University FS/GR champ Harry Lester keeps sights set on Greco-Roman gold
Hank Kornblut - OhioWrestling.Net
Harry Lester has never been a conventional competitor. While most high school wrestling stars focus on competing in freestyle in the off-season, he has always preferred the less glamorous Greco-Roman.
A four-time Ohio high school state champion, he left Iowa State after three semesters to concentrate fully on this style of wrestling at the U.S. Olympic Educational Center at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. The result has been his steady rise to the top of the 66 kilogram weight class (145.5 pounds), which culminated in him winning a bronze medal at last year’s World Championships. Yet what has the USA wrestling community is buzzing about is not his performance in Greco-Roman, it was his recent championship at the University Nationals in Freestyle.
Lester, competing in a style of wrestling he hasn’t attempted since high school, defeated two collegiate All-Americans en route to winning the University National freestyle championship while wrestling up a weight class at 72 kg (163 pounds). It was an incredible display of skill, not only because he won but also because of how much size he gave up to his competition. With the Summer Olympics only a year away, Harry has to be considered one of the USA’s top contenders for a gold medal in either wrestling style.
OhioWrestling.Net’s Hank Kornblut caught up with Harry Lester to ask him about his recent University National titles, his controversial match with Mike Poeta, and his goals for the future as the Olympics draw near.
You defeated two collegiate All-Americans at University Nationals, Travis Paulson and Mike Poeta. Does beating two wrestlers of that caliber give you confidence that can help you in your quest to win an Olympic gold medal, or were you competing just for fun and it’s meaningless in how it applies to Greco-Roman?
Wrestling these guys really was a fun experience. I have a lot of respect for both of them, and for what they have accomplished. I stepped off the mat after I wrestled Mike and all I could say to myself is “man how the heck did he get in on my legs so easy.” He was so fast! And Travis, he has to be one of the strongest guys I have ever wrestled. I wish the best for both of them in their careers - unless they wrestle at 66 kilograms. Just kidding! Overall this competition was just to get some mat time. Freestyle is not my style, and training and competition is totally different than Greco-Roman, but the more mat time I get the better I’m going to be in the long run.
Why did you wrestle at two different weight classes at University Nationals?
I wrestled at 70 kg in Greco-Roman to give our guys at 66 kg a better chance at qualifying for the World Team Trials. We had a couple of guys that did not qualify for the trials yet, so our coach bumped all the top guys in different weight classes so that the other guys could qualify. I wrestled at 74 kg in freestyle because I didn’t care what weight I wrestled in that style. I went and ate before weigh-ins, and figured I would wrestle at whatever I weighed. Spenser Mango and I agreed that is what we would do almost a week before the tournament.
There was a lot of discussion on wrestling forums about the calls made in your match with Mike Poeta. Do you have an opinion on how the officials called the points?
At the end of the match, I wasn’t sure what the call was going to be. I just know that the more confident you act the better your chances are of getting a favorable call. If you look at the end of the match, I had the confidence that I didn’t lose the match. I thought, at first, that it could’ve gone either way. After I looked at the film that night, I thought it was two [for him] and two [for me], maybe with me getting an additional two depending on when the time ended. It was his action but I forced the scramble. The way I see it, you have to reward the wrestler that forces the actions. He started it, I finished it. Anyone can say what they want, but the referees made the final decision.
How did your Greco-Roman coaches at NMU feel about your decision to wrestle freestyle? Were they supportive?
My head coach, Ivan Ivanov, is crazy about wrestling, period. He will support any type of wrestling. Some of my teammates and I would go in on our time off, which wasn’t much, and wrestle a little bit. We call it, “leg grabbing.” Our coaches encourage us to wrestle any style because they know it’s going to help us in the long run. I always tell other wrestlers that they need to wrestle every style because it can’t hurt, it can only help. I would like to wrestle more freestyle, but it’s getting close to the Olympic year, and my focus needs to be on Greco-Roman.
Was your extensive experience in Greco-Roman a big factor in your winning the freestyle championship?
In Greco-Roman, I like to push the pace and keep my back toward the center of the mat. I tried to do the same thing when I was wrestling freestyle. I watched a lot of my matches and I noticed that I pushed the pace in spite of not being in great freestyle shape. When you know how to throw and can control tie-ups, opponents have to respect you. That’s why I try to tell people that they need to incorporate Greco-Roman into their practices. In all my Greco-Roman matches I keep my back towards the center and I try to make my opponents step out of bounds. I learned to wrestle that way with foreign opponents. I like to see them breathing hard, leaning over, and sucking wind. I wanted to do that in freestyle, but I wasn’t in great freestyle shape, but I still got by. I found a way to win!
You’ve indicated that you will not compete again in freestyle. Out of curiosity, has anyone from USA Wrestling asked you to consider training in both styles?
I have stated that I would not wrestle freestyle anymore, and no one has contacted me about wrestling again. There is a guy training in Marquette that was a Bulgarian Senior National freestyle champ. I have been training freestyle and Greco-Roman with him. I enjoy wrestling freestyle only because it gets me in shape a little faster. I can still show great technique, but competing is out of the question. I couldn’t see myself doing it everyday. I don’t enjoy it that much. If the coaches or a sponsor offered me a million dollars, I wouldn’t train in freestyle. I have no passion at all to do it. Greco-Roman is my true love.
You did not participate in the U.S. Senior Nationals in Greco-Roman. Why? Was the weight cut an issue, or was it something else?
This was my second year not competing in nationals. I planned on wrestling, but some things with my family and my personal life came up. My family comes first over everything in my life. They are my backbone and I couldn’t have competed knowing I needed to be home.
My weight wasn’t an issue at all. I was only nine pounds over four days before. For me that is like cutting one pound the whole week. I actually had a good dieting plan, and everything set up to cut weight. Everyone seems to think my weight is an issue, but not one time have I ever not made weight in my international career. I plan on showing up to the Trials and wrestling better than I have the last two years I have made the world team.
In your absence, Glenn Garrison won handily at 145.5 lbs. Do you consider him to be your toughest competitor for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team?
Glenn was the last American wrestler to beat me (two years ago). I don’t plan on losing to anyone, but he had a great run at nationals. He made a comment that I didn’t show up because I didn’t want to make weight. To be honest, that made me a little mad. He didn’t know what I was going through, but I guess he has his own opinion. Everyone at my weight class is tough. I will take nobody lightly, but everyone better respect me. This is my weight class until someone beats me. I would never overlook anyone in my weight class. They are all experienced and deserve respect. To be honest my toughest competitor is myself. I have to make sure I show up, wrestle, and find a way to win.
In a little over one year, it will be time for the Olympics. You gave up your collegiate career to train for them. What do you feel you need to do to get ready? Do you and your coaches have a specific plan?
Both of my coaches have been there before. I have trusted them the last five years and I plan on doing that until the day I retire. I’m sure I will train just like I have for the World Championships. I felt so strong, fast, and smart this past summer. I’m graduating on May 5, so I won’t have to worry about school and can concentrate on training. This is going to be a great year of training. I can already feel it. I plan on doing great things. I want to make history. I will train smart, but I will train like an animal.
You walked away from collegiate wrestling to train full time in Greco-Roman. Do you think that more wrestlers with Olympic aspirations should consider making the same decision? Do you feel that the grind of collegiate wrestling hinders the development of our athletes in Freestyle and Greco-Roman?
I would say, without a doubt, if you want to win a World or Olympic medal in Greco-Roman you have to start training right out of high school. I would say train it in high school in addition to folkstyle. I think collegiate wrestling instills a certain mentality that isn’t seen anywhere else in the world. Our guys may not be the best technicians but they are going to brawl and fight to the very end, and I think that is learned in folkstyle. (But) If you want to be a medalist in the Olympic styles you have to train for that style.
How do you feel about the rule changes implemented by FILA since the last Olympic cycle? Have they helped or hurt you?
I love the new rules. No matter what the rules are, I’m going to find a way to win. That’s just how I am. I wish it was a little longer on our feet, but I’ll take what FILA gives me.
Who are your toughest competitors for an Olympic medal?
Usually the Russians, Turks, Iranians, and host of other Russian satellite countries produce great Greco-Roman wrestlers. I learned at the World Championships in 2006 that anyone can be good. I got beat by a guy from a country I had never heard of. You can’t overlook anyone. That is the worst mistake I had ever made in my career. Every person that is at that tournament deserves respect.
You recently wrestled at the Chicago Cup and defeated the reigning world champ from China. How did you feel about this victory? Is it a big confidence boost? Or do you not take it too seriously because it was an exhibition match?
I take every match seriously. If I wrestled someone at 103 pounds right now, I would take it seriously. I am a competitor - I love to win, and I hate to lose. It hurts me to say “lose.” The match with the guy from China pumped me up. I knew in China that I could have beaten him, but I never got my chance because I overlooked my opponent in the second round. Any time I beat anyone it is a confidence boost. I think, in my mind, that is one more person I defeated. One more person that I know I outwrestled. Anytime I put my shoes and singlet on you’d better believe I’m going to give one-hundred percent, and it’s going to count for something. What’s the point in wrestling if it doesn’t mean anything?
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