. Obviously, every year you can critique how much, how little, or if we want a little more diversity when it comes to who we want on the mat. But that can come down to science at the same time. You can push a body however far it can go. You can know it and you can train for it. You take from that experience and everything the athletes say, and you have a number of genius coaches there. You take what everyone has to say, you can of have these course critiques, in a sense, and you put them all together and every year, it’s going to get better and better.

For me, I had a great takeaway because you could go with every World Team guy there. A majority of my time was spent with (Ben) Provisor and Cheney, mainly Cheney. That was my role, whether it was there or at the acclimation camp. You were there for the World Team guys, and you have to be committed to that. You definitely take away the training regimen and put that into work for yourself. But when it comes to the training partners, you can simulate it, but you can’t replicate it.

5PM: You went into Montpellier for acclimation camp and then Paris. You were there for the lead-up to the Worlds and then the World Championships itself. You were a part of that. It might have been a supporting role, but you were there. How did you drink this in personally as it pertains to your own career?

JS: It’s being a part of Team USA. I think a big part of it, and I think for every athlete looking at it from my point of view, if they were there, it started with Coach Lindland. Everything we did, every function that we had, was a Team USA function. Whether it was eating at the hotel, going out to a certain part of the city, or the practices we were in, it was unified. Everybody understood that these people were here to represent the United States. Having that feeling…it definitely feels good. I’ll be honest with you, it felt great to be out there and to know that what you’re doing is going to help in some way. You’re there to literally help the guys representing us on the mat prepare in any way, shape, or form. It’s definitely something to look forward to you, I’ll say that.

Being out there, it’s something that I talked to Coach Loukides and Coach Lindland about. It wasn’t as humbling as I thought it would be, to be out there for the World Championships as it was for the World Team camp…

5PM: Was it emboldening?

JS: Yeah, a little bit.

5PM: Yeah, I imagine it would be. 

JS: Knowing where you are or where you stand and what could be, it definitely is at times, to be honest. It’s something that I definitely look forward to, being on the other side of the fence.

5PM: Now the spotlight does shift in your direction. You are on the US Military World Team. How did you find out you were selected and what was your reaction?

JS: We got done with practice and Coach comes up. The team had a trip to help out the community in Detroit this past week and I was slated to go on that. He comes up and goes, “You’re not going to Marine Week anymore.” I asked him why. He said, “Because you’re going to CISMs.” Okay, Roger that, coach. I called the wife, let her know, and then got a game plan going. And then he told me, “You don’t have to worry about cutting any weight.” I asked why once again, and once again he gave me a blunt answer: “Because you’re going 85 (kilos).” Roger that, coach (laughs). That’s how it worked.

5PM: Okay, outside of the Armed Forces where you went 75 kilos for the team, the rest of your time has been spent at 80 this year. I’m presuming you’re very okay with going 85.

JS: Oh yeah. I am very fine with going 85, but at the same time, I’m not fine with going 85 because I don’t have to cut weight (to make 80). Like we have discussed before, I’m a wrestler who may shed some pounds, but I’m not a weight-cutter who is trying to wrestle. But, when Coach told me I was going 85, I was like, Okay, cool, because at first I thought he was going to say 75 and I wasn’t going to be too happy with that at all, and I don’t think the wife would have been, either (laughs).

But he said 85 and I haven’t really thought of it as anything more than that. You talk to Danny Miller or our 85 guys, most of the time, if I’m not wrestling the guys at my weight, I’m wrestling up. I’m pretty sure that every day, every single day we’re on the mat, I’m either calling them out or am able to wrestle them, one of the two. And I’ll call him out if doesn’t want to or we’re doing something and I can’t, but I like wrestling with the bigger guys, anyways. It helps me train for a better position, helps me train for everything else.

85 is just another weight class. Like you have seen yourself before, when it comes to Team USA, I’m a team player. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and that’s the wrestler I am. If Coach tells me that’s the weight, then that is the weight I’m going. Being self-centered just takes away from it because if I say No, I don’t want to go, that’s one opportunity I’m missing out on. But if it comes from my coach, then I am going to go wherever or whenever he says to. That’s the whole point of doing this full-time. I don’t have to be preparing for it forever, I should be ready to go anywhere at any weight. That’s my outlook on it. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t worried about it and I’m not worried about it. I’m looking forward to it. It’s just another weight to go, another thing to try. I’m actually pretty stoked about it, being able to represent the US again. But I’ll always be a team player.

5PM: As a top-level National competitor, you are fully aware of the grand scale this tournament resides on. For all intents and purposes, this is the biggest tournament you’ve ever entered. You have also demonstrated an excellent approach to wrestling international opponents. You’re hyper-aggressive and willing to try to score. This is also the Worlds and you appear to be made for this opportunity, this seems like something you can’t wait to go after and attack.

John Stefanowicz: To be honest with you Tim, this is the shit that I live for. I can’t wait to go out there. I’m a Marine, I’m a wrestler, and I like kicking people’s asses. I step on the mat and whether it’s in practice or at a tournament, the second I am stepping out on the mat and anyone is watching, it’s my name. I’m representing my name and the country on my back. So, this is what I live for and it’s what I’m sworn for, and now I get to represent it at another level.

Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. It’s something else I can put a check in. In my mind, I don’t care who it is, at what weight, and from what country — if I’m going to shake his hand and we’re going to wrestle, I’m expecting to win. I’m not going to go into it with a half-assed attitude like, Oh, I’m going up a weight, I haven’t had the most time to train, or anything else. My attitude is that this is who I am and it doesn’t matter when. They had other people to pick from and they chose me, and in my personal opinion, that’s the reason why. It is my attitude and I wear that on my sleeve. And they know that. That’s what they expect out of me and that’s what I expect out of myself.

Follow John Stefanowicz on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with his career and competitive schedule. 

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