There is something a little bit different about Travis Rice. You sense it pretty early on when talking to him. He’s aware. Knows where his feet are, which is where his body is and in turn, what deserves his attention here, now, right in this moment. Because of this, he is comfortable enough in his own skin to not only share an opinion, but to do so without even the slightest visceral component emanating from the undertone. You ask a question, you will get back an honest answer, bereft of both pretense and self-importance.
But there is work to consider. You pick that up, as well. Rice, a 21-year old Greco Roman wrestler originally from Illinois, is part of the well-known Northern Michigan-Olympic Training Site program in Marquette, and there are walls to be broken down. His weight class in the United States, 66 kilograms, is one of the deepest, so there is not a ton of time to rest. Rice has the benefit of understanding where he fits in and what needs to be done. It’ll come with hard work, setting goals and as he will tell you, pushing through frustration.
Rice has tasted Greco success, including representing the US at the Junior World Championships last year. There have been titles before that. More are still on the way. But it’s the process he is most interested in at this juncture. Rice seems to have a variety of different parameters from which to measure improvement, though he knows it’s the effort behind it all which counts the most.
5PM Interview with Travis Rice
5PM: What does a day in the life of a Northern Michigan athlete like yourself entail?
Travis Rice: A day in the life? I mean, multiple days are pretty similar but for example, let’s take today. Today is Monday, so I wake up at 5:45am, go to practice, start practicing by 6:30, get done with practice and have breakfast, then go to class. I might have a break on some days, but not today. Then I have lab and from there, I go straight to practice again. After practice, I have some dinner and after dinner, I have homework. So I have a pretty full day. From start to finish, I’m busy doing something.
5PM: That probably smashes any misconceptions people might have about what it’s like for the guys at Northern.
TR: I guess it kind of depends on the person. Give me an example of what someone might think.
5PM: Oh I don’t know, that you guys spend the entire day wrestling and throwing dummies.
TR: (Laughs) That’s a good example. If someone thinks we’re spending the whole day just wrestling each other and throwing dummies, it’s more than that. Yeah, we are wrestling, but there is a lot of stuff that goes on outside of the practice room. We’ve got school, some guys who are facility-use, they have work. It is more than just in the wrestling room. It is multiple things that kind of add up.
5PM: Out of the two practices you have each day, which one do you like the least?
TR: You know what, when you ask that I bet that you’re thinking I would say the 6:30am practice, but I actually like that one better.
5PM: How come?
TR: Well, there are a couple of reasons, and I’m not a morning person, either. But it is one of those things where if you can get up in the morning, work your butt off, get a good workout in, and you can do it day after day, I think it definitely proves something. Another thing is, I think I wrestle better. I’m tired but I’m awake, and I’m thinking less. I just kind of wrestle, you know? I put things together because I don’t think about it as much. But if we’re talking about 6:30 in the morning and we’re doing sprints, I might like that a little less (laughs). You’ve got to take the good with the bad.
5PM: How did you come to decide to go to Northern Michigan, so far in, what was the process leading up that?
TR: The process to decide to go to Northern, well, it was a few things. In high school, I wasn’t the best folkstyle wrestler. The way I would describe my four years of wrestling folkstyle is that I was one of those guys who was good and got better as they got older, but just could never make it happen. I was not a state champ or anything like that. My coach had a lot of input, not in me deciding to go to Northern, but he’s a big Greco guy, Coach Brian Medlin, he runs the Greco portion for Fargo in Illinois and does a lot for duals. And I think it was him who pushed me to Greco a little bit. Not that he was telling me, Hey, go Greco, but it’s that I really enjoyed being in the Greco practices compared to folkstyle or freestyle. Especially folkstyle season, that really drains you out. I like how with Greco, there is a lot of recovery time between tournaments and matches.
5PM: That is something I brought up with Coach Lindland in this week’s Coach’s Report, which is that for example, I don’t have any issue with folkstyle in and of itself, it’s more that there isn’t a choice most of the year for kids who want to wrestle. They have to wrestle folkstyle. I know I’m probably speaking to an allied voice, but where do you stand on this?
TR: I’ve actually talked about this with a few people, including Coach Lindland, he and I might have went over this once during lunch at the Olympic Training Center or something like that. My view of it is basically, whatever your goals are. If you want to be a national champ in folkstyle then yeah, go wrestle folkstyle. But if you want to be an Olympic or World medalist, then I would wrestle full-time Greco or full-time freestyle. So I think it just depends on what your goals are. If you’re happy wrestling folkstyle and then being done and not moving on to Greco or freestyle, then that’s fine. But I just think it depends on the person. Like you said, they should have the choice to go for what their goals are. If they want to do something, then yeah, let them do it. Let them reach their goals.
5PM: That’s probably a much more mature viewpoint than mine.
Travis Rice: (Laughs) I mean, if you look at our viewpoints, there isn’t much difference between them. Like you said, you would just not wrestle folkstyle, right?
5PM: I’m not saying that, my point is there should be the choice for kids. And when I say “kids”, I mean kids nine-year olds. Since folkstyle isn’t going away, then it shouldn’t be the only thing offered. Why should it be? Kids can participate in different martial arts be it karate, taekwondo, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, but only one style of wrestling? Just doesn’t seem right to me. It’s not very “American” is all I’m saying.
TR: Yeah, I get what you’re saying and I think a big thing that goes along with that is younger kids don’t really know the difference between folkstyle, Greco, and freestyle. They just go along with what their parents show them or what their friends do. It needs to be more developed. I wish we could just train freestyle and Greco all year long in the US, but that’s not how it is. Folkstyle just takes over the whole winter. It’s so deep in the American roots that if you ask a random person what wrestling is, they’ll describe folkstyle. They won’t know what Greco or freestyle is, they won’t know the differences between them.
5PM: What year was it, 2013 or ‘14, when was the first time you wrestled an international opponent?
TR: The first time I wrestled an international opponent I think was my first couple of weeks up at Northern. I remember we had the French Junior team up. It was either that or my first trip to Sweden, and that would have been November 2013 or something like that?
5PM: What was the biggest difference that you noticed wrestling a foreign opponent compared to a domestic opponent? What was the biggest thing you noticed right off the bat?
Travis Rice: A big difference was probably, and I know a lot of people say this, but their feel. How they move, how they set up their techniques. Just little things like that you’re not used to, you know? Their positioning, their strategies, stuff like that.
5PM: Can you as an athlete who is going to compete against foreign opponents simulate these differences in the practice room? You know, use your experience against international wrestlers and bring those stylistic differences into training?
TR: To an extent, you might be able to pick up something similar, like someone’s technique. But someone’s style and how they set something up, that is their own. I mean, there are a million moves and certain ways to set them up, and each way might be a little different. I don’t think it’s something you can completely clone, you know? You might be able to pick things apart, like, This guy was putting his foot here, pushing at this angle, or he was hitting this technique and he steps here when he lifts, but there are too many factors to account for to completely recreate someone else’s style and technique.
5PM: Who are your primary workout partners in the room.
Travis Rice: For me, I’m kind of a small 66 kilo guy so I wrestle a lot of the 59 guys like Sammy Jones and Dimitry Ryabchinskiy. And then I’ll also wrestle the 66 guys like Austin Morrow, Jesse Williams, Jamal DeArmond and Logan Kass. Sometimes I’ll work with some of the 71 and 74 kilo guys, but most of the time I try to stay in that 59 to 66 range partner-wise.
5PM: Dropping it back a bit, when was the first time wrestling at this level that you realized this was something worth devoting your time towards?
TR: I think at this level the first time, literally right when you were describing it I instantly thought of something and I know who I’m going to say is probably going to get a little mad. But the first month I was up here, I was wrestling Joey DeNova. He was just kicking my ass the whole match. I think we wrestled two or three times before that and then right at the end of the match I hit a high dive, just beautifully right to his back. I don’t remember if I pinned him or if I just scored four, or if I was still losing the match. I just remembered that I didn’t think about anything else. I was like, Okay, I think I’m getting somewhere, you know? That it’s coming along.
5PM: That’s an interesting answer because most people liken it to a tournament or a dual meet, something like that. So it’s unique that for you it was something that took place in the practice room.
TR: Yeah, well Coach (Rob) Hermann mentions this a lot to all of the incoming guys and to the guys who have been here, and that is if you want to beat somebody out of the room, you have to beat somebody in the room first. Once you’re able to score on guys in the room, whether that is a Joey DeNova or a Sammy Jones, you are able to take that same feel or same technique that you’re getting better and better with to use against someone outside of the room in a tournament or a match.
5PM: Who are a couple of the older Greco guys you looked up to, or still do, coming up? It could even be something you saw that inspired you, along those lines.
TR: Not going by style-wise but especially wrestling for Team Illinois in Fargo, there was always a couple of college guys on the coaching staff and I think looking at some of them, guys like Tanner Andrews, Marc Stenberg, Corey and Ryan Hope, looking at guys like that. Even an athlete like Joe Rau, who was wrestling at Elmhurst, but he was one of my coaches at Fargo. Just having guys like that around to motivate you no matter what you are going through, whether you are going to wrestle folkstyle or full-time Greco or freestyle, having them around to show you that you can get to that level.
5PM: What exactly are you studying at Northern Michigan?
TR: My degree is Sports Science and I’m going to use that to go grad school so I can go into therapy, whether it’s physical or occupational therapy.
5PM: Okay, so do you know how treat your own injuries?
TR: (Laughs) I mean, to an extent. I’ll tape my own hands and stuff. But if I have anything that is too beat up, I probably wouldn’t treat myself. If I have to tape my wrist and my hand or my ankle, I could do it myself but anything other than that I probably wouldn’t do.
5PM: You say you’re on the smaller side of 66, is that a cut for you or no?
TR: No, not at all. I think after practice I will weight 69 kilos, sometimes 70. The lower 70’s would make a heavy day. But no, I’m not heavy for 66.
5PM: Let’s tackle rules real quick. What do you think about the format change from one day to two day? They want to have more space to promote athletes going into the medal rounds and also, take away drastic weight cuts. As a competitor, what is your opinion on potentially dealing with that?
Travis Rice: You know, I’m not in favor of it but we’re just going to have to deal with it if that is how it’s going to be. But I think it is going to be a big aspect for the heavy weight cutters deciding what weight they are going to go. It’s not too big of a deal for me because like I said, I’m not a very big 66, but I think it’s just kind of a hassle.
5PM: What is your take on the Seniors going to basically the same rule-set as the Juniors, which means no more ordered par terre? How did you react to this news?
TR: I wrestled under these rules and I can see why some people are happy about it and I can see why some people are angry about it. But what it all comes down to is that the rules are the rules and you have to find a way to win. The big thing is a lot of people are saying that now there is no more forced par terre, but there is still par terre. If you get taken down you can still get turned. It comes down to being able to score on your feet. If you can’t score on your feet, you can’t win a match. And if you can’t win it that way, it comes down to the referee and who is being more passive. I just think it puts a little more power in the ref’s hands.
5PM: Do you think it will change the style of wrestling, even for American Seniors, so far as pace and things like that?
TR: I guess it should bring up the pace but who knows? I guess it depends on whose style we’re talking about. The main thing is to win a match under the new rule-set, you have to score on your feet now.
5PM: So in the context of the high-level Seniors, who are sharp defensively, or the seasoned wrestlers who are shrewd with their tactics, looking active, whatever, is that part of the equation also?
TR: Yeah, kind of. I’m not saying everyone but some guys, and I’m not going to name anybody, but they have the mindset that they can look like they are being the aggressor in the match and know as long as they don’t look passive, they are going to put the other guy down and they can score.
5PM: And now those days are over.
TR: Right, now those days are over and you have to score. There is no looking back, you have to be active and you have to score.
5PM: What would your advice be to younger wrestlers, regardless of age, who would like to pursue Greco Roman wrestling and follow in your footsteps? Put yourself in a mentoring role when you answer this.
Travis Rice: The number one thing I would say is don’t get frustrated. And that is something I still tell myself today, if that goes for wrestling or school or work, really anything you’re working hard and you get frustrated, you are not going to achieve your goals. There are times when if I start to get frustrated, I’ll sit back and take a breather and I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll use last year as a good example for me. I had a set number of goals and I didn’t achieve them. But I wasn’t crying about it. I was frustrated, but I got over it. I took a breather, I re-thought, What are my goals, how can I achieve them, and what do I have to do to achieve them? And then I got to work.
Anything you want to do, especially if you are a young wrestler and want to pursue Greco or any other style, is to not get frustrated. Because I have been the guy in the room getting his ass kicked by everybody and I always told myself, I can go one more round, I can keep going. So try not to get frustrated. Breathe out and get back to work.