“Let me tell ya about the last six months…”
It’s become a sort of running joke among Austin Morrow (66 kg) and his pals at Northern Michigan, though the problem actually first began closer to nine months ago.
In early-December of 2016, Morrow, along with a delegation of other US Seniors, competed at the World Wrestling Clubs Cup in Budapest, Hungary. Although the 23-year-old (he turns 24 next month) was no stranger to foreign competition prior that event, he had never wrestled on a stage so big and bright before. Every opponent was of a different caliber than he was used to, which is saying something, given Morrow’s overall ability and potential. But there he was on Day 2 of the Clubs Cup, writhing in pain following a tech-fall loss to Ukraine’s Maksym Yevtushenko. Morrow’s right shoulder separated, not only temporarily derailing his progression as an athlete, but the injury would also eventually lead to a significant recovery period that took him into the spring. “I’ve had sprained ankles, broken fingers, and busted-open eyes, but never something like this,” Morrow said in January.
You see, in the months leading up to that fateful day last December, Morrow was practically surging. He won his first University National title in June and then once the fall hit, kept it going with silvers at both the Malar Cupen in Sweden and the Bill Farrell Memorial/NYAC Open. The Clubs Cup was supposed to provide a pronounced litmus test just ahead of the US Nationals, which took place two weeks later. Instead, Morrow, frustrated and discouraged, was forced to hit the pause button for the next four months.
Every athlete wants to avoid surgery if they can and Morrow was no exception. So he rehabbed. And rehabbed. And rehabbed. Along with guidance from his coaches and the training staff at NMU, Morrow somehow got that shoulder in reasonable-enough shape to give it a run at the 2017 US World Team Trials in April, where he went 1-1 but bowed out after his second match, a loss to eventual bronze and two-time US National Team member Brian Graham (Minnesota Storm). The shoulder wasn’t quite right yet. However — Morrow returned to competition yet again just over a month later at the University Nationals in in Akron, Ohio. Up a weight at 71 kilograms, he snagged a fifth-place finish. Not bad, but certainly a step down for a defending champ and two-time finalist. The kicker is, it was no longer just the right shoulder. His left had now joined the party sporting its own Grade 3 joint separation.
This was not how Morrow envisioned the summer unfolding. At best, his right shoulder would continue to heal up as the fall semester approached. At worst, he’d still have to devote a little more time to various rehabilitation measures that were figured to have outlasted their necessity by then. In a somewhat cruel plot twist, both of Morrow’s shoulders now required rest and rehab. There wasn’t much he could do except resign himself to watching days fall off of the calendar. Seeing this all as some massive period of tribulation became his best option.
“I was pretty disturbed for the first part of the summer because I couldn’t wrestle,” Morrow now concedes. “Dalton (Roberts) and Corey (Fitzgerald) would get on the mat and do the lifting, and I was forced to just sit around and I don’t know…I did a lot of reading. The summer was like a mental game in terms of life and competing.”
Hope arrived in two forms. The first was that Morrow began witnessing improvement in his shoulders. It started off gradually, each stride in the rehab process stretching further and further. The second, at least on the surface, didn’t have a whole ton to do with Greco-Roman wrestling. Virtually on a whim, Roberts and Morrow decided to run in the 2017 Marquette Marathon on September 2nd. NMU head coach Rob Hermann encouraged the pair to do so as an off-the-mat competitive outlet. Plus, the marathon gave Morrow something to shoot for aside from waking up every morning to see if his range of motion had advanced.
Training for a marathon typically entails a generous amount of…running. Wrestlers are runners, sure, and athletes at NMU definitely do their share of it. Morrow and Roberts approached the marathon rather uniquely. They ran. They sure did. But there were other concerns at play, too. For Roberts, the upcoming U23 World Team Trials in early October demanded his attention, so his usual Greco training routine took precedence. Morrow was in a slightly different boat. He couldn’t yet go full force in the practice room, and weight training was relegated mainly to lower body exercises. If the whole affair seems a little odd, that’s because it was. A healthy dose of encouragement and also, improvisation, provided the fuel for the wrestlers needed to eyeball the finish line.
“Andy (Bisek) wrote us up a summer program and I stuck to that as best I could,” recalled Morrow. “I pretty much doubled all of the leg workouts because I couldn’t wrestle. I would do air squats or the dummy, and just find a way to do the workouts. That was three or four times a week and other than that, I just ran a lot.
Dalton was really good for my mental game, telling me, Hey man, let’s just keep working. We just wrestled or drilled once or twice a week, we’d lift three times a week, and run the other days. We’d have one day for rest. I think Dalton and I only ran two distance days. We ran 20 miles one day, 15 miles the other. Then we took a month off and did Andy’s practices to prepare for the marathon.” (Morrow and Roberts ran the marathon in tandem, reaching the finish line together in 3:51.)
The next test
It is now two weeks later and Morrow is no longer a restricted athlete. The shoulder, the shoulders, the movement, the confidence — they are all beginning to once again become attributes, not detriments. The word ordeal comes to mind. There were likely more than a few days during this whole process when Morrow wondered if he would ever be the same. Athletes coming back from injury normally have some questions they need answered and an imagination left to wander only increases the anxiety. Discernible improvement in conjunction with greater strength and comfort play an important role in a wrestler understanding that the sun will indeed rise the next day.
In this case, the next day for Morrow is actually Saturday, September 30th — just a little over almost a week from now. The Eduardo Campbell Cup in Panama beckons, an event Morrow has done well at. Very well. He’s won it twice. That, along with how his shoulder currently feels and the way the schedule worked out make the Campbell Cup an ideal venue for Morrow to test out exactly how healed he really is before the competitive season ratchets up another notch.
“This is a mental test to see if my shoulder is ready,” Morrow said this week. “I just want to get a competition under my belt before the Dave Schultz and before I go overseas. I want to gain the confidence I need with five or six matches. Panama is really just a test for me to see where I’m at physically.”
The battle between the ears has been just as trying for Morrow as anything else, but he’s had help with that. Aside from good friends/training partners Roberts and Fitzgerald being around to support him through the darkest stages of recovery, the realization that this is an opportunity to start anew has elevated Morrow’s perspective not just towards this first tournament back, but going forward in the months ahead.
“I feel like now, after all the rehabbing, it’s a new year, it’s a clean slate,” explained Morrow. “I’m a lot tougher, a lot happier, and ready to tear people’s heads off. I’m approaching this next year like how it was before the injuries. Andy has been preaching about the mental game. This is more mental than it is physical. I’m looking forward to getting overseas a couple of times, competing as much as I can, and ultimately, making that World Team. That’s how I am approaching this upcoming season.”