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Justin Stokes had just pinned Ricky Jones of Kubasaki in three minutes, 10 seconds to win the 180-pound weight class in February’s Far East High School Wrestling Tournament.

Seconds after stepping to the podium to receive his gold medal, reality hit the Seoul American sophomore — his life, at least on the mat, had changed forever.

“You see things differently. It’s a good and bad thing,” said Stokes, now a junior and a weight class lighter at 168, of the prestige — and the pressure — that comes with being a gold medalist.

He’s one of five such gold medal veterans, each of whom agrees their lives changed once those medals were hung around their necks.

The term “defending champion” has a nice ring to it, they say. It puts an extra spring in the stride down the hallway. Attention, especially from girls, is lavished from all fronts. Suddenly, they find they have more friends than they thought they had.

They’re also marked men. There’s only one Far East tournament, with only 13 weight classes. Only 13 gold medals that hundreds of would-be champions — teammates and opponents — are now chasing.

“It built my confidence up, knowing that I’m more capable now in wrestling. I feel good about myself,” Stokes said. “But now, I have to defend my title. I was No. 1 last year. I know there are other people out there who want to beat me.”

“There’s a lot of pressure,” said Kubasaki junior Scott Wood, a two-time Far East gold medalist.

“Everybody wants a piece of it,” added Edgren senior Kevin McDonald, a 2006 champion at 168 pounds. “Everybody wants to beat you. You have to work harder. You did it once, and you want to prove it wasn’t a fluke. You want to do it again.”

Joining Stokes and Wood as returning champions are David Heitstuman of E.J. King in Japan and two Kadena seniors, Chris Hoshaw and Jacob Bloom. Bloom, like Wood, is a two-time champion. They’ll be the most recognizable faces in the Far East Tournament, scheduled for Feb. 13-16 at Okinawa’s Camp Foster Field House.

Already, they — and their coaches — are bracing for what’s to come.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” McDonald said.

Resting on laurels, letting it go to the head and inflate the ego, are strictly taboo. Staying on task, looking ahead and taking things one match at a time are the best policies, wrestlers and coaches say.

“I don’t want him (Stokes) to think about it,” Seoul American coach Julian Harden said. “I’m tickled that he won, but … if you focus on just winning, you lose sight of how you won it. You just want to compete well. That’s more important than winning.”

“It’s more difficult to repeat than to do the upward struggle to the top,” Kadena coach Steve Schrock said. “Once you’re there, do you have what it takes to stay at that level?”

It’s not just opponents after the gold. Schrock says his roster is three-deep at most weights. “It will be a battle each week to see who will be ‘the guy,’” he said. “They have their work cut out for them every day.”

Remembering the hard road up Gold Medal Mountain, and the stumbles during their early years, further fuel the ambitions, Heitstuman and Bloom said. Each lost to eventual champion Matt Maza of Kubasaki at 129 pounds as freshmen in 2005.

“To come that close to tasting victory and just missing it,” Heitstuman said. “Get stronger, faster, smarter; that drove me the next nine months. I still have that drive, but now, it’s to fine-tune things” en route to a shot at more gold, he said.

Bloom confessed to a bit of ego inflation last year as a junior, but that quickly disappeared once he was back on the mat.

“I wrestle like I practice. I can’t think about being a champion,” he said.

When Maza beat him in the 2005 Far East “after I’d beaten him all season, I realized anything can happen. He wanted it more,” Bloom said.

To avoid regressing, one must “work hard and know what your goals are,” Bloom said. “It’s a new season. Anything can happen.”

Sometimes, a defending champion succeeds, such as Wood. Taking it one bout at a time is the best course, he said. “If you think too far ahead, something will happen and you won’t get there,” he said.

And sometimes, a defending champion does not get there. McDonald just missed in his repeat bid at 168 last year, losing a 2-1 decision to Kyle Shimabukuro of Yokota. And he won’t get a chance at redemption; he transfers to the Seattle area later this month.

“I’d like to have stayed here, go to Far East again and go out a champion,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He served 10½ years in the Air Force, the last 4½ assigned to Stripes in Tokyo, and was then hired by Stripes on Oct. 25, 1985. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages Pacific Storm Tracker.
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