It probably isn’t an understatement to say that just about everyone who is plugged into the United States wrestling scene knows who Robby Smith is. For one thing, he’s got that beard, right? And it’s not even one of those pretentious “hipster-ish” beards worn by wannabe misanthropes. Nah, it’s the opposite. Smith’s beard is an extension of his personality. It’s big, it’s friendly, and you can’t help but want to tug on the thing. Folks can say “fear the beard” all they like but the truth is, you won’t come across a more engaging human being.
Of course, most also recognize Smith for his adventures on the mat. The US Greco Roman Olympian at 130 kilograms, Smith is equal parts flashy talent and blue-collar tough guy. He can flow into and out of positions as if on a different speed than his opposition. Or he can bite down and brawl it up. There’s no clear line of demarcation in his style. He goes with what works. Maybe it is some kind of warrior thing. You know, let the soldiers know where the battle is and they’ll show up with the appropriate weaponry. Who knows? Some men simply know how to deal with a struggle. For them, confrontation doesn’t illicit the desire for an escape route, nor does it encourage excuses to be made. These types of men usually find a way to shine when the moment arrives. Only, their ability to triumph is often the result of being given the tools they need from the people who matter most.
For Smith, that happens to be his parents, Rob and Kim. Wrestling is usually a family affair but for the Smith bunch, it holds a slightly different context. The patriarch in this case serves as the catalyst, but not because he was a wrestler himself. “Robby even wrestling was a fluke,” Rob says. “I was a football coach and my defensive backs were wrestlers, too. They said their coach had quit, so they didn’t have a coach and they needed one.” Not wanting to let down his players, Rob took over coaching wrestling, as well. This made for a perfect introduction to the sport for the then four-year old Robby. “He was kind of a rambunctious little kid so I had to take him with me to practice and he was on the mat all the time rolling around.” The child took to the sport and then some, expressing an enthusiastic curiosity for what he was being exposed to. A next step was inevitable. “Finally, one of my assistant coaches told me to get him involved with USA Wrestling, so I did.”
An early indication
Maybe you’d be under the impression that a future Olympian always enjoyed an easy go of it in his youth. But that’s not how it was for Smith coming up, certainly not initially. A lack of youth programs in his district meant that for him to get some real live matches in he would have to travel to other towns and compete against kids several years older. A dynamic disadvantage at the age group level if there ever was one. “Robby’s beginning in wrestling was ridiculous,” Rob admits. “He lost every match, but always smiled.” Which is really all the Smiths were hoping for at that point — a smile. Competition for the youth, while having some lessons to teach, couldn’t be the measuring stick for progress. Not at that age, not in that way. For now, it was all about Robby having something to devote his energy towards, something that was his. The youngster was dealing with a learning disability, making the classroom not his most favorite place to be.
“I would watch this amazing little boy get to school and have his struggles,” Kim remembers. “And when you love your kids and support them but still know they’re out in that world, which is tough, you watch them get through it and find something that helps them. That for Robby was wrestling.” It took a little while for Robby to get his hand raised, so the Smiths decided to put a focus on incremental improvements, objectives they figured were reachable for their son even though the deck was stacked high against him in the early going. “After that first season I told him, ‘Let’s work on not getting pinned this year. I don’t care care if you win, let’s just not get pinned.’ And then the next year, I said, ‘Okay, let’s start trying to score some points.'”
Before long, Robby Smith began becoming a little more like the hammer and a lot less like the nail. His love for the sport growing along with his body, those bigger, older opponents ceased being such daunting appointments. In fact, at ten years old, Smith had already won his first state title and moved onto beating middle school-aged wrestlers. His advancement in the sport would lead to two significant events: One was a trip; the other was a chance meeting that would go on to change the course of his future.
“So what did you learn?”
The elder Smith would drive his son wherever and whenever there was an opportunity for Robby to wrestle. Being that most of the major wrestling competitions took place outside of the San Ramon, California area which the Smith family called home, plenty of miles were logged. One notable trek found them in Topeka, Kansas for a national tournament. Robby felt he was ready and that was all his dad needed to hear. “I’m one who believes you can’t say you’re the best unless you wrestle everybody,” the father recalls.
There wasn’t a disposable income to draw from. The trip to the Midwest was going to run in the neighborhood of $1,500 and that wasn’t the kind of money Rob had simply lying around the house. Even still, his son’s desire was a priority. Kansas it was. Except it wasn’t. Robby, who by now was finding success regularly on the local level, wasn’t quite ready for national competition just yet. Two quick losses ushered him right out of the tournament. It had all the makings of a long and dejected ride back to California. Not caring about the result or the lighter checking account, the father peered down at his son from the driver’s seat and posed one question: “So what did you learn?” Robby didn’t need to think of a response. Stunned and disappointed, he replied, ““I hate losing. I don’t want to lose anymore.” It was what the father wanted to hear, not for any other reason than he knew his son’s passion would endeavor to make that proclamation a reality. “That’s when the drive started happening,” Robby affirmed.
It is also around this time when Robby would become acquainted with both the wrestling style he would later adopt and the coaches who would nurture his growth into a national powerhouse. The Community Youth Center, located in Concord, represented a chance to mix it up in an environment more tailored to his development. But it’s not because the Smith family sought it out. Rather, a somewhat mystical component might be responsible for this life-changing event. You can’t explain these things. Some people are just fortunate to meet the right people at the right time.
“We were at a tournament and we met some of the coaches from the CYC and they said to come out and see what they were doing,” explains Rob. “So we did, and he got involved in Greco with Bill Martell and Mark Halvorson and he hasn’t looked back ever since.” With the Community Youth Center offering Greco Roman practices along with experienced, successful instructors, Smith discovered an altogether new trajectory. He took fast to the more physical, contact-heavy style and garnered a collection of age group titles. The chronology is important to consider. The child who was once forced to practice with middle school students while in the second grade had graduated to practicing with high school wrestlers as a middle schooler. The difference was that unlike those years before, when he was just a bright-eyed kid happy to be on a mat, Smith had by now accrued confidence, toughness, and an arsenal of weapons. He was believing in himself and the CYC played a vital role in bringing that out of him. However, Smith’s family was the churning engine powering the overall operation.
“For us, we would drive 150 miles a week taking him to practices and tournaments on the weekend,” says Rob. “But the CYC was a place I never felt bad driving out to because they taught him, and look where he’s at.” Kim understood the process, though she would have liked a little more time with her son. “He’d go to school practice, his dad would pick him up and drive him to the CYC, and then in high school if he had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t see him until ten o’clock at night.” But there is no resentment to be found. The unit is just too close for that. “I can honestly say that ever since we’ve been doing this, there has never been an argument, there has never been a fight,” assures Kim.
A national force
By the time Smith was finishing up high school he was a national champion in both Greco Roman and freestyle. Soon after, he enrolled at Northern Michigan University, the site of the United States Olympic Education Center. Here, Robby came under the tutelage of former Olympian and World silver medalist Ivan Ivanov. The Greco Roman program at NMU had begun to produce startlingly effective results at the national level and Smith felt right at home. He was getting his first taste of Senior domestic and international competition, placing in events and figuring out that he belonged. Smith made the Junior World Team, won the University Nationals, and in 2008 placed fifth at the US Olympic Team Trials, losing to eventual Olympic bronze medalist Adam Wheeler in the semifinals. It was starting to come together. Robby was a legitimate contender on the national level and seemingly on the cusp of breaking through.
Another quad came and went with a change in weight class on the horizon. Smith originally cut his teeth on the Senior circuit at 96 kilograms but the juice was no longer worth the squeeze. “He had a hard time making weight,” says Rob. “At one point at 96 kilos I told him, ‘You’re done. I’m not going through this again.’” The move up did more than satisfy Rob’s desire to not see his son suffer anymore. It also catapulted Robby full-time into the weight division once locked down by legendary Olympians Matt Ghaffari and Rulon Gardner, two heroes of Smith’s growing up. However, another heavyweight kingpin was still around, former World silver medalist Dremiel Byers. Byers, who made his second and final Olympic squad in 2012, might have been nearing the end of his rope in 2013 but remained a looming presence.
At the 2013 US Open, Smith lost a close match to talented Marine David Arendt. He then won his first consolation bout to stay alive for third place. That set up the fateful meeting with Byers, who himself had fallen to Erik Nye. It wasn’t for the gold or the right to compete in a World competition, though it wasn’t without significance. Smith won a narrow decision and to his father, set up the current sequence of events which have propelled Smith on track towards attaining Olympic glory. “Byers was always the daunting figure there who was beating everybody. But once Robby beat him, I knew he could do it.” Smith earned the right for a rematch with Arendt a couple of months later at the World Team Trials. This time, he wouldn’t be denied. Arendt took a 5-3 decision in the first match of the best-of-three series. Robby came back in the second with quick pin. In the third and decisive bout, Smith used a couple of front-headlock snaps and spins to come away a 6-1 winner and also, make his first Senior World Team.
Since that first match in the 2013 World Team Trials, Robby Smith has not been defeated by another American wrestler. If anything, he has been downright dominant. Should you put it all under a microscope, he’s hardly even been scored on. The only points given up by him from 2013 on were to Adam Coon in the 2016 Olympic Trials finals and that was off of a throw attempt which Smith fell short on. To Rob, it is a statistic worth paying attention to. “That’s three points in three years. If you actually look at the cumulative time, it’s unbelievable.”
A journey together
The Olympics, the ultimate event in sports, is a surreal experience for the Smiths. What started out as a way to harness a young boy’s energetic disposition became a family pact, an unshakable bond cultivated by the understanding of what the son is capable of. It has been the sisters, too, Colleen and Crystal. The family of five functioning as one breath, inhaling and exhaling for the betterment of the children’s futures as a whole. It’s just that the boy who grew into a man also became an elite athlete of the highest order. “Rob, Robby, and I have been like a partnership in this journey,” Kim, the philosophical voice of the clan, adds. “But I’m more like the silent partner. This was his dream, his journey, and Rob and I were the facilitators to the best of our ability to get him where he is today.”
Rio may not appear to be the most picturesque place to be at the moment but naturally, that is of little consequence to the parents. After all, it isn’t like there is any chance they would miss their son compete in the biggest event of his life. “You go and do the things you need to do, you register with the US Embassy, you cover all of your bases,” Kim says. “I’m more concerned for my kid than that part of it.” Rob, who loves traveling to watch Robby wrestle all over the country (and the world) can hardly sit still. “I mean, I can’t get there soon enough. It’s not the best place to be going but wherever he’d be going, I’d be going.” Which has been the story all along.
Actually, Rob Smith will be easy to spot at the Rio Olympics. You might not see him, but you’ll likely hear him. Rob brings a drum to all of Robby’s competitions. It’s become part of their non-verbal communication ritual. Initially, a “thumbs up” from the son following a victory was the calling card. The musical component was added after a trip the father took overseas. “The Iranians were beating the drum. Robby was behind against the Russian and he came back and told me, ‘Dad, I don’t know, I was fighting and this drum beat got in my head and it made me want to keep going.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get a drum.'” Rob is not a percussionist. If anything, he has made an effort to learn different beats that rile his son up. “I’ve been trying to find African war beats and all this other stuff. There’s nothing out there so I just make it up as it goes. I wear blisters on my hands from beating the thing.”
Now that it’s almost here
At 29 years of age, Robby Smith has been wrestling for nearly a quarter of a century. That is an awful lot of practices, tournaments, matches, and rides home with long talks. The US Greco Roman star has always believed in his vision of becoming an Olympian and now it’s here. National championships, World teams, unforgettable performances, Star Spangled socks, and a giant personality — they all have a beginning. Rob and Kim, while pleased with the accomplishments of their son, are even happier with the man he has become. “Wrestling is only part of who Robby is,” says Kim. “He’s this really great, kind, amazing guy. In his soul he’s a beautiful person and going through life, that’s the important thing.” Fathers tend to veer more towards the achievements and goals of their athlete sons, but even Rob can’t help himself. “I can’t say enough about him. He makes time for everybody.”
The only hiccup in all of this is that the Rio Olympics come with a pretty hefty cost. Prices are jacked up in every direction and there is little mercy for the families of those participating. The trip for just one person (from the US) can run in the vicinity of $7,000, which only buys the flight, a room, and tickets to one event as well as the closing ceremonies. It’s steep. “I’m going to spend at least $25,000 going to see him,” Rob conceited. The Smiths will find a way to make it work. They have to. One of their kids has something major going on and they will do whatever it takes to be there for them. Plus, this is a happy occasion. Their son might very well be on the verge of making history. And for whatever Robby accomplishes in Rio, it will be shared by all.
“He doesn’t just want to go to the Olympics, he wants to medal at the Olympics, ” Kim declares. Should that happen, Kim, who can barely contain her emotions, certainly won’t be able to then. “I would probably be a sobbing mess, I’m sure of it.” As for Rob, the devoted and compassionate dad, there is a deep, confident resolve emanating from within. “He hates for me to predict anything, but I know if he wrestles his best, he can do it.” A recent trip for the American wrestler to training camp in Azerbaijan brought with it an inspiring text messaging conversation. “I told him while he was in Azerbaijan, I said, ‘Buddy, I know you’re going to win a medal, I just don’t know what color yet.’ He texted back to me, ‘Dad, it’s going to be gold.’ So I said, ‘Well, that’s a good color.'”
It is a team effort and always has been for this group. The path that was etched out years ago has led to this, each member of the family taking on roles to support each other. With the Olympics now closing in fast, the importance of this dynamic is not lost on the man of the hour by any stretch. “Even when times were hard for them, they put me first,” says Robby. “It’s a true bond. My dad is my best friend. My mother is the most amazing mother you could possibly have. Without them, this whole thing could not be possible.”
Well, it is possible. It’s happening. Soon enough, mom, dad, and son will be together again at a tournament. The only variable now is distance. Time and space, sleeping and awakening. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil stands at 24 and half years and around 6,600 miles from when this journey first began. As always, the two people Robby Smith loves more than anyone else in the world are going to be in attendance watching from the stands. It is Rio or bust according to the father.
“We are going to be there. You’ll hear me and Robby’s going to hopefully give me thumbs-up multiple times.”
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