Last weekend’s 2017 Greco-Roman World Team Trials in Las Vegas might have ushered in the fresh new squad that will compete at the World Championships in Paris, but it also saw a few notable returns to the mat, and one in which that was especially nice to see happened to be Parker Betts (130 kg, Minnesota Storm). Betts, the younger brother of 2011 Olympian Chas, was a well-known commodity going back to his age-group days and made his presence known even more once he began attending Northern Michigan University. It was there Betts carved out his place among the best young upper-weights in the country. Various achievements came, such as two golds at the Eduardo Campbell Cup in Panama and a University National title in 2015 along with a runner-up finish at the Nationals that same year.
At the 2016 Olympic Trials, Betts wasn’t completely healthy, leading to a 1-2 finish at the event in Iowa City, though it should be noted that the now-24 year old’s two losses on the day were to the ever-capable and multiple-time World Team Trials runner-up Toby Erickson (Army/WCAP) and another talented up-and-comer, Jacob Mitchell (Army/WCAP). Next up was the 2016 University Nationals two months later. The defending champ Betts advanced to the finals again, only to drop the second two of the best-of-three series to Matt Voss (Patriot Elite). And that was it. At least for awhile.
Betts wondered if he had reached the wall, the limit of his desire to continue competing. Thus, he started asking himself questions, the kind of queries one makes inwardly that have a tendency to bring about a pause. This is life for devoted, elite wrestlers. Questions. Answers. More questions. For everyday folk, this is not out of the ordinary. Everyone performs self-appraisals on occasion. But when it’s a Greco-Roman athlete who feels the need to hit the reset button while still plenty young enough to have more good days in front of him than behind, his stepping away is news.
The thing is, Betts stayed on-site at Northern. He never really “left.” He was there, still engaged, just not really…wrestling. Thankfully, something changed. Whatever it was. Call it self-introspection, index it as a sabbatical, a man understanding not only that he still wants something, but coming to grips about why he does. It’s always that why which leads to the disappearance of doubt. Once the why is conquered, the rest is just details.
So there in Vegas Betts was, back mixing it up in an environment he knows all too well. No, he didn’t punch it all the way home and make his first Senior World Team, but that’s not the point. He hath returned. Greco-Roman in this country is always better with grand participation. Even more so when someone like Betts is in the fold.
Parker Betts — 130 kg, Minnesota Storm
5PM: In 2016, you took a hiatus from the sport. What prompted you to make that decision?
Parker Betts: Well, it was a couple of things. Going into the Olympic Trials, the biggest tournament of my year, I wasn’t 100%. I’m not using that as an excuse, that’s the last thing I want to do. But after the tournament I got really down on myself because I couldn’t give everything I had and I put so much into it. It took a toll on me. After that was the Universities, but I was going to take time off and not do it so I could let my shoulder heal. But I ended up going. Without training and everything, I decided to go. I made it to the finals, won my first best two-out-of-three match and lost the next two.
After that, I just kind of sat there. Everyone at the tournament was there cheering me on. But after that match, I thought, Is it really worth it, letting everyone down all the time? That was probably the sixth time I lost in a World Team Trials final. I was sitting there thinking, This isn’t good. I’m letting my family down, I’m letting my teammates down, my friends down. So, I got home the next day, took a step back, and said, This isn’t for me. I’m sick of doing this, I’m sick of letting everyone down. I decided to step away. I was feeling sorry for myself. I wasn’t in a good place. After those tournaments I was really down on myself, feeling sorry for myself. I shouldn’t have, but that’s how I did it.
I had a talk with my brother, he’s my best friend and my closest friend I talk to about this kind of stuff. I mean, he’s been through it all. We talked and he is straight up, he’s honest with me and he said, “If you want to step away, step away.” So I said “Okay”, and that was about it.
5PM: Take me through it a little bit. When did you start kind of getting the itch back?
PB: I came back up to school. I wasn’t really training, I was just sitting at the school one day and 3:30 came around and I was like, Man, I’m just sitting here not doing anything. I’m feeling worthless and these guys are out working for stuff. I kind of missed working for something, being hungry for something.
So I started coming in (the room), no plans to come back or anything. I started talking to Coach (Rob Hermann) a little bit, that’s when Aghasi (Manukyan) stepped away. Just being around that environment, being in that room and around guys who are hungry for things, it makes you miss it. I got the itch back. I was talking to Rob the whole semester about coming back and he said, “Think about it.” The topic came up about (Andy) Bisek coming to coach and he’s my brother’s best friend, they were in each other’s weddings and everything like that. I thought, If Bisek comes here, he’s going to know what’s best for me, he’s going to have my best interests. Not that Rob doesn’t. He does, too. Bisek, he knows, you know. He doesn’t mess around. He’s going to be extremely hard-working.
I talked to my brother again and told him that this was a better place, a better time, and he agreed, so I decided to come back. I talked to my brother about this and I have a whole different outlook on it from how I did before when I was so down on myself. I was trying to make everyone else happy. I was trying to make these teams and make my family happy because that is what they wanted. But you know, coming back now I realize I’m doing this for me. I want this, I need this. I’m the one running sprints, I’m the one wrestling in practice, no one else is. This is for me, it’s for no one else. I think that’s the biggest key for me because after Trials, I didn’t have the tournament of my life or even a good tournament, but I wasn’t down on myself and that really made me happy. Because I’m used to coming out of tournaments saying “I’m going to quit”, or “I’m unhappy”, “I don’t want to do this.” But after this Trials, I said, “I know what I have to do now and that’s that.” No complaining, no feeling sorry for yourself. Just get in there and do it. It’s a different outlook now and I’m really excited to be back.
5PM: It’s crazy in a way to hear that you would be down on yourself, if you don’t mind, if only because it isn’t like you haven’t been successful, either. Before you stepped away, you were absolutely one of the best young heavyweights in the country. On one hand, maybe people on the outside of the elite bubble can’t relate to that. But on the other, maybe tons of wrestlers go through this. Maybe a lot of wrestlers feel like they are competing for other people and all of these other external reasons. You had to come back to the fact that you had to do it on your terms, or at least that’s what it’s sounding like. Is that accurate?
PB: Yeah, it is. My parents have been there since day one. The support has been tremendous and it’s something I love. They come to every tournament that they can. And it’s not like I’m not doing it for them — I absolutely love their support. But I’m starting to realize that I need this for myself and I’m doing it for me.
5PM: Technically, you haven’t even entered the prime years of your career yet. Is that something you also considered? You’ve got your best years ahead of you, so is that something that caught on at all?
Parker Betts: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that I looked at. I’m 24, but I still have a lot of time to change maybe how I train, train right, eat right, do everything right, and I think when I start doing that it’s going to pay off tremendously. I think I’ll be able to achieve great things.
5PM: You’re finishing up school at the end of the fall semester of 2017. You already wrestle competitively for Minnesota Storm, it’s been that way for a while now. Is your plan to stay up at Marquette and still wrestle for Storm, or when do you plan on going to Minnesota?
PB: Well, I’ll be going to Minnesota for the next couple of weeks to train with the Minnesota heavyweights for Universities so I can have some big bodies to wrestle with. I’ll be finishing up school in December of 2017 and then immediately start training with the Minnesota Storm on January 1st, so I’ll move back to Minneapolis close to home and start training with them full-time.
5PM: Are you really looking forward to being in Minnesota training on a full-time basis? I am sure you have loved your time in Marquette, but is that a major attraction, being close to home while training full-time?
PB: It’s kind of all come around, I guess. They train at Pinnacle, and when they first opened that place, that was when I first went there as a sophomore in high school. It’s kind of cool that I get to go back and train where it all started and I am more than excited to get to go back and train in my home state with those guys. I really look forward to having three training partners. It’s going to be awesome, I’m really looking forward to it.
5PM: It’s not happening imminently, so maybe it’s premature of me to ask what you’ll miss about Marquette, so let me ask it this way — what are your favorite things about having been up there?
PB: I don’t know, I could list probably a hundred things. It’s so awesome, the experience. You’re so tight with the guys on the team. I don’t live in the dorms anymore, I will for my last semester. But I lived there for five years and you eat, sleep, and wrestle together everyday. The guys are so tight and then you go to practice together and you form these bonds and these friendships that can never be broken. It’s awesome, it’s quite the experience. You struggle together everyday, you wake up every morning at 6:00am for practice, do a tough workout, go to class all day, go back for 3:30 practice, go eat, and then you’ve got to study. It’s just a grind, but it makes it easier when you see the whole team is doing it, too. You stick together and have each other’s back. That’s probably the main thing that I am going to miss about it.
5PM: Coming up is obviously the University Nationals in Akron again, you’ve won that tournament before. But after that, the summer months are usually pretty barren depending on the situation, scheduling, funding, whatever. Do you have any competitive plans after Akron, not counting the Worlds should you make the team again?
Parker Betts: I don’t really. Besides competitive tournaments, the main thing I’m really focusing on is just training the right way, eating the right way, and doing the right things. That’s how I am going to spend my summer, just getting that down and doing what I have to in order to reach my goal. I won’t have anything besides the Universities and like you said, the World Championships in the fall, or the New York AC in November.
5PM: Okay, then let me ask this then, because even though you are still a competitive athlete who very well may one day win an Olympic gold medal, you do have a coaching perspective when you talk. What is the balance you prefer when it comes to training and getting matches in? Do you like to get in a lot of matches typically if you can or do you prefer long training blocks and then some matches, another block, more matches? What would be your preferred way to tackle competition?
PB: Maybe it is just the way I am, but I like competing all the time. In high school, we wrestled every weekend and I enjoyed it. Always seeing where you’re at, always seeing competition, and I think that was awesome. It’s a dramatic change once you get up here because you train for three or four months and you get one tournament. And if you have one bad tournament, you have to think about that for three or four months to get another shot. So it goes both ways. If you do have a bad tournament, you know what you have to focus on and you have a long time to change what you need to change, to focus, get in shape, anything like that.
I can see both ways. I know Bisek and Rob know what they are doing. They push really, really hard and then they’ll give us a break. It’s nice. Your body feels really good when you get that break. You know where you’re at and that you’re ready. That’s key, too.
5PM: Right. See, I don’t know. I am always like, “Everyone should just get as many matches as possible!”
PB: Right, well that’s what you’re told. When you get up here, they tell you to try to get overseas as much as you can. Go to as many of these tournaments as you can. Practice is going to make you good, but competition and wrestling these world class athletes is going to show you where you’re at, and that’s what is going to make you better.
5PM: It’s too easy to just throw out your performance over the weekend, “Ah, it’s his first time back”, if only because you’re too good of a wrestler. But at the same time, it really was your first time back in a good while. Plus, your first time back was the biggest, most important event on the calendar. How were you feeling regarding your approach, your attitude? You’ve done this so many times, but did this one feel different?
PB: In a way it did, in a way it didn’t. I woke up and you still get the nerves and realize that you’re still wrestling and trying to make a World Team today. You go through your usual routine — shower, get ready, warm up. After I got to the arena, I was more relaxed than I usually was. I think that has to do with this new outlook that I have, and just being more relaxed and not worrying about the outcome so much. Just going out and wrestling how I wrestle, and wrestling to my potential. And I think that is going to be key for me from now on.
Like you said, I’ve wrestled I don’t know how many tournaments and I don’t know how many matches, but this one felt different and I really enjoyed it. Coming off, it still wasn’t a good tournament, but I walked away knowing what I have to do and what I have to focus on. I’m not going to beat myself up about it this time, I’m not going to get down on myself because that’s what made me want to quit in the first place. I think having a new outlook on this is going to help tremendously.
5PM: There is something about you, your career, and you coming back, I don’t know if this is me having watched you a lot, but there is something about this to where the timing just feels right. Do you get that sense at all, too?
Parker Betts: Absolutely. I think you’re hitting it spot on. Like you said with my career, I always promised myself I would win Senior titles, make Senior teams, and win medals at Worlds. You can kind of lose track of that when tournaments or years aren’t going your way, and I kind of lost track of that and it had a big effect on me. Looking back, I wish it hadn’t, I wish I looked at it differently like I am now. Everything is going to be different. The timing feels right, I feel right. When I was warming up for the tournament and even after, I was walking by and random people, Army coaches, New York coaches, they were all shaking my hand and saying things like, I’m glad you’re back, I was sad when I heard you left. After I heard all that, I sat there for a minute like, Holy shit, I guess I had more of an impact in this sport than I thought I did, and there are a lot of people who are looking out for me, I guess. And it just makes me feel good, it makes me feel that people believed in me. I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have stopped, because I think it helped me see it differently. But people are glad I’m back and just hearing that support is helping me so much.