About 8 months ago, my son, Caden, was chosen to be a part of large group of American wrestlers going to Tallinn, Estonia to compete in the Tallinn Open – Europe’s largest wrestling tournament. The tournament is both Greco-Roman and freestyle, with many wrestlers competing in both styles.

The trip was put on by World Wrestling Tours, headed by Jared Lewis out of Wisconsin. And I was extremely fortunate to be chosen to tag along / chaperone. The group consisted of about 45 Americans kids (both boys and girls), ages 13 – 17, with most being very accomplished in the United States (UWW Placers, Fargo placers, state champs, Tulsa Nationals champs, etc).

The coaches on the trip were Matt Lindland, USAW Head Greco Coach and Olympic and World silver medalist; Gary Mayabb, Head of Greco development for USA Wrestling; and Donnie Stephens, head coach of the women’s program at Cumberland University.

The trip began on March 28th, with the group meeting at Chicago O’Hare Airport for the first leg of the trip: an eight-hour flight to Warsaw, Poland. We arrived late Thursday afternoon in Warsaw, Poland, and then we had a short flight to Tallinn, Estonia.

Given the tight schedule, we weren’t able to get a workout in Thursday evening, but as wrestlers, we are ever resilient. So, I took the group of 45 wrestlers on a 30-minute jog through the streets of Old Tallinn late Thursday night. Many of the locals didn’t know what to think of the pack of young Americans jogging through the streets, but it was a sight to see.

Friday March 30th, we were able to go up to the arena and get a work-out in before weigh-ins. One thing I immediately noticed is that the arena itself had a sauna for all athletes to take advantage of. While saunas are frequently admonished in the states, particularly for cutting weight, the Europeans understand the benefits of having them. I saw kids of all ages using them – it simply wasn’t a big deal, nor should it have been.

After weigh-ins, we went back to the hostel and got the team fueled up and were able to do a little bit of sight-seeing before the first day of competition.

Unfortunately, we had three or four wrestlers get hit with a 24-hour stomach bug the night before the competition, with my son being one of them. So, with him being bed ridden the day of Greco, I stayed back and was unable to go to the Greco portion of the competition.  I really can’t speak to what we did well or didn’t do well, but I do know that we tied for first in the Greco portion, which given the US’ proclivity in Greco-Roman, this was a very good showing.

With Caden able to compete the next day, we went to the freestyle portion of the competition. He ended up finishing fifth and lost to criteria to the eventual champ. Given what he had gone through the past 24 hours, I was incredibly impressed with his ability to just compete at the level, much less go get on the podium. I wrote more about that in a facebook post here, so feel free to go check that out if you’d like.

My Thoughts on The Tournament:

Compared to our European counterparts, Americans, overall, kept a much faster and harder pace. In almost every match, I felt we were the better athlete. Our style is very aggressive and attacking, and constantly moving forward. Americans were much more apt to look for the fall. And because of this, the Europeans would often put themselves in positions where only American wrestlers would capitalize. Some instances of this included leaving their head hanging or trying to wrestle off their butt. I saw many-a-European wrestler get cradled and pinned. They were simply positions Americans know not to stay in because of their Folkstyle wrestling.

The Europeans tended to be more flowy and counter attacking. They understand pressure extremely well. While they were always looking to score, wrestling to a fall simply wasn’t a big part of their arsenal, but once they got a lead, they knew how to protect it very well.

(On a side tangent, European coaches tended to be much more aggressive with their athletes after the matches. Much of what I saw simply wouldn’t fly in America.)

What the Americans struggled with on a while was mat awareness and situational wrestling. There were several instances where we were going to get scored on regardless, and instead of giving up a single point on a push out on the edge, we give up a four-point move. Big moves like this often determined matches. Additionally, there would also be instances where the correct strategy was to keep good position and hand fight, but we would, instead, allow the Europeans to get deep ties and hit match changing throws. I attribute almost all of these issues to our lack of experience in freestyle and greco.

With the above being said, the US absolutely dominated freestyle. We beat the second closest team by over 50 points.

Aside from the competition of the tournament, the camaraderie of the wrestlers – regardless of gender, age, or nationality – was incredible. There was always a crowd around Team USA as everyone wanted to trade for our gear. (I came away with a sweet jacket from Team Belaruse.)

The rest of the trip was spent with a training camp with morning and afternoon sessions, both in freestyle and Greco-Roman. When we got back to the hostels at night, we had team meetings in which the coaches would discuss topics like dealing with adversity, pre-match preparedness, and leadership.

This schedule pretty much held for the duration of the trip, with sightseeing opportunities mixed throughout.

We had an exhausting flight back Friday, April 8th.

Aside from the wrestling – which was really good – here was my favorite parts of the trip from the perspective of a dad:

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