Line graphs and distance. Physically interpreting a Greco Roman wrestler’s progress sometimes includes a slew of variables, each one different depending on the athlete and his origin. The one trait every athlete shares, especially if he is from the United States, is discomfort. The oft pronounced adjustment period that beckons in the beginning only to hopefully give way to new heights being reached after enough time has passed. Or enough blood has been spilled.
It would seem the best approach to take is to simply enjoy the ride, which is how Austin Morrow goes about his business. The smiles come easily for Morrow, as if you’re getting the chance to peer in on someone who is in the process of living out a dream. That isn’t to say there haven’t been rough patches — Morrow has had to survive the onslaught of doubt and disappointment most US Greco guys are familiar with. It’s just that any time the 23-year old has hit a wall, there he is, happily grunting through the pain as he tries to knock it down.
So if you are expecting an avalanche of pretentious, self-aggrandizing soundbites, look away. Morrow is not interested in building himself up verbally, he is currently more worried about more important things, like continuing his progress as one of the most interesting and underrated wrestlers in the country. The recent evidence is especially illuminating. A University National title at 66 kilograms along with two impressive silver medal performances, including one overseas in Sweden, show he is figuring something out. You can see it. The distance on the graph is getting shorter.
5PM Interview with Austin Morrow
5PM: Let’s start this off with a different kind of question. If I gave you custody of an athlete with a standardized, decent folkstyle base and I said, “Here, you have three years to turn this kid into a National-caliber Greco Roman competitor”, what would be your plan for him?
Austin Morrow: What would be my plan? Getting them involved and fully-immersed in Greco as soon as possible, obviously. Get him as many matches as you can, because I feel you learn the best with matches. You can practice all you want, but you’re not going to get the best of the best until you are competing against other countries, so the competition time is the number one thing I would say.
5PM: Keep going, I’m giving you three years.
AM: Three years, holy cow, that’s a lot! Shoot, okay, full-time Greco, twice a day. Foreign training camps. Every tournament they can possibly enter. Go for a massage every once in a while because you get fricking sore (laughs).
5PM: Now we’ll relate this to you, because you’re still quite young. You’ve garnered a substantial chunk of experience at this point. Is there anything you haven’t done thus far you wish you did, in terms of your own development? And is there anything you have done you wish you didn’t?
AM: Well, I’d say my first year up here (at Northern Michigan), the first thing Rob (Hermann) and Aghasi (Manukyan) emphasized to me was to get overseas. I was so stressed about that, but I got overseas twice that first year. I’m a big believer that you have to take your lumps before you find success and I think one thing I did really well out there is I was unafraid to get my ass kicked. I’d got out there thinking, Okay, I’m going to fight with all I have, and the results, win or lose, I was going to try and compete as hard as I could. And I think I did a really good job of just going out there and putting it on the line, sometimes getting my ass kicked and being embarrassed and humiliated at a competition where people are watching. But it’s like, Okay, that’s not the big picture. I want to move forward from that. So I think I did a good job with that.
Something I wish I did a little more of? I need to get a little bit stronger and that is something I have started to do more of. I’ve been doing more weight-training and strengthening. So that is probably one of the things I could do more of. As for things I’ve done well, I think getting myself to the matches and doing the things I need to do to get to the next level.
5PM: Define “the next level.” What does that mean to you?
AM: The next level to me is being able to medal at the World and Olympic stage. That’s where I want to be. I want to win a World Championship and an Olympic gold medal, and the only way to do that is to wrestle guys who have competed or medaled on that stage. Do what they do, or do what no one else has. Andy (Bisek) preaches every day to put in extra time after work. Rob has been preaching that for years, too. You can’t get better doing what everyone else is doing. You have to do what everyone else is doing and more, so in order to get to that level you have to excel in every aspect of the sport, of your life, actually. Not just the sport. You have to recover. You have to eat right and you have to train right. You have got to be disciplined and you can’t get in trouble. Tunnel vision. And I think that is what the next level is for me.
5PM: Do you think there are misconceptions about the Northern Michigan athletes and if so, what are they? Do people think or say stuff about the program that isn’t true?
Austin Morrow: Yeah, I mean, Rob says this is a developmental program, but I think not enough credit is given to Northern. Rob has been saying it for three years up here, that we have the 2020 team in our room. He’s been saying that to us for the last few years and I think he’s absolutely right. Someone else may look at it and be like, Oh, Northern is a developmental program. Get them to school, get them graduated, send them to Colorado Springs where they can finally come into their own. I think Colorado Springs is great and I love the training there, but I really like what we have here, too. We have 40 guys in the room every day, twice a day. We have great coaches helping us and there are tons of different tours you can go on. There are a lot of great things up here that can shape you into being the best athlete you can be. Northern is more than just a developmental program. It can also be a training site where you can prepare to be the best, as well.
5PM: This is in no way to slight Manukyan, but what have you noticed about Bisek since he’s been up there?
AM: Well, I think the main difference between Bisek and Aghasi, and I loved Aghasi, he’s helped me with things in wrestling that no one else probably could have, but one thing that is different with Andy is that he has more of a clear-cut plan. He comes in, he has his notebook and he is writing in his notebook every practice, This is what I want the guys to do, this is what I want them to learn from. And with Agahsi, everything was in his head. He would come in and say, “Okay guys, we’re doing three ten minute go’s, we’re going to fight and figure it out and you’re going to find your own style.” And I think Andy is younger, he’s fresher, and he’s ready to go at it. He is always wanting to learn, adapt, and change. I guess that is the best answer I have for that.
5PM: How were you introduced to Greco Roman in the first place?
AM: I was living in England because my dad was in the military and I was wrestling freestyle at the time at a club in London called Legion. Our coach there was from Chechnya and he said to me, “You like to wrestle Greco Roman?” I was like, “I don’t know.” I was probably a sophomore or junior in high school. I said, “I don’t know if I like it or not.” So he goes, “Why don’t you try wrestling a man’s sport? This a man’s sport.” Okay, sure. He told me to come to practices. So I came to the practices and tried it out. I got my ass whupped, but it was so much fun, it was just a brawl. And that is what I liked about it. I was like, Okay, I think I’ll stick with this.
I wrestled one year in the NCAA at a Division II school in New Mexico (New Mexico Highlands University) right after high school and I spent part of the summer in Colorado Springs wrestling with Coach (Steve) Fraser. And Fraser, big guy, big coach, big dude, whupped my butt up and down the mat, he held me in a front headlock. He snapped me down, pushed me, pulled me, snapped me. He made me fight for every inch in every position. And after the two-hour practice, he beat the crap out of me for another 30 minutes. When that was over, I was like, Man, this is freaking awesome, but I’m getting my butt kicked. Then he tells me about Northern, because I had never heard about it prior, and he asked me, “Have you heard about Northern Michigan University?” No. “Do you want to wrestle Greco?” Well, hell yeah, it’s a blast. There is no better style of wrestling, there is no better sport in my opinion. Yeah, I want to wrestle Greco. So Rob ends up giving me a call that day and asked me if I liked snow (laughs). Yeah, I think I like snow.
That was pretty much it. I packed my bags, transferred schools, and took a risk and came out here to see where that would go. And I think it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made as an athlete thus far in terms of getting myself towards where I want to be, which is becoming an Olympic champion.
5PM: Did your background having lived in other places, overseas and elsewhere, alleviate some of the culture shock other athletes might experience when they make the move out to Northern?
AM: Yeah, I think so, I was pretty used to traveling just in terms of my dad being in the military. I didn’t move around too much, but I’ve lived in Washington, New Mexico, and we spent six or seven years in England. For tournaments there, I went to the DoD schools, I went to Lakenheath High School. We’d travel to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and we’d compete against other military schools in that area. I was used to traveling and just being out of my comfort zone, so it was easy to adjust to moving around and meeting new people and doing new things. It was pretty easy to adjust to.
5PM: Plus, even though it wasn’t in Greco, you got a taste of what wrestling against international opponents is like. It might not be in the same style you’re wrestling now, but at least the idea of wrestling foreign guys isn’t something that is totally new to you.
AM: Oh, absolutely. Most of the people in my club weren’t even British citizens. A lot of them were from Iran or parts of Russia and weren’t happy living in their countries and were in England and wanted to escape whatever it was their families were dealing with. Then they’d whip up on all of the English people (laughs). They were 100 times better than most of the Brits at wrestling.
5PM: Joe Rau urged me to ask you about a story involving a young Austin Morrow being bullied by British kids.
AM: (Laughs) Okay, we could talk about that. It’s a pretty dumb story. So in middle school, I was probably 12 or 13 years old and lived in a little town called Soham and it was 45 minute bus ride to school. There were like eight kids on this bus and we were all pretty good friends because we all lived way out in nowhere (laughs). We were going to this little tiny school on the Feltwell Military Base. So I get off the bus and run back, I don’t think the first kid knows it’s an American bus, it’s all these American kids. We’re 13, we’re the thugs, we’re the cool kids. At this time, my buddies and I skateboarded, we thought we were like, the hooligans of the town. It was like, We shred, we own the town (laughs). I don’t know what was going on in my head.
We get off the bus and I see these two kids who were bike riders and they are all standing across the street and we make eye contact. These other little kids were watching and I just took off sprinting because I thought, This is not gonna be good. They started throwing bricks, like little chunks of brick at us. Why are they throwing bricks at me? What the hell is going on! I hauled my fat ass out of there. I had a little baby fat at the time. I had long hair. I thought I was a thug, but I wasn’t. I get home and I never saw those kids again either. But I remember it vividly in my head. It’s like, Why were those kids throwing bricks at me? Is it because they were picking on kids from the short bus? What’s the deal? (Laughs) It was a very weird time for little beer-bellied, long-haired Austin.
5PM: Bricks, I wouldn’t have guessed bricks.
AM: Yeah, bricks, chunks of bricks. Bricks that were like shattered on the floor. It was flying debris being thrown at me.
5PM: You have made a lot of headway in just a few years. Out of all of the matches you’ve had, what is the first one that served as sort of a breakthrough for you? It doesn’t have to be a match you won, but a match you had where you walked off saying, “Okay, now I’m getting it.”
Austin Morrow: I can remember a point last year at Nationals. I missed becoming an All-American in Vegas. I won my first match against Julian Gunnels 3-1, it was a pretty close match. After, I felt a little bit sluggish and I was telling myself, I can’t feel like this after a match, I want to keep going. Then I had Bo Beckman for the second match. I was losing 4-0 going into the second period and I remember hearing Rob tell me, “You have nothing to lose, just go. Do what you do in practice, just wrestle.” I start off sprinting, just going crazy. Then in the last 15 seconds of the second period I hit a headlock and pinned him. I think that match right there really set it in my head that, Okay, I am good enough to compete with guys who are placing in the top three in our nation. That I am good enough to place and win.
Then Pat Smith beat the crud out of me the next match. Then I lost to Brian Graham 7-2 or 7-1. After that, in the bloodrounds, losing to those guys, they are great competitors, but it made me want it even more. That I needed to get into the room and figure out what it was I needed to do to beat those guys. I think it was that tournament that kind of turned it around and changed everything for me.
5PM: How do you reconcile success and disappointment? Is that something that occurs to you match to match, or is that about hitting goals in training? What are the measuring sticks you use to gauge your own progress?
AM: The measuring sticks I use to gauge my own progress? Results in tournaments, that says a lot just for me personally. If I go to a tournament and then I’m one and done, then it’s like, Oh crap. Sometimes that happens and it’s just the nature of the sport. But honestly, I would say points being put up on the board is the best way I can describe success or failure for me. If I put points up on the board and I still lose, there are things I need to work on and I can go back in the room to fix them. But at least I’m putting up points. I’m giving myself a chance to win.
If I am not putting up any points on the board, that is a disappointment to me. I don’t want to go out there and win a match 1-0 or lose a match 1-0 because nobody is scoring, but the ref give him a point or gave me a point. I want to be in control 100% of the match. If I can force someone in par terre, I want to tech them, I want to finish the match. If I can take someone down, same thing, I want to finish the match. If I can keep that kind of a mentality in every match I’m in, I look at that as a success. If 110% of the time I go 150%, or I’m always putting points up, that is how I view success.
That’s how I look at it in the room, too. Kendrick Sanders, I wrestle him tons all the time and the first couple of years here, he put the whupping on me bad. He still puts it on me, so I shouldn’t say he stopped (laughs). But I’m at the stage now where I can score points and I look at myself from three years ago. I’d go out there, we’d wrestle a match, and he’d whup me 99-0. I’d say, That’s a good match, he didn’t score 100 points on me. Now we’ll wrestle a match and it’s 3-1, or 5-1. Okay, that is leaps and bounds better. Three years ago I would have been annihilated but ran off the mat in happiness. Now it’s more I’m scoring points and what is that I need to do to get the next point. Stuff like that helps me.
What helps are guys in the room and point-scoring. Guys like Twinkie (Anthonie Linares), (Alex) Sancho, Colin Schubert, Sammy Jones, Kendrick, just scoring points on any of those guys, you’re doing something right. That’s the best gauge right now I have for myself to see if I’m successful.
5PM: You won the University Nationals this past June in what was a well-wrestled tournament overall. The University Nationals is a spotlight tournament for Northern, that it is a tournament you almost HAVE to win, right?
AM: Absolutely. And that’s the way Rob has told it to us too, “We’re going in to win this, I want every weight class coming back with a plaque for us.”
5PM: Does performing well in that tournament, with the little bit of pressure associated with it, does the success from that event feed you for when it’s time to compete against the other Seniors who don’t wrestle at the University level?
AM: Ohhhh yes. I think winning Universities last year gave me a lot of confidence, too. It allowed me to medal at the Farrell and over in Sweden because I believed in myself more. And that is one thing I’ve taken from Aghasi, he was very adamant about this. He said, “Austin, you’re doing everything right. This takes time and you’re not going to evolve over night. You’re doing everything you need to do and you just have to find that belief in yourself.” I’d hear him say that and I thought that I understood him. I’d say, “I understand, I am confident, but why am I not winning all these tournaments? I’m doing what you said I’m supposed to do, I’m putting the work in.” But it is something you can’t understand until you feel it. I felt it in that tournament. I’m wrestling Jamel Johnson, in my head I’m like, There is zero percent chance I’m losing. I’m not going to let myself lose. And then I get to the finals and Jessy Williams the past two years at Universities had beaten me and it was the same thing, I’m not going to let him beat me this time, zero percent chance.
You tell yourself that before matches, I’m going to win this. But until you feel it in your gut that I’m never going to let this person beat me, this is my match… I finally felt that and I understood what Aghasi was saying, to find that confidence and use it. And that is one of the things I’ve taken from him and it has helped me a ton. I feel more confident about my abilities now.
5PM: Probably a stupid question, but was your heart broken in half when it was decided that the US guys would not be sent to the University World Championships?
Austin Morrow: Yes, I was very upset. It was like crap, you know, we bust our butts all year and we can’t go showcase ourselves on a world stage now. There was nothing I could do about it, I couldn’t mope around and complain. The next day actually, I bought a ticket to Sweden. I said, Well, they’re canceling Turkey, I’m going to Sweden now. It sucks, but I’m a believer in that everything happens for a reason. So I mean, it happened, there was nothing I could do about it. But yeah, I was bummed, I would have really liked to have gone to Corum, Turkey. I’ve never been to Turkey yet.
5PM: In Sweden, you had the Klippan Cup and the Malar Cupen. At the Malar Cupen, you went on to wreck like six people in a row in what wound up being a silver medal performance. You talk about confidence and measuring sticks, how does that performance stand out to you? It must have done something for your approach.
AM: Oh definitely. For the Klippan Cup, we got there on a Wednesday, had one day to make weight, and then we weighed in the morning of that tournament. It was a little different format. We had a two kilo allowance, but you’re still weighing in the day of. We got on a plane, went to practice, and then weigh-in’s, pretty much. For that tournament, I won my first match, lost my second, won my third, and lost my fourth. I was sitting there thinking, Crap, I just won Universities earlier in the year, I should have done a whole lot better.
5PM: Right, you expected to win a couple of those matches you lost.
AM: Absolutely. I wrestled one of those kids before at a prior event. That kid I lost to at 66 in the Klippan Cup wound up winning it at 71 in the Malar Cupen. I looked at him and I thought there was no way he should have been beating me. After that, we had a week-long camp ahead of the next tournament, the Malar Cupen, so it was using that week to fix mistakes, get your head on right, and get ready for the next tournament. So I did exactly that. I grabbed as many foreign partners as I could, as many older guys that I could, and just wrestled and worked on one or two things that I wanted to fix.
By the time the Malar Cupen came, it was the last tournament while we were there and I wanted to put everything into it and go for the gold. I won five matches in a row, made the finals, beat a couple of Swedes, a German, a Russian, and then I lost to Norway in the finals. He was running the whole match and then got two passive calls and I lost 4-2.
But finding my confidence for that came during the camp because I knew I could keep going and not get tired. I thought to myself, I know I’m not going to get tired and I can focus on using my techniques, and that transcended over into the tournament.
5PM: You were back in the States and right away it was the Bill Farrell in New York, where you took another silver. You might not have been happy with that silver, but putting together back-to-back performances, especially after not being able to go to Turkey, things must have seemed like things were going in the right direction.
AM: Things started seeming like they were finally starting to click. In wrestling, you could make a little mistake and it can cost you a match. I watch film and I looked at the matches and against Japan in the finals, I see it. I watched me try to hit a high-dive from a front headlock and my hips were back. Of course I am going to get thrown if my hips are back. Even with the silver medals and the stuff coming together, I’m still improving. I’m seeing things I need to fix. But it seems like that, things are starting to click and I’m finding a groove. It felt really good coming out of those last two tournaments.
5PM: When it comes to fixing mistakes, are you big on breaking down video, provided it’s available?
AM: Yes and no. Aghasi explained it to us this way that wrestling is a feel. You can’t explain to someone, “Put your foot here, move your hip here, move your head here, pull here, and then you won’t get thrown.” And that is the same way I feel about mistakes. You use the film to see, Okay, my hips were out or I’m reaching with my arms. And the only way to fix that is to walk into practice with a goal and write in the journal, say, “Don’t get my arms extended. Don’t give up a two-on-one today”, and cautiously keep those reminders in your head while practicing.
That high-dive, for example, I’m thinking and I wrote it down, Work on high dives today, keep hips low, drive into him so I can’t get thrown. And that’s what I did, I worked high-dives. Getting to the body and not standing up with straight legs, keeping my legs bent, and driving. That’s how I think you fix things best — hands-on and getting in there and feeling it. Gaining confidence in practice from an approach like, If I hit ten high-dives today and get thrown zero times, I feel confident. 100% accuracy is pretty sweet.
5PM: The US as a whole didn’t have the strongest performance in history at the Clubs Cup, which was expected going in. The primary goal was fostering an opportunity for younger guys to get some valuable matches in against world-level opposition. How do you sum up your experience there, leaving the injury out of it for a second?
AM: Well first off, I’m extremely appreciative of Coach Lindland for giving me the opportunity to compete at the Clubs Cup and the training camp. It’s such a tremendous thing for my career and my mentality on where I need to go moving forward, and in terms of practicing harder, working on more throws, positions, and so I’m super-thankful for that. But yeah, I got my butt whupped. I had a whole serving and a half of humble pie there. You know, I watched the film and it’s like you go out there thinking, I’m going to fight with these guys and show them who I am. Then they just pick you up like a noodle and you’re like, Hmmm, I don’t even remember that match. That sucked. I got spanked. I think my longest match there was two and half minutes, which is extremely embarrassing to say. I take losses like that really critically.
But after the Clubs Cup, I was excited. It might sound corny, but I felt like I was reborn. You went there and got humbled, and now you are like, Holy cow, I can get so much fricking better, it’s crazy. That is the kind of mentality I came out of it with. Obviously, I was bummed I got hurt. But from the wrestling side of things, I was excited. I wanted to get up at 5:30 to get there before practice to work on technique. There were so many things running through my head like, Oh my gosh, I can do some many different things and get so much better. What I got out of the Clubs Cup is that I’ve come a long way but I’ve got a long ways to go and I’m excited for that adventure and journey to get there. Because I love wrestling and if I could wrestle everyday for the rest of my life I will, or try to do it as long as I can.
5PM: The shoulder injury from Hungary, is this your first major competitive injury?
AM: Yes, this is the worst I’ve ever had injury-wise. I’ve had sprained ankles, broken fingers, and busted-open eyes, but never something like this.
5PM: Coming from the recent activity and success you’ve had and the inspiration you drew from the Clubs Cup, is that the most frustrating part about this injury, the timing? If I’m an Austin Morrow fan, that is what I’m thinking.
AM: Ab-so-fricking-lutely, dude. It’s so stressful and annoying, I’m losing my mind. Over the break, I was going bonkers. My arm is just stuck to my side, it hurts to lift it, it hurts to move, and I don’t want to be stupid and go out there and wrestle and completely ruin my arm. If there are Austin Morrow fans who are thinking there is a break in the action saying, I wish he could do this, I want them to know I’m doing everything I can, doing all the right things, working out lightly, and I’m even on the mat still starting to drill and wrestle a little bit. I’m doing everything I can to get back as soon as I can so I can get back to competing, because that is where I’m most comfortable and where I want to be.
5PM: What is the prognosis?
AM: I’m getting a second opinion tomorrow, but the first opinion from the doctor was that part of the cartilage around the socket separated from the bone, so he recommended surgery just because of the nature and unpredictability of wrestling and the odds of it popping out again are pretty high. He said over 50%. But our trainers have been doing everything for us and I want to treat this conservatively. I am trying to work out, strengthen it as much as I can and go as slow as I can. I’m feeling optimistic about not needing surgery. I’m wrestling with the light guys now, I’m working into par terre slowly, and I’ll know for sure after the second opinion tomorrow, but if I had my way, I’d like to just keep wrestling, rehabbing it, and keeping it strong. It feels good. It’s feeling great actually, I have full range of motion and it hasn’t been sticking or catching. There is no feeling of instability. I’m not a doctor though, so I don’t know.
5PM: Why says you’re not a doctor? Maybe you are one.
AM: (Laughs) I feel like I know my body more than what a doctor can tell me without looking at pictures. But if it feels unstable three weeks down the line and I can’t compete at 100% and surgery is what I need, then that’s what I’ll do. If I feel 100%, then I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t compete at the World Team Trials or any other tournament. Because I know my body. Only time will tell, but I am feeling optimistic about it. (Note: Morrow received his second doctor’s opinion following this interview. The second physician agreed with the first, but has cleared Austin to continue training for now unless the area is re-injured).
5PM: You mentioned the word “journey” before. What are some of the lessons you have learned on your journey that could help you for the rest of your career?
Austin Morrow: Oh, that’s a good question. There is a whole handful of them. I think the best lesson, or my favorite one, is to never stop learning. That sounds corny and everyone says it, but it’s really true. If you are always trying to get better, even just a half of a percent better every day or 1% better every day, over 100 days, I’m going to be twice as good as I was 100 days ago. It’s that kind of mentality of always trying to get in there and fix one thing. You know, you’re going to have bad days, bad losses, and crappy tournaments where nothing goes your way. And yeah, it sucks, but you have to keep on chipping away, because the big picture isn’t how you do at this one tournament now, it’s how you do at the Olympics or the World Championships. And that is the best lesson I use everyday to keep on swimming, in the words of Dory from Finding Nemo.
Follow Austin Morrow on Twitter to keep up-to-date on his training and competitive schedule.