YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — It’s one thing to rise to the Pacific high school wrestling mountaintop, as Zama American’s Chad Wilder did last year.
But staying there? That’s more of a challenge, as Wilder, a senior and the reigning Far East tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler, is discovering and his foes are demonstrating so far this season.
Evidence: His loss by pin last month to Nile C. Kinnick’s Alex Banks in the DODDS duals at Yokosuka. He appeared to have the bout won, but Banks reversed fortunes and came away to win at 158 pounds.
More evidence: Last Saturday’s Kinnick Invitational “Beast of the Far East” tournament, in which Wilder was locked in a tight battle with Kadena’s James Alexander in the 158-pound final. Alexander appeared to have scored a three-point tilt that would have sent the bout to a third period; the referee called it out of bounds and Wilder eked out a two-period decision.
“I personally think I won,” Alexander said, adding that at next month’s Far East tournament, also at Yokosuka, “I’ll have to try harder and make sure there’s no question about who won or lost.”
“I feel fortunate not in the sense that I lucked out, but I found it in me to get enough points to win that bout,” Wilder said.
Alexander’s coach, Justin Armstrong, feels it shouldn’t have hit that point.
“If he (Alexander) wrestles to his potential and meets him again (at Far East), I think he’ll show that a missed call won’t decide the match,” he said.
Life for a reigning Outstanding Wrestler can be pressure-filled, as if giant bull’s-eyes are affixed, chest and back.
“That comes along with it,” Armstrong said. “If you’re that good, you have to be able to handle it. Mark of a champion.”
Wilder acknowledges that people will look at him and ask will he win gold and the OW award again this year.
“There’s a lot of new talent out there and others have stepped up and gotten better,” he said. “It makes it harder, but it makes it (the idea of repeating) that much sweeter.”
First things first: the wrestler has to bury thoughts of the cachet and pressure that goes with it.
“I know there’s the always the possibility of a loss. It doesn’t scare or worry me,” Wilder said, adding that the other side of the coin, repeating last year’s feats, “would make it all worth it.”
He calls the Banks bout a “wake-up call,” which reminded him that there’s always somebody out there better.
“Everybody improves at a different rate,” Wilder said. “I always know that opponents are going to get better and it’s always going to be like that.”
For those he has wrestled and whose styles he knows, he might keep his feet at a distance or take smaller steps against a foe who favors ankle picks for takedowns, or keep his arms closer against those opponents who might grab the arm for use as leverage.
And he remembers wrestling isn’t the be-all and end-all; he plans to enter the Air Force after he graduates in the spring.
“It will always be a part of my life, but it’s a game,” he said. “It’s something I do for fun. Losing is always around the corner, but there’s no reason to feel overly sad by a loss.”
Wilder’s coach the last two seasons, Steve Scott, feels tournaments such as “Beast” are the perfect tonic for making wrestlers better.
“You get to see wrestlers whom we’ve not seen before,” said Scott of a tournament that saw 12 teams from Japan and Okinawa duke it out for about nine hours on Saturday.
He says he doesn’t prepare Wilder to defend a gold medal or an Outstanding Wrestler title as much as he wants Wilder to focus on each opponent.
“He’s going to be fine,” Scott said of Wilder. “We’re going to work on what we normally do, not change our game plan, prepare him for all opponents just like any other. And he’ll be OK.”
Wilder harkens back to last season when he lost the first of seven bouts against JP Kwak of St. Mary’s International, then ran the table against him.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.