Photo courtesy of Rory Gulak Twitter
You’ve seen the story time and time again. A Pennsylvania kid looking for an activity to stay out of trouble and to stay active gets involved in wrestling and then sticks with the sport forever.
For Rory Gulak, that story is a bit different.
While Pennsylvania is a hotbed for youth wrestling, that’s not the case in the city of Philadelphia, where only a handful of schools actually sponsor the sport. Gulak, whose older brother Drew is a former high school wrestler who now wrestles professionally for the WWE, followed his brother into the program at Northeast High School. “District 12 was no hotbed of wrestling,” he said. “There was one kid at my high school, Slav Mukha, who was a heavyweight and he placed seventh at states. He was the only placer from Philadelphia. Other than that it was foreign territory.”
Gulak said he began by being dragged out to practices by his older brother when he was in middle school. “I hated it. I didn’t want anything to do with it, but he forced me to do it,” he said. “But ultimately I grew to love it. It actually wasn’t until my junior and senior year that I fell in love with wrestling. I ended up breaking my wrist the first day of practice my freshman year. I snapped it in half. From there I was like ‘I don’t want to wrestle.’”
Gulak says he didn’t take the sport seriously for two years until he had a coach tell him that if he missed another day of practice, he shouldn’t come back.“He said that to me, and it was kind of like something clicked,” he said. “And from there on out I never missed a day after that. Including senior way all the way through coaching. If I was sick, if I had the flu, if I had anything, I didn’t miss a day.”
But just being on the mats wasn’t enough for Gulak. He and his brother Drew grew up fans of professional wrestling, and when he began training on the mats at 14, he also started his pro wrestling training.
“I was 14 years old and got invited after we went to a show,” Gulak said. “They said ‘Hey, if you like bumping so much why don’t you come down and train?’
“They asked Drew and I to come out, and we were like ‘ok,’” he said. “I would go to amateur practice from like 3-5:30, I’d hop on the train and go down there until 10 o’clock at night, and that was multiple nights a week.”
While both brothers love of professional wrestling grew, Rory knew that he wanted to stay involved in amateur wrestling and not long after high school the perfect opportunity came along.
“When I was a kid I started coaching at my high school and then Beat the Streets came around when I was 20 which was two years after,” he said. “And pretty much they were like ‘Hey, you really like coaching, and obviously you want to do this a lot. Do you want to coach a youth team?’” Gulak said the program grew to the point where he eventually had 60 kids coming to practices, and he had friends that helped out with practices. In 2015 he became the Assistant Director of Operations with BTS Philly, a position he held for two years.
“I stayed with that and started working full-time with Beat the Streets,” he said. “They eventually went different directions, but I still stay connected. The program’s the best.”
Along with Beat the Streets, Gulak got to work alongside guys like Brandon Slay, Chase Pami and Rich Perry with the PennRTC. “Brandon Slay’s office was right down the hall,” he said. “All the PRTC guys were there, and I got to meet guys like he and Chase Pami and Rich.” Gulak says it’s been “incredible” to watch the growth of the sport in the city from his time in high school through his time with BTS.
“Wrestling is like an untapped sport, and it was ultimately found,” he said. “There’s people that wrestle at Penn and through that system that started Beat the Streets. And they funded it. I mean, there was no funding period in Philadelphia for anything after school. So to have programs invested in this, and they created this program, and the kids came out, and the kids love it.”
He says that not only is it great that kids get the chance to try the sport, but that they’re receiving the highest level of training when working with guys like Slay.“Once they start getting involved in that wrestling culture and seeing and seeing all the people involved, then they’re watching and can start comprehending how big accomplishments these guys have.”
Gulak, a good friend of Perry’s, says that he was devastated when he heard of the latter’s recent injury at a USA Wrestling training camp.“He was the first person I met through the PRTC,” he said. “He’s helped me personally coaching my team and (Fargo finalist) Miles (Lee). He’d come in twice a week to work with him.“He’s one of the strongest people ever, one of the nicest people. To see how far he’s come has been incredible and to see the wrestling community rally behind him shows you how close something like amateur wrestling is.”
Gulak currently works as a bartender in the city but says that he’s looking to get back into coaching. He’s also presently taking regular booking on the independent pro wrestling circuit, most notably with family-friendly promotion Chikara. He says he’d like to continue to work in pro wrestling as much as possible and has even attended a WWE tryout alongside former All-American and current Duke coach Jacob Kasper.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work hard and get some great opportunities,” Gulak said. “And my ultimate goal right now is to get a contract and work for WWE.”