The most important step might be the first one, but that isn’t stopping Gary Mayabb from eyeballing the entire staircase.
Following a lengthy and decorated career as an educator, coach, and official, Mayabb was officially brought on-board by USA Wrestling as the Greco-Roman Operations Manager in June. Recognized widely as one of the preeminent advocates for the style in the US going back over two decades, Mayabb’s new role is coming at an interesting time for the US program. Optimism is high thanks to the emergence of young talent that has managed to produce at both the Junior and Senior levels, something the US program requires in a fast-changing sport. No-doubt-about-it young stars like Kamal Bey, G’Angelo Hancock, Taylor LaMont, and Cohlton Schultz offer undeniable promise and there could be more where they came from.
But a certain white-knuckled tension could be detected, as well. Greco-Roman in the United States is measured by the success of the Seniors on the biggest stage and outside of Andy Bisek’s two bronze medals in consecutive years at the World Championships (2014-15), you would have to go back to 2009 to find the last time an American strolled onto a Senior World podium, when Dremiel Byers picked up his silver in Denmark.
Medals. Medals at the Worlds, medals at the Olympics. Medals for Seniors not only mean progress and prestige, they also mean funding. And when there is a lack of funding, the trickle-down effect makes it awfully difficult to right the ship. A two-pronged solution is the only option: fortify the Seniors, fertilize the grassroots. US Greco-Roman National Team head coach Matt Lindland, a man donning several caps as the general overseer of the program, believes that a more youthful approach is necessary to keep pace with the rest of the world, which is why he has been vocal about creating more developmental opportunities every chance he gets. The problem? This can’t be a solo effort on Lindland’s part, not when there are countless responsibilities regarding the Olympic-level athletes demanding his attention.
That’s where Mayabb comes in.
The best way to perhaps see Mayabb is akin to that of an NFL franchise’s general manager. The 2003 Junior Greco-Roman Coach of the Year is tasked with evaluating potential talent, providing interested coaches with the requisite resources, organizing training and instruction, and staying on top of what state federations need when it comes to their own abilities to facilitate Greco-friendly adventures. There will be long hours, lots of miles logged, and a seemingly infinite number of phone calls (“I think we’re committed to a two-year stretch here with me on the road,” he says). The good news is that Mayabb is built for this. After only being on the job for a little over a month, he has already helped put together competitive overseas excursions and numerous camps, including one possessing particular significance. If it is going to help burgeon the American Greco-Roman feeder system, odds are Mayabb is looking into it.
The Cadet and Junior age groups represent the best example of Mayabb in action thus far. Both levels are preparing for their respective World Championships and piecing together the training conditions during a busy summer comes with several challenges, Most are not full-time athletes but rather, high school/college students who hail from various parts of the country. They have parents, their own club coaches, differentiating schedules, and individual training needs. Some wanted to compete in Fargo and rightfully or wrongly, were concerned about disrupting routines that have proven comfortable and productive. Therefore, just getting them in the same place at the same time while also buying into whatever Mayabb and Lindland are selling on paper is a lot harder than it looks.
But Mayabb did better than just orchestrate the camp, which ran from the end of June to the first of July. Instead, together with Lindland, he offered up a training experience so dynamic and uplifting, he had athletes hanging around in Colorado Springs even after it was over.
“We were able to keep seven of those Cadet World Team members and another five from the Juniors into the next week’s developmental camp, and Coach (Mike) Clayton helped us with that one,” Mayabb says. “We have been able to have our hands on a lot of the key players we were targeting. Now we’re going to end up having a whole month with them.”
“Whole month” in this case has to do with Fargo’s presence in mid-July, as a few of the wrestlers gearing up for their Worlds are going to be battling it out at the national governing body’s version of the Cadet and Junior National Championships (not to be confused with the United World Wrestling World Team Trials for both age groups that took place earlier in the spring). Once the initial camp for the squads broke at the OTC, a number of wrestlers began their final preparations for that event. In the past, this led to a sort of last-minute coalescing of the athletes right before their World Championships. This time, Mayabb was ready. He adjusted the training plan to accommodate Fargo entrants so that upon their return, they don’t miss a beat.
“They leave, they train, they get ready for Fargo, and then many of them come back to us the day after the event,” informs Mayabb. “And then we’re going to work some good recovery with them early in that week. What we hope to do is within that two-week period, like in the first four days, is transition them and move those guys back into a training cycle that we’re seeing with our Senior World Team. Because our Senior Worlds and our Cadet Worlds are on a closer pattern obviously.”
A Concentrated Approach for this year’s Cadet Worlds
US age-group wrestlers who find themselves in position to compete for World medals this year were brought into camp for more than just some hard training. Serious time was also devoted to properly appraising the skill-levels of the athletes in order to fashion training regiments tailored specifically to their needs. Mayabb’s principle goal here was to build a foundation for the wrestlers who might be a little green in the finer points of Greco-Roman that way once they were all caught up, more nuanced aspects of the sport could be introduced.
“We really did a lot of evaluations there and tried to move forward with certain areas of technique,” Mayabb explains. “For example, footwork and biomechanics were pretty important in that first camp. We wanted to see where they were at that point so we could skill-build the Cadets.”
The process overall is being meticulously cultivated. The conclusion of the Fargo Nationals will bring the Cadet World Team members together again just in time for the final training phase leading up to their World tournament, held the first week of September in Athens, Greece. Mayabb’s chief concern is making sure that there are no holes left unfilled with time becoming a factor. His desire is to have the entire Cadet squad clicking on the same schedule when it comes to their technical preparation as well as their ability to be right with the scale. That’s because the 2017 Cadet Worlds will be the first event to host same-day weigh-ins under United World Wrestling’s new guidelines.
“We will give them weight management charts to help them come down gradually,” says Mayabb. “That will alter and hopefully prepare them for that (same-day weigh-ins). We’re taking them to Greece August 31st not so much for acclimation, but to be in-country and on-weight.”
Involving the States
While Mayabb pouncing to help support Cadet World Team coaches Lucas Steldt and Zac Dominguez is indicative of the attention-to-detail he brings to the table, his biggest responsibility to USA Greco-Roman could be increasing participation among the youth at the state level. American Greco is most closely-associated with three states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Others, like California, New York, and Florida are starting to pick up the pace. But after those six, Greco’s popularity noticeably dwindles. States with well-known folkstyle/freestyle pedigrees typically remain attached to those disciplines. This is the kind of thing likely keeping Mayabb up at night, if only because he knows there is talent residing in these places he hasn’t had the chance to build a network for yet. He understands the reasoning, the history behind why some states historically balk at Greco. But like everything else, Mayabb is just waiting to avail his plan to juice the numbers up.
“We build on our strengths,” Mayabb says. “We’ve hit the ground running right now and that’s where we’re at, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. But states like New Jersey and Oklahoma are examples of states that just have great wrestlers. They have great fighters and their ability to wrestle is second to none. When I was down in Oklahoma, those kids were throwing like crazy on the first day of practice. You don’t have to present them with footwork and biomechanical skills because they already own those. They want to fight. They expect to dominate the person across from them.
“When you pair that, their learning curve is almost vertical. So we believe once we put our strengths out in front of us, the next step will be those tier states with phenomenal wrestlers and hopefully, we can pull from that. The states that are strong in freestyle right now, I want them to be that strong. I also have to believe there are some kids there in that four, five, and six range who are really good wrestlers who could even do more.”
The older segment, athletes in the Cadet and Junior age divisions, currently have the most avenues open to them. Most know about Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, home of the Olympic Training Site (formerly the United States Olympic Education Center). High school graduates itching to continue on in a Greco-Roman career while still enjoying the fruits of a collegiate lifestyle have been able to do so at Northern for nearly two decades. Last year, Williams Baptist College in Walnut Creek, Arkansas announced it would also be unveiling its own Greco-Roman program, making those two schools the only secondary education options where the style is available.
Two might not sound like a lot, and it isn’t, but when you factor in the recent group of athletes like Hancock, Bey, and Schultz, who came over to Greco as high schoolers and set up shop at the Olympic Training Center, it isn’t hard to see this isn’t some bygone era when the United States was forced to wait until after some of its prized Greco-Roman recruits finished up folkstyle collegiate competition. Wrestlers can make the switch earlier, which is what the program must have if it is going to rebuild in full and just as importantly, sustain as an entity capable of challenging the best teams in the world.
In order to make that happen, Mayabb is willing to exhaust all necessary resources. He is looking to assist Northern’s effort in terms of opening the lines of communication with potential incoming talent. He’s also deeply concerned about helping Williams Baptist get what it needs to bolster that emerging squad in a hurry. To top it all off, there is the brand new Accelerated Development Program at the Olympic Training Center where high schoolers can go to complete their educations and become resident athletes at the epicenter of the sport in the US. So when you combine these three primary variables, it should appear as though the push to bring in more prospects is beginning to take shape. Adding in mainstay feeder streams that have always produced reliable long-term Greco competitors and the optics are even more encouraging in Mayabb’s eyes.
“Right now, we’ve got an awful lot of irons in the fire in getting a few high schoolers to commit to coming out to the OTC,” says Mayabb. “If they allow us to maybe double up our resident population in Colorado Springs to go along with the the success we’re having currently at Northern Michigan…I mean my goodness, he (Rob Hermann) is at 45 (wrestlers) right now and he’s got people starting to call him who are heading to Fargo as we speak wanting to get in. Then we’ve got Williams Baptist with Coach (Jonathan) Drendel. I went down there and had a great meeting with their college president on campus and he’s a wrestler from California, so we feel really good about that situation and all of the work that Kerry (Regner) did.”
The one hang-up, if you’d like to refer to it as one, is that none of the above works without the country’s entrenched boots on the ground, the “name” Greco-Roman coaches everyone knows. Mayabb requires them to stay the course. He also needs the faces behind the scenes, those who have the knowledge and experience to assume larger roles in the style’s education, but are maybe relegated to only hyper-local training environments, or have simply been content to sit on the sidelines. It’s a “calling all cars” situation for Mayabb. If you would like to raise your hand and be a part of growing Greco and most of all, teach it, he wants to talk to you. One needn’t worry about credentials or long resumes filled with enormous successes. Just jump into the pipeline and he’ll find a way for you to be useful.
“I know that there have to be at least ten Greco people who we haven’t been tapping into well enough”, Mayabb contends. “You have the consistency, you have the people who have done it forever and just continue to, like Mark Halvorson, Dan Chandler. Jake Deitchler, Bryan Medlin — all of those guys. There are just people making Greco-Roman wrestling better and if we can get others who are in contact with them, one of the things I’d like to do is ask these coaches to allow other people to come in with two or three-coach delegations into their training camps to work with them. Then they can turn around the very next year and make huge strides in states we don’t have much in right now. But we have more resources than we’re using.”
Empty buses are actually a good thing
One thing Mayabb cannot help is to lean on his background as an educator, a vocation that must have proved quite fulfilling. He’s got the passion for the sport, no doubt. And it’s clear that he is also eager to run straight at any and all of the perceived challenges ahead in his new role. But the breadth of his enthusiasm can be found when he talks about the possibilities education can create. At his core, Mayabb is a teacher, United States Greco-Roman wrestling the school where he works. Class might be in session, but it is what occurs when the afternoon bell rings that really has him fired up.
“I’ve been involved with Junior and Cadet World Teams for 25 years and it’s kind of like running a school. At the end of the day, you hope the bus is empty because all of the kids are engaging in activities. That would be an exciting place to be, to watch a bunch of empty buses leave the parkng lot. That’s how I feel. Coach Lindland continues to open doors and he’s committed to our youth push, and he’s done such a great job with it. Look at Schultz, Bey, LaMont and Hancock — these are all kids who have been brought in and are doing very well. Obviously, we’ve got other product systems like the Minnesota Storm, which has consistently throughout the years done more than their fair share to build and enhance Greco. Of course, Team Illinois, too. There are a lot of things that are going right and if we just continue down this road, we’ve got some momentum here.”