Interviews

“This Is What I Was Born To Do and I Get to Do It” – Robby Smith Is Ready for Rio

Robby Smith is ready for 2016 Rio Olympics
Photo: Tony Rotundo

People love to throw around the word “character”, as if they even have a definitive understanding of what it means. Just because someone is accomplished doesn’t mean he or she is deserving of such a distinction. Simply because an athlete reached some far-out goal and was nice to people in the process isn’t necessarily indicative of anything else but appropriated motivation and decent manners. Don’t get it twisted: There’s nothing at all wrong with being having achieved something great or being a motivated individual. Certainly. Those of us peering through the looking glass can allow ourselves that much. Plus, we need examples, regardless as to whether or not the shoe fits the correct foot. 

Thankfully, when the view is muddled enough and we begin to lose perspective of what character really entails, there’s a Robby Smith who enters our lives. Take stock of this for a second. Hold onto it tightly and don’t let it go. Because you don’t need to know Robby Smith. You just need to know of him. How the 29-year old US Greco Roman star first set his sights on the Olympics while enrolled in grammar school. How he was forced throughout his youth to wrestle bigger, older kids because the area he grew up in didn’t offer the chance for him to match up with athletes his own age and size. Maybe you’ll get that he overcame a learning disability and used a wrestling mat as his sanctuary, a place he could escape to where life made sense again for a little while. Or perhaps you’ll learn about his family, specifically his parents, whose brand of unconditional love expanded as their son’s dreams did. 

Whatever it is that catches you, it’ll always be Robby himself who lures you in. To him, you’re his friend. Bam, right away. Yes, you. You reading this. It’s not because you might be into Greco, or even wrestling as a whole. No, the reasoning is far more elemental than that. If you’re a living, breathing human who is just the slightest bit communicative, Robby has time for you. Inclusion is kind of his thing. Of course often, it’s not the gregarious nature or altruistic approach most folks know this man for. Instead, it’s his wrestling. Arm-spinning Adam Coon in the Olympic Trials, thundering to fifth place at the Worlds, making a name for himself out of Northern Michigan…the beard. Take your pick. Smith isn’t one who operates in anonymity.  

The potential for more details to be layered in may very well present itself a few weeks from now. The 130 kg class at the 2016 Olympic Games competes on August 15th and Robby Smith is a legitimate favorite to take home a medal. Like most Olympians, Smith’s journey is one that required both a deep, burning belief in himself and a supportive infrastructure at home. That isn’t what makes him unique. What is, is that it seems every time Smith is reminded of how he got here, he feels the need to make sure you understand all of it in no uncertain terms. As if it’s not about him. It’s family, it’s “team”, it’s togetherness. Perhaps it is also the primary telling point why this man stands out the way he does. Character. 

5PM Interview with Robby Smith

5PM: When was the first legitimate moment, the first time where you thought, Wow, I really could become an Olympian?

Robby Smith: I first wanted to be an Olympian when I was around nine. It became a dream of mine, you know? Like every kid wants to be a firefighter or something like that, I wanted to be an Olympian. I think my first real moment, where it really sunk in that I could possibly do this, was in 2000 when I watched Rulon (Gardner) wrestle (Alexander) Karelin. That was like, Man, I really love Greco Roman wrestling. I really want to do that. I want to see my flag being raised, I want to be on top of the podium. I thought that was amazing, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So that was when I really started emphasizing Greco and loving it a lot. When I knew I was legit, was probably freshmen year, going every day to Greco practice, not missing one day. It was like, Robby, you have a future in this. So I would go to folkstyle practice and then go to Greco practice and all year long, all I wanted to think about was Greco. That’s what it was. From there, it really started rolling really well for me. Doing well nationally and in California, the regionals, and in my senior year, making the first Junior World Team, that was just awesome. It was like, Wow, I do have a future here. And then getting a chance to be here at the training center, which has just been amazing.

5PM: Coach Mark Halvorson of the CYC (Community Youth Center) seems to have been a giant inspiration in your life, is that not correct?

RS: Yes it is. It was Bill Martell and Mark Halvorson who got me into Greco. Because I didn’t do Greco until I was nine years old. I didn’t know about Greco, we’d go to freestyle tournaments and I’d wrestle middle schoolers in folkstyle because there was no folkstyle youth wrestling yet in my area. So I’d just go to wherever. And then we met this coach named Ray Trujillo at a tournament in Santa Rosa, California and my dad was talking to him and they said, “Hey, you could bring your son to the CYC, we would love to have him.” And that’s when I started doing Greco. I met Bill Martell there and he is a saint of a man. Then Mark, Coach Trujillo, Scott Osterholt, these men I would look up to. Father figures who really got me interested in it. My teammates at CYC, Stevie Gee, Kenny Cook, Dustin Tillman, there’s a whole bunch of guys. I would watch them wrestle Greco because they were all older than me, like, Man, this is crazy. But Halvorson and Bill Martell were always there for me. It transferred from Bill to Halvorson when Bill retired and Halvorson just took it from there and made me who I am. He built the base of the Greco athlete and Momir (Petković), Anatoly (Petrosyan), Ivan Ivanov, and (Steve) Fraser molded me into a Senior athlete. But it all starts with CYC. If there was no CYC, I don’t know if there would be a Robby Smith where he’s at right now.

5PM: Do you feel a responsibility as a leader, captain of the team, to be the one kind of out in front beating the drum for the program?

RS: I mean, there is a responsibility that comes with everything. They might name me the captain of the team, but we’re all equals. We all push ourselves equally, we’re all there to support each other. Andy (Bisek) has the medals, you know, Andy is the man. I’m just rolling with it. They want me to be the captain I’ll do it, but you know, it’s responsibility on yourself. When it comes to our team, we know what we have to do. If you want to put a name on something, go ahead. We understand what’s going on. But if I need to be the face of it, if I need to promote the sport, I’ll do it because I love this sport than anything in the world. This is my life and I don’t want to see this sport go away in the United States, so I want to get it as much publicity as possible.

5PM: How has your life changed since you won the Olympic Trials in April?

RS: You know, I’ve been doing a lot, but I would still say I am the same old Robby Smith and nothing has really changed with me. I’ve done interviews, I got to do the Beat the Streets thing, this video that just came out, stuff like that. But that would have happened anyways because I’m a big personality. It is just what it is. I’m loving it, I’m enjoying the ride, but I’m ready to go down to Rio and wrestle. I’m over talking about it and I want to do it now. The talking, it’s a lot. It’s just words that come out and I have to back those words up now. I’m excited, I’m ready to go down there and do what I know how to do best, and that’s wrestle.

5PM: Yeah, that is a good point though, because probably more so than any other Greco guy, you’ve had a lot of media obligations. Does that get in the way of what you’re trying to do here?

RS: No, you just got to focus on when you’re at practice or you’re doing what you got to do in the weight room or conditioning or whatever, you put 100% into everything you do. You get done what you have to. You make time. Listen, this is not just a slight, Oh, I’ve got to go do this now. No, you get your work in. You’ve got to do it. If it’s doing extra work at home or while you’re there, do it while you’re there. There’s no excuses. There’s no time for excuses. It’s not time to put things off. If I need to recover, that’s a different story. But when it’s time to get down into the nitty-gritty, it’s time to go.

Robby Smith at Beat the Streets

Smith MC’ing at Beat the Streets “United in the Square.” (Photo: John Sachs)

5PM: Okay, so the Games are about a month away. Does it feel like it’s coming quickly? Or does Rio feel like it’s still way off into the future?

Robby Smith: No, it feels like it’s coming real quick (laughs). It’s right around the corner. A month isn’t that long. Think of a month in a lifetime — it’s nothing. A month in 29 years, 24 years of wrestling, is nothing. I’m ready to roll. I’m excited for it. This is what I’ve been doing in training throughout my whole entire life. So I’m excited to go.

5PM: With all the stuff that is going on in Rio, is there anything about the scene there that makes you even the slightest bit apprehensive about going down there?

RS: Zero percent. Nothing. At all. I was talking to the Denver Post and they asked me a similar question and I go, “I don’t care if Rio is on fire. As long as I have a wrestling mat to wrestle on, I’m going to be wrestling in the Olympics in Rio.” That’s it, plain and simple. There’s nothing stopping me. I don’t care if it’s the Zika virus, the political stuff… I’m going down to do a job and I can’t wait to do it.

5PM: Where do you think you’d be in life without wrestling? Where would you be if you weren’t “this”, if you weren’t where you are?

RS: I don’t know. I’ve thought about that before. I also wanted to be a firefighter when I was younger and all the way through high school I kind of had thoughts of doing that. So maybe I would have pursued it harder. Focused more on school, got a degree, an education. I don’t know. It would have been a different life for me, I guarantee you that. Maybe I would have played football (laughs). I’ve traveled the world with wrestling. It’s amazing, the opportunities I’ve gotten. I don’t ever, ever look at it and say, Man, I should have been something else. No, this is what I was born to do and I get to do it.

5PM: This group of Olympians has been exposed to more youth wrestlers than ever before. It’s our culture. Call it social media, call it more outlets, whatever. Now look, you’re a leader of your team but that’s an isolated dynamic. You’re also a role model to kids by default with all this, plus you are a Greco athlete. What do you want kids to see represented out of Greco? How do you want kids to see it?

RS: I want kids to understand there’s something else out there for them to do. There’s not just folkstyle and freestyle. It’s a wonderful, amazing style, an art, and it’s fun to do. I want them to understand that Greco is just as important as anything else in their wrestling careers. But also, we’re a different culture of athlete, Greco is. You look at us, and you would never know that we’re Greco Roman wrestlers, you know? If you’re part of the culture, yes, you do. But we’re a fun group of guys who want to go out and throw people on their heads and we love doing it. Jesse (Thielke) loves doing it, Ben (Provisor) loves doing it, Andy loves doing it. I mean, it’s what we love to do. That’s what Greco is about. It’s a passion. It’s not just a sport, it’s a passion. It’s an amazing, amazing thing that you have to learn in wrestling. It is sad that it is dying in our country, but I guarantee that it’s going to come back and it’s going to come back full-force because we have a good group of Olympians this year. And when these kids see us do what we need to do, they’re going to want to do it, too. That’s what it is, the guys at the top do their job right, kids are going to want to do that, too. We are humble, we are a good group of athletes, and we show respect, we show honor. That’s what I want kids to learn from me. I’m not a flashy guy. I don’t need the fame and all that. I’m there for one thing, and that’s to get a medal. As long as I can teach a kid how to be respectful and stuff as I’m doing it, I did my job right. If I entertain the fans, I did my job right. It’s a sport. That’s what it is. But it’s an amazing sport.

5PM: Well you know, you’ve said to me before that you consider Greco an art form. Exactly how would you describe it as an art for someone who might not be able to put that together?

RS: Greco is an art form because when you do it right and you do it properly, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. For anybody. You might not have ever seen wrestling before. You might not have any idea what the rules are. But if you watch a Greco Roman match and it’s performed correctly, it’s, Oh my gosh, that was incredible! You’re left in awe. You’re left in shock because of how awesome that match was. There’s no scrambling, it’s just a beautiful art that is made in that moment between two guys battling, giving up every ounce of themselves to do this. To win. To get your hand raised. That’s all it is. To get your hand raised. Two guys go battle it out for one thing — for the glory. Not the fame, nothing else but the glory. And when it’s done properly, it is an art and it’s amazing to watch.

Robby Smith versus Adam Coon 2016 Trials

Smith locks up with Adam Coon at the 2016 Olympic Trials. (Photo: John Sachs)

5PM: How has this team bonded? I know you four guys have known each other for quite a while, but you’re all on the same Olympic squad together. You’ll always be a part of this with them for the rest of your entire life. How has this group gelled as a unit from Concord to Azerbaijan and now a month out? And this even includes the training partners who have been helping out.

RS: I don’t just think of it as the four of us. It’s still the six of us. Joe (Rau) and RaVaughn (Perkins) have been with us. They might not be able to be called “Olympians”, or are technically on the Olympic Team, but they are in my eyes and I’m pretty sure in everyone else’s eyes. Because they’re there helping us when we need something. But the four of us are gelling great. We’re going through this ride together. We’re going through the pain together. Our bodies are hurting just as much as the other person’s. That’s when you really have to look towards a teammate, look towards them to confide in. Because, no one else knows what you’re going through except for those other guys. No one else has ever been through what we’re going through except those other guys. It’s difficult to do. It’s a very hard sport. And if you’re not mentally prepared for it, you’re just going to lose your mind.

As a team, we have been gelling amazingly. I mean, California was great but Andy wasn’t there, so it was difficult. And I was all over the place in California. It really started once we got back to Springs and right before we were going to Azerbaijan and then once we were there. We all came together and we came together as a team when times got hard. When we were on that five hour bus ride with no air conditioning, the windows don’t open, and it’s 90 degrees outside and you’re sweating your balls off (laughs). That’s pretty much it. The only people who know about that are the people on that bus with you, and that’s your team. Coaches included. We all know how that is. We’re a unit right now. We’re doing some great stuff. Camp has been HARD. Hard, hard, hard. But when Andy sees me down and hurting, he looks at me and says, “It’s going to be worth it in the end.” And when I see Andy down, I tell him, “It’s going to be worth it in the end.” It’s the same way with Ben and Jesse. You just have to remind each other that we’re all in this together. Maybe one day, a guy is feeling a little bit better than the other guy, but the next day he might need you. We know that. We understand that. It’s a team. It’s a good core.

But like I said, RaVaughn and Joe are just as much a part of this. Because RaVaughn and Joe are there to help us. RaVaughn comes to me everyday and asks, “Is there anything you need? Can I help you in any way? What’s going on, man?” He’s there, he’s a part of this family. Joe, same thing. I call Joe and I “breakfast buddies” because we have breakfast together. And we just talk. We don’t even talk wrestling, we just talk. And that helps me there. It helps me relax my mind. That’s what it is, that’s what a teammate does. When you’re in need, he’s there to help you. This team is doing that for each other. And when we go to Rio and something happens down there, we’re going to be there for each other. Whatever happens in Rio, I’m going to be damn proud of this team. Because we’ve been putting in the time and deserve what we get, and I’m excited for it.

Smith battles Makhov at the 2015 Worlds

The battle with Makhov at the 2015 Worlds. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: Your parents are known for being incredibly supportive. How has it been sharing all of this, the Olympics, this journey, this ultimate thing, with them?

Robby Smith: Well I mean, my journey starts from day one with my parents. They bought me my first singlet, my first pair of wrestling shoes, not knowing what they’re getting into. I guarantee that when I was four and half years old and my parents took me to my first tournament at College Park High School, they didn’t think this is where it was going to lead to. They just thought they were putting their son into another sport. And next thing you know, I love it so much. I wasn’t good when I was young, I was horrible (laughs). I didn’t win, ever. But what gave them joy was that it didn’t matter if I won or lost, I came back with a smile. I just loved it, I just loved being in it and being a part of it.

One story I like to tell that I didn’t know about until after I graduated, is about when I was around nine or ten and we went to Topeka, Kansas for the folkstyle nationals. I went out there thinking I was tough. I had won my freestyle state and all this stuff, beating middle schoolers. So then we went out to Kansas and I got my butt kicked. Just destroyed. Tech’ed both matches. Two and barbeque out. It was horrible. We’re driving back to Kansas City and my dad looks at me and asks, “What did you learn?” And I said, “I hate losing. I don’t want to lose anymore.” It sucked, you know? I didn’t like it. He told me that out of that whole trip, my saying that meant everything. That right there was worth the whole the trip. This is with me not knowing what was going on in my family. We were going through a very hard time with money, bankruptcy, all this stuff. But my dad knew he had to take me on this trip. So he took his son to Topeka, Kansas to wrestle with not much money in the bank account. He just knew he had to take me there. I went 0-2. You just watched your son get demolished by these kids, he’s not even close to a national level yet. And that’s what made him happy, how I responded to it. He said that made it all worth it, that right there, what I said. That’s when the drive started happening.

So that is what they did for me my whole entire life. They supported me my whole entire life. Even when times were hard for them, they put me first. Which I know what a parent is supposed to do, but for a sport it’s amazing. It’s a true bond. My dad is my best friend. My mother is the most amazing mother you could possibly have. Without them, this whole thing could not be possible. They’ve been with me through the good times and the hard times, and they’re the only people who ever have been. It’s unbelievable what they’ve given their son. I can’t even explain how I can repay them, except by doing my best and knowing how I can wrestle and get a medal on top of that podium. That’s going to be it.

My mom has always talked about how she wanted to watch me walk in the opening ceremonies. Well, we’re not going to the opening ceremonies, but she’ll get to watch me walk in the closing ceremonies and I guarantee she’ll be bawling her eyes out. She’s excited. This is something else. That I get to do this with my parents who have been with me the whole time has made it the most amazing experience I could ever ask for in my life.

5PM: That’s quite a story. Kansas, that’s not exactly next door to where you grew up.

RS: (Laughs) My dad used to throw me in a car and drive to Butte, Montana for regionals. One time, we couldn’t find a flight into Iowa so we found one into Kansas City and drove to Waterloo for nationals. The man has literally gone around the world for me. He is amazing. But that’s the story I feel really changed me and how I am as a competitor. That moment there. And I think he saw that, too. For what my parents have sacrificed, for what my sisters have sacrificed for their son and little brother to achieve his goal and become an Olympian is crazy. Insane. I can’t explain how appreciative I am for that.

5PM: What does it mean to you to have them down there with you specifically?

RS: It means the world. Wrestling has been my life, my whole life. It’s been a long journey and the pinnacle of it has been going to the Olympics. I always knew I was going to make the Olympics, deep down in my heart my family always knew it. We’ve gone through some very challenging times with injuries and stuff like that, weight cuts, missing weight, and finally making the decision to go up. My family was there for all of that, it wasn’t just me. It takes a village to create an Olympic athlete. It’s not just that one person, it’s the people who surround you. If you don’t have a good core that surrounds you, it’s very hard to do what you want to do. My family has been the biggest part of that nucleus, that core, that village. Because they’ve been supporting me. For my mom to watch me walk in the closing ceremonies will mean the world to me, because that’s what she has wanted to watch her baby boy do his whole career. Since this has been a dream of mine, she has wanted to watch me do that. My dad has always wanted to watch his son step onto that Olympic mat and wrestle. And now he gets to do that.

They get their glory through me when I get to do what I do best. And that is when I guarantee a wink and a smile, maybe tears will stream down their faces when that happens. When the first whistle or the final whistle blows or that music starts playing, that’s when it’s really going to hit them. But I can’t think of that. It’s really going to hit me when the tournament is done. It’s going to hit me when I get my hand raised at the end. When I’m listening to my National Anthem being played and watching the flag raised. That’s when it is going to hit me. But I guarantee that it’s going to hit them because that is what I’ve always wanted my entire career. That is what it’s all about. And it’s what people don’t understand about the Olympics. It’s not just the athlete. It’s the people who support the athlete and are there for the athlete. They’ve put their blood, their sweat and their tears into it. And that is what my parents have done for me.

It might not have been on a mat. It might have been when my father was building a house or my mom was taking care of her kids. To help fund me so I could go on my trips. Or when I call them at midnight to tell them how shitty my day was, to just be there to listen to me. To let me vent and to tell me, “It’s going to be okay, buddy, you’re doing to do great, I know you’re going to do great.” That’s what it is. It’s that inside of you which drives the athlete through all of the bad times. That is what my parents have done. They have been through this journey more than anybody else and it’s amazing I’ve gotten to share this with them. It touches me dearly in my heart. I’m proud to be able to have my parents see me in my finest moment.

5PM: For the everyday person, they may not be able to relate to being an Olympian, but they can relate to your connection to your family.

RS: It’s a crazy adventure, man. I’ve wanted to do this my whole entire life and now it’s finally here. It’s like, Holy cow, is this really going down right now? Is it really only a month away from the biggest moment of my life? It’s something. I’m just excited. Your body hurts. Your body takes its bumps and bruises. But your mind is always there and your mind always has to be fresh.

5PM: That was actually my next question. What is the grind like? Like, Okay, I’m going to go to practice, get beat up a little bit, and then recover? Has your body been responding well to this?

Robby Smith: It’s a circle. You go to practice to get beat up, not a little bit, but quite a bit. And then you take care of your body and do it all over again the next day. That’s why people don’t understand what we do. We’re athletes. It’s not just us. I think we’re the toughest sport in the world in wrestling. Oh, you work out all day, that’s what you do, it’s a cushy life. I live a wonderful life, okay? I love my life. It’s a very wonderful life. I’ve been around the world and this sport has taken me there. Don’t get me wrong. But I would dare anyone to do what I do for one week. They would not survive. It takes a mentality that is a little sick to put your body through what we go through every single day.

You gotta have something up in your head when your body hurts so bad you can’t get out of bed. You can’t even bend your legs. You can’t even move. It takes something in your mind to say, Okay, put one foot out. Now put the other foot out. Alright, let’s go. Let’s battle another human being for two hours straight. Altogether I think I’m going to wrestle…28 minutes? Four matches? Something is sick there. It’s not healthy. It’s not. But the whole thing about us, we’re willing to do it. We’re willing to step one foot out at a time off the bed. We’re willing to do the grind because at the end of the day, it’s not for money, it’s not for the fame. It’s for the glory of getting your hand raised. But the grind sucks. When you’re going through it with a great team and a teammate looks at you and says, “It’s going to be worth it at the end”, it helps you move your feet out off the bed just a little bit more. That’s when that comes in. Like I said, we’re doing it together. It’s tough and it sucks, but it’s going to be worth it in the end when your hand is getting raised and you see what you want to see. That’s what it’s all about.

You can follow Robby on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with his road to the 2016 Olympics. Also – if you’d like to donate to the Smith family’s trip to Rio, you can do so right here

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