As the Olympic torch was lit in Tokyo on July 23, one Marine staff sergeant was in the city to represent the red, white and blue.
Staff Sgt. John Stefanowicz Jr. will be the first Marine to wrestle in the Olympics since 1992, when Buddy Lee competed in Barcelona.
And while Tokyo is on tight restrictions due to COVID-19 and its delta variant ― one deaf and blind U.S. Paralympic swimmer withdrew after she was told she couldn’t bring her mother as her usual personal care assistant ― Stefanowicz will be without his accustomed training partners for another reason: The year-round Marine wrestling team is being disbanded and all but one of his teammates already have been sent to other units. Stefanowicz will be the last man standing for the current All-Marine Wrestling team.
The standing, year-round team, in existence since the 1970s, is being ended by the Corps, according to the wrestlers and coach of the team.
Marine spokesmen say the Corps is not limiting opportunities for wrestlers who want to compete at the highest levels; the program now will be run like other Marine sports, run through the Semper Fit and the All-Marine Sports programs, which give athletes short opportunities to leave their units in order to compete at higher athletic events.
But it’s a move Marine wrestlers, who have been practicing full-time as a team until now, say will not lead to success on the mat.
Preparing for the Olympics while his team was disbanding weighed heavy on Stefanowicz’s mind.
“Training for the Olympics is one thing,” Stefanowicz told Marine Corps Times in an early July phone call. “But trying to train for the Olympics when guys are leaving the team and no one to take their positions has been ... almost insurmountable.”
He said he spent the time trying to stay focused on training and leading his enlisted Marines, who also had to continue to train knowing the team was going away.
Stefanowicz, like most Marines on the team, he says, never joined the Corps just to compete or ride out his time on the team: Being a Marine always has come first. He asked for orders to his next assignment in February, before team news even got out.
The wrestling team has helped form better Marines, he says. They weren’t missing out, said Stefanowicz. The wrestlers were staying mission ready and continuing specialized training.
They were wrestling day-to-day, Stefanowicz said, but “in-between and before and after that, they were having to do more than their counterparts. And they’ve done that knowing their team is going away.”
The 29-year-old father of two was a gold medalist for Greco-Roman in the 2020 and 2021 Pan American games, a championship for the Americas. In 2019 he was a World Team member, at 82 kilograms.
Stefanowicz will be competing in the Olympics at 87 kilograms on Aug. 3–4 local time.
Other U.S. military Olympians will be competing in the 2021 games, which were delayed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday Army Reserve logistics officer 1st Lt. Amber English snatched a gold medal and broke an Olympic record in women’s skeet shooting by hitting 56 of 60 targets.
In all, the U.S Olympic and Paralympic team includes 17 soldiers, a Marine and a Coast Guardsman, according to a July Defense Department press release.
Army middleweight Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham became the first active-duty female service member to compete for the U.S. in boxing. She fell to a Russian athlete in her opening fight on Wednesday.
Two soldiers will be competing in Greco-Roman wrestling as well: Sgt. Ildar Hafizov, 60 kilograms, and Spc. Alejandro Sancho, 67 kilograms.
“The Marine Corps is very proud and supportive of Staff Sergeant Stefanowicz, his teammates, and his coaches,” Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokesman Maj. Jordan R. Cochran told Marine Corps Times in an email. “He is an exemplary Marine, a fearsome competitor, and a role model for our Corps and our country. We wish him the best in Tokyo and look forward to following his achievements both on and off the wrestling mat.”
Through All-Marine Sports, athletes can qualify for participation at Armed Forces, national and even Olympic level events, Cochran said.
“The Marine Corps is not divesting of, or terminating, wrestling as an option for its wrestler athletes; like all other Marine athletes, our wrestlers can continue to train and pursue their passion through Semper Fit and the All-Marine Sports Program,” Cochran told Marine Corps Times in an email July 12.
But for wrestling, that will no longer mean having a full-time coach, full-time athletic trainer or full-time training facilities, according to Marine wrestling coach Jason Loukides, who said he was told that not long after the Olympics he will no longer have a job.
Marine Corps Times asked Manpower and Reserve Affairs for confirmation that there will be no hired coach or full time facilities, etc., and has not received a response.
Loudikes, a former Army wrestler and the 2015 USA Wrestling Greco-Roman coach of the year while leading the Marine Corps team, “is long respected as one of the top Greco-Roman minds and coaches in the world,” Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling and U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee board member, told Marine Corps Times in a phone call.
And the team has found recent success.
“Going from one guy who is all-American and a World Team contender, to having multiple individuals make a World Team, and have an Olympian for the first time since 1992 doesn’t seem commensurate with the decisions that are being made about the program,” Capt. Daniel Miller, a team wrestler and the most recent assistant officer in charge of the All-Marine Wrestling team, told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview mid-July.
Though details are scarce on why the format is changing and who made that decision, “We’re being told it’s not the money,” Miller said, but manpower allocation.
The way the team historically has been run was through temporary additional duty assignments, or, most recently, overstaff positions for the 15 Marines on team, allowing them to come compete for up to 36 months and not leave a unit in the lurch, Miller said.
Somewhere amid the team sending paperwork to request permanent structure, the decision was made, Miller said, noting with the changes not even the former six-month TAD assignments will be allowed.
TAD approved for All-Marine Sports is four days to two months, according to the All-Marine Sports website.
“I understand not standing on a permanent position, but if a commander decides they want to give a Marine an opportunity and they are willing to cooperate with that individual, I feel we are taking that away from commanders,” Miller said.
And there’s a massive difference in having a full time-duty assignment to wrestle and to pursue an Olympic dream on your own, so to speak, Bender said.
The Army and Air Force still have full-time wrestling programs, Loukides said, noting the Army has a whole unit that supports putting athletes on the Olympic team.
The Army’s World Class Athlete Program, based at Fort Carson, Colorado, has developed 446 Olympians who have won 111 medals for the U.S. since 1948, Army spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt recently told Army Times.
Loukides notes it may not be safe for Marine wrestlers to train on their own for one big match, like the annual Armed Forces competition, which the Marine Corps won in 2020 after a soldier had his results disqualified for doping, and come up against someone wrestling full time for the Army.
The other sports are easier for athletes to train for on their own, Miller said, like cross country. But for a team sport like wrestling, it seems impossible for success without consistent team training.
“Show up. Do a short training camp. Go compete. Get your ass kicked by the Army,” Miller said it will be like when that competitive-edge team practice is taken away.
From a recruiting perspective, Cochran said, the Corps’ primary recruiting population comes from high schools where wrestling is the seventh most popular sport, after football, track and field, basketball, baseball, soccer and cross country. He noted athletes from all of these sports can apply to represent the Corps via the All-Marine Sports Program.
“It’s the tenacity that a Marine brings to every match that is just inspiring,” Bender said.
“Every time I watch a Marine wrestle it makes me confident we have the right folks protecting us.”
Andrea Scott is editor of Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: @_andreascott.
Andrea Scott is editor of Marine Corps Times.