Your eyes catch Blake Smith (97 kg, OTC) and it’s apparent right out of the gate that he’s not like everyone else. There is a different energy which escorts his strides. Most upper-weight Greco-Roman athletes boast an imposing appearance. You’ve seen this. They have the scary-wide backs, the broad shoulders, thick necks, thick legs, and kind of walk around the arena as if they’re security personnel patrolling the last call at a nightclub. It is clear they are anticipating conflict of some sort. Smith has all that going on, too, but there is a decidedly more intense aura surrounding his posture. He can’t wait — and he can’t help it. If you didn’t know better, Smith could easily be mistaken for a firefighter itching to sprint into a burning building or a stuntman about to hurl himself off of a running motorcycle.
And when he began his full-time Greco-Roman career just under two years ago, the wildhorse recklessness you’d expect out of a kid from the desert who chose this sport primarily for its violence quickly became his calling card. Smith would eagerly crash into contact, doing whatever he could to use his body as a weapon. He says now that those early matches brought with them a degree of anxiety. He was unsure of Greco’s finer points, its unique mechanics, and therefore, afraid to look foolish. But what Smith didn’t realize then that he does now is the mere willingness to demonstrate aggression is what separates wannabes from actual doers.
Following his senior year of high school and an Arizona state title, Smith could have easily continued on in a collegiate folkstyle program, did his time, and then maybe, somehow, transitioned over to one of the the international styles. That could have happened. Instead, Northern Michigan head coach Rob Hermann saw promise in the raw material Smith had working in his favor — and next thing you knew — the kid was overseas turning the lights out on far more experienced foes.
Although he was and still is a work in progress, Smith’s understanding of the sport and his place in it has grown immeasurably. The requisite number of beatings both in tournaments and the practice room provided him with the hard-knock education almost all American competitors endure, but not nearly enough seem to embrace. In his first full year at NMU, Smith emerged victorious at the Junior World Team Trials Challenge Tournament before established young star G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg, Sunkist) defeated him in the best-of-three wrestle-off a month later. Then last fall, Smith slugged his way through the U23 Trials in Rochester, Minnesota, earning his first spot on a US World Team.
Just as 2017 eased into 2018, Smith said goodbye to NMU and moved out west to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The chance to live the life of a high-level competitive athlete without having to break the bank to see his family in Arizona was key in the decision. He says as much below. But it also represented another new start, another way for Smith to keep improving at the same rapid pace he had gotten used to in Marquette. It has only been one tournament so far for the 20-year-old since he packed up for Springs, but the early returns are encouraging: last month, Smith placed fourth at the US Senior Nationals in Las Vegas.
Coming up, it’s going to be a whirlwind. The first weekend of June will see Smith attempt to make his second-consecutive U23 World Team in Akron, Ohio. He will grab a little breather and then power back up for the Senior World Team Trials three weeks later in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At both tournaments, Smith is going to be one of the athletes all the others in his bracket will be keeping an eye out for.
You should do the same.
Blake Smith — 97 kg, OTC
5PM: What exactly was behind your decision to leave Marquette for Colorado Springs?
Blake Smith: The biggest thing for me was that it’s way closer to my family and cheaper for me to go home on the weekends to see them, instead of only seeing them once or twice a year. So that was a big part of the decision. Secondly, here I am able to actually go to both practices, where in Marquette, I could only go to one practice because I had to work to pay my rent and do all this other stuff to make ends meet. Moving down here has really made life easier, and like I said, I can see my family more.
5PM: What about the training environment? Was it about having different partners?
BS: Actually, you know what? Since there are less people here, I am able to have more one-on-one time with coaches. That has definitely helped me with learning technique. At Northern, you have, what, like 60 or 70 people there? It’s hard for only two coaches to get around and coach all 60 people in a practice. Here in Colorado, I would say that the guys here are of a different caliber. We’ve got Pat Martinez back on the mat, so I am able to practice with him. There is Easton Hargrave, he is high caliber, too, so I can go with him. And like I said before, the coaches are there to work with you one-on-one and better your technique.
5PM: You were very raw when you came up to Marquette. Early on in your tenure at NMU, what was the most important thing you learned when it came to becoming a full-time athlete?
BS: What was the most important thing I learned? Definitely not to hesitate, to not be scared to throw moves, especially against foreign guys. What I’ve learned from wrestling here in America is that if you don’t hesitate you are going to get your points, you know what I’m saying? I’d say that’s the most important thing I learned from Rob (Hermann). He told me, “You’ve got to stop hesitating, you need to just lock up and go.” And I didn’t really pick that up until the Junior Nationals last year, which is where I got my first “stop sign”. Don’t hesitate, believe in yourself, just do what what you’re capable of doing, and you’ll be surprised to see what you are capable of doing when you’re not scared.
5PM: You had a decent number of competitions under your belt prior to last spring but it all seemed to come together for you at the Junior Nationals. Is that where and when you really started to understand your own style and how to apply it?
BS: That is where it definitely started to click and where I realized that I am capable of breaking through at the higher levels. Before that, there were times when I was terrified to step on the mat because I didn’t know what I was doing. But after that tournament, I was like, Dang, I can actually bodylock, I can hit this move, or that move, as long as I am into it, you know?
5PM: Okay, then let’s follow up with this, especially since you are still young: are there any retired or older, veteran-type athletes you looked up to and try to take little parts of their game and put it into yours?
Blake Smith: I would say Khymba Johnson. I’m glad you brought this up because it reminded me. Before that tournament ever happened, Khymba was teaching me things. He’d tell me, You’ve got to do this…You’re so stiff, don’t be so stiff. He did this the whole year, my whole first year. He would say, If the guy does this, you’ve got to do this and that. Khymba really got me up on technique while I was at Northern Michigan. You know how I brought up how coaches can’t really coach 60 kids at a time at Northern? Well, Khymba was there. He was like a coach to me and he really helped me get to where I was before I moved out to Colorado. I was in his bracket for a little while and he was still teaching me how to get better.
5PM: When you take inventory of your current skills, which ones do you look at as your biggest attributes so far?
BS: Just staying in the match. It doesn’t have to be a technique or anything, so I would say just mentally staying in the match. Even if you’re down, don’t give it up. Just stay aggressive and keep moving your feet. If you can keep doing that, you can get into your opponent’s mind. Momir (Petković) told me that. He said as long as you keep moving your feet, keep driving, and keep pummeling hard, the guy is eventually going to open up because he’s going to get frustrated. So the best thing to do is just keep your mind in the match and do what you were taught to do.
5PM: What directed you to this sport, especially coming from Arizona, which isn’t somewhere most would consider to be a huge Greco market? What led you to pursue this as opposed to something else?
BS: I really didn’t even want to do college wrestling. I felt like grabbing legs and stuff was boring. I just thought, It’s weird, I don’t want to do this at the next level, I don’t want to go to college and do this. When I was a senior in high school, Rob was talking to me and he asked me if I was being recruited by anyone. I told him, Not really anywhere I want to go to. So he asked if I wanted to go to Austria. Yeah, sure, why not? That’d be fun, to go overseas and see where I’m at in the world.
So I went over there and I pinned my first two kids, and that’s when I was like, Wow, I actually really like this. It’s like a street fight, you know? Like an organized street fight. I like that we can stand there and brawl, and it is an actual brawl. We’re not sitting there circling around each other like freestyle, avoiding contact. We’re legit. We might not be throwing fists, but we’re hitting each other hard the entire match. I like how aggressive it is, that’s what turned me onto it.
5PM: You’ve been overseas and trained and competed against international opponents. You’ve wrestled in a World Championships. How do you adjust your approach, if you even do, to go against foreigners?
BS: Nothing changes. I went out there (at the Worlds) and I literally bullied the crap out of that guy. I have the same mindset. Honestly, I hate to bring scores into it, but I can beat that guy. Before the match, I watched him. I was like, Oh, he’s going to headlock, and sure enough, I put my head down and he headlocked me. Those were the only offensive points he got the entire match. After that match, I was like, I can really hang with these international guys. If you give me another chance at a World Championship, I truly believe I can do much better than I did last year.
So I really don’t think I need to change my mindset, I just need to listen to myself. Like when I thought, This guy has got a headlock, don’t give it up, don’t ever relax. And these foreign guys, they don’t relax. I think us as Americans, we need to keep the pace up, maybe get our cardio up, and not relax during matches. That’s one thing we can change and can do better with at international tournaments in Greco, keep the pace up against these guys.
5PM: First coming up for you is the U23 World Team Trials in early June, and you are the reigning World Team member. You just got done telling me that if you get another shot at the World Championships, you’re going to perform better.
BS: Oh, I know I will, yeah.
5PM: Okay, you’ve got the Senior Trials, too. But are the U23 Trials a bigger priority?
Blake Smith: I don’t think I have a priority, I want to make both teams. I want to make both teams just as badly.
5PM: How does the training plan work for you insofar as preparing for two Trials tournaments in the same month?
BS: We’re going at it pretty normally right now. I’m doing the same things as everyone else in the room. We practice, we go for a run afterwards. I’m just doing the same things as everyone else.
5PM: For all intents and purposes, you’re still new to this level. It is barely two years now since you’ve been wrestling Greco. But you have already made a Team and entrenched yourself as one of the best prospects in the country. Did you expect all of this to have happened so quickly?
Blake Smith: People have always told me that I pick things up really quick, but no, I never thought I’d be on this level, but once you get a taste of something you want more of it. That’s where I am sitting at right now. I got a taste of what it’s like to win a national tournament, and now I want to keep winning and I want to go to more World Championships. I want to make an Olympic Team in 2024 or even 2020. Actually, I want to make both of them. But yeah, it’s definitely happening fast and I just want more if it.