LONDON — The U.S. men’s freestyle wrestling team hit the mats Friday with one goal: to win medals.
Bobby Douglas, a former coach of the team and a wrestling legend, says the wrestlers’ time has arrived.
“I think there’s gold in them there hills,” he said. “There’s medals.”
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The main reason, according to Douglas: new head coach Zeke Jones.
“Coach Jones has amassed a great staff,” he said. “They have trained perhaps our greatest Olympic team. There is so much talent on this team.”
Jones, who wrestled at Arizona State and later was an assistant coach for the Sun Devils, was appointed head coach in 2009 after serving as an assistant coach in the previous four Olympics.
“We want to be the best team in the world,” Jones said. “And we want to help each individual achieve his goal. Each guy’s goal is pretty simple: They want to be the Olympic champion.”
When Jones took over, he made significant changes to the program to return USA Wrestling to its former glory.
“America has a tremendous history and tradition in wrestling, and we haven’t lived up to that in the past 10 years,” said Jones, who wrestled at ASU from 1987-90 and won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics. “In the last three years we’ve made monumental improvement, and I’d like to think that is going to move us into (victory) this weekend.”
Olympic freestyle wrestler Tervel Dlagnev said Jones has changed the focus of the team from a traditional mentality of “training harder” to one that focuses on honing technique. It’s a change the team is responding well to, he said.
“He’s organized the team in a way (that) made improvement an importance. It’s not just (about the result),” Dlagnev said. “Obviously we want the result, but his focus has been on if you get your performance to the right level and if you constantly seek improvement, the results will follow.”
Jones’ coaching staff is behind the shift in training methods. Douglas, who coached at ASU from 1975-92, said Jones has changed the program for the better.
“It’s been a great transition technically and tactically,” Douglas said. “Coach Jones had to make some adjustments because of the new rules, and he’s done that. I think the proof of how well he’s done it will show up in these Olympic Games.”
Jones said his role as coach is similar to when he was an athlete because the travel, training and competition schedules remain the same. However, there is one distinct difference.
“When you’re a wrestler, you’re focusing on yourself, trying to make yourself better,” Jones said. “When you’re the coach, you’re focused on helping everyone else become better.”
As a former Olympian, Jones said he can connect with his athletes.
“It’s a unique relationship with an athlete, and obviously coaching now in the Olympic Games, it’s the been-there-done-that, and that’s what they key in on,” Jones said. “They trust the fact that you know how to get them ready.”
Jones said the time he spent at ASU prepared him for his current role.
“It was where I learned to grow up from a boy to becoming a man, and Arizona State provided me that experience,” Jones said. “… Absolutely the greatest experience I’ve ever had is being a Sun Devil. I’m really proud to be one.”
ASU is also where Jones built his professional network.
“Arizona State introduced me to the people that have put me in the position to be the head coach of the Olympic team. You can’t replace that experience.”
Going forward, Jones wants to use his role to instill patriotism and the tradition of American wrestling in his wrestlers.
“Its tremendous privilege to lead our country and to help our men achieve their goals,” Jones said. “Also to contribute to the medal count. We want the USA to win the medal count.”