When Nate Engel first stepped away from full-time Greco-Roman competition a few years ago he was exiting at perhaps the height of his career. Wrestling for the Army’s World Class Athletes Program Engel had started to come into his own, securing a headline-making victory at the Haparanda Cup in late-2012 before advancing to the World Team Trials finals some months later, meeting up with longtime friend and legendary force of nature Spenser Mango. In a Senior career that up to that point spanned the better part of eight years, the former National Team member was turning the corner.
But the pull of entering a new career phase gradually increased and following the 2014 World Team Trials, Engel joined on as a volunteer assistant with the Air Force before eventually being selected as a full-time coach with the Naval Academy, where he still is today. With head coach Joel Sharratt leading the way, the Midshipmen represent a program on the rise, putting four wrestlers in the 2017 NCAA Division 1 Championships this past month. There will be more to come, as next year’s recruiting class, one of Engel’s primary responsibilities with the program, promises to re-stock Navy with some impressive talent.
You might think that a guy who used to occupy a place as one of the country’s elite Greco-Roman lightweights and who is also in the midst of an emerging coaching career would be just fine leaving the competitive door closed, but that isn’t the case for Engel. The 33-year old still has some fuel left in the tank, which is why he will be attempting to qualify for the 2017 Maccabi Games in Israel this coming weekend at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2013, the native Californian won both international styles at the event and he will be attempting to repeat that feat this summer. But while this is partly about turning on the fire once again, mostly for Engel, the Maccabi Games are a family affair.
“I’ve been talking to my dad about it the last few months and my wife McKayla has never been to Israel,” Engel says of his decision. “I thought it was a good opportunity to compete one last time so I talked to Coach Sharratt and it’s like, why not?” But there is also deeper meaning here. Sure, it’ll be nice for the wrestler to have his passport stamped once again should he qualify to travel to Israel for the main event, set for July. However, Engel can’t help but reflect on those in his life who have affected him, even if they aren’t here to witness his latest foray on the mats.
“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and when I won there in 2013, I won for them even though they have passed away. And then there is (2006 World bronze medalist) Lindsey Durlacher, who is also no longer with us. I know he enjoyed competing at the Maccabi Games and I always looked up to him as a competitor,” Engel explains.
Engel has probably not been practicing throws and par terre defense like he used to during his days at Northern Michigan or with WCAP, but it isn’t as if he’s not prepared otherwise. Being an assistant wrestling coach on the collegiate level means staying sharp and providing athletes with constant competition in the room. In fact, Engel’s fitness level played a role in his decision to throw his hat into the proverbial ring, although he is willing to concede things aren’t exactly the way they used to be.
“Every day when you are coaching you’re always competitive but you never get to go out there and actually wrestle,” Engel notes. “But it’s definitely different. I’m not lifting like I was, but I run five to six days a week. I wrestle with the guys and I feel fine because making weight isn’t a problem. It’s 57 kilos plus one kilo for the qualifier. Being stressed out from the EIWA’s and the NCAA’s and everything, I lost some weight and it’s been really easy to get my weight down. I wouldn’t say I am where I was competing for my last chance at the 2014 Trials, but I still feel good.”
Part of that has to do with being able to breathe out. The life of a Senior Greco-Roman athlete is not for the faint of heart. Training often comes in the form of multiple sessions per day along with the ongoing ritual of weight management. Given his station in life, Engel is not under anyone’s thumb for the Maccabi Games and since his body isn’t beat up, it is easy to see why he appears upbeat for the battles ahead.
“I definitely feel fresher because it has been less of a grind and I haven’t had to make weight or anything like that,” agrees Engel. “I take days off when I need to whereas when I was competing full-time, you don’t really have the chance to take a day off because Spenser Mango and those guys were training just as hard as you were, if not harder. So now I can take days off when I want to.”
It’s probably a safe bet that after this weekend, there won’t be too many of those for Engel until the latter part of the summer.