Last week, Brandon Mueller‘s (77 kg) name popped up as one of the three US Seniors scheduled to compete at the 2018 Wladyslaw Pytlasinski Memorial in Spala, Poland. Current World Team member G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist) and Joe Rau (87 kg, Chicago RTC) have both remained in Europe following the Grand Prix of Germany and its attached training camp, and Mueller will be joining the duo sometime late Wednesday night.
But the most important bit of news pertaining to Mueller has to do with his stateside concerns. After three seasons of stops and starts, the eggheaded Air Force Captain is finally a full-time Greco-Roman athlete.
If you need a brief, speedy refresher, it goes like this: Mueller, once a solid high school wrestler during his formative years in Wisconsin, did not begin competing in Greco-Roman until 2015, when he was 24. Despite his newbieness it was evident fairly quickly that he possessed a knack for the classical style. In his first competition, the 2015 US Senior Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mueller went 3-2. Not long after, he underwent hip surgery and was off the mat for the entirety of the season.
But Mueller came back into the fold soon enough. He put together a strong 2-1 performance at the 2017 Armed Forces Championships that included a win over Marine JayShon Wilson. Two months later, Mueller — pretty much out of nowhere — placed second at Estonia’s Kristjan Palusalu Memorial.
Mueller didn’t fare as well at ’17 World Team Trials, coming in eighth. Almost always self-deprecating, he would say later, “I ended up losing all of my matches by tech fall because there was no point in losing in a close match, so I kept going for big throws I don’t know to do.”
One more shot to mix it up on the global stage last year presented itself in the form of the CISM World Military Championships, an opportunity Mueller received in place of Armed Forces winner Michael Hooker (Army/WCAP), who had jumped up in weight over the summer. The Airman wrestled two matches at the CISM Worlds and lost them both by a combined six points. But who were his two opponents? Previous Senior World bronze medalists Adam Kurak (RUS, world no. 3) and Afshin Byabangard (IRI).
A fourth-place effort at the November Dave Schultz Memorial six weeks later followed, and after that, a 2-1 showing in February’s Armed Forces Championships. To close out his 2017-18 domestic campaign, Mueller placed seventh at the Open in April and finished 2-2 in June’s Trials.
The results outlined above are okay, not great. You wouldn’t confuse Mueller’s record with one of the top-tier wrestlers who boast higher domestic billing. But up until July, Mueller — a satellite design engineer by trade and whose nerdiness and dry wit knows no bounds — was doing all of this with such a limited training schedule that the fact he was able to remain competitive on the Senior level at all is pretty mind-boggling.
Most of Mueller’s training “camps” for tournaments were fraught with timing issues. For some events, he had about a month to prepare and would cram in practices at the 505 Wrestling Club in Albuquerque. In other cases, there was even less time on his side. His work — technical, involved, and highly-specialized — demanded the majority of his attention and the long hours it offered didn’t mesh well for an athlete holding Olympic aspirations.
If you listened to episode 16 of The Five Point Move Podcast the rest shouldn’t be a surprise. Mueller had become a candidate for the Air Force’s World Class Athletes Program, which he alluded to on the show. The process didn’t exactly pass in a blur, but three months-and-change hence, the 27-year-old was finally accepted. No more piecing together training, no more crossing his fingers and hoping he’ll be able to get in enough high-level matches prior to a major US tournament. Brandon Mueller is, at last, a full-time Greco-Roman competitor and he discusses what this all means in the brisk Q&A below.
Brandon Mueller — 77 kg, Air Force/WCAP
5PM: If you could, explain how the process worked that led to you becoming a member of Air Force’s WCAP.
Brandon Mueller: There are really two halves to getting approval for the Air Force WCAP. You have to be accepted by Air Force Sports, and that process has to do with proving you have a legitimate opportunity and chance of making the Olympic Team. So, over the last two years, I was able to demonstrate that by qualifying for the World Team Trials along with some big wins.
The other half was getting released from my career field. That requires asking your chain of command and seeing if they’ll release you to go train.
5PM: How would you describe your training circumstances prior to July, just the basic rundown of what prepping for events looked like the past couple of years?
Mueller: I had been training at 505 Wrestling Club in Albuquerque and it was nice having some Greco expertise out there compared to other locations. It is certainly limited in terms of training partners, and I still had my full-time job that I had to do. I was working at the research lab from nine to five, trying to fit in two-a-days and things like that. I was fortunate when I would work in Colorado Springs. I would hop into the Army room or the OTC (Olympic Training Center), and they were very supportive. If I got up to Colorado Springs for a few days, maybe I could fit in three practices there and try to learn some things. So it has certainly been a quick change for the positive, staying here in Colorado Springs.
5PM: A lot of your existence in this sport has come with stops and starts. As much as a vastly improved training situation, do you feel that this opportunity with WCAP also provides a peace of mind?
Mueller: The training certainly adds some peace of mind and I have more resources, and maybe that’ll lead to more confidence on the mat. I’m a little nervous that I’ll have some added anxiety on myself, a little higher pressure now that it’s my full-time job and I’m expected to do better. But I’m hoping that the confidence that I build through training will overcome all that and it will show up in the results.
5PM: What is the element of freedom that comes with this change? I’d have to imagine that you’re now fairly unencumbered when it comes to seeking out training opportunities and events that take place overseas.
Mueller: Yeah, I really do have a lot of freedom to choose training camps and locations to train. There are some limitations with the Air Force, I have to get some approvals, but by and large, if I can make my case that something is a good opportunity I have a lot of support.
5PM: The Pytlasinski Cup is one of the most competitive tournaments of the summer due to how it lines up prior to either the Worlds or Olympics. This is also your first competition since the Trials and joining Air Force WCAP. What made you pick this tournament? Did you know the level of competition would be high, or is it because there might be other training camps that you could string together after?
Mueller: Honestly, I didn’t know much about the event ahead of time. It was one of the few tournaments on the UWW website that had a PDF with it explaining tournament details, so that was helpful. Mostly, I guess my decision was based on the training schedule. I saw a big competition gap here between the World Team Trials that we just had and potentially a November tournament, or the Armed Forces coming up in the February timeframe. Plus, really, if I am going to learn stuff, hone technique and everything like that, I want to incorporate that into my training as early as possible so that I can be in the best position I can be for 2020. So I don’t want to be tweaking a ton of technique late in the season, in the springtime before Trials. If you’re making mistakes, you want to hone those in.
Of course, the Poland tournament, I’m friends with a Danish coach and was looking to set up some camps with it, so it is also a good opportunity to get some camps and some good competition.