Welcome to the first edition of Champaign’s Finest featuring Illinois Regional Training Center Director of Operations and head coach Bryan Medlin, one of the most valuable assets in the entire United States wrestling community.
A Northern Michigan alumnus and former Senior athlete for the All-Marine Wrestling Team before taking over his home state’s expansive and successful age-group program, Medlin, along with Mike Powell, played an enormous role in the eventual development of numerous Team USA athletes, including Max Nowry (60 kg, Army/WCAP, world #3, 5PM #3), Ellis Coleman (67 kg, Army/WCAP, 5PM #1), Joe Rau (87 kg, TMWC, world #7, 5PM #2), Kamal Bey (77 kg, Sunkist, 5PM #2), Chris Gonzalez, and countless others. Three seasons ago, Medlin became involved in the formation of the Illinois RTC and immediately recruited 2018 U23 World Team member Travis Rice (60 kg, 5PM #9). Since then, the roster has grown substantially with the likes of ’18 Cadet World rep Luke Luffman (130 kg), ’19 Junior World Teamer Zac Braunagel (87 kg), recent National runner-up West Cathcart (130 kg, NYAC, 5PM #6), Rau, and highly-touted newcomer Tanner Farmer (130 kg, NYAC, 5PM #10).
Of course, Medlin is equally sought-after within the freestyle realm, and it is as though both international disciplines in the US try to claim him. Wrestling might be “wrestling”, but the way we see it, Medlin was ours before he was theirs — which brings us to this contents of this debut IRTC report.
First up on the agenda with Medlin is the summary of a recent joint-training excursion he facilitated that saw three-time World Teamer G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist, world #7, 5PM #1) and multi-time age-group World medalist Cohlton Schultz (130 kg, Sunkist, 5PM #2) work in with members of the IRTC, and why such instances are especially critical given wrestling’s current climate. After that, we hit on results from the US Nationals and what the tournament meant for those who participated. To close out, Medlin shares how he is viewing the next few months when it comes to potential training and competitive opportunities for his athletes.
5PM: Recently, you had G’Angelo Hancock and Cohlton Schultz come up to train for the better part two weeks. Was that simply a product of how there is not much available for athletes currently, and was this something that was orchestrated given the fact that a lot of these wrestlers have gathered at other various camps over the past several months?
Coach Bryan Medlin: I think it is a product of what happened with the pandemic and it has forced people to leave their comfort zones in order to get good training. But at the same time, it is something we are comfortable with here in Illinois, which is reaching out to other teams and trying to get different training situations for our guys.
That is the one common thread since I have become involved here. We are pretty good at not just staying in our bubble, but seeking out the best opportunities for our guys to get better without having a big ego about, Are we the ones who are completely and solely in charge of their careers? Instead, it is about putting them in environments where they are going to be pushed in different ways all the time. We are willing to go wherever we need to. We have been all over the globe for different training opportunities and we are going to continue down that path.
5PM: The first question I have about the US Nationals pertains to optics. On one hand, you can’t deny reality in that many top athletes did not enter and none of the military programs were allowed to. On the other, it was an entertaining tournament. Do you think that the Nationals, barring the absence of procedural implications, being held when they were and where they were served as a good step towards wrestling starting to come back?
Medlin: I was disappointed in the fact that a lot of our guys were not there. I think Greco, and wrestling in general, we talk a lot about us being “professionals” and being treated “professionally”. Well, I know that there were a lot of guys who simply did not wrestle because their weight was too high, or because they weren’t in good-enough shape. It did not have anything to do with the idea that they were scared of some sort of virus. It strictly had to do with the fact that they weren’t in shape to wrestle. They weren’t in shape to compete.
These are professional athletes. A lot of these guys are being paid to wrestle, and I think that is a huge problem. When you look at what happened at the Russian nationals for Greco and freestyle — and I watched it intently — their guys came out and looked almost in better shape than they were last year. A lot of them looked bigger and stronger. They looked like they have added to their skill-sets, which is kind of scary, to be honest. We didn’t. Maybe some of our better guys need to take inventory of where they are mentally as far as the sport goes and where they are falling short of being professionals. Maybe they treat the sport more like a hobby than an actual profession.
I will say that I was happy with a lot of the wrestling that transpired. Watching it, I felt that there were some athletes who were in shape. I also felt that some of them were not. They weren’t expecting to compete and showed up to get some matches in. And, you could tell that their bodies were, not even what I would consider “peak condition”, they just weren’t in shape. But there were guys who came in and took it seriously. I look at a lot of the finals matches and I felt like a lot of those guys were ready to wrestle. It was fun to watch. People were putting points on the scoreboard and wrestling hard. But — I feel like for the most part that there were a lot of pitfalls as far as things we could do better.
5PM: I thought Zac Braunagel was particularly impressive. He has been a very, very tough athlete for a long time now and has relevant age-group credentials, but at the Nationals he really had to fight. He dropped his first match of the day but then wrestled all the way back and took third. To see him stand up in that kind of environment and recover the way he did said a lot about him. What did you look about his performance from a technical aspect — and also, what does this do for him going forward, especially since I identify him as a candidate at the Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier?
Medlin: I think, obviously, that he fell into a trap in his first match. You’re wrestling a guy (Trent Munoz) you don’t recognize. The kid is good, not a household name, but good. Then you go in there and you say, Okay, I’m just going to pummel, probably get on top, and figure out how to win. But there was no hunger to win. There wasn’t a hunger to fight for position and really be physical, to fight for position and capitalize on those positions and score points — until it was too late and he was down by four or five points. Then he started to grow from that.
I think from that second period through the rest of the tournament, Zach looked great. He looked like he wasn’t just trying to win. It is easy for a young kid who gets to wrestle Joe Rau everyday in practice to infer, Oh, Joe’s experience has rubbed off on me to where I am just really good. You kind of fall into that trap of, I’m better than this guy. He doesn’t get to work out with the guys I do. He had forgotten that this a wrestling match and that you need to score more points than the other guy to advance.
I am pretty confident that had they met up later, Zach would have righted the ship against him but the guy pulled out after the semis. Competing with a guy like Marcus Finau, I thought was a really good match for Zach. The way he wrestled him, and the way that tournament ended, is where I am hoping his next tournament picks up — which is to say, If I’m physical and I go out there and fight for position in each second of the match, I am going to be able to break guys. I’m going to be able to take their will away in the middle of the match and start scoring points. I think Zach has a lot of confidence coming out of the tournament.
Moving forward with the Last Chance Qualifier, it doesn’t matter when it is, Zach will be there. I’m just hoping that he picks up right where he left off. Technically, there are some things that he has needed to work on coming out of the Nationals. I don’t think him hanging his hands on guys or getting to light contact and holding position are a good thing. That’s how you give up arm throws. You make light collar-tie contact and push forward, and get the wrong end of the stick. He is learning transitions to ties and there are things he already knows. These were instilled in him by the end of the day, so I am just hoping that he can keep that in the frontal lobe as long as possible. He is young, he is hungry. He is a great kid who lives the right lifestyle. He works so fricking hard that the sky is the limit for him. Zach can be someone in Greco who has a great career and goes on to compete for World and Olympic medals someday.
5PM: Maybe it should not be a surprise to see Cathcart do well in a tournament like this. He did well at the last Nationals. But he also looked differently. He seemed to have more conviction, more confidence, he wrestled Cohlton very tough in the final. What has been West’s progress throughout the past bunch of months? Has this been an opportunity for West to sort of “feel” his way into his style as a heavyweight?
Coach Bryan Medlin: Yeah, well, I think he has used the last month to build his body. He is healthy. For the first time, he has been consistent for nine months, from the last US Open to now. I think he saw progress and he liked it. That’s the thing. He saw progress and felt himself getting better. He is fortunate that he has good heavyweights to wrestle. He wrestles Tanner Farmer and he wrestles Luke Luffman, and they all kind of feed off of each other. One day, one of them will catch the other and it will be his day; the next day it will be kind of reversed, and back-and-forth.
When you have that trial by far, and you sense that not everyone else has it, it does give you that confidence going into a tournament. It does give you that, Man, I’m ready and everyone else may not be. It is one of those things, West does have a lot of confidence right now. He knows he can compete now.
That’s another thing. You need to have that. You need to have that match. He got tech’ed by Cohlton the last time they wrestled. West scored and then Cohlton caught him in a front headlock and rolled him up. I think he needed that finals match to get close to him and realize, Hey, I’m in it. I’m right there with him. He is growing. Even this past week you saw growth from him. For West, he is older and he has to stay healthy, so he has take care of his body more than a younger athlete. But, he has six months and he’s serious. He is treating this like he should, like this is his life’s work coming up this next six months. I’m excited. I am excited to see what comes out in the end.
5PM: Everyone knows that Luke Luffman was an excellent age-group competitor, and now he is a collegiate wrestler, as well. For you, as someone who has worked with him a lot for some years, what was it that you wanted to see the most from Luffman in the tournament?
Medlin: He is so big and strong, and he has so many tools at his disposal. I just want to see him keep gaining the confidence that he is capable. For him, I feel like he has always been a big kid, so he is not scared to wrestle them. He knows that he’s big and strong. But sometimes when he goes up against grown men, you see him kind of take a backseat during live go’s and things like that. I have definitely seen improvement from him over the course of the last nine months and that is the key element that he is missing. He needs that ability to where it is, Okay, whether you are my age or older, I am ready to go in and kick your butt.
Heavyweight wrestling is different in that there aren’t as many technical movements. I mean, there are, to an extent; but when you watch a 55-kilo match or 60-kilo match, there is a lot more motion and a lot more techniques than in a good heavyweight match. A lot of what happens at heavyweight is fighting. There is a lot of fighting involved, and the ability to take two or three positions and dig down to go get them. That is something Luke has been missing but he is gaining ground. Once he masters that, these other heavyweights better watch out because he is getting bigger and stronger, too.
5PM: The Nationals was Farmer’s Senior debut. Going in, most had a sense of who he was, his football career, and that he had advanced to the NAIA final last season. Even during the summer, after the Nebraska camp, people were raving about his size and athletic ability. Forgetting expectations, however, when it came to this tournament, what was it that you talked to him about prior to competition and what inroads were you hoping to see?
Medlin: Well obviously, competing in football and competing in wrestling are so different. I think you compete in football and there are those moments of high violence for maybe ten seconds. Tops. And then your relax for a minute. Your heart rate isn’t super-high for an extended period of time, so I think controlling that a lot and just making sure he is controlling his emotions. Because, that can get to you. That gets you a lot of times more than the technique. I think for him, a lot of it was controlling nerves. When he was getting worked up about the tournament, I would just talk to him about how grateful he should feel for just being here, for just having the opportunity to wrestle. I try to preach that to all of our guys. But for Tanner, personally, that was a big thing — not getting him worked up or trying to fire him up, but the opposite.
The tournament did kind of play on him a little bit towards the end. He was really getting worn down. I think that is something he has to recognize and train his body a little bit better going forward in making sure that he is able to stand up to five or six good matches in a day. Also for him, it is about realizing, You’re not just a football player. You don’t have to play football against these guys and just push them out. You can wrestle. I think that we have really focused on that the past couple of weeks, building on the skills that made him a good football player and using them in a way like, Now I am going to get up on his hands, use two-on-ones more. Things that will add to him, rather than changing him up and saying, No, you need to wrestle this certain way. He has a pretty good game plan for first contact — which football taught him — and then building that up into wrestling positions where he doesn’t have to just drive, drive, drive for six minutes. Because, that is exhausting.
And — he is a great human being. That’s the other part. He has that part down. He knows right from wrong. He comes from a really good family with really good people, and he knows how to work hard. Tanner is exciting to work with. He’s one of those guys who comes into the room everyday smiling. He tries to hug me everyday (laughs). He’s a big hugger. He gives everyone a hug and asks, Hey man, how’s it going? He honestly wants to know how it’s going with everyone. He is an interesting person and a great element in our room. I’m excited. I’m happy to have him.
5PM: The match everyone wants to still talk about, a match that has been highly-scrutinized, is obviously Joe versus Alan Vera in the final. Everyone expected that to be challenging, and now many people seem to expect these two to meet in the Olympic Trials final. The National final did not go Joe’s way, but did you guys walk away from that one with enough data gathered to feel confident about making the appropriate adjustments prior to April?
Medlin: Yeah, for sure. I don’t want to disclose too much, but absolutely, 100%. And I more confident now for April than I was before they wrestled. Vera is one of those guys you have to feel in competition. Not in wrestling room, not while you are training. You need to feel his best stuff, and I think that is one thing that happened. I think there is a very clear path there.
Joe is lucky to have him. That’s the other part we discussed about it. You tend to become bitter when you are the guy who qualified the weight, and you are the guy who, if the Olympics had went off, would have been the guy. And USA Wrestling has leaned on you, you have done your job, and then this new guy comes in and he’s a citizen. Or, he’s not a citizen yet, maybe he is, no one knows (laughs). But it is easy to think of it like, Okay, now I mean nothing. Now that this new guy came… It feels like you’re being left behind, you feel betrayed, or whatever. But that’s not the way Joe is looking at it.
One thing we had discussed after the tournament is this: If you’re fortunate enough to make the Olympic Team, and you’re fortunate enough to earn a medal, it is going to be because Alan Vera was in this country. And Alan Vera pushed you over the next six months to become the best you, to do those things you might not have done. Because, to be honest, we cut corners. You don’t try to, but you mentally cut corners when you know that you are better than the guy you’re going to wrestle in the Olympic Trials finals. You know that you’re sitting at the end. Joe has been sitting in the finals since March. I don’t know the effort it takes to not grow complacent with that. But now you know that there is a guy, a World class athlete, who might come out of the Challenge Tournament. Or, it could be another World class athlete who gets pushed by Vera who winds up facing Joe. How many times has the wrestling community been so certain that a match was going to happen again in April, and then suddenly something else happens and it’s a new guy? Pat Martinez then comes out of it, after being pushed by Vera behind the scenes. There are some pretty good guys in this country.
I can’t say that Joe is going to be training for Alan Vera. That is not something we are doing right now. That’s also not to say Joe isn’t keeping in mind some of the lessons that were learned three weeks ago, but he isn’t training for him. He knows guys like them are there and that it is going to take his best to make the Team. And that will push him once he makes the Team to have the best chance of winning a medal. That is where it’s exciting for me, personally. To see him motivated and to see him make that change from the time the match ended to where he’s at now. I feel really good about where he is in his headspace. I think it is all going to play out in his favor.
5PM: At this juncture, we’re not sure what events or opportunities are available or will become available. Are there any preliminary plans that have been discussed or in your own mind with regards to travel, if that becomes possible? And if not, how do you adjust the training plan for athletes who are going to either the Qualifier or the Olympic Trials with so much time in between?
Coach Bryan Medlin: To answer your first question, yes. Our month of November is already filling up to where we are going to be pretty full here pretty quick. We are on a call next week with USA Wrestling to try to get some dates for matches, possibly. I also have a special trip planned for our RTC athletes after that. I can’t go into that yet. I’m sure once it happens it will become known.
I feel really good about how we work creatively to make the best out of situations. I can say that since I’ve been involved with coaching, and with the mentors I’ve had, the people who get the most out of their teams are the most creative. I actually like these situations, in a weird way, because I feel that it is advantageous to the person who is willing to think outside the box. And I am more than willing to do that. I like it when rules get changed, as crazy as that sounds (laughs). I don’t like crazy rules like the clinch and stuff that’s weird; but at the same time, I feel like the guys who coached during that period of time got a little bump in results because we were able to adapt faster.
I think that’s the key. I watched people like Ivan Ivanov who are just so creative, and that’s fun. It’s fun to think of things that outside the box, whether it’s going to this training camp, or bringing in this guy, or going over to compete with another RTC and knowing that everyone else might be staying inside of their own bubbles and spinning their wheels. It is exciting. I’m up for the challenge. And the more challenging the times are, the teams and clubs that come out of it on top are the ones who are the most creative during these times.