By Jeff Beshey
A few weeks after the Sydney Games were over I sat down with Olympic Bronze Medalist and University of Minnesota heavyweight Garrett Lowney. Although the 21 year old Lowney has been a student/athlete at the U of MN for two years, he still has four years of college eligibility left and has yet to step on the mat as a Gopher. I asked him about his Olympic experience and what he expects as a college wrestler.
What are some of the ways your life has changed since winning the Olympic bronze medal?
Overall my life really hasn't changed. I'm a student again going through all the same things everyone else goes through. I'll soon be back with the team just like always. There are a few different things like signing autographs, going to speak with people and getting noticed every once in a while, which is a little different for me, but overall my life really hasn't changed that much.
When did being an Olympian become your goal?
My mom says that I told her when I first started wresting, at five or six years old, that I wanted to be in the Olympics. I don't really remember that, but she swears by it. I do remember watching wrestling as a very young kid and dreaming about being there.
How old were you when you started wrestling?
I was five years old. My dad got me started just playing around in a little kids club. A few years later, they realized I had some potential and they started pushing it a little bit more. Probably about third or fourth grade my dad got me into freestyle because by that time there wasn't anyone in my club or in my area that was anywhere near where I was, so we went to the national tournaments and I got a lot of match time and went up against a lot of very tough kids in that age group.
When did you really believe you could make the Olympic Team?
I guess I always believed that I could, but probably around nationals. When I placed second at nationals. I realized that it was really close and I just had to perfect a few things and polish off some of the things I was doing wrong. At that point -- at nationals this year -- is when I knew that I was very close and it was within my reach.
How did you prepare yourself for the Olympics?
I watched more tape, I watched myself quite a bit trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I worked on my par terre [position] quite a bit because that seemed to be the only thing missing. By that time I had developed such a style on my feet that no one was taking me down. No one in the world took me down. I was really comfortable on my feet. My par terre wrestling was going to be the main make or break for the matches -- whether or not I performed on top and on bottom."
Did you train with the other Olympic team members?
We had a trip to Russia and wrestled in the Poddoubny Tournament about a month before the Olympics, which is considered to be as tough as the Olympics because there's 10-12 Russians in every weight and then all those surrounding Russian countries like Georgia and Kazakstan were there too. It's a very very difficult tournament. That was the point I knew I could compete internationally. I wrestled in that tournament and I competed against some of the best in the world. After that we had our two week training camp in Colorado Springs. Then we left about two weeks early for Australia and trained for a week in Canberra. Those were the three main training camps. Other than that, I trained here in Minnesota.
Who did you train with from the U.S. that helped you out?
Marty Morgan helped me tremendously with my defense and my style and seeing the little things that I was missing. Dan Chandler of course helped me tremendously with developing my Greco style. Billy Pierce and Quincy Clark, who made the Olympic team -- I wrestled with them quite a bit. There was a lot of people around that I could train with.
How much of the Olympic competition was mental? How much was physical?
You've got to be physically strong and physically ready for the Olympics because if you're not, you don't even belong out there. I was in the best shape of my life. At that level if you fall asleep in a match for even a couple of seconds it might cost you the match. Being mentally focused and concentrating the entire match is very important. I believe you've got to know you can win when you step out on the mat. By that time, I had trained so hard and I felt so good and so confident about everything -- I knew I could win every match. I lost in the semifinals to the gold medalist because I wasn't focused and I gave up points right away. I wasn't focused and I wasn't ready for the match. That really showed how much of it was mental because if you take even one split second of not concentrating, it could cost you the whole match, which it did.
What is it like to represent the whole United States?
It feels great, especially when you stand on the podium and watch your flag raised. I would have liked it better if they were playing my national anthem but it really is a great honor to represent your country and everything it stands for.
Did you have a lot of fan support at the Olympics?
There was about 20 people, friends and family that came all the way down there to watch me. That helped a lot because they really lit up the crowd and they really let people know who they were cheering for. They were so loud and it really does help.
What is the pinnacle achievement for amateur wrestlers?
Because world championships and the Olympics are the biggest competition that amateur wrestlers can compete in, they are the pinnacle. Being a world champ -- especially in Greco, there's been very few world champs and even fewer Olympic champions. So, if you reach that level to be number one in the world in Greco, that is the pinnacle -- that is the top of the game. No one from the U.S. in Greco has ever won two gold medals. There's only a couple of people who have medalled twice in the Olympics in Greco. It's definitely the top priority and top goal of all amateur wrestlers.
Did you get to meet anyone that impressed you at the Olympics?
I got to meet a lot of the athletes -- Maurice Green, Marian Jones. I was with the Dream Team at the Opening Ceremonies. I got my picture taken with the Williams sisters. Everyone just had this equality. Before the Opening Ceremonies everyone was walking around meeting the different teams, taking pictures and videos. The only time I really was in awe was meeting Muhammad Ali. He stepped out of the car and it was like whoa! This is Muhammad Ali! It really was exciting meeting everyone and walking out into the stadium at Opening Ceremonies after watching it for so many years -- kind of makes you think, wow, do I really belong here? It was an experience I'll never forget.
Does that atmosphere make it harder to focus?
It really does, and that's the biggest difference between the Olympics and any other competition -- all the press and all the hype. The Olympic Committee did a good job of preparing us for what to expect. The biggest thing I had to concentrate on was not to become a spectator -- going to all the events and trying to meet all these people and forgetting about the real reason that I'm there. I had to get out and see some of the events and take my mind off things but I really had to focus on why I was there and what I had to do.
As an athlete could you watch any of the other events you wanted?
They had sign-ups where you could sign up for tickets first-come first-serve and they had so many tickets for each event. You could just sign up and pick up your ticket and head on over to the event. It was a pretty good deal. We went to a few volleyball games and a basketball game. We had fun but we couldn't really participate and relax and do everything that the other fans were doing because we had to stay focused because we hadn't competed yet. We were one of the last events of the Games.
Did you have a chance to do any site-seeing in Australia?
After the Olympics I took a little vacation. I went to Dunk Island, which is a little island resort off The Great Barrier Reef, for a few days. We went swimming and snorkeling. It was a pretty good deal.
Let's switch gears a bit. Why did you decide to go to the University of Minnesota?
One of the main reasons was the program and the practice partners they had for me. At the time Joel Sharratt was here. Tim Hartung, Billy Pierce, Marty Morgan, Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin -- all these guys. This was the best room for a heavyweight in the country. Another big reason was I got accepted into The Carlson School of Management. It's a top school and that was probably the thing that pushed me over the edge. That's probably the thing that made me decide -- the academic part of it.
What other schools did you consider?
I was getting recruited by Wisconsin, Iowa State, Northwestern. I visited Iowa State, Northwestern, and Minnesota. After I took the visit, I was leaning towards Minnesota because the guys were great. Everyone seemed so nice and everyone clicked so well with my personality. We had a lot of fun and so that was a big reason why I was leaning towards here and once I found out that I would for sure get accepted into Carlson as a freshman, it definitely made up my mind for me.
How hard has it been to basically sit on the sidelines the past two seasons with the Gophers?
I'm definitely ready. I've been sitting in the stands way too long already. It really is hard. If you're a competitor, you don't want to be in the stands, you want to be out on the mat. It really is tough. But it might have prepared me and gave me that extra little edge because I'm so ready now to put that singlet on and do some damage this year.
Brock Lesnar has been something of a fan favorite the last couple of years. Do you feel any pressure to live up to his accomplishments?
I don't think about filling his shoes at all. We're two totally different styles of wrestlers. We're two totally different wrestlers and there's really no similarity in how we wrestle. I'm not feeling any pressure to fill his shoes and to become a big celebrity like he was. He earned everything he got and he was a hard worker. I'm out here to win every match. I honestly believe -- anyone I wrestle, every time I step on the mat -- I can win. I just have to take it one match at a time, My ultimate goal is to be a national champ. Whether or not that comes is up to me. I don't really think about taking up Brock's place, although I get that a lot. People ask 'are you big enough to take Brock's spot,' because he was such a huge guy and he really dominated a lot of people. But that's the difference between him and me, I'm not going to be the big, dominating, powerhouse wrestler.
You're not the biggest heavyweight. How will you approach wrestling guys 30-40 pounds bigger than you?
I was a heavyweight in high school my senior year. I've wrestled a lot of heavyweights. I've wrestled with the best heavyweights in the country right in the practice room -- Billy Pierce, Brock Lesnar, and Shelton Benjamin. All these guys were All-Americans. All of them are big guys. The size of my opponents doesn't bother me at all. You've got to learn how to wrestle heavyweights. It's something that you've got to develop and you've got to know. There's a strategy to wrestling heavyweights. I don't think there is anyone in the country that's any stronger than me just because they're heavier or bigger than me. I've worked hard with my strength training. That's one of my advantages, I have a lot of strength but yet I'm small enough and I'm quick enough.
Does your success at the Olympics put any extra pressure on you?
I don't worry about the pressure anyone else gives me. I put enough pressure on myself. I don't have to pay attention to what everyone else thinks. There's a lot of chatter out there. Some of the polls have me at number five or number six. All that means nothing to me. I know my ability. I'm confident in my ability. The only pressure I feel is the pressure that I put on myself.
Does your Olympic experience give you an edge in college competition?
I think it really does because I'm coming off such a big tournament. I'm real confident and I'm real excited about wrestling. The only thing I've got to be careful of, is not to have a letdown. After a big competition sometimes athletes are prone to having letdowns and not competing at the best of their ability just because of the mental letdown and all of the stress you feel at that big tournament. Wrestling college and wrestling Greco is totally different and I haven't proven anything in college yet. I'm definitely motivated and definitely excited about the season and about wrestling for the University of Minnesota.
What do you give up to keep your amateur status and college eligibility?
I can't accept any prize money. I can't accept money for speaking if its because I'm a medalist. I gave up money for winning the Bronze. I never even considered taking that, and giving up my amateur status. There's life after wrestling and I have to get my degree.
Do your plans include future World Championships? future Olympics?
Definitely four more years. I want to win my gold medal. In four years, I'll still be training hard with the University of Minnesota and summers I'll still be wrestling world championships. Definitely in four years I'll try out for Greece and then after that we'll see what opportunities come up.
College wrestling and world championships is a lot of wrestling isn't it?
Yes it is, but even if I wasn't wrestling Greco and was just sticking to college, I'd still be training and doing lots of wrestling in the summers anyway. The only difference is I'll be competing in the summers when otherwise I would just be training and working out and not competing.
You've had success in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. Any desire to do more freestyle?
I miss freestyle a little bit, but I really did fall in love with Greco this year. I'll be sticking with Greco. I considered -- what if I won my gold in Greco this year? Maybe I'd go freestyle just to see what I could do. I didn't get my gold in Greco -- so I'll still be going Greco.