2018 U23 World Team member Travis Rice (63 kg) never took the chance to explore wrestling “free agency”, but then again, he didn’t have to. The news that many knew about and expected was confirmed on Sunday — Rice will be joining head coach Bryan Medlin at the Illinois Regional Training Center as its first full-time resident Greco-Roman athlete.
The move was a natural fit given the pair’s ties to each other. Rice is an Illinois native who was coached by Medlin prior to beginning his career at Northern Michigan University. The 23-year-old had leaned on Medlin throughout his time in Marquette and involved him in his competitive endeavors whenever possible, including this past June at the U23 World Team Trials. In addition, Rice has also assisted on Medlin’s expansive summer staff at the Fargo Nationals. The synergy between the two is going to continue, mostly because Rice trusts Medlin to aid in helping him achieve further success on the mat going forward.
“What makes Medlin a really good coach is that he breaks things down into smaller details, and that is a quality I want to have in my coach,” Rice said on Sunday afternoon. “He is able to point out really small details that make a big difference in matches. It’s also his mindset. He seems like he always has the right things to say in every situation. He has a strong mindset, but he is also really positive and a lot of fun to be around, and I think that’s important.”
Medlin, one of the most respected developmental voices in the country, took over as the Illinois RTC’s inaugural head coach in 2017 and made a splash by immediately welcoming in several well-known collegiate freestylers, headlined by two-time NCAA Division I National champ Isaiah Martinez. Most observers in the sport anticipated Greco-Roman practitioners to eventually enter the fold at the IRTC given Medlin’s long-standing relationship with that style. Though the coach looks to be in position to potentially add a collection of hot Greco prospects from his home state in the near future, it starts with Rice, someone the coach has had an affection for stretching well over half a decade.
“Travis is the perfect addition because not only will he approach the sport with professionalism, but he will also help to build the culture that we want the IRTC to be known for,” Medlin said in a statement. “Travis is the perfect example of what is possible if you dedicate yourself to the sport of wrestling. A zero-time state qualifier in high school turned World Team member doesn’t happen everyday, and it definitely doesn’t happen by accident. The countless hours of effort and hard work have started to pay off for him and we hope the IRTC will help him achieve his very lofty goal of World gold.”
While on paper this all seemed like a slam dunk, it actually wasn’t. Rice has grown close to NMU head coach Rob Hermann and two-time World medalist Andy Bisek’s presence at the Olympic Training Site also weighed heavily on the athlete’s mind. Although Rice knew well in advance that Medlin would be taking over the IRTC, he wasn’t automatically set on a reunion. Plus, there were other options at his disposal, training opportunities at several high-profile facilities that would offer a change of pace. Rice struggled at times with figuring out which situation would be the best fit and it was Bisek who suggested that compartmentalizing each choice might prove a worthy exercise to alleviate the stress.
“Bisek told me to put pen to paper and write down pros and cons, to kind of weigh my options for what I was getting out each place,” Rice explained. “It took me a few times to do it. I’d start and then stop because it was too hard. I lived in Michigan for five years, so every time I was writing down stuff about leaving I really didn’t want to. It’s kind of like growing up; you don’t want to do it, but it kind of just happens.”
The decision had begun to crystallize by the time Rice was finished erasing two six-point deficits against Xavier Johnson (Marines) en-route to his triumph at the U23 Trials in early June. Shortly before his dramatic tournament victory, Rice got a hold of Hermann to let him know which direction he was headed in. What he got back was a positive affirmation.
“He was always really supportive,” Rice said. “He told me that he didn’t want to see me go but that it was my decision and I’m welcome to come back and wrestle with the guys, that the room is always open. And then after I won U23’s, I texted Rob and thanked him for giving me a shot up at Northern and how it wasn’t going to be the same not having him in my corner. He texted me back that he would always be in my corner and if I should need anything, he’s only a phone call away.”
At the current moment, Rice is busy preparing for the U23 World Championships slated to begin on November 11th in Bucharest, Romania. He hasn’t yet moved into his room on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign, but that will happen soon enough. And as the summer gives way to the fall, and the training phase for the Worlds ramps up, Rice will actually be back at NMU for a training camp. All of this is setting the stage for the dawn of a brand new chapter in Rice’s Greco-Roman career and he’s excited about turning the page.
“Medlin is a great coach, plus I can now come home on the weekends if I want to see my family and help out with whatever they need me to. Being up at Northern, I was ten hours away. Family is really important to me, so now I have it where they can come visit me for a weekend, or just come down for lunch and then I can drive back.”
They’ll be happy to have him, just like Medlin is. The IRTC is getting a good one.