Overstudied, tired and sleepless. The bright red lights of my bedside alarm clock read 5:45 a.m. Ahhhh yes. Four more hours until I would have to lift my aching bones and prepare for my day. These are many students” favorite hours, the few moments to relax and be unconscious. Like most of the school”s population, my days don”t start before 9 a.m. So today I go back to sleep. But yesterday, I was up and at it at 5:45 a.m. For a day, I had crossed the line of normalcy, living the life of a collegiate wrestler.
Just Showing Up
The sun had not yet risen as I nervously approached the locked press entrance to Crisler. Slowly more and more figures emerged from the darkness, most wearing leather varsity jackets and sweatshirts. There is no need to dress pretty at this hour.
I”d been waiting at the door to Crisler Arena for hardly a minute when the team”s fearless leader, head coach Joe McFarland, energetically hopped out of his maroon Ford Explorer sipping a medium sized cup of coffee.
“So we got a reporter wrestling with us today,” McFarland yelled across the parking lot.
Unlike his weary wrestlers, McFarland appeared largely unaffected by the early hour. An incredible work ethic is one of the traits that make him the right man for the job. Dale Bahr, a current assistant athletic director and a former Michigan coach, praised McFarland”s dedication.
“Joe is a 24-hour coach,” Bahr said.
Though I am still a little sleepy, McFarland”s energy inspires me. This kind of a gung-ho attitude does not immediately spread to his tired athletes. We lackadaisically enter the arena and proceed to the locker rooms.
After changing quickly, I am one of the first people to enter the practice room McFarland is ready with more colorful remarks.
“So who do you want to work with today, Jeb?” he asked. “Olson, Hrovat, who?”
Otto Olson is the No. 2-ranked 174-pounder in the nation. Andy Hrovat is an All-American currently ranked eighth at 184 pounds.
To which I reply, “Nah, give me Brink.”
That would be All-American heavyweight Matt Brink.
“Oh you want Truck?” McFarland said, alluding to Brink”s nickname.
At this point, most of the 30 members of the wrestling team start to enter the room and our dialogue ceases.
We start to stretch and jog in place to loosen up. This time period is also important for mental preparation. Although the morning workouts generally are conducted at full intensity, it is important for each wrestler to consider what moves or positions they want to work on. Some wrestlers may be thinking about improving penetration steps others are focusing on hand fighting while still others are concentrating on their defensive positioning. Me, I”m just focusing on making it through. Although morning mat workouts focus merely on drilling, they are as intense as most high school practices that I experienced during my career. After loosening up with a jog and quick stretching, drilling began.
“Whad”ya weigh, Jeb?” McFarland asked me.
“About 165,” I answered.
“All right, you can work with (back-up 165-pounder, freshman) Steve Sentes. A match made in heaven,” McFarland jokes.
We shook hands and than went at it. During drilling, takedowns are supposed to be done at full speed with little resistance. We work on the basic moves such as single legs, double legs and high crouches. Although collegiate wrestlers know a wide variety of fancy moves, matches come down to who completes their moves the swiftest.
“A little rusty, Jeb,” McFarland said after watching one of my single legs. Though we weigh the same amount, Sentes is considerably stronger than I am and he generously lets me complete my takedowns. A puddle of sweat is forming in my area. I am not accustomed to this level of workout at this time of morning.
The practice got more intense as we went on. After about 30 minutes, we began drilling with one man going 100 percent and the other 70 percent resistance. Even when it was my turn to go 100 percent, I had great difficulty completing moves on Sentes. His strong defensive reactions clearly were second nature. With each ensuing takedown, I felt myself getting more and more tired, so I was rather relieved when McFarland said that we were winding down.
Though practice only lasted 45-50 minutes, I felt as if I”d been through a battle. So I was less than psyched when McFarland yelled enthusiastically that we were going to finish with five minutes of jump rope. Jumping rope is an activity that I”ve never been great at. As the whole team rushed to grab a rope, I slowly followed, half-hoping that they”d run out. By the time I”d gotten to the front of the line only one rope remained.
“That”s the heavy rope, good luck making it five minutes with that one,” 165-pound NCAA qualifier Charles Martelli informed me. Wonderful, the last thing I needed was an additional challenge. While most of the team looked like a bunch of jumping beans, I lasted only about 45 seconds without goofing up. After that I repeatedly started and stopped as my fatigue grew exponentially. I wasn”t timing it but I do believe that the jump rope session lasted more like 8 or 9 minutes. Quite possible, knowing whom the coach was.
“McFarland is famous for five minute goes that last thirty minutes,” 125-pound NCAA qualifier A.J. Grant told me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I observed Olson, who is famous for his incredible work ethic. The guy simply didn”t stop jumping the entire time no wonder he is the captain.
After we finished, I couldn”t wait to drink a cooler-full of water. I couldn”t imagine that this was only a morning workout.
A thorough whooping
Aside from raw talent, there is a distinct difference between an all-league wrestler as I was in H.S. and a collegiate stud. All day, I somewhat dreaded the inevitable severity of the afternoon”s festivities. The Wolverines wholeheartedly look forward to the challenge and opportunity associated with another practice. Even on off days, this team wants to be competing.
“It”s hard to keep this group off the mat,” McFarland said.
So as 3:30 p.m. rolled around, I knew that, like it or not, practice would be a doozy. Lucky for me, assistant coach, Kirk Trost took me to the equipment room to get me headgear and kneepads. As we returned, I caught the end of a speech McFarland was giving to his team.
“We gotta keep those grades up,” McFarland emphatically told his
troops. “Last term was excellent but we haven”t quite reached our team goal of a 3.0.”
I was somewhat inspired by the possibility of providing my practice opponent with a surprising amount of competition. but it was not to be.
Though all the members of the team have advantages in techniques, athletic ability, conditioning and pound for pound strength, there was one advantage that I”d possess with my partner. James Gonzalez is a back-up 149-pounder. But despite my 15-pound advantage, Gonzalez pounded on me all practice long. On our feet, Gonzalez would set up his shots and shoot in on my legs in a split second. I could barely react even when I knew he was coming at me. He finished his takedowns extremely fluidly, something that is critical to McFarland.
“If you see a guy stopping, you show them how to drive,” he said. “The faster you drive through the easier it is to score points and finish. It requires explosive power.”
As far as I am concerned Gonzalez is a very explosive wrestler. Wrestling behind NCAA-qualifier Mike Kulcyzcki, Gonzalez only appeared in one varsity match this season. However, like many of the back-ups, he had an extremely successful high school career placing in the Michigan state championships. Though most collegiate wrestling matches are decided from the neutral position, I spent most of our 25-minute scrimmage either on my stomach with my face scraping against the mat, or on my back trying desperately not to get pinned. I”d like to say that I was just giving Gonzalez practice on his pinning combinations, but that was not the case. He wrestled on a level with which I am not familiar and he pinned me numerous times. When I did get pinned, we”d start over from neutral. Wrestlers smell blood when they have an opponent out-matched they try to finish him off. Gonzalez showed no mercy. He put me in holds and positions I”d forgotten my body was capable of being in.
“He did pretty well,” Gonzalez politely said about my performance afterward. “I didn”t expect him to make it through. There”s not that many people who could get through a practice.”
Pushing to the Limit
While 25 minutes seemed like an eternity to me, earlier in the season wrestlers would scrimmage for an hour at a time.
“Late in the season our practices are short, but we want everyone going intense the whole time,” McFarland said. “The early season workouts are grinds, these simulate an all-out match.”
Circling the room with McFarland are his assistants Tony Robie and Trost. They all constantly offer encouragement and push the wrestlers.
“Sometimes, I lay off when I know wrestlers are cursing my name under their breath,” McFarland said. “But they need to be exposed to a high level of physical and mental stress. We often push them further than they”d like to go. This develops mental toughness.”
After the 25-minute go I too was tempted to start cursing names McFarland, Gonzalez myself (for deciding to do this story). But there was no time for that. Instead, we wrestled from certain positions and situations (ten seconds left in a match down by one point, in on a high crouch takedown, needing to finish the move, top and bottom). This provided Gonzalez with five more minutes to destroy me in all aspects of the sport. After which we did hand-fighting for three minutes.
For hand-fighting I was paired with Robie, a one-time NCAA finalist, still in top condition and allegedly tough enough to give Olson a bout. I was trying to fight Robie, but I could feel my legs giving out. I made it through after falling numerous times.
Finally we ran and finished off with a 10-minute circuit workout in the weight room. In high school, I was always the best-conditioned kid on the team and as a lightweight I”d run circles around the heavier guys. So I was a bit shocked my people at all weights passed me, many on numerous occasions. After the weight workout, the varsity team gathered for a cheer. For this I stood aside thinking that huddles are sacred to the team. However, McFarland wanted me to be totally emersed in the practice, and he invited me to throw my hands in the huddle. I realized then one reason the wrestlers work so hard. They are a team and they are all competing not just for themselves but for each other. Their hard work this season has resulted in a 17-3-1 dual meet record including a victory over the six-time defending national champion Iowa Hawkeyes.
“We”re in the top three teams in the country in terms of conditioning,” Grant said.
Despite the sacrifices, wrestlers are aware of how special their accomplishments are.
“I started feeling like I was already missing it,” fifth-year senior captain Joe Degain said. “Sometimes you curse what you had to go through. I know it”s all worth it though. It”s a decision I made when I came here so I never questioned if it was worth it.”
And despite the pounding I took in my day as a wrestler, it was quite worth it for me.