Sam Cleary wanted to go up against the toughest wrestlers in the country and prove he could win just once. Actually, he won twice.
Cleary won one match each in freestyle and Greco-Roman at the Cadet and Junior National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota last week.
“I wrestled two or three people who placed last year in the tournament and it was really cool to go up against them, even though I got my butt kicked,” Cleary said. “I didn’t think down on myself for losing. I was the underdog that whole tournament.”
Cleary has been wrestling since he was in fifth grade, but it was not until high school that he began to really love the sport and it was this year that he chose to commit to winning.
“This was my first year really committing myself to freestyle and greco wrestling,” he said. “I did well enough in a couple tournaments that I qualified to go. I took the opportunity because you don’t get to wrestle with the best kids in the nation all the time.”
Freestyle wrestling is characterized by the allowed use of legs in competition, unlike Greco-Roman where holds are forbidden below the waist.
After going up against the best, Cleary is more determined than ever to keep improving. He saw holes in his defense and takedown and he wants to overall become a better scrambling wrestler, to be able to get into a scramble position and come out on top.
The tournaments during the high school wrestling season he placed in to qualify for nationals were the regional qualifier, where he placed second in freestyle and the state championship, where he was second in Greco-Roman.
At nationals, Cleary went to every single match, watching from the sidelines or the stands and being able to learn from everyone there is going to make next season better, he said.
“It’s a much more difficult tournament than people realize,” said Caleb Schlack, Cleary’s coach.
The championships went July 18 through July 25, featuring high school wrestlers in grades 9-12. Competition for titles was tough, as many recent record-breaking champions were eligible to return, according to the USA wrestling website.
For Cleary, wrestling has been a lesson in confidence and teamwork.
“His growth is tremendous,” Schlack said. “Even in recent seasons he was doing one thing and now he is starting to link a couple moves together. From that perspective, his confidence is growing.”
Schlack has worked with Cleary, now an up and coming senior at Ferndale High School, since the wrestler was a beginner in middle school.
What has stood out to him as a coach is Cleary’s willingness to listen, to pay attention and his desire to improve.
“It’s very uncommon to see a kid that has dedicated a great portion of his life, and stayed motivated, to one sport,” he said. “(Cleary) is very excited to get home and get back to weight lifting and keep improving.”
Cleary dedicated weeks of his summer to three practice camps and these competitions. Being coached, wrestling multiple times a day every day, has helped him grow as a wrestler, Cleary said.
Next year is his last high school wrestling season and his goal is to win state.
“To have my hand raided and be up there on the mat by myself,” he said. “It’s a big dream of mine.