Team USA Assistant Coach Schmidtke Reports on the Junior World Championships for Wrestling

September 16, 2018


Brick walls surround the old city of Trnava.  Churches with black, conservative baby-onion domes point to the sky over the low buildings aligned on the sides of the long, straight main streets of the city, many streets paved with stones.  My windows in the Holiday Inn, where I am staying along with the USA Greco Roman wrestling team, frame the twin spires of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, its bells ringing multiple times every day, not just at 6:00 , 12:00, and 6:00, tolling with a somewhat flat and oddly un-resonant tone—there’s no reverberation after the clapper strikes the bell’s sound bow, as if the patron saint’s anointing hand was cupped along the bell’s waist, just above its bead line, to make the call to prayer for the faithful a muted appeal for worship rather than a resounding demand for piety.


Yesterday the shops of the city were closed in reverence to The Day of Lady of Sorrows, a Slovakian national holiday.  Restaurants and cafes stayed open, however, their customers spilling into the sidewalks under awnings and umbrellas, and families strolled the street, stopping for ice cream served in large waffle cones.


The weather makes walking pleasant—cool wind and warm sun.  The venue is five minutes from the hotel. I go to and from it several times each day, staying in the shade of the poplars or the close to the masonry buildings on one side of the street or the other.  


The venue  looks like Antonín Josef Novotný built it early in his tenure when he ran the country from 1953 to 1968.  Stoic industrial chic. Narrow, long, fashion-less corridors with low ceilings. Doors designed for narrow shoulders.  Tiled floors too tough to ever have been replaced. Rough concrete stairs expose their rusted rebar to anyone who steps over the cracks.  Most who have looked inside think it’s too small an arena for the event, although the three raised competition mats fit snugly on the floor—just not much butt room in the bleachers.  I don’t know if it is airconditioned, but when they were setting up, the best place to lose weight other than a sauna was in the arena. If there’s no air conditioning, second day weigh ins will be easy.


I arrived the evening on September 12 after thirty hours in the air or in terminals—Honolulu, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Vienna—and on the road—Vienna to Trnava.  In Vienna, after I’d picked up my luggage, a man named Peter greeted me in Vienna. He spoke little English. He drove me, along with two Serbian IT guys (another Peter and his co-worker Marco) the two hours east to Trnava, the host city for international wrestling’s  2018 Junior World Championships. The Serbians talked in their language throughout the drive—rhythmic white-background noise. We passed through a rural, agrarian countryside of rolling, low hills—like driving on the Laura Ingalls Highway through the prairies of south-central Minnesota.  I feel asleep.


The modern design of the Holiday Inn contrasts with the historical feel of the rest of the city center.  It seems like a marine architect designed the hotel—there’s no wasted space in its small footprint on the block.  The staff mostly speaks English. Everyone is friendly and helpful. I gave bags of Hawaiian Paradise Coffee to everyone who took care of me.  I was the first person from any delegation to arrive. I was the Beta for the tournament organizers—it seemed like no one except the Serbian IT guys had ever run a tournament before.  Maybe they appreciated my patience as they tested their procedures on me as much as I appreciated their undivided attention. The only significant glitch was the hotel assignments. The other hotels weren’t ready, so when the Greco team showed up, they ended up here rather than at the Hotel Empire.


The day after I arrived, I walked to the Hotel Empire to check it out and smooth the way for when the freestyle team shows up.  Built like a giant Quonset hut, it’s a tennis club with its own hotel. I didn’t get to see the rooms or the dining facilities because the desk clerk, who spoke little English and was too impatient with my slow use of Google Translator to have a conversation, was suspicious of a strange person asking questions for guests who wouldn’t arrive for a week, and then probably not on her shift.  I seemed to be disrupting her reading in the hotel’s empty lobby. I walked back to the Holiday Inn through the vast sports complex next door—clay tennis court, courts for soccer tennis (my name for a game where the players use a mini-soccer ball to play tennis with their feet), a ropes course and climbing wall, a large track for running and for in-line skating, and many soccer fields.


The Greco team arrived and I got to see Gary Mayabb, one of the finest coaches in the world.  To be in the wrestling room with Gary is to watch technical mastery presented by a no-nonsense, motivational speaker—when I watch one of his practices, I want to lace up my wrestling boots and start pummeling.  He speaks with knowledge, patience, and authority. His athletes respond. Nate Engel, Herb House, and James Johnson are coaching the team, too. Sitting at dinner with them, listening to them talk, watching their interaction with the athletes, and feeling the mood of their team meetings reminds me of why my wrestling coaches, after my dad, were the men who shaped me into who I became as a man.


This afternoon at 4:30 p.m., the coaches gather for the technical meeting of the tournament.  It’s a pre-tournament ritual, something like the managers of opposing baseball teams standing on either side of home plate with the umpire pointing down the lines and going over the park’s ground rules.  Then, at 5:00 p.m., we do the random draw for placement in the brackets for the first five weight classes. Pushing the electronic button on the computerized system to get the USA athlete’s draw number is my single biggest function in Trnava; think of a tense contestant spinning the Wheel of Fortune and waiting for it to click, click, click, click to a stop.  The draw goes alphabetically by country but reverses with each weight, so I go last for the first weight class, first for the second, last for the third, first for the fourth, and last for the fifth. When I’m done with my draw, the World Championships will be officially underway.


Kuuiini RobinsonComment