The 2019 US Senior Nationals represented the second of three open opportunities presented this season for athletes to qualify for the Olympic Trials. New York’s Bill Farrell Memorial was the first, and the now-postponed “Last Chance Qualifier”, originally scheduled for this past March, will be the third.
And won’t that tournament be something. For as exciting and tense and competitive as December’s National event was, “Last Chance” might very well offer even more watchability. There are just too many established wrestlers, particularly on the Greco side of the fence, who still have to find a way to earn tickets to the most important tournament of the quad lustrum. To do so, they’ll have to advance to the finals, meaning top-2 get in — and everyone else goes home. Some, perhaps, for good.
A reasonably high number of athletes from Northern Michigan’s National Training Site will participate at Last Chance, but two of NMU’s most well-known names are already Trials-bound — Sammy Jones (60 kg, NYAC/NTS) and Alston Nutter (67 kg, Sunkist/NTS). Jones and Nutter might not have to stress over the looming Last Chance event, but they have one thing in common with every competitor in the country: having been gobbled up by the vortex.
When the string was cut on this season in March due to the pandemic, a virtual pause button was pushed. It’s as if time — relative to career goals and the perception of momentum, if such exists — stopped. It is surreal. The word many have enjoyed using is “unprecedented”, which is appropriate.
While it’s true that the news of an Olympic Year becoming extended by a full switch of the calendar wasn’t exactly welcomed, both athletes have managed to endure by keeping it simple. There isn’t much choice otherwise, admittedly. But because their shared goal of strapping up for Tokyo stays the same, so too does their mindsets.
Just as a refresher, below are quick snapshots of Jones’ and Nutter’s recent performances along with a few words both shared regarding their current situations.
Consistency has become the main theme for the ’14 University World bronze. In April of ’18, Jones appeared in his first Senior National final; the next season, he made waves in Denmark by starching ’16 Olympic bronze Stig-Andre Berge (NOR) and followed that up with his second Open final before making his first National Team a month later.
Jones got cracking right away this season. At the NYAC tournament, he got in six matches total, was clipped by Max Nowry (Army/WCAP, world #3 at 55 kg) in the semis, and eventually finished third — this placement qualified Jones for the Trials.
Next, a short breather, and then there was Jones again, in another National final. It was a hard-fought contest with Mike Fuenffinger (Army/WCAP), but one that ultimately ended in Fuenffinger’s favor. Still — Jones joined a very exclusive group of US Seniors in the process. Only he, Fuenffinger, and Kamal Bey (77 kg, Sunkist) have competed in the past three Senior Open finals (for Bey, the number is actually four).
Jones, an easy-going and life-embracing individual if there ever was one, has unsurprisingly taken the whole lockdown thing in stride. In a recent episode of the Five Point Move Podcast, he spoke to how although wrestling still occupies an important place in his thoughts, he is finding this time away enjoyable due to being able to pour more into his faith and personal relationships.
“It has been an adjustment, for sure. I’ve really enjoyed it. I have been spending a lot of time with my wife. We’re doing our own little family workouts. We’ll run together and do yoga, Instagram workouts… Just really spending a lot of time together. It has been really relaxed, and it has been really good.
“I’ve watched film on and off. Not consistently. Mostly what I have used this time for, I feel like it’s a great opportunity to invest in the relationships that are important to me. So, that is investing into my wife and my relationship with God. That has been my focus, really. It hasn’t been a whole lot of technique or that game-planning. Certainly, it’s on my mind. I love wrestling, so I miss it. But it really hasn’t been my main focus over this break time, this isolation time-out we’ve had.”
Nutter was one of the main stories coming out of the entire US program last summer thanks to his memorable bronze-medal-winning performance at the ’19 Junior Worlds. He was razor-sharp throughout that tournament, racing to the semifinals on the strength of 18 offensive points. That has been the key for Nutter throughout his development. Even as a high-schooler, he possessed a deeper appreciation for position than most of his contemporaries, which paired well with his natural ability to score and knack for opportunistic aggression.
That latter attribute was on full display in the bronze round. After giving up six quick points to Kamil Czarnecki (POL), Nutter roared back on the next restart with a lift. Czarnecki landed on his back, Nutter collected the free arm, held on for the stunning fall, and that was definitively that.
But unlike Jones, Nutter opted for a respite during the fall and concentrated his efforts on preparing for the Trials. What does this mean?
It means that Nutter hasn’t competed since his run to bronze in Estonia. That is nearly nine months ago. By the time his name appears in another bracket, it will likely be well over a year. Nutter is okay with that, however. The situation gives him some extra space to round into Senior form. He is also working out on his own and making the best of what he has available.
“I was thinking about that the other day, and I was like, Wow this is insane. It’s been so long, but then I was like, This is how my training is set up. Not a lot of competing and just focusing on training. So that relaxed me. This is just making me hungrier to make the Team next spring. It gives me more time to mature and develop.
“I have been running and lifting, and occasionally messing around on our mat with my brothers. It has been hectic. Nothing is open.
(On watching the Nationals in December) “I thought it was really good to know to who the competition is in my weight class, and to know what they are capable of besides wrestling them, obviously. It’s going to be fun competing in that weight class.”