Interviews

This One Is “Different”: The Joe Rau 2021 European Tour Journal

Josef Rau -- Photo: Astrid De Leeuw

You know, he has a gift for this sort of thing. Two-time World Team member Joe Rau (87 kg, TMWC/IRTC, world #7, 5PM #2) enjoys a definitive understanding of why it is important to let the audience in on his travels. Better yet, he is also willing to drop any and all barriers when it comes to material that is intended for educational and, quite often, in fact, entertainment purposes.

As a longstanding athlete contributor to this platform, Rau has demonstrated a knack for providing content that goes a long way towards making a difference in terms of bringing outsiders into the fold of the Senior-level experience. He has done this through a litany of Q&A’s, photos, videos (like the one midway through this article), and has even served as a remote correspondent for big-time tournaments (remember the 2017 Paris Worlds?).

And it matters. All of it. Because, without firsthand perspectives from those inside of the proverbial trenches, effort becomes obscured by results.

Lessons — critical lessons, the kind that might very well help other athletes and coaches avoid unnecessary pitfalls, potentially — represent a big reason why US athletes hop overseas in the first place. For some, they are the only reason. Each and every time an American Greco-Roman wrestler touches down on the other side of the Atlantic for an in-season tour, they hope to learn. Their goal, nearly unanimously, is to gain edges in technique and feel that can then be compartmentalized and categorized inside of their grey matter databases. Competition is part of it, too. Tournaments are almost always accompanied by training camps. So they lump it all together as one collective fact-finding mission and bring the evidence back home stateside.

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Rau has invested heavily in communicating these concepts over the past few years, and enthusiastically offered to participate again this time around. Currently, he and fellow two-time World Teamer Patrick Smith (77 kg, Minnesota Storm, 5PM #1 — who has his own piece upcoming, FYI), are wrapping up Week 1 of training camp in Porec, Croatia. Rau first arrived in Croatia just over a week ago in advance of the Grand Prix Zagreb Open where he placed fifth, and Smith met up with Rau earlier this week following his appearance in France’s Henri Deglane Grand Prix. They have done this before, Smith and Rau. Once teammates on the Minnesota Storm, they are used to training and traveling together. They are still extremely close; and with both having remained at the top of their respective weight categories since Rau’s departure, things haven’t changed all that much with the exception of mailing addresses.

But, something has changed for Rau. For starters, he is now married. Rau and wife Astrid exchanged nuptials last year after an unconventional, multi-continent courtship. Astrid is a resident of Belgium and not a US citizen. Initially, the couple had to function in a patchwork sense, especially once the pandemic came crashing down. In between, whatever immigration concerns and paperwork. A convoluted system brings forth convoluted details, not all of which are important at the moment. What is important, however, is that they are functioning like a dynamic duo over in Europe. Astrid has more than picked up the slack for Rau’s various absentminded eccentricities. She handles the red tape, the itineraries, the financials. His job is much easier. All he has to do is wrestle.

There is also one other little factor at play making this particular tour for Rau different from past jaunts. Prior to Smith making his way into Croatia, whatever room in which Rau found himself, he was the only American. On a trip that began in December in Belgium before switching over to France and then Sweden, the Chicago native was solo’ing the whole deal. He had Astrid, but no US teammates — and a lot of headaches, apparently, stemming from back-and-forths with the decision-makers in Colorado Springs pertaining to Zagreb.

The table is thus set. As usual, Rau does not hold back in his answers, taking special care in ensuring that no detail is lost. He doesn’t do this because he likes to hear himself talk. He does it because he understands that documenting these experiences provides much-needed context for a sport that cannot possibly sustain if presented in just boxscores and follow-ups. As he does on the mat, Rau gives his all.

And plus, he’s good at this sort of thing.

Joe Rau — 87 kg, TMWC/IRTC

5PM: You’ve been overseas now for about a month. This trip is obviously quite different compared to previous ones. You’re now married, and that is actually part of how you were even able to make it happen given the current restrictions. Has that made this excursion at all easier, even coming off the heels of a tournament that temporarily got under your skin?

Joe Rau: This trip has been very unique. I mean, I’ve had trips in the past where I kind of had to take the reins myself and go without USA Wrestling, my coaches, or anyone else. So, this is similar to other trips in that way, but this one is also different than even those were. This time, it is just my wife and I. It has been a cool little team, and it has had its challenges; but, the fact that Astrid is here has made everything easier, too. Not only was I able to get into Europe through a spouse reunification process — because I had to bring my marriage certificate since that is what allowed me to get in, which helped tremendously because I had a way of getting in during travel bans — but she has also been my manager. I don’t use that term lightly at all, but a manager is something in other sports that wrestlers don’t usually have. I’ve never had one, with the exception of maybe Robby Smith sort of acting as my manager.

So, I’ve been lucky these last two years with someone there for me handling things that, honestly, I’m not every equipped to handle. But — I need to handle those things if I want to be successful, and Astrid has helped on every leg of the trip with various duties. She took a massage course a while back just so she could help me. She is reminding me that she’s not just a manager but also a masseuse. She was also in the corner during the tournament with Fritz (Aanes, coach of Norway) toweling me off and giving me water. But she really has been wearing seven different hats and has done a lot of things back home, like working on my life as far as taxes go, reimbursements, getting surgeries paid for… All of these little things. Astrid has been talking Cody Bickley’s ear off about all of these things, which are things I’m not very good at.

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Inside the gymnasium for the multi-national camp taking place this week and next in Porec, Croatia. (Photo: Astrid De Leeuw)

I’ve always just been a wrestler who is really bad at paperwork. I would never be a great coach administratively unless I underwent a complete life change. But Astrid is extremely good at all of the things that I’m not. We complement each other really well. She keeps receipts, she keeps records, makes Excel spreadsheets… Not only is Astrid good at these things, she likes doing them. She likes to get things done. She likes to make daily to-do lists and scratch each item off the list as she goes along. It is very rewarding for her. Me on the other hand? Outside of wrestling, and not to sound cheesy, but I’m more like an artist or something. I want to spend all of my time doing the things that I want to do. Maybe not an artist, maybe like a child (laughs). I’m like a big man-child (laughs). I just want to wrestle, I just want to work out… I want to laugh, go outside, travel… I want to do all of the things that are fun to me. I have been criticized for that, but I have set my life up that way. My friends and family want to criticize me for not having a real job? Or for not being some guy in an office? Well, I chose this life and I’m making the money to live this life.

All of my decisions are a reminder of my mortality, which I know you know. As a youth, I was a very troubled kid and I’ve always thought about things existentially. I always thought about death. I had a lot of people die on me, and they haven’t stopped dying. I’ve also had my own problems with stuff like that in my own life when I was younger. All of my decisions would be better-understood by people if they reminded themselves that we are all going to die, and that it can come at any time. Because of the way that I live my life, I clash heads with people sometimes — and never on purpose. It’s usually because they want me to think practically, or they want me to think short-term. Meanwhile, I am always thinking of the big picture. I’m always thinking, Hey, we’re all going to die and that can come at any time, so we need to live life to the fullest. Having said that, that’s why I’m terrible at sending an email (laughs). But Astrid is great at that.

I don’t care if people don’t understand our relationship or why she is at every camp. First of all, with US Immigration not accepting her green card, she can’t even be in America with me. So, our relationship is on the fly — even though we’re married. Wherever I go in Europe, she will be with me because we want to spend time together. Most married athletes don’t have to deal with that. They want to go home after the tournament because they know their wives will be there. My wife is not able to come home with me. That is why she is here. We want to spend time together. She is also a huge asset in everything I’m doing.

5PM: When you’re overseas for any length of time, especially at this stage of your career, is dieting more of an issue? Or less?

Rau: I mean, most people always tell me it’s harder. I think people are worried about the way I eat and about my weight cut, with the last weight cut being so terrible. But I find it is easier to eat healthier overseas usually because most of these countries are more health-conscious than we are in America. Also back in America, I have all of the things that enable me to eat badly (laughs). Whether it’s friends — including friends who are non-wrestlers — or family, it is always like, Come on, it’s so-and-so’s birthday, eat something. I don’t have that issue when I’m here. Especially when you are in Sweden, France, or Belgium. It is not like things are hyped up to be natural or organic, that’s just the way most of these people eat. It’s more normal to eat healthy. When we are at Astrid’s family’s house, they are cooking meals that are extremely healthy in my eyes, but it’s just a normal meal for them. Where I grew up, we didn’t know what a healthy meal looked like (laughs). I had to learn that through wrestling.

It all comes down to discipline, no matter who you are. The weight cut didn’t go well for this last tournament, but I didn’t even know that I was going to be in the tournament until the second week of December. Right before I shot out there, I bought my plane tickets a just a couple days before the flight. I was fighting to get over here; and when I say that, I mean just fighting to get the go-ahead from coaches and stuff because they were worried about COVID. But I dieted pretty hard with the exception of a few meals over the course of that month prior and it was just, I think, a little too late. And as I get older, I can’t think of past cuts and compare them to project how the weight is going to come off the next time. Now, each cut is kind of different and I have to give myself a couple of months to do what used to take me a month if I expect to perform well.

5PM: Last year pre-pandemic, beginning with the fall of ’19, you traveled quite a bit. But then you were unable to travel abroad for almost a year. Did you miss it a lot since it’s something you enjoy both personally and for competitive reasons?

Rau: Yeah, before the pandemic last year I was traveling a lot, and a lot of crazy things happened within that time that I almost forget. Before NYAC (’19 Bill Farrell Memorial) I had hurt my shoulder and didn’t think I would be able to wrestle in the Pan-Ams or the Trials, or anything, only to find out that the tear wasn’t too bad and that I didn’t need surgery. Then I shot out on a couple of international trips just to see Astrid while I couldn’t wrestle. Yeah, my shoulder was torn, but I would be able to come back and do rehab, and then stay out for a month or so. I traveled quite a bit for that, then I traveled for Pan-Ams and Denmark.

There was a lot of traveling but it was crazy. A lot of it was that I was in a long-distance relationship. My girlfriend, now my wife, wasn’t just a few states away. She was continents away. Part of it was also that I had to get overseas to train once my shoulder healed. But I always do as much as I can. If I’m not on a trip, it is because either I wasn’t invited or I wasn’t the #1 guy, or I didn’t have the money and no one would send me. If there is any overseas trip, the only reason why I’m not on it is because someone doesn’t approve or I had to focus on something else. Or, there wasn’t someone willing to fund me and I didn’t have the money to fund myself. I try not to let anything get in the way of me traveling to get better.

During COVID, I missed traveling so much, obviously. It’s hard, because we don’t have control over whether or not our dreams come true. But, when you’re overseas wrestling with the best guys, you feel like you’re at least controlling something. You at least feel like you’re doing the right things to make your dream a reality. Whether you are or not, it’s not a magical cure to your wrestling, and you have to know that that’s true. But you at least feel like, Hey, I’m chasing the toughest competition, I’m looking for the best guys and the best coaching. I’m always looking to max those things out. You know what it’s like to be an American Greco guy right now. It’s imperative to get overseas. And if you have the funds or someone there to support you, you should do it as much as possible.

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I caught the travel bug once I started. For me, it was like opening pandora’s box because I never wanted to stop traveling. I’m more comfortable on the road than I am at home. Being at home makes me nervous. Maybe I’m running from things, I don’t know (laughs). All of my friends and roommates throughout the years have been like, Oh, man, that must be so hard. You must be so tired. But no, I’m invigorated by traveling. It excites me. Maybe it takes more effort to do that rather than stay home, but a sedentary life at home does not excite me. It does not invigorate me. So, even if it’s a lot less hassle, traveling is kind of what I live for. When I was a kid in Chicago, I just thought I would never be able to do it. If it weren’t for wrestling, I doubt I would have because I don’t know anyone who is traveling like I am. My siblings don’t get to do this. I wish they did.

But yes, it was hard not to travel. Obviously, I have been bugging coaches to let me go do this trip for months now and I finally got the go-ahead to do it — so I did. I’m thankful that everything worked out because I would have been heavily criticized if I got stuck in the middle somewhere on a connecting flight in somewhere like Amsterdam and couldn’t go home, and then also could not get into the training camp or the tournament. Astrid was on it with everything, as far as what every country’s requirements were when it came to traveling either into or through that particular country. Stuff like Are there exemptions for elite athletes? What proof do we need to get? Do we need to get a PCR test? Where? She has been on all of that stuff and there have been a lot of different countries on this trip.

I’m just grateful that it has all worked out. During COVID, I did a lot camping across the country. I took Astrid to 37 states, I think, and I don’t know how many national parks. We did seven on one trip. I think we did 15 or so this summer. Maybe people don’t need to hear that. Maybe there is something wrong with me (laughs). I was social distancing because I was just camping (laughs). I don’t like being home, and that is something I will have to reconcile when I get older and stay in one place. Maybe. Astrid and I are both kind of committed to a life of travel. Everyone has their priorities. That sounds like a silly one, but we both want a life of adventure and we’re going after it. Other people can have their own lives. And, it’ll affect some big decisions, such as, Are we going to have kids? I think about stuff like that because we do like to travel. We’re going to live different lives I think. At least we plan to. We’re going to try and travel until we’re too old to do it.

5PM: What do you like the most about overseas training partners? Do you look for specific styles or bodies with whom to go live and drill? Or have you on this trip been forced to just take what you can get?

Joe Rau: Overseas, what I love the most is picking people’s brains. It’s great that Pat Smith is here now. He wasn’t on the whole trip with me but now he is out here with me at this camp in Croatia. Pat has no problem pestering people and asking them about technique and I can just follow along. For me, I will try and befriend guys and get them to show me things. In France, I had Melo (Melonin Noumonvi) show me a ton of great stuff. I had built a relationship with him and he was able to open up by having a couple of private sessions with me. He showed me a ton of great stuff in par terre, a ton of great stuff on the feet and how he does it. He’s so slick and technical. It was great to pick his brain.

(Heiki) Nabi from Estonia is someone who I always love to talk to. The guy is a genius, and he completely changed my perspective on the tournament I had. I mean, here’s this guy who is a two-time World Champion and he also took fifth (at Zagreb), but he said he was more proud of that than some other tournaments where he actually medaled because he got four great fights in. Now he is going to take notes and move forward. He’s competing again, he feels great, and he was happy about it.

The guy (Nabi) is a big, massive, walking-talking self-help book. If you ever talk to Nabi, he is constantly trying to improve his life on and off the mat. He is constantly reading things. He is very intelligent and it shows. It translates into his wrestling, and that is why he is so consistent. Nabi is a guy with whom in just a small conversation after the tournament really got me to stop being a whiny little baby about my results and to simply take it for what it was. This (Zagreb) wasn’t the important tournament. April is, then the Olympics are. So, just take notes, use them, and move forward. Also, be happy that had I four matches. That was something I was already happy about. It sucks to go through all of this work and have just on match, which happens to people. Nabi is always someone I love.

Gil Nugues also helped me tremendously in France. It was ridiculous how nice he was and how much technique he showed me. And also, how much technique he translated from other people for me. He, Melo, and Coach Christophe (Guenot) showed me a ton of technique and we discussed a lot of different tactics.

I did less technique with the Swedes just because of how close to the tournament we were. Still, Leon Kessidis and Coach Jimmy were helping us with par terre. Coach Fritz, who I already mentioned. It was absolutely huge that he coached me at the tournament. It was very nice of him to do that. He also had some great feedback regarding what I need to work on.

(Zhan) Belenyuk is someone I really wanted to go with at this camp but he’s on a different plan. He hasn’t been at practice yet. I have been in some tournaments where he is in the bracket and I’ve always wanted to wrestle him. Unfortunately, that has happened yet. I really want to wrestle him if I can catch him one of these days at practice, but he hasn’t been in there yet. When I am at practice, I am usually trying to get the best guys I can that day. For me, it has always been important, ever since I was a kid, to go with as many people as possible.

That’s why these camps are great. There are 15 or 16 countries here. In my eyes, it is better to go with different guys as often as possible because then you become exposed to so many different styles. Maybe one day you’re going with a guy who is not as good as the World Champion, but he has something different. This guy might have a killer arm throw while the World champ has a great gut and great pummeling skills. I like to be able to work on different things, which is going to come naturally when you seek a diverse group of training partners. I’ve always criticized guys for doing the opposite. Guys will go to clinics or camps and wrestle with someone from their home. Because, they are comfortable with them.

I understand when someone is just a good training partner and they flow right or they drill well. All that stuff. You can trust them. And maybe that is more important when you are getting close to a tournament. But when it comes to getting better at wrestling, I have always tried to go with guys at different weights, or guys with varying skills and different strong-suits. Because, that’s how tournaments are. That’s how wrestling is. You are going to have so many different guys, which is why I think it is imperative to see a diverse array of styles and strengths. I’m a bigger 87, so I go with 97’s pretty easily. Not that it’s easy for me all the time, but it’s not like I am giving up too much weight. I’ll go with 87’s, I’ll go with 82’s, and I’ve gone with a few 77’s in this camp.

I went with this one 77, I don’t know who he is but he’s good. He caught me with something slick twice. I was talking to Pat about it. I had never seen the guy before, but it’s good to go with a guy like that. Maybe you’re a little irritated that a 77 scored on you twice during a live go, but he has something the 87’s don’t. He was a lot slicker, a lot faster. There is value in that. Which is what I’m thinking about wherever I am, especially at these camps. Train with as many different guys as possible.

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