The All-Marine Team, led by head coach Jason Loukides — and anchored by US National Team member John Stefanowicz (82 kg) and overseas medal machine Daniel Miller (97 kg) — once again found themselves standing toe-to-toe with the vaunted Army program to decide the dual meet victor on Saturday at the Armed Forces Championships. And despite putting forth an inspired effort that included Xavier Johnson‘s (60 kg) startling upset over 2008 Olympian/2017 World Team member Ildar Hafizov, ultimately, the Army prevailed to clinch its 17th title in a row.
The loss carries just a little sting with it for the Marines — though likely not as much as 2013’s dual. That was when the Army squad defeated the Dan Hicks-led Marines by a single point. Nevertheless, 2018’s edition of the rivalry saw its fair share of closely contested bouts and a pivotal moment or two that might’ve benefited the Marine team had they went the other way.
To casual Greco fans, it’s the end result that counts the most. But for the military athletes, the event is a whole lot more significant than that. Regardless of how the service branches’ full-time Greco-Roman wrestlers perform at other stops throughout the year, it’s what happens at the annual Armed Forces Championships that stands as the real measuring stick.
Enter Miller, the Marine Corps Captain who also shoulders the responsibility of acting as the program’s analytical voice of reason. Loukides is their unquestioned leader, a coach who specializes in showering his charges with technical instruction, emotional support, and drop-whatever-he’s-doing loyalty. That loyalty, needless to say, is reciprocated. But at this stage in his career, Miller is the one tasked with acting as the mouthpiece for the men in the trenches and it is his thoughtful perspective that helps outsiders understand the pulse of the team as a whole.
Following the Greco portion of the Armed Forces Championships, this writer asked Miller to relay, in detail, the impact of the event and what it meant for he and his teammates. Miller also shed some light on his own individual performance and how he plans to use the momentum from his first-ever Armed Forces gold to provide the requisite fuel for the remainder of the season.
Daniel Miller — 97 kg, Marines
“I think overall, the main gauge of our performance from this weekend was going out and fighting in every match. We had some guys who were a little inexperienced, it was their first Armed Forces, and the dual meet atmosphere was a little different (for them). Especially when you’re out there when it’s one service branch versus another. The environment is a little different, so a lot of times you’re going to see that in the results, as well.
“In that aspect, I think we did a phenomenal job as a team. Every match, our guys went out there and they were hustling, fighting, and sometimes the scoreboard isn’t indicative of how much fight everyone on our team has, whether it’s during an individual match or in the team score. At the end of the day, you have to be okay with that because you expect everyone to go out there and fight. Once you establish that, then you can move from there. We definitely did that this weekend, especially with our younger, more inexperienced guys. So on that front, it was an extremely good weekend for us. No one went out there scared or intimidated. They went out there confident to win the match, regardless of who they were wrestling. And that made a big impact on the team as a whole.
“The team result is not exactly how we wanted to end up but I’m proud of each one of the guys and the effort they put in. In addition to that, the first step to winning matches is actually giving yourself a chance to. We had fight in all of our matches and in the ones we lost, we gave ourselves an opportunity to win. If you’re within four points at the end of match, you gave yourself an opportunity. If you look at the results, some of these matches were pretty close, and the boxscore just isn’t reflective of how close these bouts really were.
“This was a really good stepping stone for us as a team, as a program. We’ve been building, we’re going to continue to build, and we’re going to rise going forward. With that said, on a personal level, I’ve experienced the atmosphere here the past two years. The first year, I was relatively new and had a stout opponent in Caylor (Williams), and I honestly got embarrassed in the match. He tech’ed me three times and that was the fastest match I ever had with him. At the time, he definitely had a lot more experience than me, whatever it was. I know what that atmosphere feels like.
“Last year, going out there, it was the only match I ever lost to Endhyr Meza (Army/WCAP). Again, a guy who definitely has more experience than me, but I had beaten him before that and I beat him after that pretty handedly. The environment makes a pretty big impact. This is one event where no matter how experienced you are, it’s still something you’re going to get nervous for. I was nervous before and then I was nervous again. Those butterflies are good. They keep you grounded, they keep you level. I mean, the Navy and the Air Force guys don’t even get to train as much as we do, but they’re still going out there swinging and that is what makes this event so great, everyone is out there to win it.
“I went out there on Saturday, and one of the things we’ve talked about before, is that a lot of times I become overzealous in matches where I’ll feel like, This match should be over quick. Or whatever it is, and I end up forcing things. So what I’ve been trying to work on, especially in the US where things are definitely unconventional a lot of times with certain wrestlers here, is staying within my own means, staying relaxed, and taking advantage of the opportunities that I find while I’m relaxed, staying in good position, pummeling to my ties, forcing the issue, and then putting my opponent into a position where they are going to make a mistake. I think I did a really good job of that this weekend. I think that I stayed very within myself and in good position, regardless of what my opponent was doing.
“I think focusing on myself, on what I could control and what I was doing, really helped lead me to where I wound up, which is with a fricking gold medal in Greco-Roman at the Armed Forces. And it also led to my not giving up a single point all weekend, and that is just indicative of being patient, focusing on position, and maintaining good defense while being offensive. Overall, I’m very happy with the performance. I think it’s a great step moving forward as far as how I’m going to need to compete, especially in the United States. I know I’ve had a lot of success overseas, but I think competing like this is going to help me both in the US and elsewhere. Just being relaxed, staying in good position, and then taking advantage of those positions when they open up.
“As far as leading into Bulgaria, obviously Sergeant (John) Stefanowicz and I are extremely excited to go over there. We’re really looking forward to scrapping with some guys for a couple of weeks over there and then culminate the trip with getting in a competition. A couple of the Army’s smaller guys are coming over there with us, as well. So it’s interesting, because when you’re on the mat and it’s a dual meet, I don’t want to call it hostile, but everyone is really in the spirit of their team. But afterwards, everyone comes together, especially at the Armed Forces. We’re all brothers and sisters in arms and it is a really unique event like that. I’m really looking forward to continuing to build that relationship with our brothers in the Army, and also with the overseas athletes. I know there are going to be some really heavy hitters there and I always like to get overseas and mix it up with as many people as possible.
“Pete (Gounaridis) was a new opponent for me this weekend and he brought a different dynamic and skill-set than what I might have wrestled before. I’m sure I learned some stuff from that match, I need a little more time to reflect on it and to go back and review it in order to glean its major points. But again, it is a good measure of what we’ve been working on, where we’re at, and I feel like we are headed in the right direction. This was really an indicator of that moving forward into what is arguable one of the tougher camps that I’ve been to so far in my career.
“I think taking that knowledge forward is going to be really helpful heading into the camp. Generally, you’re going to have higher-level athletes at an overseas camp and that is why we go there. We go there to learn, we go there to wrestle with the best guys in the world to raise our level, and then we bring it back here to continue to raise the level of the athletes in the US. I’m really looking forward to that and I feel like I’m in a good spot right now. How I’m competing, how I’m controlling the things I can while I’m competing, staying within my means — but not being cautious. There is a certain amount of risk you have to take in wrestling. You need to know when to take that risk and when not to take that risk. I think that is one of the biggest things for me that has come with experience. I’m still definitely trying to figure out the line here. Because we’ve been focusing on it so much, maybe in Croatia I was a little too conservative. So we’re trying to figure out what the happy medium is. But it is definitely a good gauge for how far we’ve come, how we’re competing, and I think what is going to be a successful platform moving forward.”