By Christopher Miller
12/13/2019 2:45:00 PM
College wrestling’s 57th Annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships will look a little different this year. Fans will see members of the United States Marine Corps out in full-force across the grounds of the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, on December 29-30. The service academy will sponsor the elite holiday tournament for the first time.
“I think [this partnership] brings excellence to the event,” said Tim Cysewski, director of the Ken Kraft Midlands. ‘Our byline, “Where the elite meet to compete sells it.’ It appeals to a lot of people and fits what the Marines want. They want the elite.”
For the Marines, this sponsorship is about further planting their roots within the wrestling community and raising the overall awareness of the Corps brand both locally and globally with the event being streamed online through multiple platforms. Fans will see promotional videos, signage throughout the arena, mats showcasing the emblem of the service academy. Most important, the event title will read, “The 57th Annual Ken Kraft Midlands Championships presented by the United States Marine Corps.”
“You have such a small minority of young men and women that actually volunteer and join any branch of service, let alone the Marines,” said Col. David Fallon, a Marine and former Boston College wrestler who helped facilitate this partnership. “In the Midwest there is the absence of any large, major base or military presence. This does give us an opportunity to make Midwesterners aware of the Marines and what we do.”
The Midlands Championships has built a reputation as one of the most prestigious folk-style tournaments. The event routinely showcases some of the highest-ranked individual wrestlers and teams in the nation. It is likely that potential 2020 National Championships finals matchups will happen at Midlands first, before unfolding once again at the Nationals in Minneapolis in March.
Northwestern grappler Sebastian Rivera understands this likelihood well. At the 2018 Midlands, Rivera bested the reigning two-time 125-pound NCAA Champion Spencer Lee of Iowa, 7-3, to be crowned a 2018 Midlands Champion on his way to also taking home the Dan Gable Outstanding Wrestler & Art Kraft Champion of Champions awards handed out each year to the tournament’s top performers.
“I’m a big tournament guy. You put me in a tournament, I feel like I thrive,” Rivera said. “You weigh in once and get to wrestle four matches instead of weighing in before every match. It’s just a different feel. I like the tournament feel.”
But for Rivera, the tournament is also special for reasons off the mat.
“The Midlands is at home,” the Jackson, New Jersey native Rivera said. “It’s the one event my parents come out to, which is a big deal, and you want to wrestle good for them. Just the aspect of being at home, you don’t want to lose on your home turf.”
This year, 43 schools will grapple in the signature event. Of those squads, 12 appeared in the latest NWCA Coaches Poll, which ranks the top-25 teams. Additionally, four of those teams fell within the top-nine of that poll.
Fans can purchase tickets to this year’s Midlands’ tournament here.
The difficulty of both wrestling and the Midlands in particular encompasses exactly why the Marines have become an official sponsor of the two-day event and embraced the sport.
“The Marine Corps continues to distinguish itself as the world’s elite fighting force,” said 1st Lt. Emma Thompson, an assistant marketing and communication strategy officer with the United States Marine Corps. “We believe the degree of adversity, both mental and physical that wrestlers face is not unfamiliar to Marines.”
While the Midlands signifies the latest in a constantly evolving list of wrestling events and organizations that the Marines are associated with, their formal endorsement of the sport dates back more than 25 years. A few of the more prominent, longstanding pairings have included the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s All-Star Classic, the Cadet and Junior National Championships and numerous USA Wrestling events.
The driving force behind the Corps’ deep involvement in the sport, at all levels from high school to collegiate to international, is that many Marines, past and present believe that participation in the sport prepares individuals for a similar type of military service.
“We have partnered with other sports; however, we have not had the same results that we’ve had with wrestling,” Fallon said. “Wrestlers and Marines were cut from the same cloth – we share the same DNA. While wrestling doesn’t corner the market on toughness, discipline or resiliency, they certainly do bring an aspect of that that translates over well. I think [this sponsorship] was just acknowledging that we are disproportionately over-represented by Marines that have wrestling backgrounds.”
Conversations with colleagues at a 2017 United States Wrestling Foundation Gala caused Fallon to ponder what role the Corps could play to help the community that gave him so much during his adolescence and collegiate years.
“It became very clear that some of the recruiting strategies we use could be applied within the wrestling community,” Fallon said. “If we’re using strategies to find the next generation of Marines, then why can’t the wrestling community use those same strategies to find the next generation of wrestlers?”
1st Lt. Terrence Zaleski, a 174-pounder on the All-Marine Team, is a prime example. After a standout career as a North Carolina prep, he pursued a collegiate career at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. His collegiate career never got off the ground due to injuries, coupled with UNCG’s decision to drop the program in 2011.
Zaleski’s former coach at UNCG, Jason Loukides, found his way to in Camp LeJuene, North Carolina, to take over the reigns of the All-Marine Team, where he recruited Zaleski and other UNCG wrestlers to join the squad. For the former NCHSAA 3A 152-pound State Champion, whose father was a fellow Devil Dog, the offer was too good to pass up.
“When I went through training, I dealt with some of the same feelings that I felt when I used to train for wrestling,” Zaleski said. “The hardship, the strict diet, the hard physical training, the exhaustion. At the end of the day, no one really cares [how exhausted you are], as long as you can do your job. So, the Marines really translates to how wrestling is.”
So far, the mutual respect and support that exists between the wrestling community and the Marines has Fallon optimistic for what the future holds.
“I think this is the beginning of what I hope to be a long-term relationship,” Fallon said. “The Midlands isn’t going anywhere and neither is the Marine Corps.”
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