Joe Rau (87 kg, Chicago RTC) earned his first gold on foreign land in over three years, but not in the manner in which he would have preferred. The story was similar for Rau’s old pal Patrick Smith (77 kg, Minnesota Storm), who picked up bronze earlier this morning at the SA Lavrikov Memorial in St. Petersburg, Russia. Both athletes saw considerable action on Friday but were left without opposition in their respective medal rounds.
Even still, for a US program currently in need of a shot in the arm, Rau, Smith, and the group of four other American medalists (all Marines!) at the Lavrikov effectively provided just that.
Rau, a victor in all three of his bouts on Saturday via technical fall, actually did not anticipate a finals match-up. He had heard chatter that his opponent was going to pre-emptively bow out, and that’s exactly what happened. “I guess the guy is forfeiting to me in the finals,” Rau shared early this morning from St. Petersburg. “But I am going to stay on alert in case he’s just pulling some shenanigans.”
There were no such shenanigans. When Rau showed up to fight for the title, he was notified that there would be no match due to his opponent suffering an apparent injury. Nevertheless, the goal of the Lavrikov for Rau and his teammates was to open up the season with a taste of foreign competition; despite being awarded a forfeit this morning, that mission was accomplished. More than anything, Rau is soaking in his first trip to one of wrestling’s powerhouse nations and enjoying the camaraderie.
“Coming to Russia is a really cool experience,” Rau said later. “As a wrestler, freestyle or Greco, it is somewhere you always dreamed of going. It’s either Russia or Iran. I was supposed to come here in 2015 and I, ironically, separated my shoulder against a Russian guy in practice, so I didn’t get to go on that tour. This has been a really cool trip so far. This is a smaller tournament and it’s mostly Russians; some Armenians, some Estonians, maybe some Belarusians. There are a couple of countries scattered here and there.
“The Russians were really excited to have us here. A lot of people from their NGB (National Governing Body) and their clubs wanted to come talk to us. They were surprised to see such a big team. Coach Jay Antonelli has been awesome to have out here. He has been here a ton of times, he actually met his wife at this tournament 20 years ago. The Russians have been really good to us. Really, really kind, welcoming, and excited to have us here. They love wrestling. They’ve been taking pictures with us and talking to us, joking around. It has been a really cool experience.”
2017 World Team member Smith enjoyed a full slate of activity on Friday. He was victorious in his first two bouts via tech, outscoring his opponents 20-0. He was then “baited into a headlock and pinned” in his third bout. The fourth match saw Smith score a takedown and follow up with a gut to jump ahead 5-1 — but Russia challenged the sequence and won, and Smith was staring at a 2-1 deficit late in the second period. With under a minute remaining, Smith plowed in for another takedown to seal the bout, essentially claiming third place right then and there.
“The general approach is to get some matches in before the end of the year, to try to put into practice what I have been working on since Trials and focus on improving,” expressed Smith. “It was good to get back on the mat after a long break from competing since the World Team Trials — and it was nice to be able to get a lot of matches in on the front end of this tour. Did some things well, faced some adversity, and there are some holes I still need to get cleaned up. But that’s why I’m here, and it’s my job to clean them up.”
Enter the Marines
Back in action — and back onto an overseas podium — was 2018 US National Champion Daniel Miller (97 kg), who checked in as one of four Marine Corps Greco athletes to grab a bronze.
At this stage of his career, Miller is always on the lookout, either during training or competition, for opportunities that provide him with further education. He tries to take prior experiences and apply them to present situations every chance he gets. Such an opportunity arose in the first match of the repechage when he faced off with a Belarusian opponent who had defeated him in 2017.
“This individual tech’ed me last year at this tournament in my very first match, and I went 0-1 here last year,” Miller began. “I came out, I knew what he was going to do. He arm-threw me twice last year. I felt like I countered it, I felt like I had the bad call. But regardless, it doesn’t matter what the call is, as we’ve talked about many times before. You have to put up a certain amount of points to win the match.
“This time, I went out firing, hit an arm throw, and scored four points. I was getting beat in the tie-up. He was pressuring me, and though I stopped him, before moving out of bounds I said, Hey, let me try a headlock, because I thought I was in decent position. I was in terrible position for a headlock, I came to find out. But I threw the headlock so hard, he was forced to defend the headlock so hard, that I went around to the opposite direction and I caught him on his back. Because I committed so hard to that move, it allowed me the opportunity to counter his counter. They gave me two for the counter to the counter, and then I came back on top and wound up pinning for the win.”
The duo of Ray Bunker (67 kg) and Jamel Johnson also came through. Bunker put together a monster showing on Friday and earned himself a a spot to the semis. He was unable to punch a ticket to the finals but he regrouped this morning for bronze opposite NMU upstart Aaron Kliamovich. If you stop and look, Bunker is becoming an increasing threat. In 2017, he won the University Nationals; this past season, he earned gold at the Bill Farrell Memorial, and is now taking wider and wider steps towards entering the World Team argument for 2019 — and beyond. Perhaps further proof of Bunker’s rise is his dissatisfaction with taking third.
“I got some good matches in but I didn’t perform up to my abilities in the semifinal match,” Bunker said Saturday. “In the quarterfinals, my par terre was really good, I definitely felt a big improvement in my par terre game. But that semifinal match, I got too excited. I was on top, it was 1-1, I went for a turn. It was a crappy gutwrench, he floated it, and it was hard to come back from that.
“A big thing for me personally was par terre. I have been working hard on it and out here it definitely showed. I was down 3-0 in one of my matches and I got a takedown and then tech’ed the guy out in par terre. It was pretty nice to do that.”
Bunker also couldn’t help but credit his training partner Johnson for playing a role in his continued development.
“Day-in and day-out we’re throwing hands and pushing each other to our limits,” he asserted. “It was a really great feeling to have him up there with me and be shoulder-to-shoulder with a brother-in-arms from the Marines. It was just an awesome experience to have that with my teammate.”
Speaking of Johnson, the former University World medalist kept with the team spirit that comes part and parcel with the Marine athletes. A perennial disciple of Marine head coach Jason Loukides, it was, naturally, Loukides who Johnson was thinking of when reached for comment following the event.
“I think the tournament just showed the dedication we’ve been putting into our craft, plus the dedication that Loukides has given us and we’ve given him,” explained Johnson. “The fruits of this relationship showed up at this tournament, and hopefully, it will show up in Sweden and Finland. I think that was the biggest reflection from this. We sent six guys here, and what, four of them placed? I think that’s a really good turnout. I hope that we can continue to put up numbers like that. Maybe next time it will be six-for-six, but I think that is the biggest takeaway from this tournament.”
One athlete everyone seemed to be rooting hard for was Terrence Zaleski (82 kg), who was on this tour a year ago shortly after returning from a training assignment. Another Marine who is now beginning to round into form, the Lavrikov Memorial represents Zaleski’s first overseas medal as well as an indicator of how full-time training has benefited his progress over the past year.
“Last year, I came to this tournament fresh out of training for the Marine Corps and I went 0-1, didn’t even place,” Zaleski said. “This year, I took third. Pretty much, it’s the whole process. Consistent training, being persistent in what I do, and improving on little things are paying off. The Bill Farrell Memorial earlier this year, I didn’t even place. I went to the US Open, placed seventh. At the World Team Trials, I placed fourth. Now at this tournament in Russia, I placed third. Slow improvements just keep slowly paying off.
“I am going to keep working on that with the upcoming tournaments in Sweden and Finland. Hopefully, I can bring home more hardware from those tournaments. If not, it’s not a big deal, because at the end of the day, the goal is to make the World Team and then eventually the Olympic Team in whichever weight I choose to go. Right now, it’s just the beginning of the season. I’m trying to fine-tune everything and figure out what I need to work on with this good competition I have overseas and making the most of my opportunities.”
As mentioned on Friday, the SA Lavrikov Memorial has been a near-annual destination for USA Greco-Roman athletes over the years, but even in 2018 the tournament is difficult to cover. Match scores, names of opponents (the majority of whom are Russian), and other practical information is often difficult to come by. With the time difference and responsibilities surrounding the American delegation, the results are often pieced together in effort to provide a suitable recap of what transpired. The athletes and Coach Jay Antonelli deserve all of the credit in ’18 for assisting with that effort.
“This competition is all about getting in matches and the training camp that will follow next week,” Antonelli said. “We need to keep broadening our technique during this time of the year. You never know when or where you’ll pick up something new that will help you later on. I’ve been coming here now for 20 years and every time I’m here I seem to pick up something new. Our hosts are outstanding and are always willing to help our guys.”
We will have additional insights from Rau and Miller regarding the Lavrikov Memorial later today.
2018 SA Lavrikov Memorial
November 23rd-24th — St. Petersburg, Russia
TEAM USA RESULTS
Adrian Gomez (NMU/OTS) 0-1
Delon Kanari (NMU/OTS) 0-1
Raffaele Masi (NMU/OTS) 0-1
Morgan Flaharty (NYAC) — 1-2, 5th
Ray Bunker (Marines) — 3-1, bronze
Jamel Johnson (Marines) — 3-1, bronze
Chris Rodgers (NMU/OTS) 1-2
Colby Baker (NMU/OTS) 0-2
Aaron Kliamovich (NMU/OTS) 0-2
Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) — 4-1, bronze
Peyton Walsh (Marines) 1-1
Michael Donato (NMU/OTS) 1-1
Spencer Woods (NMU/OTS) 0-1
Terrence Zaleski (Marines) — 2-1, bronze
Joe Rau (Chicago RTC) — 4-0, gold
Daniel Miller (Marines) — 2-1, bronze
Ben Durbin (Cyclone WC) 0-1
Trent Osnes (Marines) 0-2