This is a story about two world-class athletes who have put everything they’ve had into chasing a dream.
At least one of them will see that dream shattered this weekend.
That fact, in many ways, shapes the entire story. Both athletes are Ohio born and bred, Buckeyes who fell in love with the grueling sport of wrestling from a young age. They moved on to Ohio State, where they starred for the Buckeyes during the 2000s. They stayed in Columbus, hoping to parlay their talents into the Olympic dream.
This weekend, Tommy Rowlands and J.D. Bergman will attempt to qualify for the United States Olympic team that will take part in the London Summer Games.
Rowlands enters the event ranked third in the nation at his weight class of 211½ pounds, while Bergman is fifth. In other words, both have legitimate chances to advance past top-seeded Jake Varner.
At most, only one will. For at least one, years of effort, training and discipline and decades of dreaming will fail to reach the intended target. It’s enough to make one become overwhelmed with the pressure, but that’s not the case.
“I feel great,” Bergman said.
“I actually feel really good,” Rowlands countered.
They’re two amazing, world-class athletes.
Only one can advance.
Both are winners.
* * * * *
No sport in the world is easy to perform at a world-class level, but wrestling is in a class by itself. The physical and mental tolls the sport takes on a body are hard to comprehend. Bergman and Rowlands would know by comparison – the former once had a stint on the Ohio State football team, while the latter once went to a free agent camp with the New York Jets.
Ohio State Represented Well At Trials
Iowa City, Iowa
When the Ohio Regional Training Center was created out of the framework of the old Buckeye Wrestling Club after Ohio State tabbed Tom Ryan to become its varsity wrestling coach, the goal was to help support elite members of the sport hoping to qualify for the Olympics.
It’s safe to say that goal succeeded. Six freestyle wrestlers supported by the nonprofit organization have legitimate chances to qualify for the London Games that begin in July.
“We wanted to fund a guy at every weight class and be well-represented at the Olympic trials,” said Tommy Rowlands, a former director of the RTC who is now attempting to qualify. “We’re looking to really capitalize on our ultimate goal, which is the Olympics. We think we can put four guys on the Olympic team, and that’s our plan.”
In addition to Rowlands, who will wrestle at 211½ pounds along with J.D. Bergman, the RTC is sending 121-pounder Angel Escobedo, 132-pounders Reece Humphrey and Shawn Bunch and heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev to Iowa City. James Yonushonis, a 185-pounder who wrestled at Penn State and whose wife Meredith is an assistant coach on the women’s gymnastics team, is also supported by the RTC but did not qualify for the trials.
Like Rowlands and Bergman, Humphrey is a former OSU wrestler, though despite being the top-ranked wrestler at his weight class he won’t have a chance to compete this weekend thanks to a broken bone in his hand. Dlagnev is the top heavyweight in the country while Bunch (a former Edinboro wrestler) is ranked second after Humphrey and Escobedo (Indiana) is also second at his class. The group combined last April to allow the Ohio RTC to win the national championship among all RTCs.
The Ohio RTC provides a stipend to each wrestler of between $23,000 and $27,000 per year. The wrestlers train at Ohio State’s Steelwood Athletic Center under Rosselli along with Ryan and former OSU two-time national champion J Jaggers.
“There’s a reason why they’re good,” United States national freestyle team head coach Zeke Jones said. “You have one of the greatest coaches in America, really one of the greatest coaches in the world, in Lou Rosselli. You have a super great coach in Tom Ryan who has been leading the effort to make this happen, to make our RTCs happen.”
Other wrestlers with Ohio RTC ties will take part in Iowa City. Logan Stieber, a redshirt freshman at Ohio State who won the NCAA title in March at 133 pounds, will wrestle at 132 at the trials. Former OSU All-American Colt Sponseller, who completed his eligibility in 2011, will compete at 163 pounds, while 185-pounder Keith Gavin (a former national title winner at Pittsburgh) has recently been working in Columbus after moving to town from Pennsylvania.
Lastly, former OSU All-American Nikko Triggas is ranked seventh in the country at 121 pounds in the Greco-Roman discipline.
“Being as unbiased as I can be, wrestling is the hardest sport there is,” Bergman said. “There may be other sports that are close or that can compare on some levels, but on so many levels, wrestling is off the charts.”
The sport isn’t so much a sport at all but a lifestyle choice. For those athletes at the Ohio Regional Training Center, where Rowlands and Bergman have been training, the meat of the workout schedule included about 12 per week – one each weekday morning and afternoon and one each weekend day. The entire body must be in the utmost of physical condition to survive hand-to-hand combat with a person of a similar size for six minutes at a time.
“That involves lifting and running and extreme, extreme conditioning,” Bergman said. “Not to mention the actual wrestling, which is grueling. That alone I would say puts it in the upper echelon of all sports, or maybe that alone makes it the toughest.”
The mental aspect is just as hard to comprehend, and it’s as multifaceted as it is deep. The fact that there’s no days off physically has a mental aspect; reaching that level of commitment is impressive, almost unnatural. It’s not easy to come to work every day knowing that close to 100 percent of your energy has to be poured out in the gym or on the mat.
Then there’s the fact that each bout is a one-on-one battle of man vs. man, will vs. will. At the highest of levels, each wrestler has dedicated his life to his craft and knows all the tricks of the trade. The mental battle is as deep as the physical confrontation between those who have competed against one another for years.
On top of that, at the international level, it’s hard to make a living. The wrestlers at the Ohio RTC are given a stipend of between $23,000 and $27,000 per year. Sponsors help out, but it’s not a glamorous life. When it comes to travel, one loss can hurt a wrestler and his sponsors equally in the pocketbook and the psyche.
“The extent of the mental side of wrestling, people can’t really understand unless you’ve gone through it,” Bergman said.
The battle that splits the physical and mental part of the sport is cutting weight. The fight to stay at the right weight is a constant one, and around tournament time, wrestlers must go through a final cut. There’s a way to do it, but the healthiest way – which in this sport means the way that allows a person to compete at their highest physical capability – is bereft of shortcuts.
“You have a physical encounter with someone every day, all day,” Rowlands said. “You guys are the same size, and you’re going for the same thing. Whether you know it or not or like it or not, it forces you to look within every day and reveal yourself. You have to look in the mirror and hold yourself accountable and responsible. You can’t look to your left or right or blame it on a teammate. It’s personal from a physical perspective.
* * * * *
Rowlands had a simple plan after finishing up his time as a Buckeye in 2004.
After earning four All-America honors and two national championships as a heavyweight with the Buckeyes from 2001-04, he set his sights on the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. He quickly became one of the top wrestlers in the world in his weight – winning the 2007 and ’08 U.S. Opens as well as making the 2007 World Championships team – with full intentions on qualifying for the Olympics, taking a gold medal and leaving his shoes on the mat.
Of course, life rarely works out that easily. Rowlands – who finished fourth in the Olympic qualifying in 2004 – got to the final of the U.S. trials before losing to longtime nemesis Steve Mocco.
He returned to his hometown of Columbus stung by the defeat but comforted by his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter Ellie.
“I think that in terms of having it be the No. 1 thought in your mind, it probably took me four or five days (to get over),” he said. “I think people who say that they’re over being at the doorstep of their dream and failing – you’re never really over it.
“But in terms of having a grasp on reality and life and things that are important, it took me like seconds to realize, but I was pretty down for a few days. I think it always tortures you to some extent. If you’re any type of competitor, it’s always going to bother you, but you handle it and turn it into positive energy and positive things for you.
“You’re a better husband, a better father and a better person because of it, but you’re never really over it.”
Rowlands tried to hunker down into a normal life away from the mat, living up to his plan to retire after the ’08 run no matter how it ended. He and Elizabeth, now a full-time mother after working a stint as a teacher, are up to four kids now. Rowlands started an athletic apparel company, Conquest, and planned to work closely with the Ohio State program and the Ohio RTC.
He did just that for more than a year, but the itch never went away.
“I just wanted to be able to exhaust the opportunity to reach my potential in this sport,” Rowlands said. “I certainly didn’t think being an Olympic alternate was my potential. I came back because I was still young and in my prime, so to speak, physically. I didn’t want to be a guy that when you’re 40, regretting giving up on it before the time was up.
“I really missed wrestling. I feel like you reveal yourself to yourself every day in the wrestling room.”
What did he find out about himself when he came back?
“I don’t think I’m a quitter,” he said. “When I set my mind to something, I do everything I can to do it. I’ve thought that about myself for many years now, but this further validates it to me. Coming back has really challenged me to find out if that’s really who I am, and it is, so that’s been exciting.”
He received no complaints from Elizabeth when he first broached the subject of coming back. In fact, she encouraged it, being able to tell that something had been missing from Tommy’s life.
It took him a while to return to the level he reached back in 2008; Rowlands said he hadn’t hit his top gear until the past month and a half. His results have still been excellent, as he finished in the top four at the U.S. Open and the World Team Trials in both 2010 and ’11.
He knows he’ll have to top that in Iowa City at the Olympic trials, but Rowlands has perspective on his side.
“I think the experience that I had in 2008 is allowing me to focus on the right things and not get carried away,” Rowlands said. “I’ve lived everyone’s worst nightmare that’s going to be in the trials. I know that the sun comes up the next day and life goes on and everything is fine.
“I don’t have a sense of fear. All I have is confidence and excitement going in. I’m sure the nerves will settle in eventually, but I think I’m in a great mental state, much more so than I was in 2008 at this time.”
No matter what happens, this will be it for the 31-year-old. Either he’ll be in London at the end of July or the wrestling shoes will be hung up for good. For someone who started wrestling at 6 years old and realized he could be an Olympian at the age of 15, he has a remarkable mind-set about the outcome.
“I just have a good, calm peace of mind and mental state,” he said. “(After losing in 2008) I was a happy, good person with a great family and all those things. I know that the worse-case scenario is not all that bad, so I’m just excited about the best-case scenario.”
* * * * *
If there’s one thing that has gone hand-in-hand with Bergman’s wrestling career, it’s his history with injuries.
Bergman doesn’t want to focus on that, though, when you ask him about his journey to the doorstep of the Olympics. While Rowlands looks to his family to keep him grounded on and off the map, Bergman looks to his faith.
“Jesus is my whole life,” he said. “That’s why I’m living now. That’s why I’m just trying to follow his will, though it’s not always clear, but just trying to give God the glory on and off the mat.
“Having a strong faith in Jesus Christ, who is the one true living God who is running the entire universe, when I have that internal outlook on life, it really puts wrestling in perspective. The chance to wrestle for the Olympic gold medal means a lot, but it pales in comparison to having the truth given to you by God.”
It’s fair to say Bergman is blunt in his faith. Without it, the Oak Harbor, Ohio, native feels he wouldn’t be where he is now either on the mat or off.
“It’s definitely helped in the trials and tribulations,” he said. “It definitely helped push me through injuries and seeing the bigger picture. For example, sometimes having a crushing loss or a debilitating injury or something along those lines can really mess with an athlete. Having a strong faith in God when things like that happen to you, I have such a stronger foothold in the rock.”
That faith could have been tested by the string of injuries that has affected his career. He suffered a broken back in high school, then had four knee surgeries from 2005-08, including a total reconstruction in ’08 after blowing out a knee at the U.S. Open just weeks after finishing his Ohio State career.
Last March came another major blow, a major back injury suffered while competing in Belarus. Bergman tore one disc and herniated others in his lower back at that time. In between, he suffered torn ligaments in his shoulders that were never surgically repaired, and he almost fractured his neck at a tournament in Azerbaijan.
“My story in wrestling and my faith has a lot to do with injuries,” he said simply. “I don’t want to focus on that.”
Instead, it’s just better to trace his journey. Bergman’s father, James, is one of 14 children; six of the eight males wrestled. James was a state champion in 1972, his brother, Joe, was a junior high wrestling coach in Oak Harbor, and George was the head coach for the Rockets’ prep team. At one point about a decade ago, five wrestlers donning the red and green singlet in Oak Harbor shared the surname Bergman, including J.D.
While wrestling has been a constant, the faith came later.
“I would never say anything remotely close to what I say now six years ago,” he said. “I went to church every Sunday growing up but I never really knew who God was. I just knew about him, so I’m just excited to glory him through this sport while I still can do it physically.”
That has coincided with his rise in the sport. In 2004, Bergman earned his first All-America honor at Ohio State, placing third at 197 pounds. The Big Ten runner-up the next year, Bergman took a medical redshirt in ’06 before returning to All-America status in 2007 with a fourth-place national finish at 197. A year later, he was a captain on Ohio State’s runner-up squad at the NCAA championships, finishing second in the heavyweight division.
He always showed the sense of humor and zest for life that has come to define him along the way. In 2004, after earning his first wrestling All-America honor, he tried out for the football team as a punter. A few years later, he pioneered the elaborate dance routines that became the wrestling team’s calling card during the annual OSU student-athlete talent show. His current thick beard makes him look more like a lumberjack than an Olympic athlete.
That has always helped sustain him despite the injuries. After completing his Ohio State career, he dropped 30 pounds in three months to get ready for Olympic qualification when the knee gave out. Bergman thought he had a legitimate chance to make it but instead had to dedicate himself to rehab.
Since returning to health – relatively – he has been one of the top wrestlers in his weight class, making the national team in 2009 and earning a spot on the World team in 2010 by winning the World Team Trials.
Now, the biggest tournament of his life is on the horizon. Bergman isn’t sure whether this will be it, if he’ll call it quits win or lose depending on his results in Iowa City.
That, of course, is up to God to determine. In the meantime, Bergman is just happy to be living in the moment.
“I have a supernatural peace and calm about me that I’m real grateful to God for,” he said. “I’m very, very happy to be calm and in the calm before the storm. I’m very mentally and spiritually and physically healthy and excited. I’m just excited to compete for the Lord.
“It’s kind of interesting looking back. Seventeen years in the making comes to this point. But yeah, I’m ready.”
* * * * *
The 211½-pound weight class was always going to be tough for Bergman to make it through. The top-seeded Varner claimed a bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships, advancing him straight through to the final series. The former Iowa State wrestler – who ironically lost the NCAA title bout in 2008 to OSU’s Mike Pucillo – will take on the winner of trials this weekend, and if Varner loses, it will all come down to a later tournament in Poland.
In addition to Varner, the No. 2-seeded wrestler is ’11 World Team Trials third-place wrestler Dustin Kilgore, a Kent State grappler who captured the 2011 NCAA title and hails from Berea, Ohio. The fourth seed, Wynn Michalak, had a decorated collegiate career at Central Michigan.
Rowlands makes the field that much deeper, but it didn’t have to be that way. He qualified for the tournament at 264½ pounds but made the decision to drop weight classes on his own. Rowlands wrestled between 230-250 at Ohio State and was in the middle of that range during his first qualification attempt, but he felt the slimmer look would serve him well this try.
“I made the proactive leap to make it an awkward situation,” he said. “I think that with my style of wrestling and just the way that I viewed the sport, it’s more suitable for 211, but it takes an incredible commitment with my build to make that weight. It’s been a complete and total lifestyle change for me.”
Despite Rowlands’ switch, the two seem to be as close as ever (“We’ve maintained a great friendship before and during,” Rowlands said). They were first teammates during the 2003-04 campaign when Bergman arrived in Columbus to join Rowlands. In that first season, the two were part of one of the most amazing runs in Buckeye wrestling history, as they were two of the five All-Americans on the OSU squad that led the team to a stunning third-place finish at the NCAA meet.
Now that they’ve reached the highest of international levels, the ability to work together is crucial given the lack of talented upper-weight wrestlers across the country. They are also able to spar with Ohio RTC member Tervel Dlagnev, one of the top heavyweights in the world.
“I think the positives far outweigh the negatives,” Rowlands said. “We’re trying to be the best in the world, and we’re making each other more likely to attain that goal. When you’re trying to be the best in the world in one of the highest weight classes, there’s not too many partners that can challenge you. You have someone like J.D. and Tervel in the room, it only makes me better.”
If the two do face one another in Iowa City, it will be a good sign in at least one way because it will mean one of them hasn’t already lost on the road to capturing the mini tournament. And the awkwardness can only go so far, as the wrestling world is small enough that friends – or at least friendly rivals – often have to compete against one another to get to where they want to go.
“There’s only so many guys,” Bergman said. “One guy at each weight can make the team. Our goals are very similar or the same – to be an Olympian champion. There’s only one spot. It just so happens that it has to be people that I’ve been friends with for 10 years. It is what it is, but when it comes down to shaking hands, you put that aside and you’re still trying to accomplish your goals.”
Within days, the stark reality will set in for at least one of them, though. By definition, only one can move on, stay alive, keep the dream real. At least one will return to Columbus to think about what might have been and what will come next.
They’re two amazing, world-class athletes.
Only one can advance.
Both are winners.