Earlier this summer, two-time Division I National champ Gabe Dean (85 kg) confirmed that he will continue his wrestling career as a full-time Greco-Roman athlete. The news was big. It still is. Dean, who competed for Cornell University, was not only a terrific collegiate wrestler, but he had also displayed a natural inclination towards Greco in 2015 when he earned a silver medal at the Pan Ams after only two weeks of preparation. But he has some lineage — Dean’s father Dave was a stout national-level competitor in his own right, so the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, you could say.
Around the same time Dean was announced as a newly-minted full timer, word came about that recent Oklahoma State grad Austin Schafer would also be taking his talents to Senior Greco-Roman competition (in fact, Schafer made the move to Ithaca, right where Dean is). It is understandable that Schafer’s commitment to Greco would fly a little under the radar compared to Dean’s declaration. Dean enjoyed a sparkling career and the spoils of relative “wrestling fame” that came along with it. Schafer was a little more blue collar. There are no national titles on his resume and though he spent his college years at perennial powerhouse Oklahoma State, it wasn’t until last season when the 24-year-old really started to make headlines.
After three years competing at 197 lbs, Schafer moved all the way up to 285. Heavyweight. Oh for sure, he was undersized. Some of them boys are monsters. But instead of finding the sledding just a little too rough to tangle with, Schafer went ahead and put together the best season of his career. He trucked his way through the Big 12 Championships, went 5-1 against ranked opposition, and capped the year with a 23-3 record overall. Yeah, he used his quickness and maneuverability to get the jump on those big men. But it was more than that. Schafer’s work ethic and self-confidence were other determining factors in his impressive final collegiate campaign.
Also similar to Dean, Schafer had plenty of competitive options at his disposal in the freestyle realm upon graduation. He didn’t take them. As an NCAA Division I qualifier, Schafer was also eligible to compete in the US Greco-Roman World Team Trials. Opportunism was the name of the game for his maiden voyage in the classical style. Schafer won his first match versus multi-time University National champ Orry Elor (NYAC) when Elor came loose on a throw attempt, allowing Schafer to collapse on top and hold on for the fall. Next was a tech loss to National Team member Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm) and then two wins in the consolation bracket, with one of them over Daniel Miller (Marines). Eventually, Schafer sewed up a fifth-place finish, with his last win of the day coming against Jake Kasper, another collegiate crossover who had defeated Schafer earlier in the year at the folkstyle Southern Scuffle. It is also worth noting that of Schafer’s four wins at the Trials, three came via pin.
Another learning experience arrived just over a month later. At the University Nationals in Akron, Ohio, Schafer advanced to the semifinals where he was defeated by eventual tournament victor Zach Merrill (NYRTC). Next, Miller got him back in the consolation semis with a snappy tech. But in the battle for fifth place, Schafer scored his biggest win thus far when he zipped in on a high dive and drove 2016 Senior Nationals runner-up Khymba Johnson (NYAC/OTS) straight down for the fall.
That was three months ago. A full summer has passed since Schafer put his sole focus on Greco-Roman, and it is reasonable to assume he has enhanced his skill-set in a big way. With the new competitive season about to heat up, many are intrigued as to how he will fare and what kind of improvements are being made now that this is his vocation. Schafer’s unwavering belief in his ability and enthusiasm for the task at hand are evident when he discusses the transition, which will no doubt serve him well going forward.
Q & A with Austin Schafer — 98 kg, NYRTC
5PM: How do you like Ithaca so far, just in terms of general geography and lifestyle adjustment?
Austin Schafer: I like it a lot. It’s nice weather. It’s a lot more relaxing in the summer, just because in Oklahoma it’s so hot and dry out there all of the time, so you can’t be outside at all, whereas up here, I can run every day. I can be outdoors the whole summer and not feel like I’m roasted. That’s been nice, but I’ve heard that winters are going to be brutal for me. I went to West Point for a year, but I heard it’s even colder here.
5PM: At this stage, what do you perceive as your biggest strengths and your best attributes for Greco?
AS: I think my biggest strength for Greco right now is my creativity a little bit. When I was wrestling heavyweight in folkstyle, I had to scramble and move, outsmart and out-quick them. I think a lot of that is my pace from folkstyle and it is going to carry over. A lot of guys in Greco I feel are a lot slower-paced and just go in spurts, as opposed to keeping that full-on, full-go pace. I give them a different feel and hopefully, it will render some results for me.
5PM: Wrestling up at a higher weight last year and then going into prep for the World Team Trials, when you finally started getting your hands on guys your own size competitively again, did you all of the sudden feel more viable, more powerful?
AS: Yeah, I’d definitely say I did. When I was training, I was with Sam Hazewinkel training with his DII guys at UCO (University of Central Oklahoma) and I was crushing all those guys. Once I got out to Vegas, I mean, I had (Hayden) Zillmer in my second match and I had to battle with him a little bit. But I could open up and move around a bit more. Whereas when I was wrestling those big guys (in college), I had to hunker down and stay in position. I couldn’t give up an inch. So it’s nice having more fluidity in my wrestling.
5PM: It’s interesting you mention the word ‘fluidity’ because I think many folkstyle coaches and fans look at Greco as a more restrictive style. But you say fluidity. It seems like more and more wrestlers crossing over feel liberated. Is that because of the rule-set or the dynamic scoring opportunities? How do you feel about that?
AS: Well, in folkstyle, when you’re on the offensive, you’re moving. You’re always worrying about having to watch your legs, sprawling, down-blocking, and all of that. Where in Greco, yeah, you do have to defend his attacks, too, but you can catch him off-guard. You can keep moving forward. You don’t have to worry about something. You’re battling him the whole time, you don’t have to worry about moving your leg all of the sudden. I feel like there is a little less to think about so you can just open up a bit more and be more active.
5PM: What does a typical training session up in Ithaca look like? We hear a lot about the talent that is starting to accumulate in that environment. What are practices like?
AS: It is pretty basic, to be honest. Five, six days a week, going in once or twice a day. Just going in and getting your drills, technique, hitting some live, and then conditioning. Nothing too crazy, it’s just staying consistent with that routine.
5PM: When are you looking to getting back out on the mat competitively?
Austin Schafer: I’m thinking the Schultz because I’m too old for U23’s.
5PM: After that, is there a preliminary plan in place to go overseas to get more action against foreigners?
AS: The plan right now, I think, is going to Iran in December. That’s the only one planned right now through the end of the year.
5PM: When you look at the current climate in Greco-Roman in this country, the way Greco is seen nationwide, especially compared to folkstyle/freestyle, what is it about the program right now that attracts you to throwing your hat in the ring?
AS: Honestly, it’s just the fact that I love to wrestle. That’s just honestly what I enjoy. When I saw that was qualified for the Greco Trials, I figured, You know, why not give that a shot? I always try to compete and I knew I wanted to continue to compete in freestyle. I went up there and I had never really wrestled in Greco, except for like, once in FILA Juniors five or six years before that. I did fairly well, got fifth. Lost a close one…
5PM: To Enock (Francois)
AS: Yeah, I just didn’t know what to do in throwing positions yet. I was just going out and scrapping with guys. Just wrestling them and seeing what happened. Once I did that, I was like, Oh, I’m pretty good at this. I’ve already taken fifth and I never really trained in this stuff. I had a couple of practices with Hazewinkel. It was kind of refreshing. It is something new. It keeps my interest and my mind kind of piqued so I can keep learning. It gives me a lot more ceiling.
5PM: Did the discovery of your potential in Greco competition sort of reinvigorate your desire to continue your wrestling career?
AS: Yes. I knew I wanted to continue wrestling, but once I was like, Well, I’m pretty good at this already, it became, Okay, let’s try this out and see how we do.
5PM: Since you’ve been up in Ithaca, what have been the biggest things you’ve learned so far about the sport and your place in it?
Austin Schafer: I feel like I have a lot of potential right now. It’s easy to look at yourself and say these things, but I feel that I have progressed a lot in my positioning. A lot of the feels and stuff that are a little different from folkstyle to Greco, you have to learn on the feet, and on top and bottom. But I am starting to get that down and let my athleticism take hold, and run with that. It feels pretty good. We’ll see when it comes to the Schultz, but I feel like it should be some good results.