'Gold and Nothing Else': Cornell's Mark Grey Ready to Battle for a Junior World Championship

After taking fifth place at the FILA Junior World Championships in 2011 at 55 kg/121 pounds, Mark Grey wasn’t able to vie for a spot on the United States squad a year ago. His graduation from Blair Academy fell on the same weekend as the World Team Trials.

However, at the end of June, the Cornell freshman had another opportunity to make his way back to the World Championships — and he took full advantage. A month after placing fourth in a loaded 60 kg/132 pound field at the FILA Juniors, Grey navigated a similarly brutal bracket to earn his second appearance on the World Team. Along the way, he topped a former World Team member, defeated a wrestler he considers to be family and avenged a loss from earlier in the spring. He will compete for the Red, White and Blue in Sofia, Bulgaria on August 17.

New York Wrestling News caught up with Grey as he prepared for the trip abroad.

New York Wrestling News (NYWN): What was the experience like in 2011 when you wrestled in the World Championships in Romania?

Mark Grey (MG): It was an awesome experience. It didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to because I didn’t go there to get fifth place. But I learned a lot from that one.

NYWN: What were some of the things you took away?

MG: The experience from being there at the Worlds was huge. I remember before my first match, how super nervous I was. Now, I’ve been there. I know what to expect. The Europeans go out and wrestle really loose. That’s what I plan to do. Just go out there relaxed. Keep moving my feet, get to my inside ties, start taking those shots.

NYWN: What’s next in your preparation?

MG: We have training camp in Cleveland. Then we fly to Sofia the 15th, I weigh in on the 16th and wrestle the 17th. So it’s right into wrestling. Last time, we went to Romania a week before and trained for four or five days and got acclimated to everything. This time, we get there and I get going right away.

NYWN: In order to make the World Team, you had to go through a difficult draw. What was your preparation like?

MG: It was a lot different from last time. I trained at Cornell, for about four weeks, mostly with my brother [Mike Grey, Cornell assistant coach]. We worked on getting technique down and getting my body where it needed be. I also spent time wrestling with Frankie Perrelli a couple times a week and got my cardio workouts in and wrestled live. I was really ready for the [Junior World Team Trials]. I was pretty confident coming in and I was actually happy that I didn’t get a bye to the finals because when that happens, you’re not ready to go right away and you sometimes get off to a slow start.

NYWN: At the Junior World Team Trials you started with 2012 World Team member Earl Hall [an 8-3 win], then beat your former Blair teammate Joey McKenna (who took third). Talk a little bit about those matches.

MG: I never wrestled Hall before. Last year he won the Trials. The match against [McKenna] was a little weird for me because he’s like my little brother and we know each other really well. I was really cautious. It was different than my other matches because I didn’t open up and I wasn’t dominant as I should have been. It was tough.

NYWN: In the finals, you faced Illinois redshirt freshman Zane Richards, who defeated you in straight periods at the FILA Juniors in the bronze medal match. What was different this time?

MG: The week or two before the tournament, Mike [Grey] really worked with me on beating him to the inside tie. At FILA Juniors, he completely killed me by beating me to the inside tie, pulling and wearing me down. This time, I got there and by the end of the periods, I was able to get my shots off. I was able to score late in both matches to win. It was a great game plan by my brother. On my feet, I kept focusing on moving, going for the full six minutes and leaving it all on the mat.

NYWN: You mentioned going the full six minutes. Do you like the new freestyle rules? Do you feel like they benefit you?

MG: I love the new rules. Conditioning is a factor now. And I like the cumulative scoring. In the past, you basically had a two-minute sprint. Now, you can slowly wear guys down. Even if you give up some takedowns, if you keep going after guys, wearing them down, shots start to open up.

NYWN: After you get back from Romania, it will be back to folkstyle. You spent the last year training with the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club (FLWC) and competing in open tournaments. What did you get out of the experience?

MG: It was a really good year. I grew a lot as a wrestler and I also was able to learn a lot about Cornell and the team so I’ll be ready for this year as a freshman. I think the things I most improved on were the mental aspects and definitely bottom. Bottom wrestling was a really hard transition at first, but I learned a lot and got a lot better there throughout the year. Wrestling with Frankie Perrelli helped me a lot too.

NYWN: You won titles at the National Collegiate Open, Mat Town Open and Edinboro Open and also placed at the Southern Scuffle, Binghamton Open and Buffalo Invitational. What would you consider to be your biggest win?

MG: I would say beating [All-American] Ryan Mango in the finals of the National Collegiate Open (NCO). I went in with some good momentum, right after beating [Lehigh’s Mason] Beckman in the semis. That win lit a fire under me and I just had a lot of fun against Mango, winning in overtime. I had some good matches with Beckman too. We wrestled three times. He won the first time at the Binghamton Open but then I beat him at Edinboro and the NCO. He also beat me in high school. It’s a good rivalry.

NYWN: You weren’t the only incoming freshman to have a successful year with the FLWC. Do you expect the incoming freshmen to be big contributors for the Big Red this year? What are your expectations for the team?

MG: I think we’ll surprise people this year. People may think we’re pretty young and inexperienced, but it’s going to be good from the start. I expect us to wrestle like we’ve been there before. We have a good mix of freshmen coming in and veteran guys. I’m excited to have great wrestlers like Nahshon [Garrett] and [Mike] Nevinger around me in the lineup. I think we’ll get some huge points rolling right off the bat. The future is very bright. I think the sky’s the limit and I believe we will win a team national title in the next few years.

NYWN: Anything else?

MG: I’m ready to go get that gold. That’s what I’m going to Bulgaria for – gold and nothing else.

'Ready to Brawl': Suffolk Native Jenna Burkert Heads to Bulgaria Looking for a Junior World Title

Representing the United States at the FILA Junior World Championships is nothing new for Jenna Burkert.  The Suffolk County native will take the mat for the Red, White and Blue for the third consecutive year, this time in Sofia, Bulgaria on August 15 at 59 kg/130 pounds.

The path to the Junior Worlds had a few challenges in 2013.  In January, she suffered a shoulder injury, which forced her to spend time away from training.  Still, she returned to the mat, including for the US Open, where she took fourth.

“I went through a lot of rehab,” she said. “But I think I had a pretty fast recovery for the injury I had.  It’s pretty much taken until now [late July] to feel really good about my shoulder.  Actually, I think my shoulders feel even stronger now than before I got hurt.”

Courtesy of Jenna Burkert

In addition to her injury, Burkert found herself in a tough position at the Body Bar FILA Junior Nationals, which are the qualifying event for the Junior World Team.  It didn’t look that way initially, as she cruised through the early portions of the tournament and won the first period of the best-of-three finals series against Kayla Miracle 7-0.  But in the second stanza, Miracle responded with a pin to capture the first match.

“That was definitely unexpected for me and many others,” Burkert said. “I couldn’t believe I got pinned and my mom was in the stands freaking out.  She was expecting me to be freaking out too.  Years ago, I don’t know if I would have made it through the rest of the matches.  But it’s the best thing that could have happened to me mentally.  It showed how much I’ve grown.  Things happen in wrestling. I laughed it off, relaxed and came back to dominate the rest of the way.”

Indeed, she did. Burkert won the final two contests over Miracle by 1-0, 1-0 and 6-0, 3-3 scores to earn the spot on Team USA.

She hopes to keep the ball rolling in Bulgaria.  In her first trip to the Junior Worlds in 2011, Burkert went 2-2 to earn eighth place.  Last year, she faced China’s Jiamin Feng in her opening bout.  In a back-and-forth affair, the Chinese wrestler picked up the fall in the third after 2-2 and 3-3 scores in the opening two stanzas.

“It was a pretty crazy match,” Burkert said. “I had her on her back for a while then I got caught. It was really upsetting for me.  But it’s all a process. I learned a lot.  Sometimes, in the past, I didn’t think I could keep up with the best.  But I know that my opponents are not supernatural with superpowers.  I’ve seen that I’m right there brawling with them. I know things will get hard and I may get scored on, but that doesn’t mean the match is over.  I’m really excited.  I’m ready to leave it all on the mat in my last year at the Junior Worlds.”

In addition to the experiences she had at previous international competitions, Burkert has seen top wrestlers just about every day over the past year as a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“It’s been really good,” she said. “It’s a different environment – everyone here is an athlete focused on making the Olympic Team. It’s inspiring to be around the best in many sports. My technique is so much better and there’s no one better than the coaches here. And the room is intense.  You get your butt kicked every day, but you keep coming back and getting stronger.”

A number of the athletes Burkert sees on a frequent basis are repeat World team members as well.  She’s excited to be making the journey with them.

“I love my teammates and I’ve known them all for a while,” she said. “It’s cool to keep making the teams together.  We know what to expect and how to get the nerves out. We also know how to push each other and also be there for each other.  One of the best things about wrestling is being able to travel and make great memories with your friends.”

She’s also ready to make some great memories on the mat.

“I think I’m going to win it this time,” she said.  “I’ve said it a million times before.  I was just telling my coach that I can see myself up on the podium.  In the past, I’ve really wanted to win it but I didn’t really picture myself doing it.  Now, I’ve been to training camps, I’ve wrestled everyone. I’m ready to brawl this year.  I’m not coming home with anything less than gold.”

Columbia's Wyatt Baker Ready for the International Stage at the Junior World Championships

Photo courtesy of Columbia University Athletics

When Columbia sophomore Wyatt Baker defeated Parker Betts in the 120 kg title bout of the Greco Roman Junior World Team Trials in May, he made the United States team that will travel to Thailand this week to compete against the best competition from all over the globe.

But his victory did more than that.

It got rid of a feeling he’d been carrying around with him for over a month after losing to Betts on his way to third place at the FILA Juniors in Wisconsin.

“When I lose, I just get sick to my stomach and it doesn’t go away until I redeem myself against that person or someone better,” Baker said.  “I’m really, really competitive and I hate losing so much.  I told myself I definitely wasn’t going to lose to the kid who beat me a few weeks before, even though he beat me pretty badly.”

He was right.  Baker got his redemption against Betts to make the World Team, winning straight bouts, 1-0, 1-1 and 1-0, 0-4, 1-0.

So, what was the difference?

For starters, Baker learned a lot more about Greco in the time between the two tournaments.  He said he didn’t do much in that style while at Servite High in California, where he played three sports and spent more time on football than he did on the mat.

In fact, his Greco experience in high school wasn’t what he categorized as successful.

“I was on a Junior Duals team,” he said.  “I think I lost almost every match. I had no idea what I was doing.  I was basically wrestling folkstyle.  At FILA Juniors, when I lost in freestyle, I knew exactly what I did wrong, but when I lost in Greco, I didn’t really know what to fix.  It lit a fire under me.  I was uncomfortable in some throwing positions during the college season and I thought if I focused on Greco, it would help me in my college career too.”

So Baker got to work, training with Columbia head coach Carl Fronhofer.

“[Fronhofer] did a lot of Greco and he was super helpful,” Baker said. “He knew I was really new to it and he didn’t get frustrated with me at all.  We just worked on the basics and things I would be good at based on my strengths.”

Baker further prepared by spending time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he interacted with many experienced Greco competitors.

“I had a lot of help from resident athlete Rob Smith, who worked with me everyday.  Slowly, little by little, I caught on to Greco,” he said.  “I also had some of the Olympians helping me and the coaches there were great.”

The efforts paid off with his Junior World Team Trials title.  And he followed that by briefly going home to California before returning to Colorado Springs for the remainder of the summer.

“It’s been eye opening to see what the next level looks like and what you need to do to get there,” he said.  “I know now that’s what I want.  I was here [Colorado Springs] almost the whole summer, except for a few days back in New York.”

Baker returned to the Empire State to make sure everything was in place for the fall semester of his sophomore year.

He expects to be the starter at 285 for the Lions in 2012-13 after backing up NCAA qualifier Kevin Lester in his debut campaign.  Baker compiled a 13-5 record with nine bonus point victories as a freshman.  He won the New York States B title at heavyweight and also placed in the Freshman/Sophomore division at the Michigan State Open.

“I felt the difference between high school and college wrestling was huge,” he said. “You go from the top of the totem pole in high school to the bottom where you’re getting beaten up every day.  The first year is really a character builder.  You have to have the mentality to say, ‘I’m going to keep getting better and if he’s going to beat me, he’ll have to work for every single point’.  Kevin [Lester] and I would go at it everyday and he taught me a lot.  As the season went on, I started believing a lot more.”

His belief has continued to grow, especially with his success in the college offseason.

“My goal is to be an All-American next year,” he said.  “I feel like the Ivies are wide open right now at my weight and I know that the EIWA has some good heavyweights, but I think I can be at that caliber if I stay hungry and humble.”

Helping him do that is assistant coach Hudson Taylor, a multiple-time All-American at Maryland.

“Hudson beats me down pretty much every day and it’s a really good situation,” he said. “I’m used to heavyweight wrestling – matching strength for strength.  But Hudson is goofy and he’s like Gumby.  It’s really different.  He’s teaching me so much and what’s great is that every day we pick one thing to work on when we go live.  It makes things so much more tangible and makes me so much better.  I’m more and more prepared for the college season.”

The California native was also prepared for the East Coast weather when he arrived to college.  When he was on a trip to visit the Columbia campus as a high schooler, he experienced a severe blizzard.  So when he decided to attend the Ivy League institution, he got himself ready.

“I spent my summer earnings on Arctic certified jackets and snowboots and everything like that,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone was really happy that last winter wasn’t terribly cold, but I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to use the things I bought.”

Still, there’s little else that has disappointed him about his time in New York City.

“California is a lot more laid back, but the people in New York are really good people,” he said. “Being in this city is really awesome.  And the team and the coaches are great.  I think what really put things over the top for me was the alumni support we have at Columbia.  It’s amazing.”

While he loves New York, he excited to be heading to Thailand for the September 4-9 FILA Junior World Championships.  He’s hoping to see some of the country, but is focused first on what he needs to do on the mat.

“I’ve never been to any part of Asia before and I think we’ll have fun when the wrestling is done.  But we’re there for business and to win.  The scenery doesn’t matter; all that matters is winning.  I’m itching for the competition and ready for the international stage for the first time to see how I stack up against the rest of the world.  It’s a huge honor to represent the United States. I feel really blessed.”

Long Island Native Jenna Burkert Returns to FILA Junior World Championships Looking for Gold

Photo courtesy of Jenna Burkert

It had been quite some time since Jenna Burkert took the mat against a male wrestler.  But Burkert didn’t treat her opponent any differently than the females she typically faces, and the result was familiar.

She won by fall.

“I probably hadn’t wrestled an official match against a guy in four or five years,” she said of the exhibition dual in March 2012 against a group from Japan at Northern Michigan.  “It was a lot of fun to participate and especially to get the pin. It almost felt like a new experience.”

The experience may have felt new, but it was common years ago on Long Island.  In fact, when she first began in the sport, Burkert primarily competed with the boys and did so with a lot of success.

“I started wrestling in first grade in Rocky Point,” Burkert said. “There was a flyer in my classroom and a kid told me I couldn’t do it because I was a girl.  I begged my mom for a long time and finally she let me do it.  I fell in love with it and did well right away.“

She did, recalling that she was undefeated for years against her male foes.  She said her first loss was an unfamiliar feeling for a number of reasons.

“The first time I was beaten was by a girl – Lisa Anson,” Burkert said. “I was used to winning against the boys so when I lost, I didn’t know what to do.  She’s actually a friend of mine, but I never did get the chance to get revenge on the mat.”

Over the years, losses have become fewer and far between.  And now, Burkert is getting ready to take on some of the best at the FILA Junior World Championships in Thailand in early September.

“I’ve trained all year for this,” she said. “I’ve put in the time, the training, the running.  I’ve gotten some great experience and participated in both Olympic camps.  I feel like I’m ready.  I plan on getting the gold and having fun doing it.”

This won’t be the first time at a high profile international event for Burkert.  She was a Junior Olympian in 2010 and last year at the Junior Worlds in Romania, she went 2-2 (with two pins) and finished eighth.

“It’s just an honor to compete at such a high level,” she said.  “I thought I wrestled just okay at the Junior Worlds last year.  I think the nerves got to me.  Even the two matches I won, I had to come back in both.  It wasn’t fun because I let so much pressure build up.  But there’s a big difference this year.  I’m having a lot more fun and it think it will show.  I can do better and I will this time.”

Part of the fun is appreciating the trip.  Burkert said she is hoping to ride an elephant while in Thailand and to experience some of the country, something she felt she was able to do while in India in May of this year.  On that journey, she notched an impressive second place performance in the Hari Ram Grand Prix in New Delhi, despite wrestling on relatively short notice.

“I had no idea I was going until a little bit before,” she said.  “Olympian Kelsey Campbell was going at 55 and the coach said they needed at 59 pounder.  We were there about a week.  It was one of my favorite trips.  We had a really fun group, including Kristie Davis, who is someone I’ve always looked up to.  The people of India that we met were really nice and we went on runs where we really got to see the town. It was frustrating to lose in the finals, but it was a great experience.”

The great experience was one of many for Burkert in 2012.  She had a productive year, including a second place showing at the Dave Schultz Invitational and a dominant performance at the Body Bar, where she earned her berth to the upcoming Junior Worlds.

She continued to increase in confidence, going to toe to toe with many of the top grapplers in the nation, including Olympian Campbell.

“It was really good to wrestle Kelsey and a lot of the Olympians,” she said. “Sometimes you get caught up, putting them on a high level and forgetting that when you’re on the mat, you need to see them as just girls with wrestling shoes on.  They deserve respect for all they’ve done but not when you’re out there wrestling them.  I started to try to take it to them.”

Burkert saw a lot of the London-bound wrestlers in Colorado Springs, which will be her new place of residence after living in Michigan for a number of years.

During her sophomore year of high school, she moved to the Wolverine State when coach Tony DeAnda offered her a spot in the US Olympic Education (USOEC) program at Northern Michigan University.   She had been attending school in Longwood, but found the invitation to the elite training environment at the USOEC difficult to turn down.

“It was really hard to leave, even though I was excited,” she said. “It was just one of those opportunities that may never come again if you don’t take advantage.”

It certainly was an adjustment.  Burkert said she had practice at 5 a.m., then attended high school at nearby Marquette Senior High before attending another practice, which ended around 7:30 in the evening.   The severe winter in the first year didn’t make things easier.

“It was really hard at first,” she said. “New team, new coaches, new school, no parents.  I would cry every day in the beginning to anyone who would listen. But, after a few months, it got better.  Erin Golston and I became good friends and helped each other through.  By the end, I wound up loving it.  I made great friends and the whole town is wonderful.  I was even voted the class clown.”

She had plenty of success on the mat as well as she was named the ASICS Women’s High School Wrestler of the Year in 2010 and 2011.  But despite her happiness in Michigan, she didn’t forget her original home in Suffolk County.

“It’s great to come back. I always go to Rocky Point and see the guys there, who are really nice and give me so much respect.  I get some good workouts in too with lots of people, like the Duttons.  But I mostly like to beat up on Darren Goldstein and [Steven] Ketcham,” she said with a laugh.  “The support I get from Long Island is great.  Sometimes I think they may have forgotten about me, but then I see they still talk about me and want to see me succeed, and that’s amazing.”

Coming to New York also gives Burkert a chance to see others who are so important to her.

“I really appreciate the support of my family.  They’ve given so much time, effort and money since I was young to help me get where I am,” she said.

And, her family has also served as an inspiration to her and her career goals off the mat.

“With the women’s freestyle program moving from Northern Michigan, I’ll be resident athlete at the OTC,” she said. “I’ll be training and going to the University of Colorado Springs.  The education is so important to me.  I’ve always been around autism with my brother Joshua.   He is the reason I want to be a special education teacher, hopefully in kindergarten, because I feel you can have so much impact at that age.”

Burkert’s dedication is apparent to everyone who sees her, or more accurately, to all of those who see her ankle, where she has a tattoo that says “Joshua” on top of the symbol for Autism Awareness.

“I plan on getting an Olympic medal and using that platform to really get the cause out there,” she said.

But before the Rio Games in 2016, Burkert has many other intermediate goals in mind. It all starts next week in Pattaya, Thailand where she looks to become a Junior World champion.