Balancing Olympic training and astronaut ambitions
Adam Coon, a dean’s list aerospace engineering student, is the nation’s No. 2-ranked heavyweight in Greco-Roman wrestling. In between problem sets, design projects and exams this academic year, the rising star trained for Olympic tryouts. There was just one spot on the U.S. team in his weight class and style. To nab it — and go to Rio for the 2016 summer games — Coon needed to upstage an older, long-time master. Find out if he did, and what it was like to be Coon during one of the most demanding times of his life.
Interview and Photos: Marcin Szczepanski
“EVERY KID HAS A DREAM JOB. MINE WAS TO BE AN ASTRONAUT. I NEVER GREW OUT OF IT. But then in high school, I realized I was too big to fit into a space shuttle. That’s when I decided I wanted to design better space shuttles so bigger people could fit into them. I figured out that aerospace engineering was the best route. And I’ve loved it ever since.
My grade point average is about 3.5 and everybody takes me pretty seriously now, especially on North Campus. But my freshman year, I didn’t wear any athletic stuff. I wanted to make sure people knew I took school very seriously and I got in because I had academic reasons to be here and not just because of my athletics. I’m not a dumb jock.
I came to Michigan because they had such a great, highly ranked aerospace engineering department. To me, the hardest thing about engineering is really the workload. The material is fun and you can learn it. But when it comes to the work that needs to be done, that’s the hardest part.
How do I fit it all? I prioritize my time. As soon as I’m done with classes, I need to have a mental switch in my head to make sure I’m all about wrestling. I don’t think about classwork, I don’t think about homework. I’m all wrestling for the next 2.5 hours.
Then I get into my car and on the ride back to my house, I make a mental switch to thinking about food, getting nourishment. I need to relax a little bit to make sure I’m operating efficiently.
I get my food and then I make that switch again. I’m back to academics. I’m all academics from now on. There’s no wrestling, there’s no distraction, I need to get my homework done. I meet up with people for study groups.
Partying? Ask anybody on the team — Coon doesn’t party. [Laugh.] Coon is in bed by 10 p.m.
“YOU HAVE TO MENTALLY TRAIN TO PUSH YOURSELF THROUGH PAIN. Once you’ve pushed through pain, you can mentally elevate yourself to that pain. And once you get used to that level, you push yourself past it. You keep working until your pain threshold is through the roof and you keep trying to push it up because everyone else is doing exactly the same thing.
I kind of put myself through a routine. Three hours before the match starts, I’m in a wrestling room, I’m going through a hard workout, I’m trying to physically exhaust myself. I’m pushing myself so hard so that when I push myself in a match, it’s not so uncomfortable because I already experienced that. It’s like I already wrestled a match before I even start the actual bout.
The hardest part of wrestling is just wrestling. It wears on your body. You need to have the mental capacity to put yourself through that. The workouts just grind away your body. You wake up in the morning and you think, wow, my body hurts so much. I need a day off. And yet, you still get off the bed and you go to the practice and you put yourself through that insane workout again and again.
It’s really mind and body. You need to have the mental capacity to keep going even when you feel you can’t keep going physically any more. That’s what makes this sport so tough, you have the mental grind and the body grind.
It’s also a huge mental game. If you’re wrestling an opponent that doesn’t seem to be able to get tired, you wear out so much quicker. You start to think this guy is a machine. How can you beat this guy? So I try to bring on this persona: I’m machine-like. It all goes with that blank-stare expression in my eyes before the bout. How you hold yourself is just as important as how you wrestle.
“The desire to be the best — it’s how I was raised. My parents always told me, whatever you do, put everything into it. You have to pour your heart and soul into wrestling if you want to win. The same goes for academics. You need to continue to elevate yourself as an engineering student.
It’s also what wrestling did to me — there’s so much competition in wrestling. You want to be better than your opponent. So you find opponents who are better than you so you can be better than them. It’s this constant drive. I want to get better.
“THE OLYMPICS IS A DREAM. A GOAL. I WANT TO BE ABLE TO SAY, ‘I’M THE BEST ATHLETE IN THE WORLD.’ Plus, I’d like to compete for my country.
It all started for me when I watched Rulon Gardner beat Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Olympics. Rulon was a farm boy, just like me — a heavyweight wrestler. Growing up, I was a big, fat kid, just like Rulon. Karelin was this Greek god of wrestling. He was unbeatable. And yet Rulon beat him. He won gold for the United States. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to be an Olympic gold medalist.’
In April 2016, Adam Coon arrived in Iowa City for the 2016 Olympic Wrestling Trial to compete in the Greco-Roman style, including against longtime U.S. champion Robbie Smith. He had been training for this day for four years. He describes what happened.
“WE FLEW IN TWO DAYS BEFORE THE COMPETITION. That morning I was supposed to take an exam for one of my aerospace classes. I took it earlier in the morning in order to make the plane. On the day of the competition, I took my typical very hard warm-up. I made sure I was ready to go. And then I had to sit down and wait.
I put everything on the line. I had two great matches to start off. I ended up tackling both guys. Then I went to Robbie Smith, which I knew would be a big battle because he tackled me really quick last time we wrestled.
I put everything I had into that match. You make this plan that you will make the Olympic team. You make this plan. I wanted to win these matches. I put in so much work to do that.
I knew what Robbie’s big moves would be because I wrestled him before and I trained for that. During the first match, he tried to get a couple of these go-tos. I either blocked him or I just knocked out of them. So he never got to his number one stuff.
But he did get a couple push-ups in that first match that I wasn’t aggressive enough responding to. He beat me because of a couple of my mistakes. You still need to win two out of the three bouts so I brushed it off real quick and I started getting ready for the second match.
I knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to go for the front headlock. He wanted to make it a quick match because his condition wasn’t as good as mine. I also knew I needed to get much more aggressive, I couldn’t get pushed around on the mat the way it happened during the first match. Right at the start I gave him a big ol’ club — I hit with my forearm in the area between the neck and shoulder — to let him know I meant business. He immediately hit me with an arm throw, where he grabbed my arm and threw me over his shoulder. He hit it perfectly and sent me flying. I’d meant to knock him back and make him a little more defensive. In return he gave me one of his number one moves that I totally forgot about.
He was awarded 5 points for the throw. It was just too big of a lead for me to come back. After that, we scored two points each. (Smith won 4–1, 7–2.)
I made it a fight. But ultimately, he was just more experienced than I was. A lot of the points he scored were in situations I put myself in that I really did not know how to get out of. Or I couldn’t take advantage of some of his misplacements or sloppy techniques.
Right afterwards I was crashed.
But you’ve got to quickly shut that off and realize that you gave it all you had and that you will be better for it. I had to quickly turn the switch to not to get too down on myself and to realize that I’m young. I still have some years ahead of me. I told myself, ‘Adam, you gave it all you had, but it wasn’t quite enough, you still have more to go.’ I told myself, ‘Go back to work.’ And that kind of helped me shut it down.
Right now, I’ve got to figure out what exactly will be the best for me. After the match, Robbie Smith asked me if I wanted to be his training partner. He wants to win the Olympics. I’m a runner-up and he is looking for the best sparring partner for the 2016 Games. Wrestlers are allowed to bring one training partner with them to the Olympics. The decision is up to Robbie. It would be a great learning experience for me.
I will also try to get into a master’s program in Aerospace Engineering.
I don’t know what it will be moving forward, I just know that I will be on the mat, wrestling and lifting. Lifting heavy.