It’s no surprise that Shon Lewis has evolved from a basketball wannabe in junior high to a four-time national wrestling champion and a coach of the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman team that competed in the 2004 Summer Olympics.
The intensity of what he has to say about the sport is matched only by the intensity with which he says it.
“I think wrestlers are the last of the gladiators, “said the 38-year-old Lewis, a featured clinician this week at the fourth annual Foxcroft Olympic Wrestling Camp.
“It’s more than just a boxing match with guys out there slugging. It’s a chess match. It takes the stamina of a cross country or marathon runner. It takes the power of an Olympic lifter. It takes the agility of a gymnast, and it takes the will of a gladiator.”
A staff sergeant who also serves as head coach of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete wrestling program at Fort Carson, Colo., Lewis sees U.S. wrestling facing an uphill battle in world competition.
“Unfortunately, we’re the only country in the world that wrestles folkstyle [used both in high schools and at the collegiate level], “he said. “All the other countries wrestle the two Olympic styles, Greco-Roman and freestyle, so in that respect we’re really hurting ourselves when we look at the Olympic picture.”
The United States won one gold, three silver and two bronze medals at the 2004 Olympics, including a silver and bronze in women’s competition. The gold went to freestyler Cael Sanderson, who two years earlier became the only man to go undefeated through four years of college while winning four NCAA titles.
But Olympic success for Sanderson required patience, given that he had to switch his competitive focus from folkstyle to freestyle.
“It’s a big adjustment to go from college wrestling to the Olympics, “said Lewis. “It even took Cael Stevenson two years to make the change from being an undefeated four-time NCAA champion to winning in the Olympics.
“But wrestling is very much alive in the United States. Folkstyle will be here for years to come, but our Greco program is steadily improving, too.”
And that fact provides Lewis with much of his professional drive, whether it’s training elite athletes or novice wrestlers hoping to make their mark in Maine wrestling circles.
Wrestling technique is a focus of his teachings, but Lewis also offers a heavy dose of motivational guidance designed to build confidence among individuals competing in a most individual of team sports.
“First and foremost, wrestling is a sport of life, “said Lewis, a 13-time Armed Forces champion who retired from active wrestling after the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. “It takes a lot of courage to go out there on the center of the mat with a couple of hundred of people watching and putting everything you have on the line.
“I just want them to know they’re not alone. Even though it feels like they’re alone out there a lot of times, they’re not, because a lot of wrestlers in the past have walked in their footsteps. Wrestling is probably the largest fraternity in the world. If you wrestled, no matter where you wrestled or how you did in states or league, you’re accepted into the fraternity of wrestling.”
That spirit comes in handy, Lewis says, in order to survive in a sport with no other weapons than the mind and body.
“Ninety percent of it is mental, “he said. “Five percent of it is athletic ability, and the other 5 percent is preparation. But the mental aspect is so big. If we can get kids to believe in themselves, then they’ll be more aggressive on the mat. But having that intensity is big, especially as you go further and further in your career and become more successful.”
The native Californian initially was big into basketball as a youth, but eventually turned to wrestling as a high school sophomore on a dare.
“I started late, and I never won states, never won a junior national title, “Lewis said. “But I knew I could compete with the guys who did, and before I was done, I won my share.
“That’s the beauty of wrestling. You don’t have to be from LA, you don’t have to be from New York City. You can be from Dover-Foxcroft and be the best in the world.”