Cody Pack (71 kg, Legends of Gold) had some choices to make.
Following an impressive collegiate career at South Dakota State, Pack took a brief step back. He hadn’t hit the wall completely, but it’s fair to say he didn’t feel the same about wrestling any longer. Scratch that, he didn’t feel the same about competition any longer. A four-time NCAA Division I qualifier, the then-24-year-old, like many, had been giving his heart’s blood to wrestling going back nearly two decades. Pack was but a child rolling around on the mat as his father, noted coach Terry, presided over a junior college squad. Dual meets, tournaments, wins, losses, trophies — they were footnotes in the chapters of a story where family and sport happily coincided as long as he could remember.
The page turned in New York City last year. After barely missing out on earning All-American honors at the 2016 Nationals, held in Madison Square Garden, Pack was about done. Or so it seemed, if only for a moment. If it is true that wrestling provides — be it character, discipline, or whatever goal-setting mantras are currently being shared as memes on Twitter — then it is also true that it deprives. It is made to sound beautiful, existential. Deprivation is the mother of sacrifice. That’s all fine and good, but when you have just finished offering your youth at the “altar of wrestling” since you were a tot, the supposed comforts of a life without tend to lose their appeal.
Because competition requires a perpetual grinding sacrifice, and because Pack had just been forced to shake hands with the prospect of a brave new future sans torturous practice sessions and overworn Adidas, he wanted a minute to collect himself. It was more like a month. And a half. But when the proverbial dust settled, there was a revelation — Pack was now the one in charge. He would decide his next step, he would determine whether or not there would be more practices, more matches, more chapters in a story already crammed with medals, memories, and vanquished objectives.
That next step arrived at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the headquarters of the nation’s Greco-Roman program. Pack was no stranger to the environment, having visited several times throughout his collegiate years. But yeah, the feeling was different now. Senior Greco-Roman wrestling is unlike how it is typically expressed at the age-group level. The overwhelming majority of Senior athletes ply their trade as a full-time vocation. They are specialists who do not shoulder the burden of being pulled in conflicting directions. The endgame is simple: make teams and win medals. And best of luck if you’re getting a late start, because even the mere attempt of playing catch-up demands your ego take a permanent vacation. If you’re cool with that and are willing to enter the wringer, all the best.
Pack, needless to say, was cool with that.
Brandishing a polished folkstyle skill-set, a creative flair, and a desire to score points, Pack immersed himself in full-time Greco-Roman as if he was all of the sudden reborn. Everything felt right again, fresh again. The dream of a collegiate national title now replaced by the decidedly grander dream of Olympic and World medals, Pack’s first order of business involved establishing himself as a viable contender right out of the gate. This didn’t mean winning tournaments — not yet. No, it meant announcing his presence as an offensive threat who was okay with taking a few punches just so long as he got a chance to flurry back. Offense is kind of Pack’s thing, in case you were unaware.
With his family’s club, Legends of Gold, growing into a year-round elite training facility, Pack felt compelled to return to South Dakota in effort to assume the dual role of sponsored athlete/assistant coach. In other words, he is raising the stakes. There is a responsibility that comes with being Cody Pack nowadays, some 20 months after one door closed and the other hadn’t opened yet. He is still carrying the hopes and expectations of others, just like he did when he was setting school records as a Jackrabbit. But there is a very important line of delineation between what happened then and what’s happening now.
This is Pack’s decision. And he is focused on staying the course.
5PM Interview with Cody Pack
5PM: You have the benefit of understanding what high-level D1 college wrestling looks like, what that life is about. Where is the disconnect, in your mind, between that side of the fence pertaining to wrestling culture in this country and Senior Greco competition and participation?
Cody Pack: You know, I honestly feel it benefits you doing both styles, I honestly do. I know most coaches don’t agree because it creates bad habits, but us hitting a knee and getting to our bodylocks, that’s beneficial to us if we’re driving through the guy rather than just dropping straight to a knee. I think it benefitted me a lot. It definitely set me back in certain areas, such as people getting an underhook on me in folkstyle and I was able to go to my fireman’s carry or my outside carry. In Greco, if I let people sit with an underhook on me, he’s getting to my body. There are areas where it benefits you doing both, but there are also definitely areas where you have to get out of the mentality of bad habits, Greco-wise bad habits.
But I definitely think it benefitted me. There was a learning curve not to attack the legs and everything. But if you’ve done it, and you have a knowledge of the sport and are willing to keep learning, I think you can only get better, and I think that’s the point I’m at right now. I’m always looking to get better, I’m always looking to add new things to my repertoire. Maybe I don’t like what one coach says but I like the way he set it up, so I’m going to pick and choose things from certain coaches and that is how I am going to make it my own. It’s definitely cost me some points, but overall, it is also putting me in positions where I’m normally uncomfortable in Greco and a Greco guy is uncomfortable there folkstyle-wise. Now he’s reacting to me instead of me reacting to him.
5PM: You said “make it your own.” That’s an important way of putting it I would think because it’s not something we hear enough. A lot of times the narrative is that the differences between styles are too vast outside of the level change and things like that. But the positioning, technique, whatever it is, are always pointed to as so different. But in making it your own, are you talking about modifying techniques from both styles to fit one, which in this case is Greco?
CP: I was great with a two-on-one in folkstyle, I had to change it for Greco and switch up that two-on-one to get more comfortable there. My fireman’s, a lot of people don’t think you can hit a fireman’s in Greco, well I can hit a fireman’s in folkstyle and Greco, I just can’t grab the legs. I had to tweak a few things to make sure they are my attacks and that I still know what to do from those positions, but I am making it my own by giving him a folkstyle feel right away by pulling straight down or pushing straight into him rather than getting my two-on-one and pulling right away.
I think my folkstyle skills of going forward and moving the guy a lot more, where in Greco a lot of times we get a two-on-one and pull and circle looking for underhooks. If I get a two-on-one, that arm is mine, you’re not getting it back. I’m going to push, pull, and I might try to do a little folkstyle move, hit a duck under or do my fireman’s. But at the end of the day, the coaches are saying, ‘Do this differently.’ Well, I don’t like how you did that, but I like how you got to the transition of that second position. That allowed me to make it my own and pick and choose certain things that I liked from his way of teaching it. I can take his way of teaching it and with my knowledge of wrestling already, I can adjust it to where it benefits me and it also makes the coach happy because he sees progress in what he’s teaching. So that is kind of what I mean by making it my own.
5PM: Do you resent the idea at all that a college guy is so behind the proverbial eight ball crossing over into full-time Senior competition?
CP: I don’t think it’s true. Look at Hayden Zillmer (laughs), he’s a prime example. Coach (Matt ) Lindland doesn’t like us doing freestyle and folkstyle, but that dude (Zillmer) made the National Team in both styles. That’s kind of what we were talking about earlier, the coach has to be able to adapt with the styles adapting. An old way of doing something is not going to be successful without offering a modified version of it. I mean, personally, I benefit from both styles. I don’t think you have to do just one style, but I do think college coaches need to be more open minded. If a wrestler wants to go out and compete in Greco, let him go and compete in Greco that summer. Don’t make him just do freestyle because you as a coach don’t understand Greco. You have to let your athletes grow and I think more coaches need to become more accepting and push their athletes to go do Greco and pursue it over the summer if that’s what they want to do.
While I was in college, (Chris) Bono didn’t understand Greco. So when I asked him if I could do Greco, it was a straight up no, there was no cutting the corners, no maybe, it was just a straight no, I was going to wrestle freestyle and that was it. Well, I’m only going to train folkstyle right now and get better for next season. There was no opportunity for me to go out and pursue Greco. But when I went out home to my dad’s place at Legends of Gold, I would go and train Greco, or I would go to the Olympic Training Center and train Greco. I would tell Bono that I was going out to the Olympic Training Center for two weeks. Okay, great, I’m going out there to train Greco.
If you don’t understand the sport, I think you either bring people in, or you let that kid go to the OTC or go to an RTC to train Greco. An underhook in Greco, you can learn to use it in folkstyle, too. It’s the same position, it’s just people are a lot stronger hand-fighting wise in Greco-Roman than they are in folkstyle.
5PM: When you finished up at South Dakota and embarked on your full-time Senior career, what was your first tough competitive lesson? Maybe it wasn’t a turning point, but what was an event or a match where you walked away knowing that you were going to have to make some changes to your approach?
Cody Pack: After college, I didn’t really know if I was going to compete again, so I took a couple of months off and I didn’t miss it. I wouldn’t say I was burnt out, I just kind of wanted some leisure time to myself so I could go out and pursue things that I might like. But about a month and a half out, I started seeing a bunch of people competing again, I saw my buddies competing. I got that fire again and right away, I knew I needed to go train. I knew in my head I was going to train Greco. I actually had planned on training Greco out of high school at Northern Michigan, but Ivan (Ivanov) left and I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I got to the OTC after college and I was wrestling with Chris Gonzalez, I was wrestling Ray-Ray (RaVaughn Perkins) and Kamal, and granted, I was getting beat, but I was scoring points, and these were the best guys in the world. At that point, I knew I could still go out there and compete. I’m behind, but I know I can get better from here. There was no way I could backwards because I was just getting into it. I’m out there scoring points on Ray-Ray, I’m out there scoring points on Gonzalez, the World Team member…Ray-Ray, an Olympic Trials champ, Kamal, a World Champion…that right there set it in my mind that I could do this. Honestly, it was me in that room having the opportunity to get my hands on them. And then I had Coach Momir (Petković) tell me that I am really, really special. You know Momir, he says what is on his mind whether you like it or not. I’ve had contact with Momir since high school, so when he told me that I was kind of like, Okay, he really means this. And then Robby Smith told me the same thing and I’ve been really close with Robby since I was in high school. When I was in high school, I used to go up to Concord to train with he and Luke Sheridan. Those kinds of things were being reiterated and built the fire that I was getting back.
From that point on, I kind of knew, I can still do this, I want to still do this. I enjoyed wrestling again. When I got out of college, I took time off because I didn’t enjoy it — and if I didn’t enjoy it, there was no point to keep competing. At that stage, it was like I was trying to compete for other people. After that, I told myself, I’m done. So when I started to enjoy getting back in the room, I looked forward to going to practice again rather than feeling like, Oh man, I’m driving to practice, I have one more and then I get a break. It started the fire and now it feels like I’m on the right path to go do great things. I have the best workout partner in the world for my weight and I have the luxury of still going to the training center whenever I want. I have the best of both worlds here and I think if I keep doing what I’m doing and keep being coachable, I think I am going to do big things.
5PM: The last year or so, this has been a new world for you. At the same time, you are still a very intense competitor. How did you manage your expectations competitively? You’re used to getting your hand raised, but then you began entering into tournaments where much wasn’t expected from you. You were used to winning, but it became a situation where they would be some lumps to take.
CP: I took it with a grain of salt. When I was younger, if I lost I would be pissed, I’d throw a fit, I wanted to quit, I sucked, you know? But at this point, every loss that I have, I learn from it. And a lot of the times when I lose, I beat myself, so I know right away I can go and change what I did to give up four points. I can go back and change my mentality on bottom, keep moving, and not take that split second where I get lifted at the Schultz. I can go out and change those things. So if I lost, I wouldn’t say I knew it was going to happen — I had the expectation that I was going to win, that’s what I want to do, I want to win every match that I can — but if I lose, I’m not going to dwell on it, I am going to learn from it. I can only get better from a loss and I think losses for some people are good. They humble you a little bit and ensure that no matter what you thought you were doing, you’re not the man. You have to go out and change little things to beat the best guy in the world.
So I wouldn’t say I expected it, but I knew I might lose, I just never thought about it like that before a match. After a tournament, I’d go back a watch film and be like, Damn, I beat myself there, I didn’t clear the underhook right away, I sat there for two seconds when I should have cleared it the minute he got it. In my mind, they are things I can change, and since I can change some things, I don’t dwell on losses too much. As long as I wrestled hard, I didn’t care if I won or lost. If I give 100%, I have no regrets. I went out and wrestled, and maybe that kid was just better than me. That’s fine. But guess what? Next time I wrestle you, I am going to be better than you and I am going to beat you. Or if I don’t beat you, it’s going to be a lot damn closer. And the next time after that, I will beat you.
I’m always looking to grow as an athlete, especially with coaching, too, I have to show these kids you have to forget about a loss. You can’t sit there and beat yourself up about it. After the tournament, go back to the drawing board, write down the things you did great, write down the things you did wrong, correct the things you did wrong but keep working on the things you did great so you perfect them.
5PM: This is for sure not a “Greco only” problem, but do you think losses, especially at the developmental level but even at the Senior level, are taken to a bad place nowadays, maybe examined too much? We have athletes now who go on social media to apologize after they lose. Is this a problem culturally in this sport?
CP: If I lose and I feel that, I enjoy that feeling because I know I can go out and do something more than I’ve been doing. I think it’s good for you because it shows you have passion, if you take a loss to heart. But don’t act like an asshole, don’t act out to be a dick, that’s stuff you do in the locker room where no one can see you. But I think it helps you as an athlete if you have that passion about it. When you start accepting a loss like, Okay, it’s a loss, no big deal, you need to reevaluate your career, what you’re doing. Losses you take personally, I think that’s good, but I also think it’s bad, depending on how you react to it in front of the crowds. Like Cael (Sanderson) threw a block at the ref. That’s not good PR for Cael. Cael’s never done that, I’ve never seen Cael do that. But at the same time, you see Tom Brands and those guys throwing chairs and yelling at people. It depends on how your overall character has been. Cael has been pretty conservative, whereas Tom and Terry (Brands), they’re balls out constantly, so you expect that from them. If they were to sit back in the chair and relax, you would think something’s off.
I think it’s good for you to have that passion to hate losing and how bad that hurts, but at the same time, you don’t need to show people. You don’t have to go out and make a big scene about something. It’s a loss, everyone loses, it’s bound to happen. Unless you’re Cael Sanderson, you’re going to lose. How you carry yourself really depicts how well you learn from the loss.
I like the feeling and I understand how athletes feel when they lose like that, but it’s the kind of stuff I should hold inside of me instead of placing the blame on something else. I know my coach can’t go out and wrestle for me. I’m the one who wrestled, I’m the only one out on that mat and it comes down to me, no one else.
5PM: One of the major differences of the international styles, particularly with Greco, is the on-the-mat governance. Officials are always communicating, barking commands, and so forth. You’re also dealing with three officials, not one. You obviously experienced this before college, but now that this is your vocation, how has this adjustment been for you on a full-time basis? Do officials disrupt your flow at all?
Cody Pack: When I was younger, yes. If a ref made a call, I’d look to the corner like, Oh, come on, you know? But now, no, I don’t worry about it because I know my mindset is to go out and score the next point. I listen to it, but it goes in one ear and out the other. I try not to think about it too much, I don’t let it affect me. I don’t want it to distract my mindset of what I want to do on the mat. If it’s a critical call, it might be, Damn, that sucks, but then it’s, Okay, guess what, now I know I can’t do that, whatever it is, whether it’s a bad leg foul or something along those lines. I know I am going to go out and get that back. I’m going to go out and get the next point, so I don’t let it affect me too much.
When the refs start getting involved and people react to it, they are being taken out of their element. Let them do whatever they are going to do because they are going to do it anyway. There is nothing you can do to change what they do. You can’t change the call, nothing you say is going to change their minds. It’s set and done, they confirmed it, whatever, I know I have to go out and score again now. If anything, it motivates me, This guy’s on my ass, I’m losing, let me give him a reason not to be on my ass. Let me go attack the body, let me attempt to put points on the board to get him off of me. If he’s saying that I’m passive, that’s fine, I know I am going to score. I’m holding position, I’m looking to score. If anything, I’d say it kind of motivates me a little bit, especially if I’m slacking a little bit, say, Oh damn, I’m down by two, passive, okay, kick it back into gear. So I wouldn’t say I let it affect me negatively, I only let it motivate me as to what he is saying.
5PM: You started off your Senior career as an Olympic Training Center athlete. But with your father’s club, Legends of Gold, now having turned into one of the country’s premier training facilities, a rare place devoted to the Olympic movement, you went and relocated back home. It’s like you’re wearing that crest, you and Jesse Thielke are the faces of that franchise. Talk about the responsibility this entails.
CP: I have to carry myself a little differently, definitely. This isn’t only me I’m representing, but also, my dad’s legacy. I’m representing my family’s higher ambitions and life goals putting that singlet on. I am representing our kids’ parents, I’m representing them. I enjoy it. I think it helps me, I think it makes me a better person. It makes me think about my actions a lot more in-depth than if I was just at the OTC like, Whatever. Now, I have to sit back and be like, Okay, how do I react to this? What do I say in this position? How do I set the example as an athlete and as a coach? I can’t say one thing and then do the opposite when I’m competing, then my work will not have any credibility to it.
But I enjoy it a lot. It’s something I take pride in. I’ve been with this program since I was little, my dad started it, and I want to go out and I want to represent it the best I can as well as represent myself the best that I can.
5PM: What are some of the benefits/advantages you have found going back to South Dakota?
CP: I would say I have a larger support system here, that helps a lot, rather than being 12 hours away. If something happens, I can just go talk to my parents face-to-face. In Colorado Springs they were just a phone call away, but it’s different when they see me put in the work and they are there with me throughout the process. I take it more upon myself to do better because not only am I the one sacrificing by training, but they’re sacrificing by making sure the bills are paid, the wrestling room is open, and they are providing me with the best opportunities to do this. The support system is huge. It feels like I’m not just going into a room and practicing. It feels like I’m going in there with more of a purpose than I did before.
My training schedule is based around me, which is really, really nice. Jesse and I can go in, and if we don’t feel great at eight in the morning, then instead of nine o’clock practice, we’ll make it 10:30 for practice. We’re more flexible. I can go out and have my own training schedule that I really, really enjoy rather than train at four o’clock, and then rehab, and then this and that. I like the flexibility because I know how my body reacts to things, where at the training center if you’re feeling sore it’s Too bad, wrestle. Now if Jesse and I are sore, and we’re not feeling great in the morning, it is, Okay, let’s push practice back an hour and see how we feel then. I can train my body for how it needs to be in order to perform at the highest level, rather than push through something when I’m having a bad day with a negative attitude towards practicing. I allow myself to change my mindset for that next practice we pushed back an hour later to where it’s like, Okay, what do I need to do? Maybe we just go in and drill instead of just going live. I really like the flexibility and I love the support system here.
5PM: There is a significant gap in the domestic schedule from the fall leading to the early spring. As of now, what do your competitive plans look like?
CP: Right now, I’m just trying to get healthy so I can go out and get back to performing when it matters. Not that every competition doesn’t matter, but there are some that have more significance than others, like the Trials are more important than the Schultz. Right now, we’re going through that process to make sure I’m healthy and peaking at the right time. Secondly, I have to find a way to train with Jesse because even though I’m not competing at the Clubs Cup, it doesn’t mean I can just slack off. I have to be there for him, I have to train with him, and I have to find a way to push him as well as myself.
But I think as of now, we have a couple training camps overseas planned for January. We’re looking to go to Cuba and then we go to the Netherlands over April with our IDA guys. Then Jesse and I are going to train in Germany for two weeks and we’ll try to catch another training cycle before the Hungarian Grand Prix. So those are our plans right now, trying to get some training camps in. Wrestling at the Hungarian Grand Prix right now is the plan and then there is one more that isn’t finalized just yet, me and Jesse are trying to figure out the schedule with Trials and everything coming up based on their weird schedule and how exactly they are going to do it. The timing of when they are actually going to say what days we are wrestling, we’re waiting on that to be finalized. That’s kind of it right now. Of course, there is the Bill Farrell Memorial, and that is included in the lineup, as well.
5PM: You’re still young, there is some distance ahead of the years that would be construed as your athletic prime. Has transitioning into a full-time Greco career served as a total rejuvenation in how you approach competition and also, how you see your overall goals in general?
Cody Pack: Oh yeah, 100%. In college, you know, it’s a grind. It’s a six-month season and it’s a grind, you’re weighing in three days a week. As a Senior, if I’m hurt, I have time in between these big events where I can get healthy and back to competing at 100%, as opposed to wrestling in college at 75-80%. I can definitely say that it has allowed my body to recover a lot better, and my mindset, as well. Everybody has that time — whether it is in folkstyle, freestyle, or Greco — where you hit that grind of training for three months without competing. That sucks, we all want to go out and whup people’s asses rather than say, me and Jesse fist-fighting in the wrestling room because we’re tired of wrestling each other and we do it every single day, and we know how each other wrestles. It’s tough to go out and score points when we know what each other is going to do.
But the rejuvenation, 100%, it made me enjoy wrestling again, like I said earlier. I found the passion again, which I didn’t want to lose at 24-years-old. I planned on making the 2020 team out of high school and when I finished college. Now that I’ve got that fire back in me, I would definitely say it has pushed me in the right direction.