All-Marine Wrestling head coach Jason Loukides — arguably the best Senior coach in the United States, not just in Greco-Roman but also including every available style — has done everything he can to keep his athletes engaged in what has become wrestling’s “new normal”.
Between workouts centering around physical distancing measures, virtual team meetings, and regular attempts to keep wrestlers engaged in their own individual objectives, the process has been a new one over the past six months for Loukides and he has taken it in stride, even as the country prepares for a Senior National tournament that will unfold without his unit’s participation.
You would have to dial it back all the way to the winter to find the last time a First to Fight was released. Simpler times. The Marines were coming off of an overseas expedition and preparing for the annual Armed Forces Championships. No one knew it then, but what happened next will likely stick with Loukides through the remainder of his career.
First, COVID, lockdowns, everything postponed; second, the Marines were named Armed Forces Greco champs for the first time in two decades after an Army/WCAP athlete’s result was disqualified due to a doping violation. It was a memorably tight and contentious dual, anyway, with each squad taking five matches apiece. So, that end of it isn’t so strange, the Marines getting the nod, just the fact that the outcome had been reversed some four months later amidst odd and difficult circumstances.
Currently, Loukides is in the same boat he has been in for months. The Marines have picked up the pace lately, though they are still not permitted to practice at full-tilt or travel. So, the Nationals is out. He is still fortunate that he doesn’t have to worry so much about his athletes’ motivation; rather, he simply hopes to be able to offer them a competition on which to focus coming up soon due mainly to the consistent effort he has witnessed in spite of all the craziness.
5PM: You’ve been coaching for a long time now. Aside from UNC-G (University of North Carolina-Greensboro) and that whole situation, has this been the most challenging and bizarre situation you have experienced throughout your coaching career?
Coach Jason Loukides: Yeah, it just has the most uncertainty right now to plan around and under which to keep people motivated. Uncertainty is hard but people adjust. They adjust when they don’t have a goal, but you have to get them back on track for when it opens up — but you don’t know when it’s going to open up or how that is going to happen. It is definitely very challenging.
5PM: You come back from Ottawa and learn in short order that everything is postponed. How long into all of this did it take for you to develop some way to keep your guys active, be it at-home training or calls, and so forth?
JL: I mean, it didn’t take long. You obviously start with the Zoom stuff and different schedules. You have different stuff to take care of and try to keep everyone as up beat as possible, so you reach out and try to get a hold of everyone. At first, for some of the guys a little rest probably wasn’t bad for them. But then right away, you want to get back into your base-building and different stuff like that. Which was challenging, because you didn’t know what event you were setting your training for. We just adjusted and took it as it comes while staying as up beat as possible.
5PM: How does it work precisely right now? I know you’re allowed to be in-person and conduct workouts. What do these workouts look like now? And what are the biggest differences between how they are orchestrated now and how they were, say, in mid-July?
JL: We were on-track to go to the Nationals and we were training. I wouldn’t say that we were where we’d want to be if we were preparing specifically for the Nationals, but we were definitely thinking of sending some guys. We were a day away from receiving approval to travel to go, and then we had an incident and they shut us down for 14 days. That was when the decision was made not to go to the Nationals.
Based on where our training was, we probably wouldn’t have sent a whole lot of guys, just because we had mainly done base-building and not really had the chance to become competitively ready.
5PM: How has general morale been in spite of all this? Has it been uniform? Or have there been some athletes you have had to pep up every now and then?
Coach Jason Loukides: I think the uncertainty hurts us some. Obviously in the beginning stages when everything was first shut down, we weren’t having much contact with each other. That was much harder. When we finally came back and moved into Phase I where we’re training with dummies, not sharing them in small groups, getting on the track and working out, just being within six feet of each other lifted everyone’s spirits because it was moving forward. We weren’t on the mat wrestling, but that was still significant in improving people’s moods.
Then you’re moving along and trying to get ready for what you think will be the Nationals — you’re not 100% sure — and I think that affected some people because they were focusing on being ready for that or focusing on, Oh, I’m not going to have this tournament so I will have a longer base-building phase. It is a little bit different for each guy and where they are in their careers. Obviously, some of our younger guys wanted to go to the Nationals and test themselves, so it was more significant for them not being able to go to this tournament.
5PM: It’s a hypothetical, but if there is a World Team Trials tournament in November, if there is a chance guys from your team can go, will they? Also, if that winds up being plausible, is there a date in your mind when you’d have to be fully back on the mat for that to happen?
JL: It would be on individual cases. We want to support the Trials. We want to help the US get their best guys to go, and hopefully our guys will be in there fighting for those positions. Obviously, the World Championships is meaningful to individuals. If we’re able to compete, even if we’re not at our best because we haven’t had enough time to fully prepare, we’re still going to compete if given the opportunity — unless someone has an injury since we’ll look at it on a case-by-case basis like any other tournament.
5PM: The Marines were named 2020 Greco-Roman Armed Forces Champions following the incident with the Army athlete. While I would imagine that in one way you might have preferred to win that event in a different manner, at the same time, that dual was incredible and the match wins were tied. How did you digest this news, what was your initial feeling on it, and how is this development a building block for your program going forward?
Coach Jason Loukides: The main thing is that you always want to compete your best, and the Armed Forces is intense. All of the Armed Services have a lot of pride, have some great athletes, and to have a chance to win the Greco portion is very significant and very meaningful. Obviously, you wish it was done under different circumstances because that’s not good for anybody. But overall, we were really proud. We wish that we could go back and win it at the site so that our guys who have put in a lot of work to have that opportunity could really enjoy it in the moment. That’s one thing we have liked to have been able to do.
Other than that, the Army has a great program. For us to compete against them, I was very proud of our guys. They take that challenge seriously. They know they have a lot of good athletes over there and that they are well-coached. They want to have the chance to win the Greco or overall event. For them it is a really big moment; and for me, it is a really big moment.