photos courtesy of Richard Immel
Ellis Coleman can remember the feelings he was experiencing while going through the Army’s basic training. He’ll describe his mindset at the time as “immature” and he walked around with a chip on his shoulder. Ellis couldn’t believe there were other members of his class that were having trouble with pushups and other basic exercises. The crazy workouts, the stressful times with only MRE’s to eat, none of this phased the 22-year-old Coleman. Mainly because he’s a wrestler. And not just any wrestler. A little over a year before, Coleman was in London wrestling at the Summer Olympics in the 60 kg weight class in Greco-Roman. Ellis had already gone viral at the 2011 Junior World Championships when he hit a maneuver he called “The Flying Squirrel”, a throw that started when Coleman flipped over his standing opponent, locked his arms around the waist mid-air, then tossed the Iranian wrestler head-over-heels onto his back. The move made it to SportsCenter and all of the sports highlight shows of the time.
While Ellis possessed all of the physical traits necessary to excel in basic training, he still needed to learn “how to be a man. Teamwork, bonding, learning that there’s something bigger than yourself. How to lead and help others”. Those are some of the traits he’s acquired during his almost seven years in the Army and training with the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). In that time, Coleman has risen to the rank of sergeant and currently holds the title of Motor Transport Operator. He’s in a group of wrestlers (women’s freestyle and men’s Greco-Roman) that serve in the Army, yet are also competing for spots on the World and Olympic Teams.
The WCAP was founded in 1997 and is a unit whose primary mission is to support nationally and internationally ranked soldiers who are competing for spots on the US Olympic Team. Active duty, national guard, and reserve soldiers who are competing for spots on the Olympic or Paralympic teams train while maintaining a professional military career and promote the Army in the process. The criteria for application to the WCAP is that soldiers must be in good military standing, their sport must be in the Olympics/Paralympics, and they are required to complete an Advanced Individual Training (enlisted) or Office Basic Course (officer). The WCAP is not a developmental program so it only accepts athletes who are highly-ranked nationally or internationally in their respective sports. 11 Olympic sports are offered through the WCAP, while six are available in Paralympic sports. Athletes in the WCAP receive all of the same benefits as their peers in the Army, plus they also receive world class coaching and the ability to travel the country and the world in competitions.
Before the Olympics and the Army came into Coleman’s life, he was introduced to the sport by his stepfather as a nine-year-old growing up in the West Side of Chicago. Ellis and his brother Lillashawn were both heavily into video games and were getting bullied, so the prospect of them getting workouts while learning to defend themselves, “killed two birds with one stone” in the eyes of his stepfather and mother, Yolanda Barral. In most states, collegiate or folkstyle is how most wrestlers are introduced to the sport, but in Illinois, a state that values international styles, Ellis and Lillashawn learned freestyle and Greco-Roman shortly afterward. Around the time Ellis was in middle school, he became involved with the Schoolboy and Cadet Dual Teams and traveled throughout the state and country in search of as many matches as possible. Since most of these tournaments had separate freestyle and Greco tournaments, Coleman and his teammates would routinely get four or more bouts in both styles. Ellis gives a lot of credit for his development to his legendary high school coach, Mike Powell, and current Illinois Regional Training Center coach Bryan Medlin.
As Coleman grew into a high-schooler, wins on the Greco side continued to mount. In Fargo, at the Cadet and Junior National Championships, the pinnacle of high school wrestling, Coleman was a 2007 Cadet National Champion and 2009 Junior National Champion in Greco-Roman. Ellis started to gravitate towards Greco because of the fun he could have on the mats with high-amplitude throws. At the same time, he also bonded and related to the Greco wrestlers more than his freestyle-oriented peers. With that in mind, Coleman decided to enroll at Northern Michigan University to take part in the school’s program that centered around Greco-Roman wrestling, rather than folkstyle which would be the focus of any other collegiate team. Ellis’ skillset continued to flourish and he won a pair of bronze medals at the Junior World Championships in 2010 and 2011. Eventually, that led to him moving to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Army’s WCAP program is located in Fort Carson, Colorado, which is less than 10 miles away from the OTC. That proximity leads to the members of the WCAP program frequently taking part in practices at the OTC. When the WCAP team members like Spenser Mango and Harry Lester were training at the OTC, they soon hit it off with Coleman. Maybe, more importantly, was the relationship that Ellis developed with the WCAP’s head coach Shon Lewis. Even before Ellis joined the Army, he says that Lewis “took him under his wing” and began to work closely with him. Lewis has spent over 20 years working with the WCAP program and “has seen it all” according to Coleman. That experience has let him become a mentor to Ellis, not just on the wrestling mat, but for life, in general.
Part two will be released tomorrow.
For more information on the Army WCAP