Two of the United States’ best-known Senior athletes will no longer be associated with the training environments they had long become associated with, further signaling a changing of the times Greco-Roman in this country has been asking for.
Multi-time World Team member and 2016 Olympian Robby Smith (130 kg, NYAC) is leaving the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs — his home for 13 years — to join 2014 World Teamer Joe Rau (87 kg) at the Chicago Regional Training Center on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Rau, 27, had previously competed for Minnesota Storm, the famed wrestling club in which he got his start upon graduating from Elmhurst College five years ago.
This pair of established Greco-Roman athletes are the latest to declare a transition to a new training facility, with U23 World Team member Travis Rice (63 kg) officially announcing his departure from NMU to the Illinois RTC this past weekend.
Northwestern University head coach Matt Storniolo, the man behind the recent re-emergence of the Chicago RTC and responsible for bringing Rau and Smith into the fold, sees their presence as an important step in providing top-flight wrestlers with the kind of resources and atmosphere necessary for enacting change in what has typically been a culture resistant to Greco’s mechanics.
“The whole purpose of a regional training center is to get guys from the international styles and provide them with a place to train and excel in,” Storniolo said on Tuesday. “There are two international styles — it’s not just freestyle. We’re interested in building this up from the ground floor and we don’t have any stigmas or biases against Greco like a lot of the other programs do. When you have an opportunity to bring on guys like Joe Rau and Robby Smith who are phenomenal wrestlers in their field, and further than that, great people, you want them representing the training center, working out with the athletes who meet the RTC qualifications, and rubbing elbows with those guys. They can be mentors to them as well as ambassadors for the sport.”
One of the first questions on fans’ minds is likely to be ‘Who is going to coach?’ The way the Chicago RTC is going to be setup for Smith and Rau offers a different, more flexible picture than is the norm. In the interim, there won’t be a head Greco coach patrolling the mats during practices. That will come later — and potentially involves one of the new signees. For now, training plans will be subject to a peer review process. Since the two athletes boast years of experience, they will work together with Storniolo and assistant Andrew Howe in deciding which methods and curriculums work best for whatever the situation calls for.
“We’re going to sit down with them and come up with a good training schedule that suits their needs,” informed Storniolo. “They are mature enough at this point to know what they need and we’re going to help facilitate that. We’re going to bring in partners for them to train with, we’re going to bring in their personal coaches to help put them through workouts, and us as a staff, myself and Andrew Howe, are also going to help put them through workouts. This is going to be a group effort but we’re going to make it a great environment for them to thrive in.”
Timing factors into the equation in a significant manner for both wrestlers. Smith, who turned 31 in January, has publicly stated that the conclusion of this, the Tokyo Olympic quad, will usher in the end of his competitive career. While he’d like to go out with a bang via earning an Olympic medal, he is also interested in setting himself up with a move into the coaching ranks. It is an occupation that has elevated in importance for him in recent years, although he did not know what kind of opportunities might be available once he hangs up his shoes. A move to the Chicago RTC seems to offer a solution to that potential quandary, which naturally makes Smith even more excited to hop over to Illinois in lockstep with Rau.
“We are the trailblazers for this, we are the firsts,” Smith said referring to he and Rau joining up at the Chicago RTC. “They are taking a chance on the Greco guys and they’re bringing two of the top Greco guys in the country to do it. The way I’ve always looked at it, there are only a few actual Greco-Roman coaching jobs in the US, starting with the National Team coach, the resident coach, and Northern Michigan. Now with the Chicago RTC, this is a whole new opportunity not just for me, but for Greco in the United States, period. We can build something special here and I’m really looking forward to being a part of that.”
Storniolo echoed the direction in which Smith was going.
“With a guy like Robby, when his competitive days are over we want to keep him around the Chicago Regional Training Center in one way or another,” he said. “If that means transitioning him into a coaching role, then that is something we would love to do. Our goal is to continue to put pieces on the board, and we want to keep those pieces and then add more. When Robby is done competing we would absolutely want to keep him around as someone who can help coach at the RTC and maybe take over the Greco side of things from a coaching standpoint. That’s something Robby and I discussed already and I look forward to crossing that bridge when the time is right. But — for right now, he is going to be focused on competing and we’re going to do everything we can to get him back to the #1 spot, make another World Team, make the Olympic Team, and come home with medals.”
For Rau, his decision to exit Minnesota was every bit as bittersweet as it was for Smith to leave behind his longtime home at the OTC. But the pair differ in what attracts them the most. Smith, he desires a change in scenery, as does Rau, but the prospect of eventually coaching stands as the premier catalyst. Rau has more slack on the line than Smith, and with potentially one more Olympic cycle still to go in his career following Tokyo, he is tantalized by the idea of greater autonomy in determining his competitive exploits. His impending docket of activity and the freedom to travel are examples of what he feels comes with Storniolo’s support.
“I’m leaving to train and compete in Germany next week, then I am doing a camp in Norway and flying back after that to go to National Team camp at the OTC,” Rau began. “I’m doing all of this right away and I was worried that Matt might not be happy with all of this travel. Instead, he said to me, ‘Hey, I want you guys to get medals. Do what you have to do, don’t ever let me hold you back from doing this stuff. Not only am I going to give you the green light, I want you to do it, I encourage you to do it.’ For me, I’ve never been given that autonomy. This wouldn’t have been as easy with my previous RTC. I’d have to go through the pipeline, I’d have to get the OK. If I did what I wanted to do I could get into trouble, there could be threats and whatever. That’s not the situation here. I’m given a lot of autonomy and trust.”
Another big perk of the Chicago RTC welcoming in Greco has to do with the state itself. As discussed earlier this week on the heels of Rice’s commitment to the IRTC led by Bryan Medlin, one more training facility means more and more Illinois athletes will be able to stay home to continue their careers rather than become forced to bolt in search of viable opportunities elsewhere. Native Pennsylvanian Storniolo recognizes the talent available throughout Illinois and is convinced that his RTC will assist in fostering meaningful growth now and into the future.
“Illinois is such a wrestling-rich environment, and especially outside of the Chicago area, you have so many good programs with so many good wrestlers who need opportunities to take their training to the next level,” said Storniolo. “That’s what we’re trying to do with the RTC here. It’s not going to be a place where kids have to choose a style; they can come here to get in a good Greco workout and then come and get a good freestyle workout. They are going to have phenomenal training partners, and it’s going to be a great service for this area. And in turn, it’s going to be of a great benefit to our program. It’s a win-win for everyone around here.”
Stay tuned for a special episode of the Five Point Move Podcast featuring Smith and Rau discussing their move to the Chicago RTC later today.