Cliff Keen Wrestling Club coach Andy Hrovat, a 2008 Olympian, will participate in a USA Wrestling three-week overseas tour, touching down in nine different countries with extended stays in Azerbaijan, Iran and Belarus, and help coach the U.S. team, including CKWC’s own Jimmy Kennedy, at the World Cup and Medved International. In his first blog installment, Andy reacts to the IOC decision to drop wrestling from the 2020 Olympics.
TUESDAY, MARCH 5 | Recapping Medved
If you want to be the best at anything in life you have to sacrifice a great deal. This old saying is true for about anything in life and wrestling is certainly not an exception. I have seen our national team make many sacrifices over the last five years; these sacrifices have been the catalyst in creating a team mentality of expecting to win every time we go on the mat to compete. The Medved International wrestling tournament in Belarus is a very strong event, and for the USA team to come home with seven medals — two gold, two silver and three bronze — is a great achievement. But we are not going to hang our hats on this performance, because I know, as do the rest of the coaches, that winning in the winter means nothing if we cannot duplicate this performance in September. The winter tour season is a time for us to travel overseas, train, make weight, compete and most importantly, come home with ideas and plans that will help future trips be more successful.
I am very proud of how the men competed at the tournament. It was a long trip, and for about half of them, they had to make weight and wrestle two weeks in a row. Throw in the week-long training camp in Azerbaijan prior to the World Cup, and it’s the formula to potentially wear an athlete out. When Zeke started coaching the national team after the 2008 Olympics, part of his plan was to increase the amount of time our team spent overseas. When I was young and competing, there weren’t too many guys who wrestled overseas, let alone regularly trained overseas. Now these men don’t think anything of it, and for the new guys coming into the system, spending weeks overseas is becoming the norm. In my mind, this is where most of our recent success can be traced to. The team is making sacrifices in order to understand and experience what it takes to become the best in the world. In the past, we would fly in, make weight, wrestle then leave the very next day. Now we try to participate in a training camp before every international tournament we compete in. Our national team men know the wrestlers they compete against not just in wrestling, but in regular life as well. We know them at a deeper level than ever before so that when we are training and preparing for the World Championships and Olympics, we can close our eyes and know everything our competitors are doing to get ready for the same tournament. When I was younger, the Russians were a mystery to me and probably the rest of the national team, but now we know them and now we know we can beat them.
On the first day of the Medved tournament, we had nine athletes competing in the first four weight classes. We were ready to win. The coaches and support staff (massage therapist, chiropractor and trainer) arrived early to secure a nice spot in the stands for our team to set up camp. We catered to the guys’ every need. On the day of a tournament athletes should only focus on winning and let the support staff take care of the rest. Our team chiropractor, Dr. Fred Roberto, might have been the most helpful person on the trip. He knows a lot about nutrition and insisted on going shopping to buy the best food for the guys to eat throughout the day. He adjusts them before and after matches, while our massage therapist gave them a quick rub to flush out the lactic acid they built up during matches and our trainer will work on and tape any injury they get throughout the day. These men volunteer their time, and without them our team would have a tougher time winning. It takes a lot of money to bring them all on the trip, but if we want to win and be the best team in the world, we have to continue to fundraise in order to have the support staff that we have.
We won two medals on the first day and just missed out on another. Jimmy Kennedy was silver at 60kg, while Jordan Burroughs won gold at 74kg. Both these wrestlers looked great and have already had quite a bit of success this year. I was lucky to be picked as a coach for this tour, and I was very excited to have Jimmy with me the whole way. I know what he is capable of doing, because I see it every single day, but now the world is starting to take notice what he can do. The Russian he faced in the finals knew going into the match that he would have a difficult time with Jimmy, so he used the rules to his advantage. He ended up winning both ball pulls and both clinches. Jimmy teched him the second period, 7-0, in just a little more than a minute. As a coach, I wasn’t anything I could tell Jimmy that would have cheered him up after the match. He wrestled great, but in the end, he lost on a rule that will likely be eliminated from the sport by the end of the week. As far as Jordan… well, he was Jordan. I am not his coach, and since Zeke was on this trip, he was the one who cornered Jordan and I was able to sit back and enjoy the show he put on. From the World Cup and then in Belarus, Jordan wrestled hard, put up a lot of points and did everything he could to make this sport better. The foreign athletes, coaches and fans know that he is something special and that he has paid the price to earn all of his success. He works hard and doesn’t take anything for granted. Zeke could not be happier with the example he sets. When you have a world and Olympic champion living in an outdated hotel room in the middle of the Belarusian woods just to train and compete, it makes it easier for the rest of the guys to do the same and then expect the same results.
The second day of the tournament started out the same as the first day. We set up camp and provided the men with everything they needed in order to perform at their maximum capacity. They responded well, and at the end of the day we had one gold, one silver and three bronze medals. Tervel was our lone champion on the second day. Like Jordan, he sacrifices a lot to be where he’s at. He goes to all the best tournaments in the world and trains overseas every chance he gets. You can tell by the way he competes that he knows what it takes to win and has been there so many times that wrestling a foreign athlete no longer feels foreign to him.
We have some great leadership on the team right now and the men all get along. They push each other and help each other whenever they can. When we are in United States, we are spread across the country at our different training locations, but overseas, we are one nation and the men help each other and push each other to be the best they can be for American wrestling. This attitude will take us far and is the reason I believe we will win the World Championships and World Cup within the next three years. We have great coaches who are willing to do everything they ask their athletes to do, we have great support staff, and most importantly, we have a great group of young men who want to win. Every trip overseas I learn something new, and I can see how to run a successful team. Like the athletes, I use these trips to expand my knowledge of the sport. I am continuing to learn more about nutrition and all the other elements it takes to get an athlete to close the gap on the best wrestlers in the world. The margin between taking silver and gold at the Olympics is a very small and in order to get to that point you have to do everything right at all times. I am learning exactly what this entails with every passing trip.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26 | The World Cup
Over the past few days the internet has been a little choppy, so I apologize for missing a few blog posts. Since I left you, the team has been all over the place. We arrived in Tehran, Iran, a week ago today, getting in very early in the morning; I didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. So, after traveling most of the night, we let the team and coaches sleep in. In the final preparation for the World Cup, the team went over the Iranian house of wrestling to do some mat work and lose weight. They all looked sharp, and everyone’s weight was well under control since we had a good diet and lots of workouts in Baku leading up to the competition.
The day of weigh-ins is always hectic. Every wrestler has their own routine, and by now our U.S. staff knows how to best help every wrestler. I went with our guide and team chiropractor Dr. Fred Roberto to the Iranian grocery story to load up on food for after weigh-ins and for the day of the tournament. The manager of the grocery store was a huge wrestling fan and was very helpful. He told us that he had been to the New York Athletic Club before and was even in NYC for the 2003 World Championships.
I went to weigh-ins early since Max Askren wanted to get on the mats that day to get his weight down. We sparred for a while and then waited for the rest of the team to show up. We had a little scare when the team arrived and found that our scale was .2kg over. This would normally never happen, but between the late arrival into Iran and the extra security we encountered, I can see where this mistake happened. The guys did a great job not complaining and just went into the sauna and worked off what they had to in order to compete. The rest of weigh-in day was uneventful and, for the most part, the guys just relaxed and got themselves mentally focused on the task at hand.
On the first day of the tournament, our team arrived to the competition before any other team. It proved a right decision as we secured a great locker room with a refrigerator to store all the lunch meat, juice, water and fruits we had bought the day before. I knew it was going to be a great day for wrestling and felt the atmosphere would help push our team on toward victory. In order to compete at this level you have to feed off the crowd and live for these kinds of moments.
The team looked really sharp in our first two matches, and I believed we had the opportunity to beat a good Iranian team on its home turf. The timing of our dual could not have been any better. We had a break after our first two matches, so we went next door to a sport hotel where the guys could lay down and rest a little. As the guys rested, the coaches and team leaders stayed in the lobby and talked about the World Cup, the future of wrestling and what was taking place back home in America to fight the IOC’s decision. Some of us went back to the arena early to represent America in the opening ceremonies, while Zeke and the guys wrestling that evening were able to spend an extra hour lounging around the hotel before they had to get back to the arena to warm up and wrestle.
As soon as we arrived back from the hotel, I knew something was different than the morning session. The crowd had grown and, for the next two hours, they cheered continuously without reason. They were excited to show support for their team, and they all knew who the opponent would be. The people in that crowd cheered on the Iranian team in a way I had never seen before. In the front row, right in the middle of the arena, there was a section made up of drums, horns and all sorts of instruments that I’m not familiar with. The whole crowd looked to this group to lead them — what cheer to do and when. I couldn’t believe how in-sync they were and every time something great happened, the noise level reached a level I’ve never even heard before.
We lost to the Iranian team 6-1, but I know we are much better than we wrestled. Jordan Burroughs was our lone bright spot in his first competition since winning gold in London. It is always hard to wrestle in an environment like that, but every one of the men on our team will learn from this experience, and the next time they experience a pressure situation like that, they will know exactly how to handle that pressure.
Nobody was happy after we lost to Iran, and I know it was everyone’s goal to win the team championship. But we could not dwell it, because we still had two matches the next day. The team responded very well after the letdown, posting a combined 13-1 record on the second day of the tournament. Our team took third in the world, and we are all proud of how they bounced back to earn bronze in a very tough World Cup. At the same time, it will definitely leave a sour taste in our mouth until we can have the opportunity to win it all.
I can speak on behalf of our entire team and coaching staff that we will not be satisfied until we win the World Cup and World Championships. I know we will get there as a team, but it takes an effort not just from those individuals who wrestle but from the whole country. We can be the leaders in the charge to get our sport back. All wrestling fans out there need to support this great sport from the top down. We need to make sure the men on our national team feel valued and appreciated. These men live on scraps for a chance to win world and Olympic medals, but they are typically overlooked by most wrestling fans. I feel like in America we focus so much on our folkstyle that when an athlete graduates from college, they are simply forgotten. These wrestlers who were loved and admired in college are still wrestling. They are still training and competing, and they are the men who are pushing our collegiate wrestlers to strive to be the best. These are the men who set the path for every college, high school and youth wrestler in America. We can’t become the best nation in the world until we unite our efforts. We need to make our current senior-level athletes famous so that they can be recognized as role models for the youth of our sport. Every parent of a wrestler out there is doing their child an injustice if they don’t give them an opportunity to dream of being an Olympic champion. It doesn’t cost anything to have a dream, but it will cost someone a potential opportunity if they are never even presented with that dream.
I saw how important fans can be on the outcome of a dual meet last weekend. We, as Americans, have three years to prepare for the World Championships in Las Vegas. I will promise you, as a member of our National Team coaching staff, that we will have our men ready to win the World Championships. I want to challenge you to join the cause, support our national team, encourage young wrestlers to dream big and, most importantly, step up and become the superfans that we need to win that world team championship in 2015. And when we succeed, this will be something that every wrestler and every fan can say they played a part.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 18 | Last day in Azerbaijan
With the World Cup approaching, Zeke Jones and I looked at the schedule from the day of weigh-ins and changed our training accordingly. This weekend we switched our off day from Sunday to Saturday, allowing us to recover a little more from the long travel and get on a cycle more suitable for a competition that begins on a Thursday. In place of training on Saturday, we went to a bathhouse where they had a wet sauna, dry sauna, turkish sauna and a steam room. We also lined up massages for the team and the staff. We have been putting in a lot of hard work at this camp, so it was nice to have a day to relax, recover and clear the mind.
Today we had our last practice here in Azerbaijan. Both teams went off on their own for the final preparations and essentially did the same thing at the workout. Since this is the week of the World Cup, training together is pushed aside for individual concentration. This will be the most important World Cup in the history of the sport of wrestling. What the IOC clearly didn’t know in its decision to drop wrestling was how much the sport means to so many people from all corners of the globe, and to make this announcement just two weeks prior to the World Cup was terrible planning on its part. Wrestling is the national sport in Iran, and with the top 10 countries in the world converging to compete for the honor of calling itself the No. 1 team team, all eyes in the wrestling world will be focused on Iran.
In the United States, the media consistently portrays countries like Iran, Russia and Cuba as our enemies. But, within our sport, we are all brothers who are training every day for the chance to become a world and Olympic champion. While the wrestlers from all the participating nations focus on and prepare for the competition this week, the coaches and leaders will come together to save this sport. My hope is that the media will turn their focus to this collaboration. We are rallying together as one to save our history and secure that generations to come will have to chance to train for Olympic glory. But while we may be fighting side by side with Iran, Cuba, Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan, make no mistake, we are out to win the World Cup. We are bringing a team to Iran that can contend with any nation in the world. It is my goal for our team to win this World Cup — on the biggest stage the wrestling world has ever scene.
Every one of the wrestlers here is very thankful for all the support we are receiving back home from wrestling fans to the general public. All I ask is that we continue to fight and not get complacent. We cannot let one day go by without doing something to help to sport. There is a lot that can be done, so please continue to reach out and lend a hand to the sport we all love. Stay tuned to TheMat.com and follow our quest to become World Cup champions. Parents and coaches, we will be posting thousands of photos of our camp and the World Cup soon, show them to your young wrestlers. These men are HEROES to our sport’s next generation. Tell them that they can become great like all the athletes here. The spirit of the Olympics lives in the athletes who strive to win medals and represent their country on the grandest stage. We need a lot more people looking at the big picture in order to preserve the sport of wrestling for another 3,000 years.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15 | Azerbaijan Culture
Training for the World Cup is well underway here in Azerbaijan. Jimmy Kennedy and I arrived Tuesday night, while the rest of the team arrived Wednesday morning. To give you a sense of our schedule for the week:
On Thursday, we had our first practice and, immediately, we went right into matches with two apiece during the morning practice at 11:30 a.m. They were all tired from the traveling, so it was good for them to get a nice hard practice in right away. In the evening practice, at 5:30 p.m., we only wrestled one match and then did some drilling and sparring. Today’s practice was a little more structured with drilling, situations, sparring and a match. We only had one practice today, which is not a bad thing since we wrestle in less than a week, and tomorrow, we are taking the day off, going instead to a sauna house as a team to sweat and get massages. We’ll get back on the mats Sunday and Monday before leaving for Iran on Tuesday.
After last night’s practice, I was able to sit down with the Azerbaijani National Team Coach. He, like many of us in the United States, was caught off guard with the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling from the Olympics. He could not comprehend how a sport like wrestling, where the USA, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Japan and many other big and powerful countries take so much pride in, can lose something of such great value. The sport is so popular in this country that they cannot even fathom how it could even be considered to be dropped from the Olympics. The coach told me that many of his fellow countrymen have been asking why wrestling had been dropped, and he was deeply saddened that he could not give them an answer. He felt the need to explain to me that he was a very well-known figure in his country, and when he would get in a taxi, walk down the street or go into the market, he would constantly have fans coming up to him.
The country of Azerbaijan has been pouring a lot of money into the sport, and as a country, they are committed to grow the sport — not just in the Olympics but year round and worldwide. Azerbaijanis knows what kind of impact wrestling has on the youth of their nation. The top wrestlers in this country are all over television, in commercials and on billboards. Little kids want to wrestle, because they see how well the athletes are treated. They know that if they become successful, they will be able to make a living and secure a future for themselves and their families. When a wrestler in this country wins the European Championships, Worlds or Olympics, they get a house. These young athletes have incentive to do well and, for them, becoming an Olympic champion is the pinnacle of a long, hard fight both mentally and physically. I have seen firsthand how well the athletes here are treated, but with that comes stress of having to perform. They hold their athletes to a very high standard, but they also take good care of them for winning and bringing pride to their nation.
The head coach of Azerbaijan was born in Dagestan, Russia. As a young wrestler, he remembers watching Sagalov Abdulbekov winning the Olympics in 1972. He told me that he dreamed of being like Abdulbekov and bringing pride to his country and his republic. His prediction for wrestling, if this decision by the IOC holds up, is that there will be a minimum of 20% fewer wrestlers in Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ossetia and Karbardino Balkaria. With his familiarity of these areas, he knows that if the children do not have wrestling to motivate and drive them, there will be big societal problems on the horizon. Little kids today still dream of becoming Olympic champions just like he did in 1972. He knows that this is a very big deal, but he is calm and collected about it because he has the backing of the most powerful man in the country. The President of Azerbaijan is a huge wrestling fan and personally helps fund the program. I guess when you have such a powerful man who believes in a sport and the effects it has on the young children, you can have an attitude like his. He is simply not worried, and he told me his athletes are going about training like nothing has happened. He believes in his president and knows that the world will unite to get wrestling reinstated in the Olympics. I have to agree with him on this issue. I know we have an uphill battle, but this is what we train for day in and day out — every day of our lives. Nothing is ever given to you when you step onto the match and line up across from another man. You have to earn you victories in life, and when wrestling is reinstated back into the Olympics, we and the rest of the world will have all the more appreciation for our great sport.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13 | Traveling to Azerbaijan
For the last week, I was very excited for my upcoming trip to Azerbaijan, Iran and Belarus. There is a lot of preparation that goes into planning for a three-week trip and making sure everything back home is squared away. I was busy all Sunday and Monday — so busy that they are a blur in my memory right now. I didn’t get a second to relax until I finally sat down on the plane. While I was on the plane, I was thinking about what I should write about in my first blog, and I had decided upon writing about the first time I came to Azerbaijan in 2006. We came to the final of the Golden Grand Prix that year, and I learned a lot from being on my first world team that summer. Since then I have been all over the world, and I am now sitting in Azerbaijan for the fourth time in my life. Not too many Americans can say they have been to Azerbaijan, but I have been fortunate enough to have come here before the money rolled in, and I can see how much this city (Baku) and country are growing. They are doing a great job in Azerbaijan and wrestling is one of their top priorities.
The direction of this writing about took a detour shortly after I arrived. I am here with Jimmy Kennedy, and when we arrived, we were exhausted from an entire day’s worth of flying, so we showered and sat down for a meal after we checked into the hotel. When I finally opened up my email and social-networking sites, I was shocked by the news that wrestling was being dropped from the Olympic Games. I still cannot comprehend what has happened to the sport I love so much. I was in London as a coach and as a spectator, and in my opinion, that was the greatest wrestling I have ever witnessed throughout a tournament. The atmosphere of the crowd and the excitement of the matches clicked in a way that I have never seen before. I was certain when I left London that wrestling was safe within the Olympic movement.
I’m not going to talk about what could have happened or what we as a sport could have done differently. I don’t think pointing fingers at this moment is the right thing to do, and it certainly is not a productive use of my time. What I want to talk about is why I love the sport of wrestling.
I don’t think I chose to wrestle, because I was too young to remember. I think this sport chose me. There is no other sport like wrestling in the world, and ever since I was a five-year old I knew that. Wrestling is one person against another, and in order to win, you have to have strength, skills and smarts. When I was young I loved to just wrestle and try different moves to win matches, but as I got older, I loved the strategies involved with winning at the highest levels. Wrestling made me the man I am today, and I know people in Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, India, Uzbekistan, China, Ukraine, Argentina and many other nations where men and women can make the same claim. We are a family of individuals who believe in the same ideals that the sport of wrestling teaches us. As I sit here in Azerbaijan reading reports from the L.A. Times and many other periodicals throughout the USA, I have to wonder if people even can comprehend what this means. The U.S. wrestling community is so far detached from the rest of the world in our folkstyle bubble that I do not believe that we can understand what this means to the rest of the world.
In America we have wrestling clubs, wrestling in middle schools, high schools, universities and then, if you are good enough, you can wrestle in the Olympics. By the time any one of the wrestlers on our Olympic team reaches the level to become an Olympian they have already prepared themselves for a life after sports. I have been to places overseas where wrestling is an out. People choose to wrestle not because they are going to get an education like we get in the U.S.; they choose to wrestle so their families can eat or so they can become national heroes. We as a country sell ourselves short on this aspect of the sport. Becoming an Olympic champion is very hard to do. I tried my whole life to do it, so I know all that it takes. Putting it in perspective: there are 40 NCAA champions every four years compared to only seven freestyle Olympic champions. It is no wonder when someone in Iran, Russia or Azerbaijan wins the Olympics they are treated like gods. There are kids in Cuba who sleep outside the gym just so they can get in to train the next day. It is kids like this we have to stand up for and fight for. We have to fight for the kids in places where wrestling is an out for them. And while we will continue to have our NCAA championships for the foreseeable future, let’s make sure we can still sell the dream of becoming an Olympic champion. Kids need something to strive for, and they need heroes like Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner to look up to.
I was on a conference call last night from 1:30-3 a.m. with the newly-formed United States Wrestling Foundation. I just want to assure everyone that there are some very influential people that were on that call and they are doing everything in their means to make sure wrestling stays in the Olympics. While I was on the call, I believe they already had pledged around $500,000 to fight the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling. We will need a lot more money than that, and a lot more manpower. I encourage everyone to go to the USA Wrestling Support Olympic Wrestling page. From there you can learn more about action steps and donate directly to the cause. Our initial goal was to help wrestling in the United States at every level, but with the news we received yesterday, we have to broaden our horizons and our fight to get wrestling back in the Olympics where it belongs. I have said for years that as soon as wrestling is not an Olympic sport, athletic directors around the country will have one more excuse to drop our beloved sport. Everyone in the wrestling community can help, and this is the best time to show all the young wrestlers in our country what we can do when we work together.
Wrestlers are tough individually, but collectively — and globally — as a group, wrestlers are so tough I don’t think there is even a word yet created to describe it. We as a sport will rally together to fight for what we believe is right. The only advice I can give young wrestlers is stay focused on the present. Nothing has changed for the immediate future, and 2020 is a long way down the road. Use the sport of wrestling for all it is worth and don’t let the sport use you.
Please stay tuned to TheMat.com for any further developments and to learn where you can help the cause. Don’t be afraid to step up. If there’s one thing I know about wrestlers, it’s that they will never back down from a good fight.