USA Wrestling Freestyle Developmental coach Kevin Jackson has been around the sport of wrestling for quite some time.
He was in the corner when Penn State coach Cael Sanderson won his gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. He was also in the corner when current UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo won his gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Bejing, China.
Jackson recently discussed Sanderson’s gold medal moment as well as some other things about the Nittany Lions with the Centre Daily Times.
Q: What was it like in that moment when Cael won that gold medal?
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A: It was exciting because I knew the work, effort and energy he put in. There was a lot of pressure. He felt pressured to win to be a world and Olympic champion. He felt that outside pressure, which didn’t have the best effect on him emotionally, but I think he dealt with it the right way. It was a sense of joy. It was a sense of relief that all the hard work came into play and he accomplished his goal. It definitely wasn’t easy. It was a challenge. It was years of preparation going into it after college and even before. He had to put a ton of work in mentally, physically and technically to ensure that gold medal at the games. It was one of my most fulfilling wins I’ve experienced sitting in the corner.
Q: In your time of being a coach with USA Wrestling, could you pick a guy who you have seen the most growth from or had the most pleasure of coaching?
A: I’ve coached a lot of guys, including Cael, and seeing his growth and development from being a four-time NCAA Champion to winning the Olympic games. I was with him every step of the way once he finished his collegiate career and made his World Championship run. There is always growth and maturity, when you go from the college level to the senior level. I’ve seen it with all of our champions for the most part, especially the guys I had the opportunity to sit in the corners of. Aaron is the youngest athlete I’ve had the opportunity to work with. His growth and maturity, I’d have to say is on par with the senior-level athletes I’ve worked with. But, what makes Aaron special is his intelligence and understanding of the adjustments needed in order to be successful at the next level. I’ve never seen an athlete with the maturity level, the intellect or the ability to connect to areas, whether it’s in match competition or in practice as Aaron has. It did take him a little while to connect to the defensive philosophy. He had to incur a loss at the World Championships to make the ultimate connection to the defensive things he needs to do to be successful.
Q: If you had to pinpoint one thing that you’ve seen change in Aaron Brooks since he’s been with you guys, what would it be?
A: I think he made the connection to some of the must-win basic skills of being a world-class wrestler, which are controlling tie ups and leg-attack defense. Areas that he doesn’t really have to be concerned with when he is wrestling guys his age group on the high-school level. But, wrestling senior-level athletes and very good college wrestlers, he’s had to develop the ability to master those positions.
Q: How do you see Brooks transitioning to college?
A: Very well. I think he is going to be an immediate threat for the NCAA Championship. I’m not saying he’s going to be an NCAA champion as a freshman but I do think he’ll put himself in a position to have that chance. He’s already won two open tournaments. I would say he is up a weight class wrestling 184 pounds right now because he is a 79-kilogram wrestler, which is around 174. He wants to be at 184 and he has dominated both of those tournaments. He also beat quite a few collegians on his way to making his Junior World Team. Those collegiate athletes are performing pretty well, but he dominated those guys. I think he’ll be in the hunt. It comes down to preparation and his readiness, and maybe getting a little bigger and stronger to really be a solid 184. Right now, he is capable of wrestling with anybody in the country at that weight.
Q: If I remember seeing correctly, he is registered for the Midlands?
A: He is registered for the Midlands at 184 pounds, which should give us an indication of where he is at. Like I said, I believe right now he could make 174 pounds and that would probably be the optimal championship weight for him. He’s never been a weight cutter. He’s never been a guy that has had to control his weight. He’s been a natural guy, which is Penn State’s philosophy, too. He’s kind of connected to that. We are going to find out exactly where he is at because realistically, he’s supposed to be a true freshman in college right now.
Q: Being a guy from outside the program, to see what Sanderson has built here at Penn State, what does that mean for his coaching career?
A: He understood what it took to get to this level to dominate the NCAA competition. I think he got to a situation that has all the resources, a Big Ten school and in the best wrestling state in the country. Not only was he able to get some of the best kids out of the state, he was able to get the very best in the state. I want you to understand a couple of things. Cael has done a great job. Their staff is probably the most cohesive staff in the country with Casey and his brother on staff, as well as other members there like family in Jake Varner. The trust and loyalty, that fuels everything. At the same time, Cael came from American Coaching Base System, which we all do. He’s not showing any more special technique than anyone else. But, his ability to recruit the very best kids in the country to his program, and have those kids pretty much at a high percentage hit, meaning that they came to school and they reached their potential. With Cael’s team and athletes, the biggest thing that I’m impressed with that he hasn’t missed on too many of those blue-chip-No. 1 kids. If you are getting three or four or five of them, and the rest of the other teams aren’t getting them, and they are going to a stable, consistent, nice-cultured program, they’re not going to get worse. If you look at history, it repeats itself based on what Dan Gable did. It is the same situation. But, understand, it’s resources, support from his administration and then it’s about him being the best recruiter. The thing you can hang on his hat, he’s the best recruiter in the country because he continually gets the very best kids and they don’t miss on them.
Q: How do Cael’s teams and what he is doing now compare to what Dan Gable did?
A: Very similar. I think Gable preached more philosophy, which Cael preaches the philosophy of having fun and going out and competing, but again they both have the similarities of they have the very best guys and they have a lot of them. People put Gable on that pedestal of best coach/athlete. I think we’ve gone away from him being the best wrestler because you got John Smith and other guys that surpassed his accolades as an athlete. As far as being a coach, he is up there with the John Woodens and the very best coaches in other sports. Gable goes right along with those guys. What Cael is doing right now and what he has done with his athletic accomplishments, obviously, his name is going to be thrown in that mix, too. At this point, based on the titles that he’s won and the titles he is going to win, he’s going to be close or surpass what Gable has done as far as Big Ten Championships and NCAA Championships if he stays around that long. I think it’s a goal probably for him, but maybe not. I think in the back of his fans’ mind you want to have a goal to shoot for. I’m sure he’d love to supplant his name for Gable’s name that people are talking about him years from now like people remember coach Gable. I really believe it is history repeating itself. There are a lot of similarities there, even the fan bases.
Q: Who on Penn State’s current roster do you see that can have a very good international career?
A: I’m just going based on what they’ve done. What you really have to look at is the success or performance that these kids have had at the junior level or cadet level. It’s pretty easy to see who is the next guy. Obviously, Mark Hall comes to mind right off the bat. Bo Nickal comes to mind because they’ve been there and done that. But, at the same time, you look at both of those guys’ weight classes and we are pretty stacked here in the United States. (Alex) Dieringer is having a great international career. He’s winning everything outside of the Worlds or making our World team. You look at those guys in the same fashion. They can have a great international career but can they get out of the country, that is going to be a challenge for those guys over the next couple of years to make this 2020 Olympic team. But, I do think 2024 and 2028, if they choose to go that route it is definitely in their future.
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