It had been building throughout the quad. Perhaps longer, if you’re willing to retrace the steps. The All-Marine Wrestling Team, led by head coach Jason Loukides, has their first Olympic Team member in over three decades, as well as an intact roster comprised of top-tier servicemember athletes who plan on aiding the program in gaining even more steam heading into 2024.
This is life at Camp Lejeune under Loukides — the highly-respected coach who shudders and shrugs when complimented, instead opting to joyously deflect attention back towards his wrestlers at every available opportunity.
And he shall have it his way for most of this latest First to Fight following an Olympic Trials that is still freshly tumbling around the consciousness of our sport. As was the case with NMU head Andy Bisek, the tone is set by using peripherals. Loukides is asked about the venue (an important side-note topic for various reasons) before sharing his thoughts on the traveling/COVID testing situation that accompanied the Marines’ arrival into Fort Worth.
Then one by one the lineup is explored with, of course, a special spotlight placed on Trials runner-up Peyton Walsh (77 kg), who fell in heartbreaking fashion, and their man of the hour, John Stefanowicz. Stefanowicz’s run to the 87-kg crown began with a trio of victories over immensely-talented competitors before he faced off with fellow returning ’19 World Teamer Joe Rau (TMWC/IRTC) on the second night. Loukides especially emphasizes Stefanowicz’s mental fortitude when describing the particulars, a character trait of his pupil with which most are by now indeed accustomed.
5PM: I’m asking every coach about the venue. What did you think of how Dickies Arena presented the Trials?
Coach Jason Loukides: Considering that we were dealing with COVID, I thought they did a great job as far as putting up the posters, the athletes were kind of separated, all of the checks they did made you feel pretty comfortable… I mean, this whole year has been tough on everyone. People are doing the best they can to deal with what we have to deal with.
5PM: How would you compare this process with going to Rome or France, both of which you traveled to during the winter?
JL: Well, I thought it was easier — but mostly in the sense that we got to practice it by going to Italy and dealing with all that. Because, it kind of changed. They told you, You can test at this time, and then later it was, No, you can test at this time. Everyone was also changing on-base where they were doing testing.
I thought the tournament in Fort Worth was more organized. You did your COVID screening in the morning and then you got in, got your temperature checked, and you were comfortable once you were there. I thought everything was pretty straightforward. There weren’t any surprises, and I think that is partly because we had done some dry runs with all of the things they could throw at you with those two international tournaments.
5PM: This was your second Olympic Trials as the Marine coach. Aside from the fact that you had many more serious candidates this year than you did in Iowa City ’16, what would you say was the biggest difference in terms of your own coaching mentality?
JL: Comparing ’16 to this one, the biggest thing is that I try to coach by the numbers (laughs). I try to get enough people. If I want someone on the Team, then you need four in the semis. If you want four in the semis, then you need eight or nine in the tournament. That’s the only way you can overcome bad calls, someone being sick, or an injury here or there. If you have all of your eggs in one basket — and you think you know which guy on your team has the best chance — then you’re inevitably wrong, or something happens.
5PM: Let’s start with Ray Bunker, which I guess this was the last we’ll see of him in a singlet. I know he had dealt with an injury, and it was also his first time cutting to 67 scratch in a while. Combining his recovery and the weight, were you still confident that he was viable and “all there” enough to put together a run?
JL: Yeah, if you look at the tournament, he wrestled (Michael) Hooker first, and Hooker is not easy to wrestle. He put in a good match there and showed that he was capable of wrestling a better tournament. There is always more stress, more nerves, and more everything at a tournament like this. And then everyone is coming in off of a “COVID year” of training, which puts doubt in everyone’s heads with regards to their preparation. Everyone had to overcome not doing things the way they’ve always done them. Some build confidence off of doing that, and others may have lost confidence.
We try not to focus on that too much. Everyone is dealing with the same hand. It wasn’t an idea situation for anyone, and we have to be able to cope with that better. I know that Bunker was disappointed and believed that he could make the Team, and I feel the same way. I feel that even with any of his problems, if he could have coped with them on the mat a little better then we would have had a good chance to get through there. I think the guys who did win all had similar problems. I don’t think you could find a guy who is competing for something that hard who is without some sort of issues. It evens itself out.
You have to do what you need to have confidence, and I think it’s more difficult when you don’t have your normal preparation. If someone is used to training three times a day and now it’s down to once per day because of something, it is a bigger problem with your mind and your confidence than it is with your physical ability after you’ve wrestled for six or seven years straight.
5PM: Jamel Johnson did not have the tournament he was expecting. And I don’t mean that lightly, he was really locked in and gearing up for this on a different level.
JL: I agree. I thought he was well-prepared and ready to go. Obviously, Benji Peak is an excellent wrestler who presents some uniqueness with his height and other things that you have to be able to cope with. We felt that Jamel didn’t, obviously, wrestle his best match against him. Other than that, he did okay during the tournament coming back. He didn’t wrestle against Xavier (Johnson) because he wouldn’t have had a chance for the National Team spot if he had won out, and Xavier did have the chance.
5PM: Speaking of Xavier, no one on your team had like, ten matches going into the tournament; but Xavier had zero. Considering that and everything else, including how crazy 67 was at the tournament, he looked fantastic. Did you have a good feeling about him before this?
Coach Jason Loukides: I definitely had a good feeling about that weight class. We had three pretty good guys at that weight — and like I said, I coach by the numbers (laughs). Having three pretty good guys at that weight tells me that we should do really well at that weight, and we didn’t get it done for a variety of reasons. Obviously, Xavier demonstrated that no matter what kind of preparation he has, that first :30 to a minute he is very dangerous. If you get through that, maybe you could do something. But he could end it.
He was wrestling wide-open and mentally focusing. I was proud of all my guys. Of course, I know more about what they’ve gone through. But I was proud of their effort. I would have liked to have gotten more people on the Team, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy.
5PM: Colton Rasche does not draw a lot of attention, a problem for which I share responsibility. And I know it wasn’t a great tournament for him, but I was wondering why he was at 67. He is a very good wrestler. Could he have done 60? And this is all realizing that 63 is probably perfect for him.
JL: He could have went 60. We kind of debated. He’s one of those guys who is starting to do a lot of things correctly when he is wrestling, but does one little thing wrong and gives up points. It is like, I am pleased with some of the things he is doing with his par terre defense, but sometimes at the end of it he still gets turned, and then a lot of people don’t notice that he is doing some nice stuff there.
Yeah, if he had the option of going 63, he probably would have (laughs). He felt strong and good at that weight (67), but it’s one of those things where you make a decision and have to live with it.
5PM: One out of every two smart people picked either Daniel Miller or Lucas Sheridan to make the best-of-three opposite G’Angelo Hancock. Miller then gets into a surprising few exchanges with Nick Boykin, and Boykin grabs that win. What did you see there, if anything? Or was it just a matter of Boykin improving and getting hot in that tournament?
JL: I think Boykin is definitely getting better at wrestling, and he has always been a talented wrestler. Obviously, I don’t think Miller wrestled his best match, or made the best decisions in his match. He didn’t have anything wrong with him. He felt pretty good, or as good as anyone does in those situations. He just made some mistakes.
He has to get a little bit better at scoring points when he needs to score points. Miller is very tough to wrestle when the match is going exactly the way he wants it to. But if that changes, or he gives up points or something like that, it is a challenge to try and get some points back. He has done well in the past with that, but right now he is kind of in a rut with that. It’s something he will go back and work on so that he will be able to overcome anything he doesn’t think is right in his match. And, take the points when he needs them.
When he’s up (on points), he’s solid. He is really strong, really tough to score on. I was disappointed in that match. Boykin wrestled really well, but it wasn’t our best match, for sure.
5PM: The times when Miller had struggled domestically prior, it always seemed like it was because the other guy wasn’t open enough, and then he’d go overseas and do well, because it was like they were more wrestling his style internationally. But it almost felt like the opposite issue here.
JL: I agree with all that. He has the ability. I think it’s just that sometimes for guys, things naturally become tighter once they become more important. I think he just needs to stay in his own style and dictate his own style, but not get frustrated when whatever happens, happens. He just needs to stay in his own plan and he’ll be fine.
That wasn’t a good match, but we’re not focusing on it too much. For those guys, even though it’s the beginning of a new quad, it is also going to be a short quad. So they are going back to developing things and working on their wrestling without worrying about being in such a tight groove that they become limited.
5PM: Peyton Walsh coming out of France, he just couldn’t wait to run everything back. Then he had some good mat time in Italy, as well. I know he beat a two-time Olympian in the first round (Ben Provisor), but even his demeanor was aggressive with a purpose and a plan. Was it a matter of Peyton really needing to go overseas to get clicking the right way to gain that kind of approach?
JL: Definitely. I think he was frustrated with his results over there, but the stuff that I saw really made me feel confident. When he lifted the French wrestler (Evrik Nikoghosyan), I knew that he was getting to where he needs to be on top (par terre). That is a solid guy, and to score like that in that situation, even though he came up short? He had gotten front headlocked in that match (against Nikoghosyan), and if you watched him in the Trials, his front headlock defense improved a lot.
Those matches helped him improve and work on the things he needed to. His goal was to get on top and lift Ben, and it was able to work out that way. It was pretty exciting. It was a good match. Ben is a great wrestler, so it feels good any time you can go against someone like him and win.
5PM: He goes on from there, the match with Jake Fisher was a huge one. On one hand, you can’t get caught up in that Fisher had a win over him from December of ’19; on the other, Fisher is Fisher, and he’s great and was the top seed. Did Walsh have a specific way that he wanted to deal with Fisher, or was it a byproduct of having been sharp after going overseas?
Coach Jason Loukides: I think it was definitely some of the stuff from their earlier match. Some of our guys are a little newer and Fisher, obviously, he is such a veteran. When they wrestled the first time, he put Peyton in situations he wasn’t comfortable in. He got thrown and turned a lot, and that match ended up how it did. So we worked on getting comfortable in those positions. Front headlock, reverse-lift defense… When you get comfortable there, it allows you to relax on the feet a little more and not worry as much so you can wrestle your normal style. He was moving along there and wrestling well.
5PM: When it comes to the confusion at the end of Match 2 against Jesse Porter in the final, and I asked Bisek this, people have referred to the score clocks as maybe having caused confusion since they weren’t typical for wrestling. There was no delineation to mark criteria, apparently. Was that something you yourself noticed?
JL: Oh, well, yeah, it was something that I for sure noticed. I wasn’t upset at it, I just didn’t know who was winning (laughs). The points all happened when we threw the block. It was 9-0, we throw the block, and then it comes back 7-0. Well, in my mind, I didn’t know — and I should have — that they confirmed a five-point throw on that lift. So it’s 7-7 and I’m thinking we’re winning. It’s my mistake and I feel terrible. I don’t know. I thought we were winning.
It’s my fault. Even when he got on top, I told him, We’re winning. That’s why he finished it up that way, and it falls on me. It was a unique situation because I didn’t see what points they held up. When they brought the block back to me, all I could see was the referee. I thought I knew what the score was, and I didn’t know. I thought it was just four’s and that the score was tied and that we had criteria. But we didn’t.
5PM: So with Stefanowicz, his road to the final was pretty sick. Stanghill, Vera, and Martinez, all in a row. The match with Vera, that body attack was clutch. It was basically a bearhug and Stefanowicz just seemed to decide, Okay, well, something’s going to have to happen here. Was that part of the battle plan, get late into the second period with Vera and then try to force a point somehow?
JL: Yeah, and part of it was being able to defend from par terre. Obviously, Vera is very good from the top position. But I was pretty confident, because if you watched John defend overseas, he defended that one Russian who is really good on top, too.
We had par terre and John only gave up two, and I was happy that was all he had given up (laughs). Then he’s wrestling, and we all might know what are Vera’s weak points, but the opposite of those are John’s strong points. So it wasn’t really geared all towards Vera, because that is just how John generally wrestles. The nice thing with John was that he thought he might start his burst with around :30 left and then he realized that might not be enough time. So he started it earlier, and obviously that was a good decision. Then he’s running around the mat with that underhook and it was pretty exciting.
5PM: Pat Martinez is a three-time World Team member who knows how to make other guys’ positions become his own. There was no other way for their match to unfold, really. It had to be tight, had to be a positional thing about defense unless both were going to get par terre crazy. During the break between periods, what are you telling Stefanowicz?
JL: I knew it was going to be a close score. Martinez’s strengths are also John’s strengths. In those types of situations… I mean, you could throw (Jon) Anderson in there and you’ve got three guys who are really going to fight. They all have similar attributes as far as their lung capacities and other stuff.
I was just confident knowing that John wanted it that bad. He’s a smart competitor and he’s not going to make any silly mistakes. I knew it was going to be close, but I was confident and John was, too. We didn’t have a whole lot to say about that other than to do what he knows he can do.
5PM: Sidestepping the chaos with Joe Rau, just getting into a Match 2 up one bout is enormous. But all of the finals for all three styles were in one night, so there might have been a little extra time in between. What was the mood like, and what were you talking about with Stefanowicz knowing that he could clinch with Match 2?
JL: We didn’t talk about clinching, that could get you thinking about the wrong things (laughs). It was more, Work on your front headlock, and other things he could do. Like, Look for your arm spin, your arm drags… Because, we just wanted to score some points. He is in that arm spin and setting it up and acting like he’s uncomfortable, and then he is hitting that arm spin and you could tell he was squeezing it hard. I’m surprised his (Rau’s) arm wasn’t purple.
They were very evenly-matched when it comes to the fight part. But that’s the same thing, John is not going to lose to himself. He’s not going to beat himself. We were really confident in fighting it out again because he wasn’t going to just back up out of bounds or go down to his knees, or anything like that.
He’s the guy you want to fight it out to win. I don’t think we were thinking ahead about making the Team. We were just focused on doing what we could do to fight out that match. John is an incredibly tough person. I’m amazed how tough he is just on a daily basis, so it’s not surprising that he could handle all that and the pressure in those situations. It is not surprising because he is very special in his mental makeup.
5PM: This has been a big deal, first Marine in several decades to make the Olympic Team. Stefanowicz is an unusually motivated athlete and brutally tough. But you play a role in this, just in case you need a reminder. I know that you look back on the other guys who were prime candidates to make the Team, too. But you did get one. This is your first Marine Olympic Team member. What was this like for you personally?
JL: I guess it’s a matter of making it through the Olympics, but winning the Trials was special. For me, it’s just so nice to watch someone accomplish this and then to see what it means to their families, how their kids react to it, and how our team reacts it to it. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and celebrate with the guys who were there and support them. It is really all of their accomplishment. Because, they know the struggle, they know the issues that we deal with as a program, and that makes it their accomplishment, too.
We’ve kind of expanded it as much as we can. Dan Hicks was the old Marine coach and he was the one who found John when he was in Okinawa and got him over here the first time around before he left the team. So, you want to give him credit for finding that talent, too. If you’ve got the right talent, it makes your job easier as a coach, that’s for sure. We wanted to expand on this so that everyone involved would be able to enjoy it.
5PM: Moving past the Trials, how many of your, let’s say “everyday guys”, are going to the Senior Nationals?
JL: Right now, I would say it’s somewhere around eight guys we are thinking about taking. It’s pretty much the same people. We don’t have that many people on the team right now.
5PM: One of the things that’s constantly brought up on here from the Marines is how they “train through everything”. ‘Oh, hey, we train through everything, we train through everything’. Is that kind of approach in play with the run of tournaments coming up for the roster? And how will training mesh with Stefanowicz’s responsibilities through the summer?
JL: John was actually teasing me about that. When he sat down to do the interview (after the Trials), that was the first time he didn’t have to say, We’re training through this, or, We trained through it. We didn’t train through the Trials (laughs). We definitely peaked for the Trials (laughs).
You always try to do different things for the team with some sort of peak, whether it’s nine days or something else. Sometimes if it is an overseas tournament on short time with a different goal, we train through it. But we’re not training through everything.
5PM: Is there a different plan than would be the case for a typical World Championships year?
Coach Jason Loukides: The plan has kind of been put together, and a lot of it is sent down to us from the National Team coaches and we fill in the other parts for when John will be at home training. A camp? A camp could be easy or hard, it all depends on who you’re training with because someone can make it a lot harder.
If he is feeling tired, we’ll adjust what we’re doing at home so that he can be where he needs to be. We’re structured in what the plan is. We’re going to go to Croatia, and then obviously Guatemala for the Pan-Ams. In between there, we have peaks that we’ll adjust and train harder or softer depending on what he gets out of the camps. The National Team has also offered to send some guys here to train with John along with the guys we have here. And the other guys will be here preparing for the tournaments that they have in front of them.