UNIVERSITY PARK — Jake Varner shot in on Cael Sanderson, snatching the Penn State wrestling coach’s right leg out from under him before Sanderson quickly scrambled away and countered, shoving Varner backward.
As the two Olympic gold medalists tussled inside Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on Wednesday, future Olympic freestyle wrestling hopefuls toiled about the mats around them.
Along the back wall of the practice facility, U.S. National Team head coach Zeke Jones stood with his back against the wall, arms crossed. Jones’ intense gaze bounced around from wrestler to wrestler and at the 15 or so matches unfolding in front of him as his assistant, U.S. National Team developmental coach Bill Zadick, bellowed instructions.
This was not a typical Penn State practice.
Instead, Jones and Zadick, along with handfuls of Team USA, Nittany Lion Wrestling Club athletes and prospective Olympians from across the country added a bit of international flair to the Penn State wrestling room before the Nittany Lions’ normal team session.
Jones and his colleagues have been on hand all week overseeing a U.S. National Team training camp on the Penn State campus. The trip to State College is a part of Jones’ evolving approach to gathering more potential national talent at regional training sites across the country.
“The opportunity to, one, be around the top program in the country is great. To synergize the national team, the world Olympic athletes with the best collegiate kids is great in a freestyle environment,” Jones said. “I look at Penn State’s wrestlers as our future. There are a lot of kids in the program that are going to be on the Olympic team some day. The most important thing we’re doing here is we’re improving as a U.S. team.”
While many U.S. wrestlers work out of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., others hone their skills at regional sites spread across the country.
Team USA saw this approach work as recently as this past summer’s Olympic Games in London.
Varner, along with Jordan Burroughs and Coleman Scott, all won medals following training cycles spent at regional training centers like the one the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club utilizes in State College. Jones called regional training sites the “lifeblood” of Team USA’s pipeline of future talent.
While he’s spent plenty of time identifying possible Olympic wrestlers as soon as they reach the fifth- and eighth-grade levels, Jones has also been building relationships with the most successful college programs in the country. His intent is to extend the training principles and strategies from the OTC to the regional level.
“It’s been a shift in philosophy,” Jones said. “The previous philosophy was, let’s have all the best athletes move to the Olympic Training Center. There were challenges to that. My vision for the program has been to say, ‘Why have one Olympic Training Center when we can have five or ten regional training centers that are thriving?’ And that’s really what has happened.”
The majority of those have close ties with the college programs they share facilities with. USA Wrestling operates 27 regional training sites with 21 of those sharing college towns or facilities.
Burroughs, who won Olympic gold this past summer at 74 kilograms, honed his craft at the University of Nebraska while Scott labored with his RTC at Oklahoma State. Varner spent most of his summer months training with Sanderson and Co. in Happy Valley.
“We have some great wrestlers here,” Sanderson said. “Ohio State, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Michigan, they all have their own regional, local training sites now. It’s kind of changed a little bit and Coach Jones wants to get out and spend time at the different training centers.”
As overseer of Team USA’s operations, Jones is hoping to implement more consistency to the national team’s overall approach.
Should wrestlers choose to leave their regional training sites for the OTC, they need to be prepared for the regimens coaches in Colorado put them through.
“That was one of the challenges at the beginning of the cycle,” Jones said. “There were so many different ways we were doing things and from studying the world’s competition, they had more of a uniformity. Of course creativity in each location is important, but I think that we needed some technical and tactical system, even down to the warmup. Our warmups were all so different.”
Jones is hoping that with his efforts to get around and preach the same training procedures at the different regional sites, the younger generation of U.S. wrestlers will be better prepared than some have been during past Olympic cycles.
He’s already identified Nittany Lion wrestlers who possess a wealth of knowledge and talent for the sport.
Penn State wrestlers David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Quentin Wright and Matt Brown all competed at the Olympic Team Trials in Iowa this past summer. All were on hand as Jones and Zadick directed practice sessions early this week.
“It’s very inspiring for us, how people like this work,” Wright said. “These are guys that have been through the program going on to do greater things. It’s great to have people like that around that really inspire you and help you look to the future.”