Preston Olander is nine years old, weighs between 67 and 69 lbs, and likes putting kids in headlocks. After his baseball tournament Saturday, Olander spent most of his Sunday at a wrestling tournament, where his first opponent pinned him in the second period and his second opponent lost to him by 14 points. When Olander’s coach (and father), Brad Olander, walked over to shake his second opponent’s hand, the 60-something pounder refused.
“He didn’t have very good sportsmanship at the end,” Preston Olander recalled. He was good though. Olander gave his opponent that. However, Olander explained why he still beat his competitor 14 to zero. “He wasn’t very good on his feet. He wasn’t aware he could get taken down. What happened was I got the takedown. I got back points. Second period, I got two back points, then three. Third period, I got a reversal. I almost got a tech fall, but I wasn’t able to get one more point.”
Olander trains with Hustle & Muscle Mat Club, an after-school program at St. Albans School on Wisconsin Ave. Practice takes place past a set of double doors in a small blue padded room of the school gym. About 30 children in grades from kindergarten through middle school run around a 28-foot diameter circle. In a smaller concentric circle, a short, bearded assistant coach rotates in place, shouting at the children to “Switch!” and begin running in the other direction. Because they have to run in a circle, switching directions helps avoid muscle imbalance. This is how wrestlers warm up.
Head Coach Clarence Long has trained youth wrestlers in the Hustle & Muscle program officially since 2011, but said the program has existed in some form as far back as 2009. At his September 22 practice, Long had about 30 kids drilling moves. For an after-school program that runs 6:30 to 7:30 on a Friday evening, that is impressive attendance. Still, the way Long described it, the program has survived by sheer happenstance.
“I never went all in on the coaching thing,” said Long, a tall, burly man with a shaven head. “I got talked into doing youth, took what essentially was a really informal youth program being run by a St. Alban’s coach who didn’t want to do it and turned it over for me.”
His reluctance notwithstanding, Coach Long has played a key role in promoting wrestling to Washington, D.C., youth. In his time with Hustle & Muscle, he has cracked the code to a problem that most parents only dream of solving: holding a child’s attention. His secret? Time management. When Long started coaching, practices ran for an hour and a half, and he found the children began losing focus by the end of the first hour. To keep the children engaged, Long cut practices down to an hour, but left the number of drills and exercises unchanged. The children go nonstop for the full hour, with the exception of water and bathroom breaks. They take turns with their sparring partner, practicing one move for about five minutes before proceeding to practice the next. The children never have time to feel bored, which is exactly Long’s goal. Long knows his wrestlers are young, and wants them to have fun wrestling before they think about competing, including the more advanced ones like Olander.
“They’re not only the best in terms of wins, but they’re also the best mentally” Long said, referring to a select group at Hustle & Muscle, colloquially known as “Jack’s Army.” “I want to be clear though, in terms of the grand experiment, I’ve had a couple kids who have gone onto high school and had mediocre careers. There’s a lot of time left for wrestling before high school. I’m not going put them up on a pedestal in front of other kids, nor am I going to put them on a pedestal because, at this moment in time, they have more talent.”
Whatever their talent, children who wish to stay in D.C. for high school and college wrestling face limited options. The sport has lost both popularity and backers in recent years. According to American University wrestler and leader of Jack’s Army, Jack Mutchnik, wrestling suffers from an image problem due to its seemingly barbaric competitions, as well as associations with brutishness and lack of intelligence. Mutchnik, himself a candidate for a five-year bachelor’s and master’s degree program in business administration, resents the stereotype.
“I think the sport overall gets a barbarian outlook,” Mutchnik said. “People think wrestlers are all meathead guys.” Mutchnik cites a counter example from his team, Brett Dempsey. “Big beard, heavyweight, farm kid from Michigan, you would never expect him to have a 4.0. He’s a bio major. He’s a genius. He always volunteers, and he’s team captain.”
Mutchnik and Dempsey make up only a small part of the wrestling team’s brain trust. Mutchnik said the team averages around 3.4 and has four or five kids that tend to have 4.0s. Last year, they had the third highest grade point average for NCAA Division I Wrestling, and the second highest at AU—no mean feat for a roster of 27.
“Track beat us,” Jack said nonchalantly. “But they have like six kids.”
A redshirt junior, Mutchnik wrestles at 141 lbs, and in terms of height, most guys look down on him. At the same time, Mutchnik also could drop most guys to the floor. He won 22 of his 38 matches last year, winning one by pinning his opponent and two by dominating them in terms of points, earned by a combination of takedowns, escapes, reversals, and near pins. On Fridays, Mutchnik volunteers as a coach at Hustle & Muscle, where he and his teammate Matthew Conte train Olander and the other advanced wrestlers who make up Jack’s Army. Jack’s Army practices in a corner of the St. Alban’s Wrestling Room, drilling more difficult moves separate from the other children. They work out more intensely, but in a way that still resembles a series of games rather than a boot camp. For one drill, Olander and another wrestler play tag around a circle, taking turns being “it” and side shuffling to catch their partner on the other side of the circle. For another drill, the two take turns wrestling for control on the mat, Preston having one minute to pin his partner before its his turn to avoid being pinned.
Yet as intense as these advanced practices seem, Mutchnik knows he has not pushed them nearly as hard as he was pushed. Mutchnik has wrestled since the age of 3. He started with a program run by his dad, but he eventually left to train under Cary Kolat, a former US Olympic wrestler. According to Merrell Noden from Sports Illustrated, Cary Kolat had a high school record of 137 wins and zero losses, as well as four Pennsylvania state titles. The intense training Mutchnik received causes him to question the easier training he gives youth wrestlers like Preston.
“It’s hard,” Mutchnik said. “Looking back at when I was younger, I was pushed by high caliber guys. This is a different mindset. My youth wrestling wasn’t as much fun as it should have been. Fortunately,” he added, “I was in love with the sport.”
Standing at about five-and-a-half feet tall and weighing about 141 lbs, Mutchnik was too small to play basketball or football. The level of raw physical talent coaches recruit today disqualify many skilled, smaller athletes from competing in high school and college. Wrestling, however, lacks such implicit barriers to entry precisely because it has explicit ones. For Coach Long, wrestling’s system of weight classes means anyone can compete on a level playing field.
“Anyone can wrestle, no matter what size they are,” Long said. “For example, are you 75lbs and 4’2”? Great, we have a practice partner for you. Are you 5’10”, 150lbs? Great, we have a practice partner for you too.”
To Mutchnik, wrestling means more than a way to win glory and continue college sports. Wrestling for him is an integral part of who he is. Even with his varsity practices and college course load, Mutchnik chooses to volunteer at Hustle & Muscle Mat Club so he can share with others what he has learned from wrestling.
“I wanted to do it to give back to the sport,” Mutchnik said. With wrestling, he said, “You don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. At a meet, you only see seven minutes. In reality, it’s hours and hours of work dedicated to it. I think it instilled in me perseverance, dedication, persistence, to be detail oriented. It made me who I was.”
For young people like Preston Olander especially, wrestling can instill values that other team-based sports cannot. The individual nature of the sport makes it ideal for encouraging pride in victories—and teaching responsibility for losses. Olander’s father and wrestling coach for a children’s league in D.C., Brad Olander, cited this as one of the reasons he wanted his son to wrestle. As with any parent, Brad likes when his son wins, but the character his son builds through wrestling is his highest priority.
“The number one goal is to have fun,” Brad said. “The number two goal is to learn and get better. Number three is to win at least more than you lose. When we win, we win graciously. And when we lose,” he concludes with his son in earshot, “We don’t throw tantrums.”