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Under the Radar: Simon Fraser University

Simon Fraser University

Ok wrestling fans, I want you to think hard about this question.  Name a college wrestling program across any and all divisions that has never finished outside the top four at the national tournament.  Slow down Hawkeyes.  Not so fast Nittany Lions.  Oklahoma State, I’m sorry you are not the answer either.  Did you say Wartburg or Augsburg?  Was your guess maybe someone from the Juco ranks?  How many of you even considered the teams competing in the WCWA?  That is why I chose to feature Simon Fraser University as this month’s Under The Radar.

Simon Fraser bills itself as Canada’s NCAA team and with the current push to recognize women’s wrestling as an emerging sport is poised to be a force at that level going forward.  SFU has never finished lower than fourth at the WCWA national tournament and this season entered the year as the top-ranked team, ahead of defending national champion King University.  They deserve all the attention we can shine on them because, in women’s wrestling, they are a dynasty.

Still not sure who they are?  Simon Fraser is located in Vancouver, British Columbia less than thirty miles from the US-Canada border.  More than 30,000 students attend the distinguished university that has made the jump from NAIA to NCAA.  International tuition is more affordable than most schools in the United States and certainly more affordable than any with the rankings and pedigree that Simon Fraser possesses.  At 12,000 CAD a year, that equals just over $9,500 American a year.  

If I still have not grabbed your attention, how about Carol Huynh?  She was Canada’s first women’s wrestling Olympic gold medalist accomplishing the feat in Beijing in 2008.  She followed that up with a bronze in London. She said of her time there, “When I was part of the program at Simon Fraser University from 1998-2003 (continued in the club program until 2006), I was surrounded by some amazing teammates and coaches. Many were the best in the country, and a few were world medalists, not to mention an Olympic champion as well. Needless to say, being around these athletes and coaches was key to my development as a wrestler and as a person. They challenged me and supported me to be the best I could be, on and off the mats. I owe so much to that amazing community and am so thankful to have been a part of it.”  Not familiar with her?  Fine.  Helen Maroulis.  That is right, our first Olympic champion and most recent world champion attended a Canadian university.  Simon Fraser continues to stock our national team with talent year after year and most wrestling fans have no idea where they even are.

A vast majority of wrestling fans are parents and statistically at least half of us have daughters.  I for one find myself following women’s wrestling’s growth more and more now that I have my own future wrestler (hopefully) waking me up early on Saturday mornings.  That is why as I took a look around for my next Under the Radar program to feature, Simon Fraser University was my choice.  I was able to catch up with new women’s head coach Justin Abdou and asked him some questions about a program he has been around since the 1990s.

Coach Abdou, what is the best part about being the new head of Simon Frasers University, Canada’s NCAA team?

The best part is that we have such a great group of individuals both on the guy’s side and the girl’s side.  I have been working mostly with the men for the last 15 years and with Mike’s retirement, I get to jump right in there with one of the best teams in the country, matter of fact some people have us picked as number one.  The level of commitment these athletes have and the kind of people that we have on the team.

Talk about having Mike Jones, with his long history associated with the program and now acting as an assistant, as well as your outstanding assistant Justina DiStasio. What is like having them surrounding you in that program?

Mike is obviously the highest qualified assistant coach in wrestling anywhere.  His role is really acting as a co-coach with me.  He was my mentor and my coach when I was in college so I do not know that I have made a decision in the last 20 years without running it by him.  We agree on most everything and the things that we do not agree on, we agree to disagree.  I brought him in because I really value his opinion and his relationship.  He has dealt with these girls on the team and he has yet to miss a practice when he has been in town and he is just a wealth of knowledge.  Not just about the sport of wrestling, but about dealing with student-athletes and motivating people.  It is just great to work with him on a daily basis.  Chatting with him before practice and after practice is usually one of my favorite things to do.  It is just a great combination of him and Justine because Justine is at the very beginning of her coaching of her career while Mike is in the twilight.  She is young and has a lot of energy, is still competing and still has dreams of doing some more great things at the World level.  She just won her first medal and she wants more.  Having someone that is training at that level that is that type of an athlete and still young in the room on a daily basis just rubs off on people.  It is a very good group.

Coach, you are pulling double duty as head of both the men’s and women’s programs, how do you balance those different demands?

I’m still figuring that out actually.  I wish I had an answer for you.  I didn’t quite know what I got myself in for and I did talk to Jason briefly about this (King University head coach).  With the recruiting and offseason stuff it is doable, but it becomes very very busy during the season.  I am finding that right now.  Trying to book two trips and plan two practices.  And deal with the ins and outs of the daily grind with both teams.  It is keeping me busy and on my toes, but I have the two wonderful assistants on the girl’s side.  I also hired one of my ex-wrestlers on the guy’s side who is a three-time All-American and he’s got quite a head on his shoulders.  Being able to delegate one of the most important things and trusting your staff.  It’s not hard to do because everyone on the staff has come through Mike Jones’s program and we are all on a similar philosophical page because of that.

You have a great group around you there.  Your team right now is really a great blend of younger wrestlers with experience in the lineup.  Is this going to be Simon Fraser’s year to end King University’s run at the top?

Well, I will let you know on February 10th for sure.  Definitely, we have one of the best groups we have had in a long time.  When I compare to teams we have had in the past I cannot think of a better one except possibly the 2013 team.  If you know anything them about that team, four of those women went on to become world class wrestlers.  We have a similar group here right now.  We have four seniors that are very very qualified to lead this team in Abby Lloyd, Francesca Giorgio, Payten Smith, and Mallory Velte.  They just have so much experience on the collegiate stage and they have also wrestled internationally.  They all come to work every day and they do the work in practice so they lead by example which is nice.  And we have a good group all the way through with our juniors, and our sophomores, and our freshman so I’m excited what we are going to do.  Unfortunately for us, we are not going to see some of the really good teams until we get to the national tournament.  It is really how our younger girls compete.  I am pretty optimistic, but until you see them in the fire you are never sure how they are going to respond to that national tournament pressure.

With those young athletes, what is bringing so many talented athletes not just from Canada, but from the United States as well?  We’re not just talking Washington, you’re getting athletes from California and the Midwest.  What is bringing them to British Columbia?

I would say a trio of things without talking about our coaching staff which I think is as good a coaching staff as you’re going to get.  Without talking about that, I would say we have a very good university.  Academics here is very important.  It is a strong academic institution.  Vancouver is a world-class city, British Columbia is a very beautiful place.  And also the past success, it does not hurt that Carol Huynh and Helen Maroulis both came to the school and both won Olympic gold medals.  We have the California connection with Vickie Anthony as well as Mallory Velte who are extremely great wrestlers, but also great human beings.  The young kids see them at the camps and know about their history and success here and now is that we are still on the West coast we are a close option for some of those girls in California.  The US dollar doesn’t hurt either.

You mention Carol Huynh and Helen Maroulis, Canada’s and the United States’ Olympic champions are alumni.  Simon Fraser has developed so many other great athletes and you spoke about that, is that something you emphasize on a recruiting trip?  People come to Simon Fraser and they have success.

Oh yeah!  We’re extremely proud of our success.  I don’t know if you are aware, but Mike Jones has coached seven Olympic medalists.  I mean that is a lot of people and we have Canada’s first Olympic medals in men’s and women’s.  And we have the United States very first in women’s and that is something that we do not neglect to mention.  We are proud of the three girls on our team right now that are on the US National team.  Dom Parish was just on the U23 team and she was third at the nationals last year.  And Fran Giorgio was second at the nationals.  And obviously Mallory Velte was first and she is at the World Cup right now and is in the Wolrd Championship and these are girls that still have college eligibility left.  We are proud that we are pushing our kids not just to succeed at the college level, but setting them up to try and succeed at the next level and set their goals there.

You were an NAIA monster, four-time national champion and I do not think you ever lost to a member of the NAIA.  You have coached through the NAIA and now you’re a coach in the NCAA.  With the push for recognition as an emerging NCAA sport do you feel like you at Simon Fraser are poised to be successful already as a University that is affiliated with the NCAA already but with the WCWA with the women’s team?

Yeah, I think that there are really two things that are going to set us apart on that one.  We were one of the first to the game with women’s wrestling.  Mike Jones brought women in in the 1990s and had them just training right alongside the men.  Carol Huyhn was part of the second or third crew he had through here.  She went on to become arguably one of Canada’s greatest athletes of all time.  She just was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.  We have always treated the girls here exactly the same as we treated the men in terms of support.  Coaching support, scholarship support, travel support, also being part of the NCAA I believe there are four or five schools that recognize wrestling as a varsity sport.  I’d be surprised if by the next Olympics it wasn’t 20.  It is moving slower than I thought, but I just think that we have supported it all along to the equal level of the men we have been able to attract athletes from both sides of the border here.  We have a strong history in the sport of women’s wrestling which sets us up for success if it becomes an emerging sport or even an NCAA sport.

You are talking about needing the younger girls to emerge with the powerful seniors, it is crazy, but Simon Fraser has never finished outside the top four at the WCWA National Championships.  That is almost a given that you will finish there.  Besides the younger women developing, what is the one thing this season that it is going to take to knock King University off that pedestal?

One of the things we have talked about as a team is not getting caught up in the whole idea of trying to chase this national title because results are really going to take care of themselves.  We are trying to make the team in the process of getting better each day in practice and every tournament.  Trying to push ourselves to become better more well-rounded wrestlers.  And if we can stay focused on that the two biggest things that it is going to come down to is staying healthy and having two days when we get to Oklahoma City in February.  I do believe we have the horsepower to at least put some pressure on some of those top teams.  We have a really unique group with so much experience in some weight classes and this young energy in some of the other ones.  I think I would say the number one thing is staying healthy and eligible academically.  And the number two thing would just be that these young girls continue to work hard and continue to improve.  Obviously, in the first year in University, you have a lot of different things pulling at your timetable.  You also have a brand new independence to your life so I have frontrunners who have run out of steam in January both on the men’s side and the women’s side.  With that being said I couldn’t be happier with the group we have right now and we are just coming into final exams next week.  the work level has been great and no real problems with the team and I am excited to see where these ladies go in the next two months.  

You have been recruiting as the head coach of the men’s team.  And you have seen what Mike Jones has done and you have been part of recruiting for so long.  Are the athletes you are recruiting now more developed than in the past just because of how many more opportunities they have?  For example the growth of Fargo on the women’s side, in high school it is one of the fastest growing sports at that level and even the men if you are a high school junior or senior you can wrestle every weekend year round.

Yeah, no doubt about it.  I mean especially if you are looking at the women’s side of things the competitive opportunities have grown leaps and bounds.  I think there are over 90 schools represented at the Washington state championship last year.  Just the level of athlete that is coming through.  Not just competitive opportunities, but different camp opportunities.  USA wrestling running developmental camps all over the place.  The majority of women we are getting through our program have already been exposed to either a regional training center or national training center or some sort of international opportunity.  They are coming in here and they are ready to wrestle.  We had some girls pegged on our team we thought would need a year and now we are dealing with the idea of whether not we are going to wrestle them or not.  They are a lot further along than we thought they were going to be good which is a good problem to have.

Absolutely.  Where do you see Simon Fraser University’s women’s program going under your direction these next few years?

That is a difficult one.  I mean the big vision is that we continue to recruit top athletes.  Mike and I have never really sat down said is the formula we want to follow, but somehow we have kind of agreed on the fact that we want both teams to have a Canadien component.  It would be pretty easy to just go down to Washington and California and load up on All-Americans.  Our University is in Canada so both teams are about 50% Canadien and 50% American.  We probably want to keep putting kids on national and Olympic teams for both countries.  We would like to be looked at as one of the top programs in the country.  You mentioned the fact that we have never finished outside the top four and that is going to be harder and harder thing to do as the depth of the WCW gets better every year.  That is a good goal for this program.  Mainly, develop young men and women who are getting degrees and are giving back to their communities.  People we are proud to say that they came through this program, that is the most rewarding part of this job.

If I am a high school junior or senior, why do I want to look North?  If freestyle and international is something I aspire to or if I am a young lady who wants that opportunity to wrestle in college, why am I headed north?  Who are you really looking to add to your roster?

We aren’t really into recruiting weight classes because we kind of just want to fill this room with as many young men and women that want to get degrees and wrestle at an elite level.  If we get three or four deep in a weight so be it.  We are recruiting with 3.4 or above GPAs who want to wrestle year round and have international aspirations to go wrestle for their country.  With that being said I think the things that draw people here and why they should come here is that you are going to get a world-class education.  You are going to get an undergraduate degree from one of the top 150 institutions in the world.  We are continually ranked number one overall educational institution in Canada.  You are going to get world class coaching.  Mike Jones coached seven Olympic champions over thirteen world medalist.  He has done it on both sides with the women and then men.  it’s a proven plan, proven program here.  We are continually trying to find ways to get better.  We are also only 35 kilometers (21.74 miles) from the US border.  If you get lonely you can take a half an hour drive and go to Dutch Brothers or whatever you’re missing.

I spoke with Cary Kolat last month down at Campbell University and he said the same thing about the same thing.  About filling the room with just the right people, it is not about plugging weights.

When we had the really successful teams in the late 1980s with the men’s it was because they were four deep in one weight class.  They were all challenging each other and at the end of the day, the guy most remembered is Chris Wilson because he beat Arsen Fadzaez twice.  We had three guys who thought they were going to beat him off the Olympic team.  It was that deep in here and that is when I got here.  I just realized that Mike Jones is a great coach and a great motivator, but it also takes wrestlers to make wrestlers.  And you need to have people pushing you from behind.  Right now our young group is really doing a great job that way here.  I am excited about the future.

Now, I appreciate you taking the time, I know you are super busy up there.  If I asked 100 fans at the NCAA tournament to name the top two or three teams in women’s wrestling, I do not know if Simon Fraser would come up, I do not know that even one name would come up.  What does the casual fan need to know about Simon Fraser that I have not asked?

I just think that a lot of people know anything about it, so just knowing the fact that we are in a world-class city.  Which is consistently ranked one of the top ten cities in the World to live in.  We have hosted an Olympic games here.  You have the ocean, the mountains, you are really only two and a half hour drive from Seattle so we are not all that far from mainstream America.  We are thirty kilometers from the border, but we are also a big institution.  We compete in the NCAA and we have over 35,000 students.  Our administration fully supports wrestling, we have had two full-time coaches since my hiring seventeen years ago.  We are not going away that is for sure.

Outstanding.  Coach Abdou, I really want to thank you for the time.  I look forward to seeing you in Oklahoma City if I can make that trip this year.

I appreciate the call and all you do for wrestling.  I’m a wrestling coach, but I am also a big wrestling fan.  I am on all the websites and all that stuff all the time.  That is the other thing about the average male wrestling fan.  They are a lot more knowledgeable now about women’s wrestling now than they were five years ago.

Just because of the coverage?

I think it is partly the coverage and also some of the wonderful young ladies who have come through the program that are such good role models.  Helen, Vickie, Adeline Gray these people are well spoken, they are smart, and they are great wrestlers.  it didn’t hurt when Cary Kolat and John Smith jumped on to help the women’s team this year.

That’s a great point.

John had many good things to say about it.  He is the most accomplished North American wrestler of all time when he is supporting a lot of other people who might have had their minds made up might be ready to change them.  I was an early believer because of Mike Jones.  He saw right away that it was an important thing and that the women we had in the room back then had to wrestle with the guys.  He treated them exactly the same and I think we had four of them in the room at the time and all four of them ended up being world class wrestlers.

I know as a father of a two and a half year old I just love being able to look out and see these opportunities.  She can do whatever she wants to do, if she wants to follow dad’s footsteps she can, she will probably be better.

Yep!

Thank so much for the opportunities you present for our athletes and continue to train them and I look forward to speaking with you again.

 

Wrestling fans, we have an incredible opportunity to grow our sport for both our sons and daughters.  Simon Fraser is a great example of what can happen when a men’s and women’s program work together.  They both can flourish.  This is a model for the future of the NCAA at all division levels.  The NAIA is already adding programs and more NCAA teams are doing the same.  It is time for us to catch up with what Mike Jones and Justin Abdou already know up in Vancouver, it is time to #WrestleLikeAGirl

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