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Camp Lejeune Marine, wrestler Bryce Saddoris USMC male athlete of the year

A video screen grab shows Marine Capt. Bryce Saddoris after a July 2015 wrestling match in Panama, where he won a silver medal. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, Saddoris was named the Marine Corps Male Athlete of the Year. YouTube

By Rick Scoppe | The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. | Published: January 1, 2016

It’d be hard to surprise Bryce Saddoris on the wrestling mat.

As the all-time winningest wrestler in the more than a century of the sport at the Naval Academy and the top-ranked 145.5-pounder by USA Wrestling, the 27-year-old Saddoris has seen it all while wearing the singlet.

But being named the U.S. Marine Corps male athlete of the year was unexpected for Saddoris, a captain and supply officer stationed at Camp Lejeune.

“I’m honored,” Saddoris said. “It’s been definitely a tough year with competitions and being on the road quite a bit. So it’s kind of nice to see all the hard work and the dedication that I’ve put into this wrestling program kind of come to fruition.

“I’m honored because I know there’s a lot of great applicants and other Marines who were also successful. So it’s something I don’t take lightly.”

Saddoris, who was a silver medalist in the Pan American Games in February and hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team, said he had just finished working out and was in the sauna when he received a text message from USMC coach Jason Loukides congratulating him.

“I was like, ‘Coach, what are you talking about?’” Saddoris said.

Loukides told Saddoris to check his email. So Saddoris “jumped out” of the sauna and found an email notifying him he’d been selected.

“My dad called me. I had told him,” Saddoris said. “When I got home and I told my wife, she was real excited. She was like, ‘I’m the first one to find out, right?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. you’re the first one,’ until my dad calls and he’s like, ‘Did you hear about that?’”

That Saddoris earned the award may be surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Born the same day as George Washington on Feb. 22, Saddoris has been making news and earning honors since his days growing up in Spring Creek, Nev., (pop. 12,361).

Not only was he a four-time state champion at Spring Creek High School, but Bryce Lee Saddoris led his team to three straight state titles before graduating in 2006. One of six children, including four sisters, Saddoris said his mother, Susan, was behind his getting into wrestling.

“My mom needed me to do something more constructive than destructive or else I didn’t know if I’d make it to high school,” he said. “Wrestling just happened to be the sport to click with me.”

The sport is as grueling and demanding as any, with many sweat-stained hours on the mat where the spotlight is dim to nonexistent. It’s not for everyone, but it was for Saddoris.

“I know a lot of youth athletes who wrestle who get burned out,” he said.

Not Saddoris, who said his dad, Brad, always told him he had a choice. Vacation or a wrestling tournament? Go boating or a wrestling tournament? Wrestling always won.

“It’s something that I’ve been passionate about my entire life,” he said. “If somebody had told me 10 years ago that I’d still be able to continue wrestling I’d probably look at them a little weird because I never expected to be able to continue this far.”

But why? Why when so many give the sport up has Saddoris continued? The short answer, he said, is it “fits with my mentality” – as a man, as an athlete and as a Marine.

“It so closely translates into being a Marine because a lot of those characteristics are what the Marine Corps is looking for,” he said. “It’s helped my career tremendously just because those different disciplines that are instilled into you because it is such a tough sport.

“I had a coach who said, ‘You never play wrestling. You play basketball. You play football, but you never play wrestling.’”

Beyond that, Saddoris, like so many others who hit the mat, loves that his hard work and dedication “directly” reflects how he does in competition, which included a record-setting career at the Naval Academy.

Middie on the Mat

After a stellar high school career, Saddoris had several college options, including Maryland and Wyoming. He was also recruited by UNC Greensboro, which at the time was coached by Loukides. But Saddoris was looking for what he called his “greatest challenge.”

“I always wondered, Could I get into the Naval Academy? Could I balance the wrestling, student and military aspect of everything, plus being so far away from home,” he said. “So it was a challenge I wanted to see if I could muster.

“I think that’s why I went the Naval Academy route because I liked sometimes doing it the hard way. So it paid off.”

By the time he graduated in 2011, Saddoris had rewritten the record book.

The 5-foot-7 Saddoris won 147 matches, eclipsing the record of 141 set by Matt Stolpinski (2005-2008), whom Saddoris said is now a Navy Seal. No one else has ever had more the 127 wins at Anapolis. Saddoris, who won 78.6 percent of his matches, also wrestled the most matches in school history (187) and his 43 wins as a sophomore were one shy of the single-season record.

He was also a two-time All-American and a four-time NCAA qualifier, one of six to achieve that. His best finish in the NCAAs was sixth.

“That (most wins in school history) is one of those honors I don’t take lightly just because of the great athletes and the great military members going through that school that did wrestle, some of the toughest guys I’ve ever met,” Saddoris said.

“I think all the stars just aligned. Me being healthy. I had a great coach with Bruce Burnett. He’s now the freestyle national team coach. He’ll be the coach for the Olympics this year. I just had great people in my corner.”

The key to his success? Hard work, talent and dedication. But, he said, there was also his personality. The “biggest thing,” he said, is he hated losing more than he liked winning.

“But I don’t think there’s many people who will work harder than me and stay as dedicated,” Saddoris said. “I’m always trying to do the extra stuff, go a little bit harder, do one more, and I think that truly pays off each day.

“Coach Burnett used to tell us each day you have an opportunity to put money in the bank and that hard work is the money you’re depositing, and if you slack off one day, then there might have just been a little extra deposit you could have put that could have put you over for a big win ... or being an All-American or the most wins. I took that to heart.”

For all the work he’s put into the sport, however, Saddoris said there was one moment that he wondered if it was time to retire. At the 2015 World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas, Saddoris had a chance to make it to the finals but lost 5-4 to Algerian Tarek Aziz Benaissa.

The loss hurt, but perhaps not as much as his eye. He broke the orbital bone inside his left eye socket. Despite what he called a “freak accident,” the injury, he wrestled on. Afterward, however, the loss lingered.

“That’s my first tournament that I’ve been pretty down after a loss because I was so close of reaching the pinnacle of my goals,” he said. “My CO (commanding officer), Col. (Chandler) Seagraves, sat down with me one day and he just said, ‘There’s people out there who are put on this earth who are given a gift from God,’ and he goes, ‘You’re one of those type of people.’”

So it was back to the mat.

Pressure? What pressure?

Saddoris was asked what makes him a good wrestler. Strength, he said, which he characterized as both a God-given gift given a boost by all the wood he chopped as a youngster. More than that, however, he pointed to how he handles pressure.

“When it comes to competing I’m pretty, just not level headed, but mentally tough to be able to take the pressure of being the guy that everyone wants to beat or having that target on your back,” he said. “I do want to be the guy in the spotlight. I do want to be the guy everyone’s looking to, saying, ‘Hey, that’s what it takes to be a champion.’”

Loukides agreed.

“There’s plenty of strong guys, but not many people with that amount of pressure on them can still go out there and do the things they’re capable of doing,” he said. “It’s like .. when you shoot pool and there’s no money on the line, you’re barely even looking knocking the ball in.

“But if you got $100 on the shot, you can’t barely shoot it. He handles that pressure as good as anybody. Whether it’s the Pan Am games or a big match, medal, no medal, huge stakes, he wrestles it just like any other match and he can handle that pressure.”

Loukides attributed that to Saddoris’ mental and physical makeup as well as all the preparation he puts in along with the training he’s received as a Marine.

“But it’s really a special way of focusing when all the stress and all the pressure comes down, to still be able to do your job. Same way any other Marine has to do their job,” Loukides said. “When that pressure’s on you, special people do what the need to do there.

“Other people can’t even breath. ... He’s special when the pressure’s on him. That’s why he accomplishes the things he accomplishes.”

The pressure will only build as Saddoris, who is in his second year on the U.S. World Team, tries to make the Olympics. The team trials are in April in Iowa City, Iowa.

“It’s the goal, my long-term goal,” he said. “I’ve always been very goal-oriented. I write down my short-term and long-term goals, and I’ve always made them to where I can see them every day because you can have goals in your mind, but if you don’t actually see those goals and see what you’re actually trying to accomplish then it’s probably not going to happen.

“So I’ve been looking at that piece of paper of being an Olympic champion and an Olympian for more than 15 years. When you have a reminder for that long it’s almost I’m failing myself, cutting myself short, if I don’t attain those goals.”

Can he make the Olympic team? Loukides has no doubt Saddoris can.

“The big thing is first your goal is to get to be where you’re good enough to make the Olympic team. He’s already there. He hasn’t made it yet, but he is good enough wrestler to compete for the United States and win a medal at the Olympics,” Loukides said. “The next step is you have to go out and execute and make the team.

“He’s not going to wrestle anybody he doesn’t know who they are. He’s probably not going to wrestle anybody he hasn’t already beat. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but he’s in the best position he could be to make the Olympic team.”

Still a Marine?

While there’s plenty of questions facing Saddoris heading into next year, a huge one is whether he’ll still be a Marine by the summer. There’s a chance, perhaps even a good chance, he won’t be.

Saddoris could be taking off his captain bars because he has yet to earn “career designation,” which all officers must achieve to remain a Marine. Career designation, which was toughened as the manpower drawdown began, is a tool used by the USMC to retain the top-tier officers within its ranks.

Saddoris was commissioned in May 2011 and his initial five-year commitment runs out in May.

“I was not selected to be career designated so there is a possibility I could be accepting the Marine athlete of the year while I’m on my terminal leave, basically being a civilian,” Saddoris said. “I truly wish to continue to be a Marine because the job that I have here is special. (Along with being a supply officer) I have sometimes 40-plus Marine wrestlers. That’s about the size of a platoon. I gear them up. I train them every day.”

He’s been through something smiliar before. Coming out of the Naval Academy, Saddoris said only 270 of a class of about 1,300 could be commissioned Marines.

“So from day one I was fighting to be a Marine,” he said. “I wanted to be a Marine to lead Marines. I’ve had the opportunity to do that in a very, very unique environment, but I think that me being able to really shape these young junior Marines’ career has been the most satisfying thing because I have really been able to try to have a leadership impact on them.”

Still, he agreed he is in a “weird situation,” and one that is more nerve-racking than any he’s experienced on the mat.

On the surface, it seems odd that Saddoris hasn’t been career designated. Loukides, who is retired from the Army, said “part of that ... is my fault.” The reason, he added, is he and others perhaps didn’t present the full range of what Saddoris has meant to the Marines to those considering him for career designation, which includes working with not only Marines but area high school and younger youth who are wrestlers.

That, Loukides said, raises the number of contacts for recruiters, whom he added were “just thrilled.”

“He’s an incredible ambassador for the Marine Corps, for the United States,” Loukides said. “He’s traveled all over and built relationships. He’s just the ideal representative. ... At the world championship when he breaks his face, an injury that every medical person says there’s no way he finished that match, but when he gets done and he almost wins ... and he’s devastated, what you end up hearing is, ‘That’s a Marine.’

“Special.”

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