Runners-up hungry to move up podium
Stars and Stripes January 12, 2011
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – They’d beaten up on each other all last season, dividing the Okinawa regular-season and Pacificwide in-season invitational tournament hardware neatly down the middle.
Thus, it seemed a foregone conclusion that either Kadena senior Tyler Broome or Kubasaki junior Matt Payne would walk away with Far East tournament gold at 180 pounds.
Then island champion Rashaan Grady of Guam High happened. The 2007 Virginia state middle school champion “killed everyone in the weight class” at last February’s Far East tournament in Korea, Payne recalled.
Now, Payne is part of a forgotten group of six returning runners-up, those who got to a Far East wrestling tournament final, only to fall short of the pot of gold at rainbow’s end:
Kubasaki’s Steven Walter (101) lost a 2-1 decision to Seoul American’s Kortney Martin.
Nick Barker of Kubasaki (108) lost a controversial 2-0 decision to two-time Far East champion Marcus Boehler of Nile C. Kinnick, a bout that underwent video review.
Kadena’s Jeff Mizell (122) fell 2-0 to Yokota’s Will Smith.
Jon Goddard of Kubasaki (135) two years ago got pinned by eventual Outstanding Wrestler Cameron Butts of Kinnick, and followed that by finishing third last year at 141.
Aaron Ahner of Kadena (215) was pinned by Guam High’s Theatrice Eaton.
“Nobody wants to finish second. Nobody remembers anybody who finishes second,” Mizell said.
“It makes everything you worked for all season worth nothing,” Payne said. “You made it to second and it’s a great achievement, but in the grand scheme, you’re still the first loser. Once you’ve tasted caviar, being in the dumpster isn’t where you want to be.”
So close and yet so far away, Payne said. It leaves one second-guessing virtually every move they made, what might have made Payne’s 2-0 decision loss to Grady different.
“The last six minutes of Far East, what you could have done, if there was anything you could have done,” Payne said. “‘What ifs.’ And you promise yourself there aren’t going to be any ‘what ifs’ this year.”
That bit of motivation and determination serves as the silver lining around that cloud of disappointment, the reigning runners-up said.
They learn life lessons from defeat. They fly below the radar. There’s not as much pressure as there is on a reigning champion. And they are still regarded as practice-room leaders by coaches and teammates.
“I was disappointed and emotional,” Goddard said of finishing just out of gold’s reach twice. “It made me better. It taught me how to lose, how to come back, how to focus and go for the gold. It helped me get ready for life, handling disappointments and coming back from them.”
Going low-profile has its advantages, Mizell said. “Nobody’s really gunning for me. Nobody’s really expecting anything out of you that much because they’ve forgotten about you. Since the expectations are lower, people take you lighter, it’s better for you,” he said.
Mizell, along with his runner-up comrades, says he doubled his off-season efforts. He went to two summer camps at Stanford University, has been lifting weights and working harder in practice.
“It motivates me to work harder, so I don’t end up second again,” he said. “It’s all about winning the gold.”
Sometimes, a motivated runner-up can be twice as dangerous as a reigning champion, something Zama American’s two-time Far East champion Michael Spencer knows about. His Zama football team won the Far East Division II title in 2009 at Daegu American; the Warriors repaid the favor at Zama last November.
“They lost last year, they have more determination to win first and it means more to them if they win,” Spencer said. “The runner-up would be more motivated.”
It also makes them excellent clubhouse presences. “They share with the rest of the team the pleasure of being at that level and their experience of how to get there and what it takes to be … just a few points away from being a champion,” Kubasaki coach Ron Geist said.
Because of their presence, “our younger wrestlers have really improved by light years,” Geist said. “The older wrestlers are in there coaching them and they’re improving.”
“They teach us a lot,” said Kadena 180-pounder Tyler Putt, who has Ahner as a practice partner. “He teaches me how to get out of certain (opponents’) techniques, how to get out of danger.”
All the while, Payne said, they’re working toward their goal of trading silver for gold come the Far East tournament, scheduled for Feb. 14-17 at Camp Humphreys’ Super Gym.
“It’s going to be what I’ve done and try to get my name up on that wall,” Payne said of Kubasaki’s practice room, where the name of every one of the Dragons’ gold medalists resides. “And there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”