BLOG 1--KEVIN BLACK
We're only a few days away from leaving for the Junior World Championships in Trnava, Slovakia. We leave this Saturday and will take a quick flight from Minneapolis to Chicago before hopping on a direct flight to Vienna, Austria. Once the entire women's team arrives in Vienna, we'll take a shuttle to Trnava.
The Junior World Championships will take place September 17-23. The women will compete on September 19-21 and I'll do my best to update everyone back in the States with a daily blog. We have two River Falls girls (Alisha Howk and Macey Kilty) and a third Wisconsinite (Jayden Laurent) on Team USA plus a handful of Greco-Roman wrestlers and coaches/leaders who reside in Wisconsin. Additionally, Lakeland University student-athlete Alex Liles and Sunkist athlete Ronna Heaton are on the team, too. We have a lot of connections to this team.
During this final week of preparation in River Falls, we're focused on general maintenance and making sure each of our girls are feeling good (about themselves, life, wrestling, etc.). We spent a lot of time over the summer putting them in uncomfortable positions and situations and focusing on trouble areas. They attended training camps in River Falls, Colorado Springs and Fresno, CA. They also spent some time in Fargo, at the lake and then here again as we brought in some of the best workout partners from the US.
They're prepared to compete. Right now practices are short and to-the-point, making sure we get to the end of practice in good spirits and feeling fresh. Our warm-ups are fun and active (this week we played a lot of soccer) and we try to focus on our strengths and do quick inventory checks. There's no need to spend an abundance of time in the wrestling room this week. "Less is more" because it's imperative that they're excited about wrestling and eager to be on the mat when we get to Trnava and not worn down and looking for a break. Obviously, we didn't wait until this week to start focusing on this event. It's been on the calendar all year and we've spent nearly 12 months preparing for it. They need to be hungry when we touch down over seas, so we want them to stay focused on their goals, fan those flames in their hearts and take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
Often times, athletes and coaches try to fit too much into the final stages of preparation and unintentionally create stress, tension or a feeling of being overwhelmed. They try to add to the process, get that extra push or work harder than the rest, but it's too late to begin that mindset. That's how you should approach the entire season. We're confident in our preparation and the process, so we choose to taper before a major competition. It's all very intentional, though. It's not a week off. The pace is high during practice and we hold them accountable to the details, however, we know we can't add much to the product right now. Usually, the results of this approach is a few happy campers who love wrestling and still have enough ornery that they can't wait to compete and perform.
Stay tuned for updates from our trip. Please, feel free to comment below or on social media so our athletes know you're supporting them and cheering them on from the United States!
BLOG 3--KEVIN BLACK
Yesterday was a nice relaxed day as we acclimated to the surroundings. We got to the hotel in the morning, hung out for a while then did a little shake-out in the early evening. I had anticipated being able to watch the Packers-Vikings game on the NFL Sunday Ticket app, but it wasn't available outside of the US. I settled for listening to Larry and Wayne on WTMJ online and following on ESPN Gamecast.
Our hotel is located on a quaint lake that seems to be used for recreation. I walked around the grounds for a bit with Macey and we found some trampolines. No way would a hotel in the US have trampolines for guests. We broke a little sweat in the warm sun and then a random couple challenged us to a game of tennis on the courts behind the hotel next to the pool.
We both have general athletic skills, but tennis is not a preferred sport for either of us. We would have done Mr. Forde proud, though. We were in athletic clothing and our opponents were in swimsuits and sandals. I kept telling her to hit the ball to "Bikini" (the nickname I gave our opponent). She couldn't keep herself from laughing and missed the ball entirely once or twice. Mind you, it was about 10:00 AM and I'm pretty sure Bikini had been drinking alcohol since the night before. We definitely won. The other team wasn't keeping score and we never actually served the ball or followed the rules, but Macey and I walked off the court feeling victorious after Bikini and her husband had enough of our powerful forehands. They broke, so we won. That's the story we're going with.
We used those tennis courts later in the day for our small team workout. There was a little "crack the egg" on the trampoline (see Ali's video post...), some sand volleyball and a combination of soccer and basketball then we walked next door to use the sauna and called it a night.
Today we're heading over to the venue for a mat workout and to watch some Greco-Roman wrestling.
BLOG 4--KEVIN BLACK
We finished our morning mat workout and then took a team picture by the lake. We now have access to two mats right here in our hotel in Senec. Yesterday we had to drive about 30 minutes to Trnava to get on the mat at the host hotel next to the venue. There are warm-up mats at the venue, too. Remember, UWW placed the female athletes in a separate hotel (a wise decision).
Our hotel is considered a "resort." It's on a small recreational lake - canoes, paddle boats, tether ball, bowling alley, etc. There are several youth boy's soccer players staying here. The best I can understand is they're a Slovakian development team, however, I don't think they're here to play soccer. It seems like a team building camp, of sorts. They're typical 12-14 year old boys in matching clothing, meaning the girls have found them to be quite obnoxious. They're full of energy and silliness and they think it's pretty cool that they're surrounded by elite women. The girls' state of mind is not in a position to tolerate endless giggling, so they're annoyed by their presence. I give them high fives and fist bumps and act like a big, strong, cool American and they get a kick out of it.
The hotel provides us with three meals each day. It's all been pretty standard to what we're accustomed to at UWW events. I always say each item is some shade of tan or yellow - mostly chicken, potatoes and breads. Breakfast is the only time the coffee/latte machine is available...unless your Clarissa. Two days in a row she opened the machine and turned it on during dinner. She was strongly reprimanded each time. It's become an inside joke that will likely be discussed for a few years among the coaches.
I'm sharing a room with Sam Schmitz (McKendree University) and Matt Stevens (Oklahoma City). We're in an apartment style room with bright red carpet and nice porch overlooking the lake. We've left our mark at Hotel Senec, that's for sure. Sam pulled the handle off the patio door, Clarissa sat on a chair and broke it in half and I stepped on the coffee table to kill a spider on the ceiling and that also broke. We have several days left and I'm certain Matt will break something soon enough. It looks like we've been regularly wrestling right here in our room, but I assure you that we are actually very calm. I can just imagine what the employees must be saying about us.
Our athletes have mined their p's and q's at the hotel, so that's good. The first half of our group will compete tomorrow morning. We're all excited for weigh-ins and for the women's competition to begin. These girls are planning on doing a different kind of damage compared to what the coaches have been up to. They're ready to wreck some athletes, break some hearts and crush dreams. That will be fun to talk about, too
BLOG 5--KEVIN BLACK
Day 1 of competition is in the books for the women's team. Macey stormed her way into the finals. She started out a tad slow, but was in great position the entire day and pitched a shut out, outscoring her three opponents 24-0 with two technical falls and a pin. She has her hands full tomorrow night against reigning world champion Khanum Velieva from Russia. She won junior worlds last year and was a two-time Cadet world champion the consecutive years previous. She's good - the longest arms you've ever seen for a 68 kg woman and incredible position. She literally didn't give an inch the entire day, although her Japanese opponent did get to her legs a couple of times. We've watched several of her matches, both live and on film.
After our team meeting, Macey said she knew what she had to do today to be successful: be stingy with points, stay in good position and keep the pressure on her opponent. It was music to my ears. Almost like it was rehearsed. Well, actually it was. It's what I've said everyday for the last 12 months in preparation for today. I really believe it's what has separated her from the rest of her peers in the United States and has her in a place to be one of the best pound-for-pound young female wrestlers in the entire world.
Within fifteen minutes of Macey's semi-final victory, we had another huge victory from our little crew. Ali had finished her final "weight cut" and stepped on the scale and received great news. She had finally gotten down to 53 kgs (116.8 lbs). Holy smokes, we have been eagerly anticipating the moment we saw that number on the scale.
For several weeks we've adjusted life, as we know it. Workouts, diet, tears, joy...it's been a haul. I'm so proud of her for persevering during this pursuit of managing her weight. Obviously, we're here for a wrestling tournament and that's been number one on our minds, however, there have been a few instances when weight management has tried to steal our attention. Last night she got pretty discouraged and vented a bit (actually, a lot). I'm a good sounding board for her vents. I turned it into an opportunity for an impromptu worship service and I played several of my favorite Christian songs and told her to focus on the lyrics. It was a classic mental skills exercise - external focus vs. internal focus. It got her through the workout and she woke up this morning in a much better mood and determined to get through that last bit of "suffering" to get down to weight. What you put into your heart is what comes out. ;)
You know what's interesting about Truth (capital "T"/Bible)? It's alway true, no matter what's going on. The Bible says that our joy is not determined by our circumstances, it's determined by what Christ is doing in us and through us. What we've found out to be true over the last few weeks during this descent to 53 is that when joy is mentioned in the Bible, it's often right alongside suffering, tears, heartache or troubles (John 16:20-24, 2 Timothy 1:4, etc.). And what's cool about joy, is it's not "out there" somewhere. It's already inside our hearts, so we just have to look in the right place. It's been there all along! Just like the Sunday school song: I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart to staaaayyyyy!
How's that for a mantra at the Junior World Championships?!
Ali is down to weight and weigh-ins cannot come soon enough in the morning. Macey will weigh-in at 8:30 am and then Ali and the other four girls competing for the first time here will weigh-in at 8:45 am. Wrestling will get underway at 10:30 am (3:30 am in Wisconsin and Missouri) and Macey will compete for the gold medal at 6:00 pm.
BLOG 6--KEVIN BLACK
Well, I'm not sure where to start tonight.
I've really enjoyed writing updates throughout our trip, but this one is difficult. I know there are a lot of people back home who are supporting these girls and hurting for them tonight. We sincerely appreciate you. I also believe I have a responsibility to keep our support system updated on my take from a heart wrenching evening in Slovakia.
I don't want to write anything tonight. I just want to take a long shower and go to bed. But those who have our backs need to be in the loop on this one because it's important that they understand this side of the journey, too. So, I'm just going to share my thoughts journal-style tonight and do some free flow writing so you might not get many sharable quotes this time.
Twice within an hour, we fell short of what we came here to do. I fell short to deliver on a couple of unspoken promises and that hurts a lot. Ali and Macey have been preparing to win gold medals at this event. Nothing else. We didn't prepare for any setbacks, but now we have to deal with them.
Both of these girls have paid their dues, put in the time, made the investments and sacrifices. They've worked hard, worked easy and worked smart. They've been all over the world in order to put themselves in a position to win a gold medal at junior worlds. They've spent over 12 months for this day and there have been several people and programs contributing to the process. However, September 20, 2018 was not kind to us.
The takeaway? No one deserves anything in this sport and, damn it, life's not fair.
I've heard coaches and motivators talk about making the commitment to excellence and athletes answering or responding with that cliche statement about how, "no one deserves this more than so-and-so." Well, I'm here to tell you that's not true. It's a bunch of entitled bull crap. No one really deserves anything. Terry Brands spoke to this in his FloFilms documentary. In wrestling, you don't get what you deserve, you only get what you earn.
I talked about this during an interview on Trackwrestling tonight. You have to remember, we're dealing with the best in the entire world kind of stuff here. This is no joke. We're not trying to win a conference title or a state championship. Not taking anything away from those accomplishments, but those are small potatoes. You can't fake your way into winning a gold medal at the world championships. It just doesn't happen. And never will. There's no guarantee that success is waiting for you. Ever. There are several people doing everything that they can to prepare for the opportunity to win that gold medal. And at the end of the day, they will only hand out one.
The standard is the best in the world. That's 7.442 billion people. This is a high stakes game.
What are the investments these two have made? By the time they turned 17 and 18 years old, they had moved away from their families, sacrificed academic opportunities, invested in becoming the Total Athlete (body, mind and soul), lived clean lifestyles, adjusted diets and strength/conditioning programs and friend groups, traveled all over the globe and did everything within their entire being to become the best that they can be...and all of that only gives them the chance to reach their dreams.
I don't think the "rest of the world" understands what that means. It looks differently for each of these girls, but they have literally done everything in pursuit of this goal. Every. Thing. Only for the chanceto reach it.
Isn't that a scary place to choose to live? These girls put in a maximum amount of effort with no guaranteed return on their investment. They bet the farm everyday. They go all in. Only so that they can have the opportunity to risk all of it. There aren't many teenagers that can identify with this kind of life.
You cannot experience true satisfaction in reaching your goals unless you've dared so greatly that it might cost you everything in the pursuit of them. However, it hurts so incredibly bad when you don't reach that goal. The highs are high and the lows are low.
That's the real life that we're dealing with here, my friends. And tonight our hearts are broken.
But it's worth it. Because it's only in these moments that you gain the strength to persevere for the next opportunity and to be ready if the chance is there again. Rising strong starts with accepting risk and being willing to fall time and time again (Brene Brown). And it forces you to operate from a posture of humility and to gain a healthy perspective on the "big picture."
After all is said and done, it comes down to what God is doing in us and through us. It always does. Didn't we talk about that yesterday? Things are sticky and teary, but our joy? It's down in our hearts where it's always been. That doesn't make the pain go away. And the truth is, the hurt these girls are feeling tonight might never leave their hearts. They might only gain tolerance for it and, if they're lucky and wise, be able to contextualize it some time down the road.
Big picture: we don't get what we deserve and I'm grateful for that. Jesus suffered and died on a cross, taking upon Himself what we deserve. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" - Isaiah 53:6
Big picture: life isn't fair (especially when awful calls don't go our way), and for that I'm thankful. Fair? We've made some ridiculous mistakes and it's not fair that God still sees me as pure and blameless, but that's my identity in Him.
So, I guess I'll end this stream of consciousness and try to get some sleep so we can give it one more push tomorrow to stand on that podium. As I was writing, I listened over and over to one of my favorite songs of all-time, "Table for Two" by Caedmon's Call. Here's how the song ends:
Well, this day's been crazy
But everything's happened on schedule
from the rain and the cold
to the drink that I spilled on my shirt.
'Cause You knew how You'd save me
before I fell dead in the garden,
And you knew this day
long before You made me out of dirt.
And You know the plans that You have for me
And You can't plan the end and not plan the means.
And so I suppose I just need some peace,
Just to get me to sleep.
That's a wrap for the US women's team at Junior Worlds in Slovakia. Macey's silver, secured on Wednesday night after the semi-finals, is the only piece of hardware the women will bring back to the States.
Tonight, Ali finished her week in 5th place. She just didn't have enough in the tank to gather that bronze medal. She came off the mat exhausted and said her entire body hurt. I believed her. It looked that way. The combination of weight management, a two day event, an emotional setback the night before, the intense heat in the venue, travel back-and-forth to the hotel and we just couldn’t pull things together. She was in great spirits and fought like crazy, but her legs, most of all, just didn’t respond. It wasn’t an issue of mental toughness like it usually is for an athlete in her situation. She left it all on the mat and was physically exhausted.
So, we need to go back to the drawing board and look at how we prepared. No excuses, just accountability and responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, both of them gave everything they had and should have no regrets concerning their effort. We can take this an opportunity to learn and look deeply at all things leading into the event. A day ago, it looked like our preparation process was on point and Macey and Ali wrestled extremely well. But that was on day one of the tournament. Day two was a different story for both of them. At this level, if teammates who train in the same environment respond the same way, it’s likely a product of that environment and I need to re-evaluate our physical preparation.
You don’t know what you don’t know, so now that we have intel on our junior worlds experience, I need to make some important adjustments. I think that’s how you learn from moments like these.
We’ll have a 10-hour flight back to the United States and that will give us time for some needed reflection and evaluation. Win or lose, though, deep reflection would have been on the schedule any ways. We must always be as critical in our assessments of both "success" and of "failure." Our posture really should be the same no matter the outcome because we want to keep moving forward in our progress.
We all know the value of getting back up after getting knocked down. It’s one of the biggest reasons successful athletes succeed. Every once in a while, though, when you get knocked down, you need to stay down for a bit so you know exactly why you got knocked down. When you finally do get back up, you do so planning on not getting knocked down again.