Daniel Miller (97 kg, Marines) brought with him an assortment of tools when he decided to cross over to a full-time Greco-Roman career after graduating from the US Naval Academy a few years ago. Every athlete is strong at the Senior level; but Miller was entering the party with legit power. You can’t teach power, at best you can cultivate it through strength training and millions of lifts from par terre.
Determination was another key factor. Miller knew he had a learning curve ahead of him. They all do — nearly 100% of this country’s Greco-Roman competitors start off as hybrids thanks to the scholastic system in place. But that’s what makes the eagerness to take a few beatings early on so valuable. If a talented, mentally tough athlete can survive “Greco 101” while consistently gaining relevant, workable experience, chances are that one day it will all start to click. Maybe not right away. Maybe not in a year, or even two or three calendar flips. But eventually, the brain and body tend to come to a handshake agreement that this is what life is going to be like from then on.
On Friday evening at the South Point Hotel and Equestrian Center in Las Vegas, Miller earned his first US Senior Greco-Roman National title. Coming in (surprisingly low) as the #3 seed, the Marine Captain began his trek to the finals with three victories on Thursday, including a tense struggle against Enock Francois (NYAC/FLWC) in the semis, to reach the gold medal match some 24 hours later. Miller then turned back a game and improved Michah Burak (TMWC) 5-3 to sew up his championship and subsequent bye to the World Team Trials finals in June.
The achievement is not lost on him. Miller has worked extraordinarily hard to reach this watershed moment in his career. Few US athletes have traveled as much across the Atlantic in hopes of receiving the kind of education only skilled, elite foreigners can provide. Then again, few US athletes have been as successful as Miller when it comes to competing in overseas events, a factoid most are surely aware of by now. But it had been a dichotomistic relationship, at least up until recently. Miller’s deal used to be that he has actually performed better against international foes than domestic counterparts. That’s great and overseas medals are nice. But they don’t mean all that much if an athlete doesn’t put himself in position to make US World Teams.
Miller has come a long way and his win Friday night deserves to be acknowledged. But it was only Step 1. The process of nailing down Step 2 commences immediately. Miller, who has a penchant for the more analytical side of wrestling and a gift for communicating his approach to competition, was kind enough to share with us what was going through his mind this week, the process it took to get here, and how his coach prepared him to succeed.
Daniel Miller — 97 kg, Marines (2018 US National Champion)
“I started wrestling Greco in the fall of 2015, so I guess it has been about two and a half years. It’s just, in the United States I’ve had a really hard time cracking through at any level on the Senior circuit. I told my guys coming in this weekend, Look, I’ve never been on the podium, I’ve never had a medal at a Senior event in the United States. And again, like we’ve talked about before, I think a lot of them were surprised because I’ve been successful overseas before. I’m not entirely sure as to all the reasons because I felt like I struggled to perform at this tournament, as well. I think that primarily, it’s a stylistic difference. I went out there in my first match and I struggled. I made a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t very sharp, I wasn’t very crisp. I was a little nervous before I went out there and I think a part of that has to do with the lack of success I’ve had here in the US. And here I am at the tournament thinking, This is my tournament to lose — even though I was coming in as the #3 seed — but I had that mentality because I know what my abilities are and I know what my level of wrestling is. But I go out there against an unseeded guy (Devon Amburgy) and I end up down very early in the first and wrestle my way back. And then I end up on my back later on, almost getting pinned in my very first match. That was a struggle for me both during and after the match. I had to come to terms with what the heck was going on, like What is wrong with me? I know what level of wrestling I am capable of, so what’s going on?
“I think that really helped me find my center, which is really what you need to aim for when you’re trying to compete. Because — you could be on a high, or at a low, but at the end of the day you need to be on your center in order to be thinking and performing properly. I might have been a little on the high side coming in from the mentality that I mentioned earlier, and then I shot straight down to the far low side of the spectrum. That first one was my highest scoring match and I think I won 18-10. 28 points in a Greco-Roman match at 97 kilos is something I don’t think I’ve seen from anyone else, and definitely not from me. I dove a little bit into the depths but I was fortunate enough to pull through that match and find my center again. Coach (Jason) Loukides has been phenomenal helping me level out my emotions and understand that center is where I need to be at, and to just focus on the things I can control.
“And I think I did a good job of that for the remainder of the first day. I wrestled two solid opponents. (Eric) Twohey, I never wrestled him before, he was a really athletic guy. He’s got a lot of talent and abilities, and I am looking forward to seeing him the future when he is a little more refined with a little more Greco experience because he is a tough guy already. But, keeping the same game plan for all of these matches along with seeing how I wrestled in each match goes to show you how much mentality makes a difference. You have to stay in good position, you have to wrestle at your pace — you have to dictate your pace — and you have to capitalize on the opportunities where you know you can score. The earlier it was at that tournament, the worse of a job I did at that. As we continued on in the tournament Friday, I did better and better.
“I was favored in my first two matches according to the seeding. Going in to wrestle Enock (Francois), I had only competed against him one time before. It was two years ago and a very close match. He ended up trying to hit his signature high dive on me and I caught him with a throw-by to win that match. So I knew it was going to be closely-contested. And I also knew he wrestled a style that is very difficult for me to go up against, so I was a little trepidatious about it. I think I did a really good job of executing our game plan — staying in good position and making sure I wrestle my style. Don’t change my style to wrestle my opponent, but instead, control the things I can control, dictate what I can dictate, and score from the positions I want to score from. Don’t try to do something I am not comfortable or familiar with, because if I wrestle someone else’s match, that is when I am going to get scored on. And I think that’s what I’ve done in the past. I’ve felt like I have had to rush things or wrestle outside of my style, and that has cost me a lot of points and a lot of matches.
“After the first day I was pretty happy overall with my performance. We started out really slow, progressed throughout the day, and finished strong. The second day was the first time for me with weigh-ins in the morning and the finals in the evening. It was a little concerning. I haven’t wrestled like that — weighing in super early and then wrestle 12-plus hours later — I don’t think ever in my career. It was definitely an interesting dynamic. I weighed in early and got a workout in. I needed to get the blood flowing and break a sweat, loosen up the body and all that. Luckily, I had another finalist on the team with me, Lieutenant (Peyton) Walsh. He was a great partner to get in there and break a sweat with, and dust off whatever cobwebs that built up overnight so we could feel good going into the evening.
“We then went in (to the arena) to watch our teammates. Overall, as a team I think we had a fantastic performance. The Marines really showed up. I think we out-performed my expectations and Coach’s expectations, and really, anyone else’s expectations. I’ve said before that we have a lot of talent. We have a lot of hard workers and now we have 11 All-Americans to show for it. I’m super proud of all my Marines, the program, and the team in general. It was a phenomenal outcome.
“The team performance was fuel for the fire leading into the finals. We went down there and warmed up. It was my first time on the big stage in the US. Previously, I had fallen short prior to making it there. Again, I am competing against someone in Micah Burak who stylistically is difficult for me to wrestle. He’s in great shape, has a great two-on-one, and a huge freestyle background, which is what a lot of the guys in the US have. Obviously, the big concern for me was, How am I going to score points? What are the positions I need to get to? How am I going to dictate the match? I had the same game plan all weekend but I started slower than I wanted to. I think that allowed him to dictate the pace early on and that led to me getting called for passivity. I defended (from par terre) and then after that is when I really started to pick things up. Although, I did have trouble finding opportunities to score. But I think I wrestled a very smart match. Dictating my pace and dictating my ties is what really made the difference.
“As far as what this means to me, it’s difficult to not underplay or overplay the National title at the same time. We’ve talked so many times in the past about how I know where my goals are set and I think you’re pretty aware of that, as well, and I think we’re beyond a National title at this point. My goals are set extremely high, higher than what I’ve achieved, and I am going to continue to pursue those and I’m not going to let anything stand in my way.
“With that being said, this is a phenomenal achievement for me, especially with it coming in the United States. As we’ve also discussed before, the first hurdle to really making a big difference overseas is to make a Team. And while we haven’t made a Team yet — and by ‘we’ I mean myself in association with the Marines program — I have taken a step in that direction. Winning a National title is a huge step in that direction and now I have a bye into the World Team Trials finals. The advantage there can’t be underestimated and it can’t be understated. But I also don’t want it to be overstated, because at the end of the day, any warrior has a chance to make the Team. Anyone who comes out there on the right day has a chance to make the Team. I just happen to have the advantage of sitting there, knowing who is going to challenge me, and then meet them face-to-face on the battlefield, which is the wrestling mat for us.
“So I don’t want to understate it, but at the same time, I want to make sure people understand that my goals are set very high. I intend to go out there with the same game plan — get to good positions, get to my tie-ups, set my pace, and capitalize on opportunities I know I can score from. And I plan on doing that every match going forward. This is the first time I had success in the United States. It is a huge weight off of my chest and that’s the biggest thing. I think that the stigma of not being successful domestically had added to my continued failure to perform in the United States. Now I feel relieved regarding my performance because I feel like I didn’t perform at my best. I know you’re not supposed to say that as an athlete who just won a National title, but I feel like I did not wrestle my best tournament. Maybe that’s because my opponents matched up with me stylistically better than I anticipated, or maybe it was because I didn’t exactly do the things I wanted to. In my mind, I think it was because I’m so fricking nervous about competing in the United States that sometimes, I lose my fricking mind. So now I hope that is going to be cleared. There are a lot of fantastic wrestlers in the United States who have not won the US Open. It is a tough tournament. No matter what anyone says, it is an achievement. It is an accomplishment, I am very proud of it, and there is nothing that can substitute the feeling that I had and still have. There is pride in myself and in being able to bring home a National title to the Marine Corps, and I don’t want to understate that. But at the same time, I’m moving on to more things this year, next year, and in continuing on from there, and I want to make sure that is very well stated.
“One of the things people don’t understand is that while it’s important what you do everyday leading up to the competition, it isn’t the two weeks prior or the two months prior that prepare you for this. It’s the six-months out, a year out, two years out. The first thing you have to do at a tournament is make weight. I know that I sucked a lot of weight to make 98 kilos (back when it was) a day before. The preparation for me to make weight (in 2018) started in December when they basically officially said, We’re going to two-day weigh-ins and we’re going down to 97 kilos. At that point, I knew that I either needed to make a change in my lifestyle or I needed to change my weight class, and I wasn’t ready to change my weight class. Because as far as my goals are concerned, the best opportunity to reach them was to change my lifestyle. So that’s what I did. I changed my diet and committed to it. I also changed a little bit in how I work out on a day-to-day basis as far as raising the tempo and raising the intensity. And honestly, I became more focused on what I want. You have to be willing to sacrifice to meet your goals. Sacrificing a little bit more everyday was worth it to me. So we got the weight down and now I am very comfortable making 97 kilos. Currently, on the second day you get two kilos, but I feel I could have very easily made scratch weight both days, which is what we’re going to next year. Having a little foresight there, I might have gotten prepared for that a little in advance some might say, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m exactly prepared for where I want to be. Again, I’m not looking at just this year; I am also looking at next year, the year after, and continuing my career in that direction.
“We’ve also talked before about how Coach Loukides is very good at making sure we get the training we need as individuals and making sure we get training overseas. A lot of times, overseas is where we get the best training. In the past few months, I’ve been over to Croatia and did a camp over there. Phenomenal. The partners over there were great, the coaches over there were great, and the competition was good. I didn’t have a great performance over there, it was the first time under the new rules and they are called differently everywhere. They were called differently in Croatia than they were at Armed Forces, and they were called differently at Armed Forces than they were in New York. They were called differently in New York than the Nationals, and they’ll probably be called differently at the Pan Ams than they were here.
“That’s something as an athlete you have to be willing to adapt to and it’s another great thing Coach Loukides does, he makes us practice all of the different situations. There were :10 left in the Dalton Roberts/Mike Fuenffinger match and Fuenffinger was on top and needed to get a turn because he was down by two. We were sitting in the stands with a bunch of Marines and I had about three or four of them turn around and look at me and they were like, Well I’ll be damned if this isn’t a situation we practice in the room for Coach Loukides. And it’s a situation we’d practice where you would say, When is this ever going to happen in a match? And there we were, sitting and looking at a situation that we’ve practiced but never expected to encounter, but here it was. He prepares you for what you don’t expect. He prepares you for things you don’t think are within the realm of possibility. When am I ever going to have fresh start from top with :10 left and down by two points? It’s impossible, why would I practice this? It is possible. When you think you’ve seen everything in wrestling, you haven’t seen anything. The possibilities are beyond what anyone can think of or grasp, and that is why situational practices are so great and why live wrestling is so great. There is no substitute for mat experience and practicing different situations.
“That’s a huge thing that we do overseas, as well. For anyone who has been to an overseas camp, they know that generally, we’re doing live wrestling. It’s a heavy workload when you go overseas because those coaches know that the only way to get put into certain situations is by continuing to engage in live wrestling. When you get put into those situations again, again, and again, you will continue to understand not only how your opponent performs from that position, but what the best option for you is from that position. While there might be five different options, it could be that only two work for you and one works better than the other. Those are the kinds of things you learn in that style of training.
“Conditioning-wise, a general rule of thumb I’ve abided by in my training that I took from college is that the exercises you hate the most are the ones that are best for you. That’s what Coach Loukides does — he finds what you hate the most and that’s what he makes you do (laughs). It is the best thing for you. And while I struggle through those workouts and I’m gassing and feel like I can’t push for another second — let alone another minute or another period — that is what pushes me through the matches. That is how you develop the conditioning to push you through any situation. A big part of my conditioning for this tournament and why I looked like I was in great shape was also the result of me keeping good position in most of my matches. Anyone who has wrestled Greco will tell you that the guy who is in better position will use less energy. And I think I was in better position than my opponents, and therefore, I used less energy in every one of my matches.
“In addition to that, it is the conditioning that drives you not to the edge, but over the edge. Past where you think you can go, past where you’ve been before everyday — that’s the conditioning that will take you places. That’s the conditioning that will drive you when there are 30 seconds left in the second period and you need to freaking grind it out. When you don’t think you have it in you, but you know that you do because Coach Loukides has driven you past where you thought your physical limitations were, those are the kind of conditioning exercises that we do.
“We individualize on many levels in our room. Coach Loukides, he understands that each athlete has different abilities and limitations, which means that each athlete has to be pushed beyond their limitations in different ways. He develops the training plans, executes them, and any time I look at him wide-eyed and ask, You want me to do what?, I do what he says and I surprise myself. I might feel like death at the end, but I’ll also feel like I accomplished something when practice is over. Because, I knew that I was able to do something where earlier I thought, I don’t know if I can make it through this. That’s what makes the difference at the end of those matches. ”