JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. —
Twenty exhausted athletes shuffle out of a 92 degree room into the cold New Jersey air; the freezing wind visibly wicks the sweat from their tired faces. The breakneck pace of a day just beginning seems to spur them on – motivated. Driven to fatigue, they have left the mats in that sauna-like room stained with blood, sweat and tears.
Every member of the U.S. Air Force Wrestling Team has one singular goal, one dream: to medal at the Armed Forces Championship and go on to compete at an even higher level. The other services won’t make it easy.
“Wrestling is a very arduous, difficult sport,” said Floyd Winter, U.S. Air Force Wrestling Team coach. “It's a great rivalry among the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.”
Airmen interested in competing on the Air Force Wrestling Team submit a resume of their wrestling history. After a cutthroat selection process, only around twenty of the very best Airmen are selected. Work permitting, the athletes are temporarily released from their typical career fields to represent the Air Force at the Armed Forces Championship.
A typical day at the training camp starts before the sun comes up. The barracks look like physical therapy clinics. Heating pads, bandages and soothing balms clutter the living quarters – hours of combative sports every day take their toll.
“We spend most of our time here on the mat - wrestling; drilling,” said Winter. “We lift weights three days a week. Tuesdays and Thursdays we do sprints. We go to the swimming pool once a week to relax and recover.”
There is intense camaraderie among the team. Each wrestlers cheers the next on as they struggle through rigorous physical conditioning, “Come on now, easy day!” they shout to one another during flutter kicks and sprints.
But, on the mat, the athletes can become frustrated with themselves, failing to perform at the standard they have set for themselves or worse, getting hurt. The wrestling room often echoes with the sound of an irritated groan and fists pounding the mat.
“Everyone takes this sport very seriously; some of us have been wrestling almost our entire lives,” said Tech. Sgt. Ryan Vottero, U.S. Air Force Wrestling Team assistant coach. “It is easy to get discouraged when things don’t go the way you planned, but we adapt, overcome and try not to get hurt.”
There are 14 different weight classes in competitive wrestling. To increase their chances of winning, the Air Force team attempts to fill as many weight classes as possible. Wrestlers cannot wrestle within a weight class if they weigh more than the limit. Each wrestler is weighed on the day of a match to verify their eligibility for a particular weight class. This means many of the wrestlers must lose weight to compete.
“As difficult as it is, you don’t get a medal just for making weight,” said Winter. “It’s not easy and you have to be disciplined to do it.”
In the past, wrestlers often dropped weight dramatically just days before competition by shedding an unhealthy amount of water weight in a sauna and starving themselves. Today, it is much more common for wrestlers to watch what they eat and approach their weight class in a healthy and methodical manner by trimming body fat.
“We like to clean up our diets as soon as we get to training camp,” said Vottero. “We start restricting what kind of food we’re putting in our bodies and seek healthy, energy-packed meals. You shouldn’t have to starve to make weight – that is not healthy.”
Even with all of the effort the Air Force competitors put in during their training camp, they face a major disadvantage in the Armed Forces Championship. Both the Army and Marine Corps teams train year-round for competitions the Air Force has just six weeks to prepare for.
For the Air Force Wrestling Team, it is imperative that the participants maintain their athleticism throughout the year, as to not fall behind the conditioning of the other services’ teams.
“We find a way to win with the deck stacked against us,” said Vottero. “We need to be more athletic. Our go-to is high tempo. They might not expect a tough match, but that's definitely what we're coming to do.”
The excitement and fear that comes with the anticipation of combative competition incentivizes the athletes to train at their very best.
“We’re going to wrestle a hard six minutes with the other services and take it one point at a time, trying to run them down,” said Vottero. “We just keep going forward, stalking and working until we break them mentally.”
If the Airmen medal in the Armed Forces Championship, they qualify for the U.S. Open in Las Vegas to compete against Americans from all walks of life. Success at nationals qualifies wrestlers to compete with Team USA internationally against the best of the best across the globe.
“We have to prepare the team and charge,” said Winter. “When the smoke clears, we will have some medals - we will.”