It’s hard to call Ryan Epps (77 kg) a “throwback”, though the moniker fits.
As a member of the Minnesota Storm, he is teammates with several wrestlers who have done their part to uphold Storm’s proud tradition of outlasting, outhustling, and mercilessly “breaking” the opposition. For decades and decades, this is how it has been. It is what they learn, how they are developed. Minnesota as a state tends to produce hard-working, lunch pail-types, anyway. What Storm does is reinforce the concept that, yes, toughness along with an expansive gas tank usually equate to success in a sport where attrition forever remains at a premium.
Consider: like any large family, Storm has “hand-me-downs”; except instead of outgrown clothes, the younger generation are bequeathed a mindset. Not mere attire which tears and frays, but rather, an attitude that is intended to withstand the test of time.
And that attitude is why Epps exited last week’s 2020 US Nationals as one of the biggest stories of the tournament.
But before you even go there, it pays to recognize what Epps had to overcome this past March. He was a two-time defending National champ for annual Division III powerhouse Augsburg and looking forward to capping his stellar career with title #3.
It was down to the wire. They were at the venue. Wrestlers had populated the mats for pre-tournament workouts. Then the rug, literally and figuratively, was pulled out from each and every one of them, as last-minute of a cancellation as can reasonably occur. Tournaments were being canceled or postponed left and right due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly all of those other events had a warning. DIII’s light got shut off only after everyone had already arrived.
It was brutal.
Epps admits to requiring a little while to regain his bearings. Months later, he still thinks of his fellow Auggies who might have reached new heights that weekend in Cedar Rapids. Epps knew at the time that he wasn’t done, that a career on Greco’s top level would soon become his focus. Others weren’t as fortunate. When the 2020 Division III National Championships were x’ed out, so too were their days of suiting up for competition.
Once the clouds lifted, Epps found his way back to training. He had enough of a baseline to know that Greco with the Storm was a logical next step. There were prior All-American performances at Fargo and elsewhere, so he understood the landscape. But those Greco appearances were sporadic and seasonal. Senior stuff is different stuff. For serious full-timers, it is a vocation, not a series of one-offs. If World and Olympic glory is the goal, total dedication is absolutely and unequivocally mandatory from an athletic standpoint.
And because Epps is somewhat of a maniac when it comes to wrestling, such devotion actually sounds quite appealing to him.
Epps finished fifth last week in what was his first Senior National event. Fifth is pretty good, but his placing wasn’t the attention-grabber. After defeating Camden Carter Grimes (SWAT) in his first bout, Epps trucked through both second-seed Burke Paddock (NYAC) and ’19 Junior World Team member/native Minnesotan Tyler Eischens (California RTC). Those three wins meant a trip to the semifinals opposite eventual champ Kendrick Sanders (NYAC/NTS, 5PM #6). Sticking to a physical methodology built around working Sanders in the pummel whenever possible, the match stayed nail-bitingly tight throughout, with Epps barely falling via 3-2 decision. A last-gasp takedown at the buzzer almost saved the day, but it didn’t. Epps was later downed by Peyton Robb (Nebraska WTC, 5PM #15) but recovered to take out Zach Grimes (SWAT) to conclude his tournament.
For now, the result from last Friday is in the rearview mirror. Epps has moved on, and these days is more interested in regrouping for the U23 event next month. That’s not to say what transpired in Coralville isn’t worthy of an introspective overview. It certainly is. The US program is in near-dire need of committed competitors whose talents are complemented by an uncanny drive and frightening degree of intensity. Qualities that put foreigners on their heels. If Epps has shown anything, both during college and again seven days ago, it is that he fits such a job description rather nicely.
Ryan Epps — 77 kg, Minnesota Storm
5PM: With the DIII Nationals, did you see any of that coming? Between the tenor of the country and talk beforehand of other events being canceled, was this still as big of a shock, especially given how it happened?
Ryan Epps: I saw other championships being canceled before ours but I was like, That’s only because those haven’t happened yet, they’re still a couple of weeks out from competing. Whereas, we were there. First they said no fans, and I was like, Okay, that’s fine. It’s a bummer my friends and family can’t come to support me, but at least I still get to compete.
We were at the venue and everyone was already there. We would warm up and kind of get adjusted to where we were going to wrestle the next day. So, even if we had wrestled the tournament it wouldn’t have made a difference. If we were going to get COVID (at the venue), we would have gotten it because everyone had already wrestled on the mats the day before. It didn’t help that we canceled the tournament. It literally didn’t do anything.
It was kind of abrupt. It was just, Okay, your season is over. That was a mix of emotions. It didn’t seem real for a long time. And I know a lot of my senior friends, they say that they’re over it but it’ll bug them for a long time because it was something that we all worked really hard for. We were probably going to go back-to-back with a team national championship and a couple of the individuals would have won individual trophies, as well. There was a lot on the line to just watch it get taken away from you. I’m just glad that I will still be able to compete in Greco, but for a lot of these guys, they are done. That’s how it ended for them. It is sick way to end it. It is a sick feeling in your stomach a little bit.
5PM: You say that “it didn’t seem real for a long time”. When it did start to seem real, especially coming off of the prior two seasons and your goal of becoming a three-time champ,? How did you begin to come to terms with how your own collegiate career ended?
RE: I feel like a lot of us guys just didn’t want to talk about it at all. It was something that you didn’t even speak of. I hated it when people — family members, professors, whomever — would ask me, ‘Oh, how are you feeling?’ And it’s like, How do you THINK I feel? Obviously not good. It’s not just something that I will forget about it overnight.
It was just something we all tried not to talk about it. It was something that was hard to deal with, something you wouldn’t believe happened.
5PM: How soon was it before you started wrestling again? Either for fun, or for a purpose?
RE: I was probably back on the mat — and not even wrestling hard, but playing games like spike ball or whatever — within the next couple of weeks. Because at that time, there was nothing to do. It was weird. Obviously, it had set in right away that we were done; but I guess I had my mind set on the next thing already and that I was going to keep competing in the Olympic style of wrestling. I guess I knew that I wasn’t done competing, just that I was done with college. I think it might have hit the other guys a little bit harder if only because they were done done.
5PM: The fact that you knew you were going to continue on, did that take any of the bitterness away?
RE: Yeah, I was still pretty motivated to go on and compete, but it definitely gave me even more of a hunger, more anger, and more fire to keep competing. Just because, there was unfinished business. If I were to have gotten my third title, I would have been content for a little bit and maybe took a little time off or whatever. But not even getting the chance to even compete for it really re-amped something inside of me and got me ready to go for Greco right away. It’s good and bad, I guess. There is a positive in any situation if you look at it a certain way. That’s how I look at it, at least.
There is a little funny thing about it, too. I can’t really grow facial hair too much. I have a babyface for my age. I kind of had this little mustache and I wasn’t going to shave it until after nationals. But since that never happened, I haven’t shaved my mustache since then, and I said that I guess I won’t shave it until I made a World or Olympic Team, so (laughs).
5PM: Did you know during your tenure at Augsburg that you were going to eventually endeavor towards a Senior Greco career, or has that been more of a recent objective?
Ryan Epps: Yeah, I would say later on, probably between my junior and senior year. My head coach, Jim Mousloff, was definitely a big advocate for me to transition back into Greco. He was a big supporter of mine, which was pretty cool. It was always in the back of my head, that it would be cool to keep competing, and to be part of the Minnesota Storm. There is a lot of tradition with that program, so it’s cool to be a part of that.
5PM: How did participating in Greco and freestyle during the springs and summers of your youth shape you leading into what became a very successful career in high school and then later in college?
RE: It obviously helped just knowing all of the different aspects of wrestling, different techniques, and how to move your body in different ways in different positions. Greco, especially, because so many people in folkstyle are afraid to do any upper-body. They’re not comfortable being in over/under’s or anything Greco-related. Two-on-ones, they don’t know how to wrestle there, and they will pretty much move themselves into a bad position to try and get out of it, which sets up a lot of scoring opportunities.
Say I have an underhook; a lot of times guys will raise their arm above their heads to try and clear — and that opens them right up for a shot, like a high-crotch, single, or whatever. That was where I would take advantage of guys who didn’t know how to wrestle in that position.
5PM: I have seen, heard, and read you saying that “breaking” people is some serious goal of yours as a competitor.
RE: That’s my favorite thing — to make people in a match do what they don’t want to do, but have no other choice because they’re that tired, or can’t because they are that broken. Get them to a point where they are so tired, or it’s their spirit, to where they can’t compete anymore. And then it’s easy. Someone can better than you, but if they are too tired and don’t believe that they can do it, then they’re not going to do it. Then they are not better than you, in a way.
5PM: Has that been a part of your wrestling ethos since you were a kid?
RE: Yeah, I guess I’ve always been, in any part of my wrestling, to wrestle hard and to always do my best. When I was younger, I wasn’t the best technician, but I would wrestle hard the whole match. Obviously, as I got older I focused more on my technique but still had that intensity to go hard the whole match. When you combine that technique with it, they go hand-in-hand. It’s a one-two punch and you win a lot of matches that way.
5PM: In wrestling, there is always talk about composure, staying poised, etc. What about anger? Is anger a disadvantage for a wrestler?
Ryan Epps: No, as long as you use it in the right way. I try not to get angry in my matches. I am more just trying to hype myself up, to say that I can do something and then do it with confidence. Never cocky, just confidence. Like, I don’t care who you are, what your credentials are, or what your seed is, I’m going to go out and try to beat you to the best of my ability. Then if you beat me, congrats. But I’m not going to back down.
5PM: Did you identify the Senior Nationals as a tournament you were going to enter as soon as it was announced?
RE: Yes, I thought it would be a cool opportunity to get my feet wet, get my foot in the door type of deal and to see what it’s all about. This was the first time ever where I had actually only trained Greco the majority of the time and really not that much freestyle, instead of just folkstyle, and to see what I’ve been doing and whether it’s working or not and to see if I can compete on this level. It was a pretty good confidence-booster I guess to know that I can be successful with these guys.
5PM: You had wrestled U23 before but this is Senior. Leading to the semifinals, did this feel normal to you, like just a tournament in which you belonged? Then there is the whole thing about not having wrestled a match in quite a while.
RE: All the way up until my first match when I stepped on the mat and the whistle blew, it was more like I was a spectator, Wow, it’s so cool to be here. Like I was lucky to be there, I guess. I was in awe that I was there. Then as soon as I started wrestling, it was, Yeah, I belong here. I’m going to do well, just do what I do — which is just wrestle hard and see how it goes. Once I started to actually wrestle I was like, Okay, this is fun, just because it had been a while since before the college nationals when I had last competed. It was cool to just get back on the mat and get some real matches in. It was fun.
5PM: The match that obviously made an impression on everyone was the Kendrick match in the semis. Did you know much about Kendrick beforehand?
RE: I knew his name. I knew he was good, obviously, and that he had a lot of Greco success. I didn’t necessarily watch any of his matches or anything like that. I knew he was good and I was preparing for someone who was a seasoned veteran. It was, Well, we’ll see how this goes. I was not nervous. I was ready to go. I wasn’t overthinking it. I was just like, This is just another match. I just have to stay in my positions, stay focused, and stay confident.
5PM: The result didn’t turn out in your favor and I imagine that probably stung a little bit. But the next day, or couple of days afterward, did that match and your whole performance as a whole solidify the idea that you might have immense potential for this style?
RE: Yeah, and I mean, I haven’t even been doing it full-time for very long. If I can do that in just a little bit of time I feel like there is a high ceiling for myself. And I feel like my teammates and coaches see that in me. It has been realizing that if I stick with it, I could be pretty good if I keep my mind set on it.
5PM: Two-part question: did you get back to work right away this week after the tournament?; and also, this quick turnaround before U23 Nationals I imagine makes you happy since you had grown used to the collegiate schedule.
Ryan Epps: I took a couple of days off just to get the body right because I was a little sore since I haven’t competed and had that many matches within a couple of days in a long time. I was pretty sore. But I started lifting and running on Tuesday, and tonight (Thursday) was the first time I got back on the mat again. Just before this call I was wrestling with one of my buddies. Back to work, you know?
Follow Ryan Epps on Twitter to keep up with his career and competitive schedule.
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