A ring of athletes circled the mats of the Steelwood Training Facility, with only one thing in common: wrestling.
All ages, all weights, all different experiences. There were 125-pound high school wrestlers with just a dream of reaching a podium at the NCAA championships someday. There were heavyweight freestylers who had ascended the Olympic podium with a gold medal in hand.
In the middle wrestled a coach and a college heavyweight, with Ohio RTC head coach Tervel Dlagnev demonstrating techniques on bottom against Ohio State former Big Ten champion Kollin Moore.
At the Ohio Regional Training Camp, wrestlers of all ages and accomplishments gather under the umbrella of an Ohio State facility with a lone national championship banner hanging from the rafters. Through the work of Ohio State coaches and former championship-winning athletes, the Ohio RTC looks to shape its participants into the next group that can raise a title.
“It’s embedded in wrestling culture as youth wrestlers, the fathers, the mothers, they bring the small children to the place where they’re going to have the best training partners, and then in high school, they do the same thing,” Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said. “It’s common knowledge now for any elite high school wrestler. They know there’s an Olympic training center here.”
Though the event is run at an Ohio State facility and is coached by members of the team’s staff, the group is separate from the university. Ohio RTC is a nonprofit founded in 2006 when Tom Ryan was hired to become head coach at Ohio State.
The teams that had an RTC were the only programs “that really had a chance to be the best program in the country,” Ryan said before a wall of trophies won in his decorated tenure as head coach. “There is no chance for those who didn’t have one. You really had no chance to compete at the highest level.”
After the RTC was established and approved by the governing body, USA Wrestling, Ryan began to assemble the perfect staff to build the program into one of the best in the country. Coaches Tommy Rowlands and Lou Rosselli, both who had made Olympic teams in the past, came aboard to bring credibility to the center and get it off the ground.
The RTC receives 100 percent of its funding from donations, 85 percent of which goes toward stipends and housing for participating athletes. Those eligible for the RTC must be within a 250-mile radius of Columbus. They must also be both a member of USA Wrestling and finish top four in high school championships, top eight in college championships, have won at least one match at a USAW World or Olympic Team Trial or represented the United States within the past two years at a Veteran’s World Championships.
Ryan said it is part of the goal of the Ohio RTC to build not only NCAA champions at Ohio State, but to turn wrestlers into Olympic champions, because while the staff cares about the university, “also we’re about the United States of America.”
The Ohio RTC, as a year-round operation, has become a draw for both recruits interested in Ohio State wrestling and an incentive for former Buckeyes to stick around. Myles Martin, the former NCAA national champion and No. 1 seed in 2019 at 184 pounds, said that after he concluded his Ohio State career with a third-place finish in the national championships, he would return to the Ohio RTC for at least a year.
In maintaining a locker in the Steelwood, he resides alongside former Ohio State national champions Nathan Tomasello, Logan Stieber and Kyle Snyder, some of the most decorated wrestlers in program history.
Snyder, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time NCAA national champion, said he first got involved with Ohio RTC when he was being recruited by the Buckeyes, and that during his offseason, he still spends a great deal of time training with the group.
“After I graduated from college, it was just a great opportunity to be able to stay here and continue to train,” Snyder said. “They think outside the box. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to improve the Ohio RTC that we have right now and that we want to make it better in the future.”
Several other former athletes return solely in a coaching capacity. Three of the coaches on Ohio RTC’s staff — Dlagnev and assistant coaches J Jaggers and Bo Jordan — all were products of the training center.
Dlagnev said he first got involved as an athlete in 2009, a year after he graduated from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, later making eight national teams and placing fifth at the 2012 London Olympic Games. He started to transition into a coaching role to stick around the sport when he was hired as an assistant coach at Ohio State in 2016.
“You can’t wrestle forever,” Dlagnev said, noting that he, “felt like I had a knack for explaining things.”
During the practices, athletes split the two-hour practices watching demonstrations of different wrestling techniques and positions. Jaggers said the wrestlers also do a great deal of sparring against one another, which opens the opportunity for younger wrestlers to gain experience challenging accomplished veterans.
There is a benefit for fresher faces “just being around and seeing what the professionals like Nate and Kyle and some of the high-level college guys, how they approach practice,” Jaggers said as Tomasello, a participant of four NCAA championships, grappled with Ohio State freshman Malik Heinselman, who had lasted just three matches in his first championship in 2019.
“So more so than just being their training partner for that day,” Jaggers said. “It’s being around them and seeing the way they mentally approach things I think is beneficial for the age group guys, and I think that’s why we’re seeing an influx of productivity from USA Wrestling teams at all age levels.”
Ryan said that in order to grow as wrestlers, young athletes must first be exposed to duress. For many of the elite high school wrestlers, they might not know what it is like to lose.
Facing Kyle Snyder, arguably the greatest heavyweight in the world, will teach a young wrestler what it is like to lose.
In learning how to lose, the upcoming wrestlers will learn what they need to do long-term to win.
“These Olympic athletes can put any college wrestler or high school wrestler under immense amount of duress and really exploit their lesser strengths, which is the ultimate goal,” Ryan said. “Find out where I need work and then work at it. And there’s a lot of places these kids aren’t finding out yet where their lesser strengths.
“Here, they find it out pretty quickly.”