USA Greco

Understanding Mohamed – The Journey from Foreign Athlete to American Coach

mohamed abdelfatah

The scene might not appear unique. A well-built man, in his upper-30’s, paces around the padded surface of a wrestling mat as activity unfolds around him. Pairs of wrestlers, most of them a decade younger, or more, dutifully carry out their coach’s instructions. Before you know it, the sound of thuds and booms and grunts rise to the rafters. Despite the control each athlete exhibits when performing his maneuver, there is still a certain air of volatility each time landing is made. The falls are cushioned by a precious couple of inches of foam, rubber, and vinyl, but that doesn’t mean there is not a palpable impact. There sure is.

It’s a little after 10:30 in the morning at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and Mohamed Abdelfatah is happy to be where he feels most comfortable.

Home.

The story of the competitor

Perhaps you already know about Mohamed Abdelfatah, who they call “Bogy”, the Egyptian colossus responsible for generating nightmares in the minds of countless opponents throughout the latter part of the 90’s and into the mid-aughts. During his reign atop the sport of Greco Roman wrestling, Abdelfatah was recognized for being a bringer of beautiful brutality. It was a role he relished, and understandably so. Competing at 84 kilograms for the brunt of his career, Abdelfatah carried the appearance of a menacing bruiser and exacted damage commensurate with such an image, effortlessly locking and lifting similarly-imposing foes en-route to wrestling notoriety. He didn’t win them all; he would be the first one to tell you that. But he won most of them, an achievement all the more impressive considering there was a perennial target firmly residing on his back.

Because wrestling is a contextual sport, all one needs to do is glance at the man’s resume. Abdelfatah’s ledger reads like a Hall of Fame plaque. On it you will find a Junior World silver, two World Cup titles, participation in three Olympiads and the big one, a Senior World Championship in 2006. Overall, Abdelfatah acquired nearly two dozen international tournament victories, an astounding number given the period in time he did most of his best work. That these moments of glory were compiled throughout a career spanning just short of two decades only adds to his sizable mantle.

Naturally, with success comes a level of recognition, though when it comes to wrestling, American fans do not have to share their affinities with the general public. The sport’s biggest stars in the US, be it John Smith, Dan Gable, or even someone more contemporary such as Kyle Snyder or Jordan Burroughs, are not likely to be accosted by throngs of adorers as they stroll down 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Egypt is a different place. Once his career began to ascend, Abdelfatah was not some anonymous Olympic-level athlete milling around his part of the world. In fact, it was quite the opposite. “Whenever I’d go somewhere in Egypt, I’d be recognized by people,” he offers casually. “People in Egypt knew me for what I was doing in wrestling.”

That wasn’t important to him, however. No, to a wrestler, it is all about the next battle, the next opportunity to seek victory in an environment cruel and unforgiving —  yet, both satisfying and redeeming. It is a life where glories past are acknowledged but not celebrated until your sword is sheathed and the scar tissue no longer greets the warm embrace of the sunlight. Forever suppressed must remain the desire to fight on once the next battles are no more. Making it count while there is still an opportunity to do so is not an objective, but a responsibility.

Which is a big reason why Abdelfatah eventually found himself in the United States.

A new family

In the early-2000’s, the United States Greco Roman wrestling program was in the midst of an upswing. Led by a cavalcade of veteran stars like Jim Gruenwald, Garrett Lowney, TC Dantzler, and the Olympic hero of the 2000 Olympics, Rulon Gardner, there was also a budding group of upstarts making their presence known often enough to plant the seeds of depth necessary for a nation to thrive on the international stage. Egypt, despite its proximity to several Greco world powers, did not field a program offering the same level of resources or training partners. Abdelfatah’s competitive career took off regardless of these deficiencies, but it would be because of them that he found new life in the US.

“After the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, Steve Fraser invited me to come and join the Special Foreign Athletes Program,” recalls Abdelfatah. “They chose athletes to train with the US National Team. It was a win-win idea. I was a training partner, but I would also be there if people asked me questions and I helped coach a little bit.”

This was all like a dream. On the surface, Abdelfatah’s move to the US at 26 years of age looks like a reasonable career decision. A bigger, better program, more coaches, and more workout partners are certainly attractive enough for any hyper-competitive wrestler. But this was different. You see, Abdelfatah being given quarter at the Olympic Training Center was the realization of a love affair he fantasized about as a child. “When I was a kid, four or five years old, my uncle was a US citizen,” explains Abdelfatah. “He would come visit and bring me toys, gifts, clothes, it was like a holiday for me. I fell in love. When I’d be around my friends, I would feel very proud since this stuff came from the US. After that, I always tried to come and visit.”

What helped ease his transition was the fact that Abdelfatah was not exactly a stranger to the American wrestlers prior to his arrival. He was a well-known athlete, for one. He had also become acquainted with many of the US athletes from time spent competing in international events and participating in training camps together. The familiar faces he knew leading up were more than welcoming once he touched down in Colorado Springs, which allowed him to fit right in. “Since the first time I came here, I never felt like I was foreign,” says Abdelfatah. “We were like a family, we were always around each other at different competitions. I never felt like an outsider.”

His relationship with the United States Greco-Roman community indeed blurred the lines a little bit. Abdelfatah became the adopted son of the program. He would wrestle in world events with “EGY” displayed on his singlet but make no mistake about it, American wrestling fans felt like he belonged to them. This was never more apparent than at the 2006 World Championships in Guangzhou, China. The United States surged to a second-place tie with Russia on the strength of a gold medal-winning performance by Joe Warren at 60 kilograms and a bronze breakthrough for the late Lindsey Durlacher at 55. Abdelfatah enjoyed support from US fans on his march to victory, but it was during his 84 kg final against previous World champ and Turkish superstar Nazmi Avluca when that support hit a fever pitch.

“Turkey had a big group and they were cheering for their guy,” says Abdelfatah. “The Egypt fans weren’t really there. But the US fans were all united and cheering, yelling ‘Go Mohamed, go!’ My American friends and training partners, we are like a family. This place is just always in my heart.”

The story of the coach

The number one goal still hung in the air — an Olympic medal. Neither Sydney in 2000 or Athens in 2004 provided Abdelfatah with the result he had sacrificed for. Now armed with a World title, 2007 could have served as the perfect lead-in to 2008, when the next Olympiad was set to take place in Beijing, the same country where he won his gold. But then came a major setback — a torn ACL prior to the World Championships. Not only would Abdelfatah not be able to defend his championship, but any hopes of making it to his third consecutive Olympics were also in peril.

The question wasn’t whether or not Mohamed would be ready for Beijing — his ability to bounce back was a given. Instead, the issue lied with the qualification process. Wrestlers do not simply show up every four years and get to compete in the Olympics. Nations are required to send athletes to what are often grueling qualifying tournaments where placing in the top two or three stamps each weight class’s ticket. A wrestler may qualify his (or her) weight for their country’s participation in the Olympics, but that does not mean the wrestler will be competing in the Olympics themselves, since the best representative is (usually) subjected to his/her country’s selection process. Such was the quandary facing an injured Abdelfatah once the calendar flipped to 2008.

“The timing was different for me,” admits Abdelfatah. “I was out for over nine months with surgery, rehab, and then trying to come back. The Olympic qualifying tournaments came up and Egypt had to send the second guy, and he lost. It was sad for me because I knew what that meant, which was that I wasn’t going to be able to wrestle in the Olympics and I didn’t know if I’d get another chance after this.”

With that, Abdelfatah decided that he was retired. At least temporarily. He had turned 30 years old, had his World title, plenty of other hardware, and maybe the time had come to branch out into coaching. The Swedish National Team opened their doors right away and that was all it took. Abdelfatah got to work with Jimmy Lidberg, one of Sweden’s more high-profile prospects. The two formed a short but fruitful dynamic, which culminated with Lidberg earning a silver medal at the 2009 World Championships in Herning, Denmark.

Mohamed Abdelfatah at the 2012 Curby Cup

Abdelfatah at the 2012 Curby Cup. (Photo: Larry Slater)

The return

Shortly after Lidberg’s medal, Abdulfatah got the itch again. Naturally. It happens all the time. Recently-retired wrestlers love coming back, especially when they believe there might still be a little something left in the tank. Abdulfatah was no different. “I was with him (Lidberg) all the time and I felt I could still win an Olympic medal, so I started seeing 2012 as my chance,” he says. So after a brief detour, “Bogy” was back and once again in his adopted homeland, the US.  And thanks to an old friend, he was going to have his pick of coaching jobs, though it was admittedly a narrow list of options.

“I spoke with Coach Fraser and told him I didn’t care about any position, just as long as I could be both a coach and an athlete,” informs Abdulfatah, acknowledging Fraser’s influence on his start in coaching. “He said, ‘Okay, you can have a job right now’, so I started coaching and following my dreams again at the same time.” Highly-respected Northern Michigan head coach Ivan Ivanov had recently resigned, leaving an enticing slot open, which Fraser presented to him. “I wanted to still be able to compete, so for me, I was more interested in going back to the Olympic Training Center and helping out there,” he says, before adding, “It felt like the right place for me.”

Now he was back, not to where it all started, but where his original American roots had firmly took hold. It was going to be a new set of challenges. Mohamed might have offered input before, but now it was during the back-end of his career and with a newer crop of American talent coming in. Although he carried the respect of everyone in the room, that didn’t mean he was off-limits. If anything, it was the opposite. Wrestlers need other wrestlers to measure themselves against, and who better than a World champ training alongside them every day?

“When I was coming up, you wanted to beat Mohamed in practice,” says 2016 Olympian Robby Smith. “I remember when I first got to the OTC, he would destroy all of us. But as I got better, more experienced and more confident, I wanted to beat him because I knew if I did, I could beat everyone else, especially in our country.” Unsurprisingly, this led to their fair share of contentious moments. “Oh, he wanted to fight you,” says Smith, laughing. “He’d come after me, charge me, and it would get heated. But then when it was over, he would also be helping me and talking to me about ways to improve.”

In his formative coaching years, that was Abdulfatah’s greatest value. That he could retain the competitive instincts necessary to a be World-level wrestler while finding ways to relate to the other athletes made him somewhat of a hybrid athlete-coach. Or coach-athlete, depending on how you prefer to see it. “When I first met him at Northern, he was still training and competing, but he would also show a technique and point things out,” remembers two-time World medalist Andy Bisek. “There was another foreigner who I worked with in January and last May, from Austria, an 85 kilo guy. But he was up there at Northern at the time, as well. We were wrestling and I remember Mohamed pointed out this opportunity that I was missing out on. I made the change and was able to score immediately.”

The growth of Abdulfatah’s coaching acumen did not interfere with his primary mission — qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. A strong fifth-place finish at the 2011 World Championships put him on the desired track to be on, his sword still being brandished for all to see. Abudlfatah had attained two distinctions in the process; he qualified for London, his third Olympiad. He was also the only representative from an African nation to qualify.

Unfortunately, London did not yield the results he was gunning for. Abdelfatah seemed to sense that an imaginary vice was squeezing the electricity right out of him. He might be a proud resident of the United States, but he was Egypt’s boy, their best and brightest hope for Olympic fame. The media was relentless. “My phone was constantly ringing with reporters asking me, ‘Hey Bogy, are you going to bring a medal home to Egypt?’ The pressure was too much. It’s not like the United States where there are a lot of medals. They expected a lot out of me and I didn’t perform well in London.”

There it was. He was still viable, still capable. But life was changing. His needs were evolving into more. Abdelfatah couldn’t quite put his finger on it. His pulse failed to betray that slight tick of ambivalence athletes usually feel when it is time to leave the arena. He would try again simply because if he didn’t, it would be akin to lying to himself. No proud warrior has that in them, let alone one who not too long ago was looked upon as one of the best on the planet. But there was a future waiting for him in the form of the next wave of interesting and eager American athletes who could bring something else out of him. Plus, other developments would soon reveal themselves.

Leaders of the new school

Career athletes are not immune to the complexities and vulnerabilities that normal folks seem to think are unique. They are inclined to love, just as you are. Just as everyone is. The timeline may be different, there is often an interim where the most significant relationship in a wrestler’s life is with their coaches, their respective training centers, and since why not, adversaries on the other side of the earth. Those are the separating points, at least for a while, but just like the rain that pounds hot pavement, those divisions evaporate should they be patient enough.

Upon returning to Egypt following London, Abdelfatah was ignoring phone calls. He didn’t have much to say anymore. But there was one number that kept appearing. “Not many people knew my number, so I was wondering who this was that wouldn’t stop calling me.” It turned out to be a guy he knew, a Lebanese man he had been friends with. “He asked me for some favor and to meet his family. I did it for him and he invited me to his home.” Just because it had to happen this way, this man had a sister named Houda. A connection was made and within a year, Mohamed Abdelfatah was married. “I was kidding my wife, ‘Imagine if I didn’t pick up the phone?'” he asks laughing. “But everything happens for a reason.”

He was ready. He knew it. It was the natural progression. “When you are a professional athlete, you miss out on life,” Mohamed explains. “You try to follow your dreams and wrestling is your marriage. When you win, you’re happy, when you lose, you’re sad. After London, I felt like I was ready to follow my real love and start a different life.” Eventually, the two would welcome a son, Ibrahim, but he won’t be alone for long. Another child is expected this coming February.

Mohamed Abdelfatah, US Olympic Training Center coach

Abdelfatah with the 2016 US Greco Roman Olympic Team. From left: Jesse Thielke, Ben Provisor, Abdelfatah, Robby Smith, and Andy Bisek. (Photo courtesy of Mohamed Abdelfatah).

A personalized approach

Even with a new family, Mohamed wasn’t exactly done. He spent three months training last year and took a swing at qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics, coming extremely close. First it was an impressive bronze medal performance at the Asian Championships in Bangkok to get him back into competitive gear. The next step was actually qualifying, with his first shot being the 2016 Asian OG Qualifier in Astana, Kazakhstan. He made it all the way to the semifinals before hitting a wall. “I was leading 4-2 against China (Di Xiao) and they put me down in par terre. He scored on me and after that I gave up. I was too tired.”

But when Abdelfatah says he was “tired”, he does not mean his cardio wasn’t up to par or that he could no longer handle the rigors of competition. The truth is, his heart had become too heavy to compete. He originally felt it coming on at training camp in Belarus prior to Kazakhstan. The longing to be with is wife and son had shifted the balance. “I was away from my family and it broke me down. I was alone, and I didn’t want to be”, he admits.

That is okay. Because nowadays, his family is growing both in his house and at the Olympic Training Center. The US is enjoying an influx of young talent on the cusp of shattering through the proverbial glass ceiling that is World-level competition and Abdelfatah’s job is to help guide them in the right direction. “He sees that these guys can really do something and he wants to help them get there,” asserts US Greco Roman National Team head coach Matt Lindland. “He is a real coach. He’s got a heart for helping these guys. Mo has no ego in the game, he’s very humble. We’ve expanded his role and the guys have responded to it.”

Those guys include some of the country’s biggest names and brightest prospects. To a man, they are all enamored with the way Mohamed has attacked his now-prominent coaching role. One of his prized pupils is US star G’Angelo Hancock, a 19-year old super-athlete who won a Junior bronze medal this past summer and recently captured his first Senior National title. “Mohamed told me after the World Championships in France to stop looking at him as a coach and instead, look at him as a brother, so I’ve been trying to do that,” Hancock says. “Everything he has showed me has worked and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact he was once in my weight class. Having him in the room is an advantage for me.”

Two-time Senior World Team member Patrick Martinez also finds a tactical edge in Abdelfatah’s presence. “I want a coach who 100% believes in me and we have that loving relationship. He is going to push me and kick my ass sometimes, but there is also a mutual respect. I’m not saying that I don’t have that with the other coaches, but he’s a newer coach, I’m one of the newer Greco guys, and I’m excited to grow this bond that we’re hopefully going to have for at least the next four years, if not eight years.”

Abdelfatah recognizes all of this. He has been involved with the US program, save for that brief respite in Sweden, going on nearly 13 years. He witnessed the old guard’s exit, contemporaries of his like Vering, Dantzler, and Justin Ruiz. This recent restocking of the talent pool excites him because he sees the possibilities. “I believe with the talent we have now, with Tracy (G’Angelo Hancock), Kamal (Bey), and Martinez, we can win at the World Championships. I don’t know how many medals, but we are coming up.”

At the end of the day, coaching is about building trust and fostering relationships, an ideology the soon-to-be 39-year old is having no problem with as his responsibilities grow. Getting through to the younger athletes is sometimes hit or miss for coaches in high-profile positions. There is a lot on the line and expectations are ratcheted up on every rung of the ladder. Relating to the needs of millennial athletes who grew up far differently than you can be challenging, and the fact that Mohamed is able to bypass any arbitrary barriers others may fumble with is not only a testament to his ability to communicate on a relatable level, but to the kind of athletes he has to work with — young adults who are looking for both leadership and compassion.

“I look at him as an uncle”, quips Bey, who like Hancock, has latched onto Abdelfatah’s tutelage. “That’s how it is for me with the coaches here. I call Momir ‘Grandpa’, TC Dantzler or Herb House, I call them ‘Pop.’ Mohamed is like an uncle to me, he is always in my corner, in practice he’s coaching me up, giving me confidence. He says some inspiring stuff and holds us accountable, which is big for two young men like me and Tracy.”

2016 US Olympic Trials champion RaVaughn Perkins has tried to reconcile the informality, as well. “He’s a great human being, a great friend. He’s just like a regular guy. Every morning he’s like, ‘Good morning, bro.’ I don’t call him ‘bro’ back, I call him coach. I’m still not used to it (laughs).”

Circle of life

In a way, Mohamed Abdelfatah is enjoying a version of wrestling’s circle of life. This circle, as you know, is rarely unique. But this time around, it is. A well-built man, in his upper-30’s, is not just pacing around the mat and presiding over a room of high-speed Greco Roman wrestlers, blowing a whistle and barking orders. It’s much more personal than that. For Abdelfatah, this is the apex of a love affair with the sport and a place that once seemed like a fantasy land, but became a home thanks to those who were willing to see that there was more beneath the surface. That there was was more of him to give than simply wrestling. Abdelfatah sees opportunity here, the potential to continue his dreams in what just might just wind up being a more profound way. It’s something he is grateful for.

“I tell the athletes to be happy for what they have here, ” the man says, his tone lowering in seriousness. “They have the chance to become World Champions. They have great facilities, great coaches, and everything they need. It’s what I always wanted as an athlete, and as a coach I can help them realize what they have.”

It is still early in his full-time coaching career, but he is already going full-steam. Mohamed is being tasked with coming up with individual training plans and bringing a level of specificity according to each athlete’s needs. He loves it. He loves all of it. Abdelfatah is at peace with what he has. Hancock has been given a front-row seat to Mohamed’s growth as a leader and he knows as well as anyone what this means to his coach. “Mohamed sees it as a family, and I respect that about him.”

That’s why he’s here. There’s no place like home.

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