When Jimmy Kennedy stepped onto his mat for his first match at last month’s Olympic Trials Freestyle Qualifier, he expected to win. He was unfamiliar with his opponent, Martin Berberyan, and after failing to place at the NYAC Holiday Open two weeks earlier, he wanted to start his next competition on a strong note.
He didn’t find out until after the match that Berberyan wasn’t just any unseeded first-round opponent. He was a three-time Olympian for Armenia and a world bronze medalist who had just earned his U.S. citizen the week before.
After dropping the first period, Kennedy won the second and carried a two-point lead in the third before Berberyan used a takedown and a gutwrench to steal the match in the final 20 seconds.
“I was devastated,” said Kennedy. “I didn’t know who I had lost to. When I went out there and gave up the first period, it was kind of a shock to me. Then I had the match sealed in the third period and blew it. I just thought I was wrestling bad. I hadn’t wrestled very well in New York, so losing my first match at the qualifier was kind of a heartbreaker. But Sean [Bormet] talked me back into it, got my head back on my shoulders and told me the things I needed to hear. From there, it was just wrestling like I’ve been training. Once I started doing that I started winning.”
Kennedy claimed his next four matches in the consolation bracket, without losing a period and giving up just six total points, to take third place and secure the event’s final qualifying spot at 66kg/132 pounds.
The qualifier capped a busy year in Kennedy’s wrestling life. He finished his career at the University of Illinois in March with his third All-American citation — a fifth-place finish at 141 pounds — and a 119-24 collegiate record. After consulting with his coaches, he decided to continue wrestling freestyle, and in August, he followed former Illini teammate Mike Poeta to Ann Arbor to join the revamped Cliff Keen Wrestling Club.
When Michigan head coach Joe McFarland added Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff to his coaching staff this summer, one of the immediate goals was to grow the Wolverines’ senior-level program. The Cliff Keen Wrestling Club had been founded in 1987, with the blessing of the Hall of Fame coach, and over the years since, it supported several wrestlers in pursuit of Olympic aspirations.
But as other universities saw their senior-level programs grow in recent years, Michigan’s numbers had dwindled. Some wrestlers retired, others relocated, and last season, only Josh Churella trained out of Ann Arbor. All that changed with the hiring of Bormet and Pritzlaff when, almost overnight, the club grew sixfold with the addition of Kennedy, Poeta, Andrew Howe, Jake Herbert and Tyrel Todd.
Kennedy had worked with Bormet, a three-time winner of the Terry McCann Award as the USA Wrestling Freestyle Coach of the Year, at the Overtime School of Wrestling from the time he was middle school. While he admittedly never put heavy emphasis on freestyle, he did spend several summers around Bormet, either training at the Overtime facility or wrestling for him on Illinois national teams.
“Sean and I got to know each other about the time I was going into high school and when Overtime was first coming about,” said Kennedy. “I wrestled under him at all junior dual team tournaments. I loved having him in my corner, because you never want to lose for a coach that you respect like that. He’s been through the grind, so I can learn a lot from him. I know he wants what is best for me, and I liked what he had to offer, so I followed him out here.”
“I’ve always been fond of Jimmy, so when he called I was definitely interested,” said Bormet. “I know his talent and his ability are in line with international wrestling. I don’t think he’s really quite reached his potential yet. He’s got a lot of upside in freestyle wrestling. Jimmy brings a certain competitiveness to everything he does — conditioning, lifting, practice on the mat — and he’s very good at just about everything he does. But he works hard at things. He is confident while remaining humble. I like that about him. He just silently does his work. You don’t hear him complain. Those are the kind of attributes that you want.”
Kennedy spent much of the fall in transition. He knew only a few people when he arrived in Michigan, and it took some time to get his bearings in a new town. He had to adjust to a new wrestling regimen, segueing from the grind of the college season to a more staggered competition schedule. He also needed to grow comfortable in his new style, working to implement and adapt his strengths from folkstyle while absorbing the intricacies involved with freestyle.
His gains have come quickly. Drawing from the expertise of a variety of coaches and practice partners, including Churella and NCAA champion Kellen Russell, he has kept an open mind and incorporated their teachings into his own evolving wrestling style.
In his Cliff Keen Wrestling Club debut, Kennedy took fourth place at the Sunkist Kids International Open, posting a 4-2 record with lopsided wins over former NCAA champion Troy Nickerson and Andrew Hochstrasser. He defeated Nickerson again, by technical fall, at the NYAC event but was eliminated with a disappointing 2-2 mark before earning his qualifying berth with his performance in Las Vegas.
“The first tournament, those first few matches were definitely a little different,” said Kennedy. “But we wrestled three tournaments in a little over a month, and by the time we got to Vegas, I was thinking clearly on the mat and wrestling to my ability. I just need to expect to win, have my head set to win before the match, know what I’m going to do going out there and make sure I actually complete that.”
“Jimmy is very smart, both on the mat and off the mat,” said Bormet. “I think he’s a student of the sport. He’s technical. With freestyle, there’s a lot to learn — strategies, techniques, tactics. Jimmy is the kind of kid that will try to pick up whatever he can from everybody he’s around, and he’ll continually and methodically continue to get better.”
With the pressure of qualifying now gone, Kennedy can focus wholly on training and preparing for the Olympic Trials. He returned from the holiday break ready to work, and in the coming months, will get his first taste of international competition, traveling with the fellow club members to the Guelph Open and later to Ukraine for a two-week training camp before competing in the Buryatia Republic President’s Cup.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some foreign competition over these next few months,” said Kennedy,” and I’m excited to be a part of what’s going on around here. It’s been a really good situation, especially with us club guys. We’re meshing together well and have grown really close. We hang out every day, go bowling and stuff like that. Wrestling with these guys has been great. They’re guys that want you to win, and you want them to win. Now we’re just getting ready for April.”