Over the past three years and a half years, John Stefanowicz (77 kg, Marines, world #3 at 82 kg, 5PM #5) has been one of our most-covered athletes due to his consistent rate of activity (and success), ability to articulate post-competition feelings and perspectives, and really, just his general knack for delivering soundbites devoid of any and all pretense. But as Stefanowicz’s presence as a top athlete has increased, the same can be said for his scope of responsibilities, both on and off the mat.
Stefanowicz, 29, has his hands full and wrestling represents a mere fraction of what his waking hours entail. In addition to his daily Marine Corps tasks which he is called upon to bear, he is also the married father of two young boys. He was already a devoted dad prior to the spring, but since the pandemic hit, life in his household has changed.
Stefanowicz’s wife, Samantha, is deemed an “essential worker” in North Carolina. With Camp Lejeune having observed a litany of restrictions resulting in schedule changes and a variety of other duty alterations for Marines on-base, Stefanowicz found himself caught up in quite the juggling act. He was the one staying home with the kids — along with performing his duties as a Staff Sergeant — and participating in whatever workouts availed by the All-Marine Wrestling Team as well as serving on more wrestling committees than any other American Greco-Roman athlete. But that’s not all: currently, Stefanowicz is enrolled in three college courses in an effort to nail down his degree and upgrade his career as a military servicemember.
Whenever you feel tired throughout the day, simply think of Stefanowicz. He wants you to. Not because he desires being seen as some do-it-all tough guy in need of an ego massage, but because in his mind, everyone is capable of pushing through exhaustion when a suitable reward is waiting at the finish line.
Some of what is outlined above points to why Stefanowicz is the subject of this new featured column, Diary of an Athlete Leader, though there is more to digest. For starters, his take on several important peripheral issues affecting the sport of wrestling in the United States. As a member of USA Wrestling’s Athlete Advisory Council, Stefanowicz’s grasp of what matters to his colleagues, especially during this moment of nationwide turbulence, helps provide context for those on the outside of the bubble who have wondered why some things need to be said and why more people need to be heard, for better or worse.
Then there’s the national governing body’s recent decision to bypass sending a delegation to the 2020 World Championships next month. Stefanowicz illustrates how he compartmentalized the particulars involved and what he hopes fans and athletes alike understand about such a difficult situation.
More than anything else, what you have here is a collection of insights from a man whose sense of service drives his passion. It is easy to assume that Stefanowicz yearns for a simple life, one where he spends his days training, hanging out with his family, upholding his responsibilities as a Marine, and then hitting the proverbial hay. Maybe down the road that will be how it is.
Not now. There is too much to do.
While Stefanowicz is certainly pushing himself towards a career-defining season, he has also answered the call to step up and stand up for the sport and its athletes in the midst of what has been an equally trying and hopeful time in the US program’s history. And how he has managed to balance his competitive objectives, the needs of his family, and still be there for his Marines offers an in-depth look at a wide range of life lessons from which everyone can learn.
The Stefanowicz Chronicles — Volume 1
5PM: A common adage is that sports tend to mirror what goes in society. That is usually an overstatement, but over the past couple of years it has become increasingly true. And then you look at some of what occurred during the summer, and social issues crossed paths with wrestling issues, and a lot of wrestlers began sharing their insights and opinions on a much wider scale. There is just so much going on, everywhere you look. As a father, as a husband, Marine, and competitor, do you think this is a particularly challenging time to endeavor towards Olympic aspirations?
John Stefanowicz: Yeah, I don’t think this is one of those times when you should try and hide from how you are truly feeling, from what you’re seeing, and from what you see going on with yourself. Like you said — as a father, as a Marine, and as a leader among my peers whose ears and shoulders I have leaned on multiple times because it is just harder. Everything is just harder. You have to constantly remind yourself and fight the demons in your head that say, I have this Olympic dream. It may be taking, it may not be taking, but I have to keep pushing forward as if it’s already there.
For wrestlers, normalcy is state the first weekend of March; or April, it is the World Team Trials or the Olympic Trials. You know when something is, you know when to have your body prepared, and you know what that feeling is like. But now, you have the loss of taste from actually wrestling and that anxiety. You have that loss of feeling of what it’s like to be prepared and to get ready to have that sense of urgency. That is something Coach (Matt) Lindland has hit on a lot, and I thought that was one of his best one-liners, how you have to have that sense of urgency to push to get ready for this, on this date at this time. Then all of the sudden, it gets taken away.
Whether I had agreed with it or not is not up to me to discuss. But to have a Worlds just thrown out there as though we might do it gave a lot of people, in my mind, the thought of having hope. Then again, it was hard to see that it was more than just a little bit of hope. As a dad, I see that it’s hard, watching what my kids have to learn and go through. I see what they are doing in school and I don’t know how I could do a day-to-day like they do already with the requirements. Everyone has to understand that life is a lot harder than it was a year ago. It might be hard for you but it’s just as hard for everyone else. The more pushback that we have will create more ripples.
It is one of those things where you have to work together to get moving forward. I think that is what we’re experiencing now. As the fall begins to come around, everyone is seeing that we may have one or two competitions, maximum, and then it will be the Olympic Trials. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) has stated that we are going forward no matter what, so we have to push. We at least have something that has nothing standing in the way of it and we have to do our best to prepare for that. We are at that time when we have to collaborate, work together, and get moving. Anywhere other than up is just a failure on our own part as leaders.
5PM: Your visibility as both as a top US Greco athlete and leader in the program have increased in a big way since 2017. How have you maintained a balance when you are busy training, busy parenting, busy with the Marines, and then serving on a variety of different wrestling committees?
JS: I do get overwhelmed at times. I’ll be upfront about that. There were times during the summer when I was too overwhelmed and had to scale back on my college course load. What I thought was impossible, which was having too much on my plate, came around full circle as a Marine and as a wrestler who was training, and also as a college student. And then I found out that I had to become a stay-at-home trophy dad (laughs). Mom is an essential worker for the county, so next thing you know I found out what it felt like to be the mom with the kids when the husband comes home from work (laughs). You had all of that and add it together with all that I’m doing, and you realize that there is a certain threshold that you take and you reach.
I got past that. I saw that I had a couple of deficiencies. A lot of it came from being able to balance a home life, a work life, and a college life. I focus pretty hard on my studies. Being able to compartmentalize everything, I noticed that you can’t devote full attention to a lot of things. It just naturally kind of goes to the wayside. I have had a lot of time management proficiencies that have come my way during this time and I have tried to capitalize on those. A lot of people sit back and relax, but I’m not great at that. It’s a lot like my wrestling.
I try to capitalize on my downtime to become more proficient at other things, and it all came around full circle. I was given more visibility with the committees for the USOPC (United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee), the Olympic movement, and for USA Wrestling as a whole. I have a pretty darn good support system here. The command here, which is where I work, when we need something or I have something going on, they understand that I might not be doing something at practice but if I have a college course, or a meeting with one of the nine committees on which I sit, it is doing something for the program and I am bettering it in some capacity in some way. But I have a good support system. I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. The wife does a lot of the time management-calendar stuff with me. I keep complaining that no one has given me a secretary yet (laughs). I don’t see that changing anytime soon, but the closest thing I have to it is a planner, a wife, and a coach. That pretty much gets me through it.
But I don’t know, man. It’s a lot. Like right now, I’m talking to you, but before that I was finishing up another course assignment because it is due by midnight. It is what it is. Like I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell everyone this, I have two kids at home and a large group of Marines who I know in some capacity look up to me in a sense of, What’s he doing? I want to be able to be there. If I let that go, I’m just not setting the right example. So, I am going to keep setting the example for everyone. That’s really it.
5PM: The buzzword that gets thrown around with the Greco program is “cultural”. That word is kind of ambiguous and can mean different things to different athletes at different times. What does culture mean to you when it comes to the Senior US Greco program?
JS: We talked about this before. I had a couple of freestyle athletes who were asking me about Greco and I was talking to them about it. They were like, Nah, my body just hurts a lot after Greco, it just doesn’t feel very good. The culture that we have, I can let someone else be the judge of it, but I feel like it has actually become a lot closer-knit in the last three years compared to when I was first on the circuit. It didn’t feel the same. Maybe it was because I wasn’t as deeply involved as I am now; but still, the kids who are new on the block still have the same sense of pride in USA Greco and how they can have a future and progress — way more than I thought I could have back when I was going through the programs.
The culture is something that we know is there, and that is what is really upsetting when it comes to 2020 and 2021. We knew where we were, and we know where we stand and how close we are to breaking and busting the floodgates open. The coaches we have implemented, the people we have hired, and the athletes that we have are top notch. It is one of those things that we know is right there and it is really frustrating that we haven’t been able to get out. We haven’t been able to train, we haven’t been able to compete. I know that we’ve all been spread apart. I haven’t been able to train with other people, other teams. But when I have talked to athletes and I ask how they’re doing, everyone has this huge sense of frustration of, When am I going to be able to try and kill someone on a mat again?
That is something I am really looking forward to seeing. Unfortunately, it is probably going to be us killing each other come April before anything else; but if that’s what it takes and that’s what it means for USA Greco to get medals again internationally, then so be it. I don’t really care. But that sense of frustration stemming from not being able to compete is widely understood among everyone and we’re all tired of waiting.
5PM: The US Nationals that were just held, some athletes weren’t too thrilled about it; and with the military athletes not able to go, something definitely felt like it was missing. No one would deny that I reckon. That being said, as a stand-alone tournament, do you think the Nationals served its purpose in showing that wrestling is taking a step forward in this country following months and months of being stuck in a stalemate?
JS: Do I feel like it was the right step in improving the perception? Yes, I believe it helped the perception. Now, do I think it served a purpose so far as This is the Nationals and it’s the best tournament, and all that other stuff? No. And do I feel like that is USA Wrestling’s fault? No, I don’t. I was one of the people trying to push it along with them.
It was open to all athletes, it was open to all citizens with a USA Wrestling membership and eligible for Seniors. So whether we were there — and “we” meaning the Marines — to help everyone else in the sense of having a crowd? Then no. That part was something we couldn’t really control. But from a controlling standpoint, I think USA Wrestling did everything in their power, and I think they did it pretty darn well, to mitigate risk. They brought the image of, We can do it safely, we can do it soundly, we can do it the right way, this is how we’re going to do it; and any mistakes that we make, we’ll make sure to mitigate them for the next one — and we’re going to do it better than any other country has thus far. And, they did that.
Do you want to know the sad part about that? And this really irritated me because it was the predecessor to the decision not to go to Worlds: we did it so darn well that everyone had referenced how great of a tournament it was that we just had in Iowa. So, it was, If we can have a great tournament like we just had in Iowa, why can’t we just go to Worlds? In a sense, it really irritated me because of the ignorance. You know me, as a consummate professional I really have trouble dealing with the ignorance part. That is definitely a deficiency of mine. But we did it so well that everyone inside and out of the decision-making process that goes along with the Nationals and all of these committees — that are deeply saturated, or not saturated at all with coaches and volunteers — all referenced the Nationals that we just held in Coralville, Iowa and how great it was. How, If we can do that, why can’t we handle the World Championships?
So, yeah, I think it was great and that it served a great purpose. In a sense, it was almost too good just because of that one piece. But everything else? It was perfect, yes.
5PM: As a Marine athlete, when you are around your fellow USA Teammates or overseas at a camp, do you feel a responsibility to conduct yourself a certain way in order to represent your branch, its lifestyle, and the general Marine Corps approach to competition?
John Stefanowicz: Oh, yes, definitely. See, for that one, I will take “culture” and remove the last three letters and call it a “cult”, because that is a die-hard fact of how myself and the rest of the Marines will operate. I think it boils over to other USA athletes because it’s a discipline factor. It goes on from there. When we are at these overseas camps and tournaments — well, not really tournaments, because we’re not there long enough to have a good time — but at these camps when we are in the suck with other nations, we get along with a lot of people from a lot of other countries because they see what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and the structure that we have.
When we are there, if I don’t have a Team USA coach asking me to make sure this gets done or that gets done appropriately, then I feel like I’m doing something wrong. Because yes, I do feel like a leader on the National Team. It isn’t because I feel like my accolades are higher, because they’re not, in all of those senses. It is because I know that I can handle the accountability and am able to ensure the safety of the mission and its priority. Whether it’s right or wrong, that has been my personality.
I think it ties into some of the other stuff that I do. It’s a sense, it’s a feeling. You don’t teach a personality. That’s why we, the Marines, are a little bit of a different breed. People ask “how” and “why”, and I don’t know. I leave it up to someone like you to figure out the words behind it, but it’s one of those things that is just there. When you go through the bad times and you go through them together, it makes the good times better and it also makes you a lot closer. For us, when we travel overseas we handle ourselves accordingly to the best of our ability. Something Coach (Jason) Loukides preaches about to us a lot is that we’re not just a name. If I do something wrong overseas, it is going to say “US Marine Does This…” If I do something wrong, it is an international incident and the embassy is getting called. USA Wrestler, Marine, whatever, whatever, whatever… The news will never mention my name, it will just mention the organizations and affiliations I represent.
When you have that ingrained in your mind and your train of thought, that natural sense of making sure that everything else goes the right way, whether they are your own or not, starts to play a role. That’s the truth. I think that has helped me with my leadership roles as an athlete representative, as a Marine, and with the organization here.