Interviews

Hazewinkel Following First Greco Trials Win at 35: “It’s a Great Place to Be”

sam hazewinkel, 2018 usa greco-roman world team
Sam Hazewinkel -- Photo: John Sachs

On Friday afternoon, Sam Hazewinkel (Sunkist) became a Senior Greco-Roman World Team member for the first time in his illustrious wrestling career. It has been quite the winding road for the Oklahoman. A four-time NCAA Division I All-American and a runner-up at the mega event in 2007, Hazewinkel found little difficulty in adapting his pronounced ability in one style and translating it to another. From the early-2000’s onward, he couldn’t be missed. Hazewinkel, along with two-time Olympian Spenser Mango, the late Lindsey Durlacher, Jermaine Hodge, Nate Engel, Nikko Triggas, and a host of others, helped turn 55 kilograms into the most-watched weight class.

Not long after that second-place in the college final, Hazewinkel turned around and won the Senior Greco Nationals. After coming up short to Mango in the Olympic Trials best-of-three final in 2008, he won the University World Championships by defeating Kazakhstan’s Yernar Ramazanov for the second time that year (Hazewinkel had gotten past Ramazanov previously at the Dave Schultz Memorial). This is just how it was and Hazewinkel continued to assert his standing more and more. There was little question as to who the best all-around Greco athletes in the country were and he was on the list.

But eventually, a style switch entered the equation. Wanting to challenge himself by veering off into a different direction, Hazewinkel eased his way onto the freestyle circuit and instantly turned himself into a top competitor. His win in that style’s 2011 US Open didn’t come as so much of a surprise, though his triumph at the Olympic Trials a year later delivered pulsating shockwaves around the nation. Greco people love it when who they see as one of their own conquers the other side. However, that’s where the sticking point is: Hazewinkel, even now at 35 years of age, doesn’t see himself as just a “Greco guy”, regardless of what took place this past week. The son of a Greco-Roman Olympian (Dave) grew up with a fond appreciation for everything and anything having to do with wrestling as a whole. The lines have always been blurred for Hazewinkel, but unlike much of the current generation, that distortion works in his favor.

After taking on a role as an assistant coach at the University of Central Oklahoma in 2016, it appeared like Hazewinkel was just about done. Mentoring young hopefuls seemed like a natural fit for such a successful competitor and gifted communicator. And it wasn’t just his age, it was also his station in life. He was married. A father. Drinking it all in. Hazewinkel wasn’t spending each livelong day lounging in a hammock, but he was without the mental vice of competitive stress. It was where he was supposed to be. The next phase was all set and Hazewinkel couldn’t have been happier in seeming retirement.

Of course, just about everything in life is subject to change. The happiness, no, that was and still is at an all-time high. But retirement? For a wrestler? It’s often too much to ask. An athlete doesn’t just stop being an athlete, especially if there are no devastating, mind-blowing injuries on the resume which resulted in their exit from the sport in the first place. If the sails are still hanging, all it takes is a little bit of wind and the boat will move just fine. That’s why when Hazewinkel, practically on a whim, decided to enter the Greco-Roman US Open in April, the only curiosity surrounding his presence was where he would wind up on the medal stand. Otherwise, his participation, while noteworthy and a sort of pleasant surprise, didn’t raise all that many eyebrows.

That’s what his performance was for.

Hazewinkel impressed in the Open’s 55-kilogram final opposite fellow former University World Champion Max Nowry (Army/WCAP) in a closer-than-it-looked 10-3 loss. To be fair, he appeared sharp the entire day, racking up a couple blitzing tech falls as well as a gritty victory over highly-talented Randon Miranda (NYAC/OTS) in the semis. The technique, movement, and decisiveness that aided Hazewinkel earlier during his earlier days were all still evident. He regrouped following the Nationals and double-downed on his chances for a World Team spot. The two-month window provided Hazewinkel with all of the time he needed to tweak various aspects of his game in anticipation of a best-of-three finals showdown with Nowry, who he defeated in two straight to seal the deal.

The morning after all of the chaos — the jaw-dropping sweep of Nowry, and the first-ever Senior Greco Trials victory of a storied career — Hazewinkel exhumed a combination of pragmatic confidence and overjoyed gratuity. It’s not that this latest achievement had been a long time coming. There is no “deserve”, no entitlement or free passes, even for someone perched underneath a legacy that is unique to this sport in this country. But that’s why this is extra special to him. Hazewinkel always tried to appreciate the moment the best he could. The difference is that now he truly knows what it means, and plus, he has more people to share it with.

5PM Interview with Sam Hazewinkel

5PM: What difference had the time away from competition made for you just in terms of approach, preparation, and attitude?

Sam Hazewinkel: It’s hard to put it into words, because you do, you do start to see everything differently. You see the little mistakes people make and it’s hard to understand why someone would make that mistake, knowing I used to make them, and I don’t see how I could make that mistake anymore. And then you get out there and you do it anyway. You watch guys and they are all nervous. You don’t need to get nervous. It doesn’t matter. And then I step out on the mat and I get nervous. It’s like, Why am I nervous? I know I shouldn’t be nervous. So, some of it plays through, some of it doesn’t, but the fact that you can sit back and kind of realize that it doesn’t help. I could just go play disc golf and hang out with my kids, so why am I worrying about it? Let’s go have some fun and go wrestle.

Then it’s a fine line because you’re told your whole life that this is how you have to train if you want to make a World Team. So you push yourself to that limit, you push yourself to that limit, and now I can’t. If I train like that, I get injured. Trying to find this fine line between training how I’ve always been told I need to, training when I can train, and realizing that I don’t need to train at that level because I’m smarter now. I can be wiser about the decisions I make and it has been a lot of fun.

I think as much as stepping away for those two years helped me, coming back is going to help me, too. It is going to make me a better coach because it is going to allow me to get that athlete perspective again, now that I’ve had the coaching perspective. I don’t know, it’s just a weird thing because I’m really enjoying coaching now. It wouldn’t bother me in the least if I got injured because then it would be like, Okay, now I get to coach and be a family man. And making the Team, that doesn’t bother me in the least because I always wanted to make the Greco Team. It’s a fun place to be right now. I have so many priorities and I love all of them. It’s like going to a buffet and grabbing everything because you don’t know what you want to eat first and you like it all. My plate is full right now but I love it. It’s a great place to be.

5PM: How about being a father with all of this happening right now? I’d imagine that becoming a dad has helped you compartmentalize things and that it has also maybe taken some of the edge off since you always know what your top priority is. 

SH: Yeah, it takes a lot of the stress out. I don’t think about a bad day at practice all night long now. When I leave practice, I leave practice. Then I go home and play with my kids. I told my wife (Rachel) way back when we first started dating seriously, I love ya, but I want to be an Olympian and there are going to be times when it looks like I love wrestling more than you. I don’t, that’s just the way it looks. It’s funny, because with the kids, there is no doubt they come first. I love them first. But, there are times when it’s like, Hey Josh, Dad has to go wrestle now. We’ll wrestle a little bit, I’ll stop training for five minutes to wrestle you, but then you have to go stand by Mom while I finish practicing. It’s hard, but at the same time it’s good, because Josh is getting the chance to see that there are priorities. There is a time to play, there’s a time to work. So I’m really enjoying it. I am trying to use it as a tool to teach him so he can see what a man should be, what a good guy does. How he puts family first but there is also time to work and time to play.

Like I said earlier, I’m just really enjoying it. I’m trying to take it all in and really enjoy it. I’ve been at the top and I’ve been at the bottom. I’ve won and I’ve lost. I have been on the emotional roller coasters. The sayings you hear all the time growing up, how it’s about “the path” and “doing it is where all the fun is”, they’re so true. It’s hard when you are young and you’re battling at this level. You’re like, No, it’s not fun. I hurt everywhere, I trained all day, I didn’t get to hang out with my friends. The fun part is when you get to the top, that’s what’s fun. And I am very much now just trying to enjoy where I’m at. I am 35 and I’m training. I don’t know of many guys who get to do that.

I’m trying not to think of it as, I’ve got a job and I’ve got to train. I am trying to just enjoy it, be in the moment, and to get back to what you were saying earlier, I think it is helping me. Having that mentality of just enjoying where I’m at is allowing me to train when I don’t necessarily want to, and it’s allowing me to step back when I need a break instead of just trying to push through and spend another half-hour at the gym when I just can’t and my body needs a rest. I’m trying to be smarter and enjoy it — I wouldn’t say more because I’ve always enjoyed wrestling — but in a different way. It’s more like a top-down enjoyment or approach.

5PM: What were the primary factors which led you to come back for Vegas (the US Open)?

SH: Once I read that they changed the Greco rules a little bit, they got rid of forced par terre and then they ended up bringing it back. But they had gotten rid of the forced par terre and that was where I always lost. I tend to beat everybody on the feet and par terre is where I’d lose close matches. So that got me kind of thinking. Then I found out the Trials were in Oklahoma and that got me thinking even more.

Towards the end of the year, the coaching I did at UCO (University of Central Oklahoma) as an assistant, I am very top-heavy on technique in the beginning of the year and very top-heavy on what you do well at the end of the year, and wrestling and being fine-tuned. Helping those guys out, I liked getting my hands on them at the end of the year. In the beginning of the season, I watched and I’d coach them up. In the second half of the year I’m very hands-on and wrestling with them.

So I started getting in a little bit of shape, and looking at the (55 kilogram Greco-Roman) lineup out there, it’s not very deep. I’ve wrestled a bunch of these guys before so I was like, You know what? I’m helping Dalton (Duffield) already, I might as well do it. And right when I got my mind made up I talked to my wife, What do you think? She’s the best wife in the world and behind me 100%. She said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of the kids.” So I was like, Is that serious? Or was it one of those comments, you know, like, I’ll take the kids, don’t worry about it? (Laughs) But no, she meant it, which was awesome. But — then I got the job at OCU (Oklahoma City University) and I decided not to wrestle. I need to focus on this, I have a family, I want to coach. I’m a head coach now and that needs to be a priority. 

About a week and half there it was just turning things around. Catching up on scheduling, catching up on recruiting, and all that kind of stuff. But then it was about ten days out from the Open and I thought, You know what? I’m going to do it. All I need to do is take top-7. I’m caught up enough and I have two good months of training after this before the Trials, which is in Oklahoma. I always wanted to make the Greco Team. Never made it. My dad was on it and all that, there’s a lot of history and emotion there. I just said, Why not? All I have to do is be top-7, and the rest is now history. It worked out well.

5PM: 55 (kilos) is obviously familiar territory for you but same-day weigh-ins on the Senior level are not. Did your experience collegiately play a role in your confidence?

Sam Hazewinkel: When they first announced it (same-day weigh-ins) I was a little upset. I was all excited about 55 the day before. I’m an old guy. But the more I thought about it, the more I loved it. I was thinking, when I was competing in Greco I would have absolutely loved it because I was always way smaller than everybody. When they bumped 55 up to 59, that sealed the deal for me in Greco and freestyle. They were just too big.

So I sat myself down and was like, Okay, let’s buy-in because this is the weight and this is where you need to be. I just didn’t like it because I hadn’t made weight in a while. I wanted the easy path. Once I made up my mind about that, it got a lot easier and a lot better. That first cut at the US Open, I felt like I got it down good, I just didn’t do it right in that I lost a lot of strength. I don’t know if it was doing it late or (because) it was the first cut, the first time really getting down. I just did not feel as strong as I normally do. For the Trials, I feel like I really did it right. On the first day after the challenge tournament finals, I went back to the hotel and I think I was 57 and a half kilos. I was a half-kilo over, so I didn’t have to cut weight or anything. I went and ate something, relaxed, woke up, and I was on weight. Some people think that’s small, that you need to be cutting something, but I felt like I did it perfectly. My body is floating around the right weight. I felt good, I had a bunch of energy, and I didn’t have to waste energy going and cutting weight. I was real happy with how I brought the weight down.

More and more, I’m loving the day-of (weigh-ins). I think it’s a good rule. Most people bumped up a weight. All of the guys who were already small stayed where they were but the kids who were cutting a lot bumped up. For the most part, you had a lot of the same people wrestling each other, but you don’t have to worry about the weight cut as much. So, I think it’s a good rule. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would argue with me about that but I thought it was a good rule.

5PM: One of the items surrounding your return is your speed. You seemed to be operating very, very quickly. 

SH: (Laughs) I think it’s deceptive. I don’t think I’m that fast. I never felt like I was that fast and I definitely don’t feel as fast as I used to be. Maybe that’s just the old man just getting people to fall into me better, I guess.

5PM: So you’re saying that it might be a combination of anticipation and experience? Because physically, your arm spins, that was your weapon here. Aside from hitting them out of 90 different positions, they are hard to track in-progress. They just happen and there it is, a score. But you’re saying you don’t think it’s a speed thing. 

SH: No, I don’t. I don’t think it’s a speed thing. Every once in a while I’ll surprise myself and I will feel like it was really fast and I didn’t really set it up. But for the most part, I’m setting up arm throws the same way someone else is setting something up. I’m playing them, I’m setting them up, I am trying to get the guy falling into me or stepping into me, pushing, or just getting his body right so when I go it’s less work. I want to see an arm spin, not an arm throw. I don’t want to be throwing anybody. I want them falling over the top of me because I do it right.

Since I was real little, that’s how my dad taught it. You don’t want to be throwing people. He always taught it like the old game where you get on your knees behind your buddy and someone else pushes him. Then they fall over the top of you. If you do the arm throw right, it’s like someone is pushing them. You just drop down and they fall over the top of you.

So I think it maybe gives the illusion of speed to it — and I’m sure there is some speed. If you do a move as many times as I’ve done the arm throw there is speed in that I don’t have all of the little things messing up on it. Everything is clockwork, I guess. But by no means do I feel fast.

5PM: Going into this season, Max was the centerpiece to this weight class. For sure. You competed well against him in the Vegas final. I know you guys met up years ago but you’re both different now. What kind of adjustments did you know you were going to have to make for this time around?

SH: I think at the Open I kind of overlooked him. When he first started competing it was kind of at the end of my Greco career. He was young and I kind of put it on him then, which I mean, he was young. But in ’13, he came back out and I beat him 2-2 just thinking that I had a bad match. I didn’t give him any props from that match in my mind. It was, I didn’t wrestle my best but I still found a way to win.

So I think I came in overlooking him and he was better prepared. He was ready to wrestle. He had a good game plan. I came in just kind of like, I’m going to throw this guy around. And I think losing that match was the best thing for me. If I didn’t lose that, I don’t know if I would have trained right. I’d like to think that whole experience about being older would come into play. But it was an absolute wake-up call for me. He wrestled the better match all the way through. I walked right into an arm throw and I’m the guy does arm throws. And then he just held position. He didn’t get caught up in any of the tricks, in chasing me around or letting me come back into the match. He was smart and he held good position. He had been doing the grind since the last six years, it was his, and he wasn’t going to give it to me.

I think it was great for me to feel that because it really got my mind right for the Trials. It was like, Hey, this guy is here. In my mind, he’s beatable. I could beat him. But he’s not a push-over. He has put in the time, put in the energy. He is solid. I watched more film, studied more film, and he has beaten a lot of really good guys in America. He has put in the time so I really had to get my mind right and focus on tightening everything up, just like I was saying with the kids I coach. At the Open, I was just trying to arm-throw everybody and be the “cool old guy” coming back, whereas at the Trials, I was here to win. It’s funny how that works. When I’m trying to be the cool guy and throw everybody, I don’t. When I’m trying to win, I end up throwing everybody. When my mind is right, the throws come.

So, it was good. It felt real good to go out there and wrestle like I know I can. It means I’m doing something right in my training. Something in my mental preparation, something in my training — whatever — something is going right when things are clicking like that.

5PM: Does any of this feel weird? I mean, probably not considering who won the heavyweight tournament. 

Sam Hazewinkel: (Laughs) Coon is a machine, man. That’s awesome. He’s doing it. That was the dream for me, Just weigh in for Greco while doing freestyle and let’s wrestle both. And I can never get myself to do it. The one year they separated them I did both in a heartbeat. Coon is just like, Ah, I’ll just do ’em both. What do I have to do? Fly, wrestle in the finals, fly, make weight again, and wrestle in the finals? No worries, I can do it. He’s a machine. That’s just awesome.

I love that we’re getting more guys doing both styles. (Hayden) Zillmer did it. I think (Kyle) Dake dabbled a few years ago and gave the World champ (Arsen Julfalakyan) a great match. I hope to see more guys doing it. I always bring it up about (Michael) Phelps, and maybe this isn’t the best analogy, but I can’t imagine the swimming coaches telling Phelps that he could only do the breaststroke. That’s it, you can’t do any others. You need to focus on one. To me, that doesn’t make sense. You don’t do that. If you’ve got Phelps, you put him in every race. You’ve got LeBron (James), you play him. When you have a Dake who is behind a (Jordan) Burroughs for four years, you say, Hey Dake, we’re going to bump Greco back. Why don’t you come do Greco? Just do your thing, come over, train a little Greco and try out for our team. To me that makes sense.

Maybe I’m still young and I’m biased. I like both styles. But I think it’s something that is a resource we’re not digging into enough in the US. And I get that some people have to specialize, but the majority of these guys do both styles all the way through high school, and then they’re doing two styles in college. Collegiate and freestyle are kind of alike but they are not that much different than Greco. Don’t shoot. Everything else is the same.

That’s a bit dramatic, but it’s true. Wrestling is wrestling. You don’t tell a kid to only have a high crotch, you want him to have a high crotch and single-leg. And if you can add in a snap-down, now you’re a triple threat. But to tell a kid, No, don’t do Greco and stick to just freestyle is crazy to me. Why not make him a triple threat?

Again, I’m a bit biased, but that’s my two cents on that.

5PM: Then how do you explain the lack of success the US experiences internationally going against athletes who for their entire lives have only trained Greco?

SH: Well, that’s hard to answer without sounding bad and getting into hot water.

5PM: Everyone talks about this, it’s a topic brought up pretty often. 

SH: Yeah, it’s just hard to answer without someone getting mad. You know, part of what makes us good in freestyle is that you’ve got have depth. You have to battle to get your spot. It’s not a given. A 35-year-old is not going to just walk into freestyle and be in the finals. It’s not going to happen. There are a bunch of studs you have to get through. In Greco, I did it. I can walk over and I know in my mind that I have maybe one or two tough matches. And again, I know that sounds bad and I’m not trying to say anything bad about the up-and-coming guys.

5PM: No, we need to build depth. That’s reality. 

SH: Yeah, there’s just not the depth. There are guys in there we don’t know and it’s, What school did you wrestle at? They are not common names. There just isn’t that depth and I think that is a big part of it which is lacking. I wish they would let the freestylers come over who don’t make the Team. I think you would add depth and make our guys be able to last longer at the World tournament. When you don’t have tough matches until you get to the semis and then you’re at the Worlds and you have a World champ first match, a World medalist in the second match, and then a World Champion in the third match…we’re not used to that grind. And you’re not going to get that grind going overseas. If you go over to the Poland tournament you might get a little deeper than the US, but it’s not that grind. You need that grind at home with guys you know. Guys you think about who you see and are on your mind constantly.

So I think that’s part of it. And just the culture. Greco is kind of the stepchild a little bit. Someone’s got to be. It is what it is. I’m not trying to give excuses but I think that plays into it a little bit. It’s easy to get in that mindset that it doesn’t matter, We’re Greco, nobody is here, nobody is watching, nobody cares. Whatever. I think that plays on the mentality a little bit, and I hope I’m wrong about that. I’d like to think the guys who made the World Team are past that stuff. But it’s hard, you know? It’s a funny thing. It’s 90% mental, the real deal. So I think that’s part of it, the mental side. Then there are countries who do Greco and are great. I don’t see why we can’t be as good as any of them. We do it in freestyle, we should be able to do it in Greco.

I’d have to put a lot more thought into it as to why I think it is, but I really think that first one is a big part of it, which is that we don’t have the depth right now. We don’t have the push that we need.

5PM: One of your World Team coaches is Spenser Mango who you know very well from years of competing with each other. How about that?

SH: Yeah, yeah! I didn’t even know until he got up there in the picture with us. Spenser?! Sweet, you get to be my coach? You could tell it was kind of awkward for both of us. But to be honest, I love it. I think I’d rather him be in my corner than just about anyone else because he isn’t going to coach me like a coach, he is going to coach me like another athlete I think. He probably knows me better than any of the other coaches, better than anybody else. We battled for years. I’m excited about him and I am going to try to get him to be my coach iff they don’t let me bring a personal coach. If they don’t let me bring (Michael) Lightner and I don’t know how that works in Greco, I hope they do, but if they don’t I am going to be pushing hard for Spenser. I would rather have him in my corner than just about anybody else. And, he owes me. I can think of a few trips overseas where we were cutting weight sitting in the sauna in the middle-of-nowhere-Russia being like, Man, this dude’s weight isn’t coming off. I have to help him. I have to stay around and help this dude cut weight a little bit more. So he owes me. I’m going to go with that (laughs).

5PM: Are you entering into this next whole four months foreseeing any kind of leadership role amongst your fellow World Team athletes?

SH: Yeah, you know, I’m curious to see. I’m really curious to see. Greco has changed a little bit since I was around when (Steve) Fraser was the head coach, and now it’s Matt (Lindland). I don’t really know how he runs things. I know it’s different. I don’t know how it’s different and I am really curious to see. A lot of these guys I haven’t wrestled with. They know me but they don’t know me. I’m very curious to see if I take on that kind of role. That’s what I’d prefer to do. That’s where I am in my element. If I’m helping those guys it’s going to keep me sharp. If I am being selfish and only worrying about me, then I kind of get into a bubble and get into my head a little bit. I’m hoping. Coach Lindland and I are going to talk this week, try to get a game plan together, and figure things out. Because at 35, things are a little different. I can’t train at that level and I need him to help me with that because I will try to. I will get in the zone, I will try to train like those guys, and then I’ll get injured. So he has to help me with that because I’ll be really upset if I go and injure myself trying to be a 22-year-old, you know?

I am curious to see. I am very curious to see. I hope I take a leadership role, I hope I can help get the guys ready, sneak a little wisdom into them, and leech a little of their youth out of them before they think I’m young (laughs). Just steal a little bit without them thinking I’m young.

5PM: How is all of this stuff going to affect your coaching responsibilities?

Sam Hazewinkel: That’s another one I’m curious about but I think it’s going to help. That’s me in general, I am a glass half-full-silver-lining kind of guy. The big things I need to do are recruit and fundraise, and I’d like to think making a World Team would help both of those a lot. That’s the idea I am going to have, go push, and be confident in my recruiting and my fundraising. I think people will see that and people will be on board. Everybody likes to jump on board a good thing, and right now, it’s a good thing. And I am going to try to take full advantage of the situation and the opportunities that have arisen from making a World Team. It’s going to be busy, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Follow Sam Hazewinkel on Twitter for updates on his career and competitive schedule. 

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