Wrestling has made plenty of headlines around the world this year for reasons both good and bad. First came the International Olympic Committee’s controversial decision to banish the sport from the Olympic Games by stripping its status as one of the Games’ 25 core sports. Months of outcry and last-ditch efforts at reform brought the wrestling community deliverance on Sept. 8, when the IOC voted to reinstate wrestling for the 2020 Games.
This past Saturday, American wrestling fans shifted their attention to George Mason University, where 20 of the nation’s best college grapplers gathered at the Patriot Center for the 48th annual National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic. It marked the first time George Mason has hosted the marquee event, which was held at American University last year.
“I’m almost overwhelmed by all the volunteers that came in and volunteered the time to put on this type of event at George Mason University,” George Mason wrestling coach Joe Russell said. “I think the event’s been great, and it’s been because of a lot of hard work. I’m just happy as a coach that we got to have it at George Mason.”
Russell, entering his third season in charge of Mason’s wrestling program, put forth sincere efforts to assure the tournament’s success at a time when wrestling needs all the support it can get. He received commitments from nine of the country’s 10 No. 1-ranked college wrestlers to compete in the dual meet format (though two of them dropped out at the last minute), along with seven defending NCAA champions. All invited participants were returning All-Americans from top Division I programs as far as Boise State and as close as Maryland.
George Mason’s official pep band, the Green Machine, performed during the All-Star Classic, which featured 14 matches in front of a crowd of 3,882. Although the main event featured the 20 All-Americans on hand, it was the last of four showcase matches that got the crowd on its feet. George Mason sophomore Sahid Kargbo, the only Mason wrestler competing in the event, found himself down 0-3 against West Chester University senior Luke Bilyeu at the end of the second period. After grabbing a one-point escape to start the third period, Kargbo took Bilyeu down on his back and executed the only pin of the night to win the match and elicit gleeful roars from the home crowd.
“I’m just blessed to be able to wrestle in an event of this magnitude,” Kargbo said afterward. “It was super exciting. One of the bigger events I’ve ever wrestled in.”
Kargbo, a Hayfield Secondary School graduate, was named the Eastern Wrestling League Wrestler of the Week on Monday for his efforts in Saturday’s 149-pound bout. That triumph wasn’t the first time he’s starred on the big stage this year. Kargbo made the USA Junior World team and fought at the 2013 Junior World Championships in Bulgaria this past August, finishing the tournament with a 1-2 record and a No. 14 world ranking in the 66-kilo weight class. He plans to try out for the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.
“It’s always been one of my goals to compete representing the United States,” said Kargbo, who led Mason with four major decision wins last year. “I achieved that goal this summer, so hopefully I can keep building upon that.”
Also on hand at Saturday’s All-Star Classic was Russell’s old mentor from his years of wrestling and coaching for the University of Minnesota. J Robinson, now entering his 28th year at the helm of Minnesota’s program, was happy to bring two of his wrestlers to the competition, but he was even more excited to see his former pupil putting on the show. Robinson recruited Russell in 1985, when Russell was finishing up his high school career in Oregon as the country’s top wrestling recruit. Shortly thereafter a motorcycle accident damaged Russell’s brain and left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. After three weeks in a coma, Russell fought back to return to the mat, wrestling from 1988-92 for Robinson before earning his undergraduate degree and, three years later, a law degree. He spent 17 years serving as a graduate assistant, volunteer coach, assistant coach and head assistant coach under Robinson.
“His work ethic is second to none. There’s no one that has a work ethic like Joe Russell,” Robinson said. “If this administration and this school give him some backing, what he’ll do for the program here will be amazing for people.”
Mason currently allots just over four scholarships per year to its wrestling program, making it tough to compete with bigger programs that take advantage of the maximum 9.9 scholarships. Russell hopes that the name recognition and fund raising that come from events like the NWCA All-Star Classic will help his program offer more scholarships down the line.
“[Four scholarships] isn’t bad. We have a program and we’re growing,” Russell said. “In this area you can see the support is growing, and that’s what we need to do. It’s hard for a school to fund every sport.”
The All-Star Classic, run by a nonprofit called the Greater Washington Wrestlers Business Network, also hosted a youth clinic at the Mason Field House earlier in the day that included nearly 400 kids. The kids got the best seats in the house at the Patriot Center Saturday night, sitting right on the floor to watch the main event.
Russell and company strive to maintain an influence at the youth level so the sport can thrive in the years to come.
“Some people don’t know much about wrestling, that wrestling can be a spectator sport,” Kargbo said. “So I think an event like this will be really good for wrestling.”