On Friday in Indianapolis, Benji Peak (60 kg, NMU/OTS) and Alston Nutter (63 kg, NMU/OTS) both prevailed in their respective best-of-three series at the 2018 US Junior World Team Trials. As many are aware, the duo’s story is one of synchronicity. In 2016, Nutter chose to leave Wisconsin’s Fennimore High School behind following his sophomore season in order to enter the full-time Greco-Roman training environment available at Northern Michigan University. A year later, Peak — a friend and previous training partner of Nutter’s — decided to do the same.
Nutter showed glimpses of his potential throughout that first year in Marquette and enjoyed the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of higher-level Greco training and competition. There was a learning curve, but he managed to pick up a medal or two, and acquired workable foreign experience in the process. When the new season got underway last fall, Peak entered the fold and together they embarked on a trip to Denmark for the 2017 Bear Cup, the tournament credited with kicking off this current run. Nutter stomped his way to gold while Peak, in his first event back after recovering from a labrum tear, delivered an inspiring last-second surge to snare bronze.
Since then, the success has continued. Peak rattled off another bronze two weeks later and earned golds at the Malar Cupen and the Austrian Open. Nutter grabbed a fifth at the Klippan Cup, sat out the Malar Cupen, and then battle to a silver at the Austrian Open in what was a highly-competitive bracket.
April is when it all began to matter. The UWW Junior Nationals in Las Vegas offered a glaring incentive — a tournament victory meant a bye to best-of-three Trials finals. Peak breezed to his bracket’s final opposite two-time Cadet World Team member Malik Johnson (Unattached) and dropped a contentious 11-9 decision. Nutter did not run into similar turbulence. Across his four matches on the day, the 18-year-old outscored his antagonists 33-0 with all victories coming via tech fall.
Friday’s action saw Peak achieve what he set out to do. He rung up two techs in the challenge tournament and met up with Johnson once again, first benefitting from a rare (if not incredulous) caution-and-two on Johnson with mere seconds left to steal Match 1 before turning it up a notch late in Match 2 en-route to the series-clinching 12-8 win. For his part, Nutter’s dominant performance in April offered a continuation, as he blew past an incredibly tough Dylan Gregerson (UVRTC) in two straight bouts.
As of now, Peak is not a World Team member just yet. Because 2016 Junior World bronze medalist Taylor LaMont (Sunkist) placed in the top-4 at the US Senior Open, he is afforded the privilege of a delayed wrestle-off. So in other words, Peak still has something else to prepare for. Nutter has no such concerns. The goal he had been trying to reach going on two years has now been accomplished, making the next objective in front of his eyes easy to discern: stepping on the podium at the Junior World Championships in Slovakia.
Given the background elements surrounding Nutter and Peak, as well as their corresponding paths, it seemed appropriate to get their perspectives regarding what Friday’s triumphs mean to them.
Benji Peak — 60 kg, NMU/OTS (@benji_peak862)
5PM: What is going to happen with you regarding the wrestle-off with Taylor LaMont, what do you know, and what are your plans?
Benji Peak: I honestly haven’t been told by too many coaches what’s going to happen. I talked to Herb (House) about it and he said that they’re thinking the end of this month and possibly in Colorado will be me and Taylor going at it. That’s what I was told by a couple of people there (in Indianapolis), but other people think it’s going to go differently. I don’t exactly know much about it, I’m still kind of waiting for someone to contact me. (Ed. — Peak and LaMont have since been scheduled to wrestle-off June 30th in Atlanta.)
5PM: For the record, you plan on wrestling off?
BP: I do. I will be there 100%, wherever I have to go.
5PM: Coming off of the National final a month and two weeks ago or whatever it is now, were there any adjustments you needed to make if you were going to face Malik again in the best-of-three?
BP: Yeah, I worked with Randon (Miranda) a lot because after I got done wrestling Malik, it felt like I was wrestling Randon, for the most part. I would go in on Saturdays and Sundays and work with Randon. He was showing me little things to do. It literally felt like I was wrestling Randon, 100%. I wrestle Randon a lot, and it felt like I was wrestling him, just a less technical version. I was watching film with him and he was working me a lot, a couple hours here and there, so I was feeling really comfortable going into that match again.
5PM: Did Malik present any differences to you from your vantage point on Friday?
BP: He wrestled me the exact same way in Indy that he did in Vegas. He had a good arm drag, but that is another one of the downfalls of having longer arms and being new to Greco, I’m reaching a lot and I’ve got to work on that. But he wrestled me the same way that I was expecting. I was feeling comfortable so I was going to pummel with him and I wasn’t going to let him frustrate me like he did in Vegas. He’s got a really low stance so he was pushing me into the zone a lot and it was getting really frustrating. That was where I was trying to work a little more mentally and not get upset about it. That’s why I’ve been working with (NMU assistant coach Andy) Bisek a lot on keeping my legs underneath me and driving and that sort of stuff, so it will all come.
5PM: Yeah, but it was you near the zone in Match 2 that sealed it in your favor when you turned the tables and actually forced him out.
Benji Peak: Yeah, and I made those adjustments going into the second match. That caution-and-two in the first match — I mean, he wasn’t opening up, he wasn’t really wrestling — but I can’t believe a referee would interfere that late in a match type deal. I’m thankful for it, but I told him (Johnson) that it shouldn’t have went down like that. When I got off the mat, Andy said, “There’s no way you’re going to win like that again and I don’t want to see you win like that again.” So I knew in the next match I had to open it up a little more and create scoring opportunities.
5PM: I know that this is only the first step, but given that this was Year 1 for you at Northern, leaving home and high school to dedicate yourself to the sport, did winning the Trials serve as a measure of vindication for the decision you made?
BP: 100% yes. I know I wouldn’t have won that match without being here today. I could have learned a lot at Combat, but it’s not the same as being here with the partners I have. Being here is a huge, huge, huge indicator of the success I had. I truly believe that.
5PM: One of the perks that comes with being in Marquette is that you’ve already had a few training opportunities overseas thus far. How have you been able to turn this increased international experience into an advantage for your style?
BP: That overseas experience — and it’s not only wrestling the foreigners — it’s being at the tournaments, being at the camps, and watching what they’re doing and how they’re training. What we need to work on in the room compared to what we’re doing now is huge. I mean, it’s so much more strict and precise what they are doing compared to what the US is doing. It’s insane. If you can’t get out there, it’s really not an excuse given the internet capabilities that we have and being able to watch all those matches. But, getting over there is huge.
5PM: Knowing you have a wrestle-off by the end of this month, how do you approach it? Do you gear up for Taylor LaMont specifically or do you just go about your normal training?
BP: Oh, I’m gearing up for Taylor 100%. I feel like I got to him almost. I mean, it’s one match and at a normal tournament you do your normal thing because you’re not overlooking anyone and you’re not going to change what you’re doing because you’ve got other people to worry about. But in my head, I am going to adapt to really put up the points against him. I know that when I wrestle I put up points, for the most part. None of my matches are going to end 2-0 and 1-1 going into a break is pretty low for me I feel like. I am going to put points up and I know he’s going to have to put points up to beat me. I know he’s got a headlock, I know he’s got all that, but I am going to try to work on the littler things to give me an edge over him.
5PM: Should you go ahead and make the World Team, does your overseas experience give you a confidence boost knowing that competing against foreigners isn’t exactly so foreign to you?
Benji Peak: Oh, yeah, I mean, I feel very confident wrestling overseas, especially with the experience I have and everything. If I make the Team, awesome. I feel like I am a great pick to wrestle overseas, I wrestle foreigners great, and with the experience I have I can only get better going into that tournament. So, I’m ready. Hopefully, I get on this Team. I’m confident about it. I feel like if I can get over there to wrestle those guys, they’re going to be pretty worried about me.
Alston Nutter — 63 kg, NMU/OTS (@nutt66kg)
5PM: 2017 to 2018, not just zeroing in last year’s Junior Trials to this year’s, but what has been the biggest difference overall?
Alston Nutter: Definitely believing in myself. That’s the biggest one. I believe I can beat anyone I go against. Also, my perspective on training and making every workout count. Every little thing matters while you’re doing it. Putting your head into everything and never mentally pulling out of anything you go up against, that’s definitely one of the biggest in my life these past two years.
5PM: You said “making every workout count”. What does that exactly mean to you?
AN: Okay, so let’s say you’re competing in April and you have that Thursday workout in January. At the time, that might seem like nothing because you’re so far out, but you can always be getting better everyday. Even those workouts that are so far out and soft and easy, those always count.
5PM: You didn’t just win the Nationals and your two Trials matches, you dominated completely all the way through. Does that tell you something, did that deliver an extra touch of satisfaction?
Alston Nutter: Yeah, it makes me really happy. Between the Open and the Trials only giving up two points makes me really happy, and it makes me see that things are starting to click and that things are starting to happen. It is really exciting to have a good, good base to work off of and I am only going to improve from here.
5PM: At what is a very young age, you have acquired a lot of mat time overseas. We talked last year after Fargo, there are obviously differences between how this style is competed in the US and how it is in Europe. Now that you have progressed even more at Marquette, how do you use that international experience when you’re competing against the American style of Greco, which is not the same?
AN: I think that is has really, really helped my technique in wrestling real Greco. Getting overseas, it’s like, Okay, you’re not going to wrestle bent-over anymore; you’re going to wrestle from the upright position and compete in true Greco. I really use that overseas experience with my positioning and just wrestling true Greco and using that to my advantage to beat some of the more folkstylish types when they match up against us. So I think that has really, really helped, going over and seeing what true Greco really is and learning it every day from Andy (Bisek), (NMU head coach) Rob Hermann, and even a little bit from Aghasi (Manukyan) because I was here at the tail-end of his career. I think that is one of the biggest parts of it.
5PM: This will be your first Worlds and it is of course a different tournament than any other event you’ve ever been to. But I’d have to think you’re going in there feeling more confident than someone else who has never traveled to compete with foreigners. There will be guys in your bracket who even if you never wrestled them before, you’ll know who they are. Is that something you’ve thought about?
AN: Yeah, I really thought about that, actually. You know, I think how I’ll view it in a way is that it’s just another international tournament but is just stamped as the “World Championships”, which is kind of a big deal and I am going into it expecting every match to be a grind and I’m going to wrestle the full six minutes. But yeah, having that experience and knowing who is around in the world from being overseas, it definitely helps a lot. It gives me a big confidence boost, for sure. I know what to expect.
5PM: Outside of the bare essentials in life — the health of your family, your ability to take in oxygen and eat food — everything for you has pretty much centered around this sport for a couple of years now. Has your making the Team in 2018 provided a sense of validation given the unconventional journey you chose to undertake?
Alston Nutter: Yes, I felt like, It’s about time I f***ing did this. I had come close quite a few times. I finally won Nationals for the first time this year and I finally made my first World Team. So yeah, it felt like, It’s about f***ing time I did this, this is expected. Now it’s just onto the next step of winning a medal. Honestly, that’s between me and myself and that’s the main goal. Deep down, I knew I had the potential to make the World Team, win Nationals, and then the final goal of 2018 is to bring home a medal. For sure. But yeah, definitely a big sense of validation.