Interview with 2003 NCAA Champ LeRoy Gardner, Part 1

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LeRoy Gardner was the 2003 NCAA Division III Heavyweight champion for Wartburg College. He defeated future 3x champion Ryan Allen in the finals. Gardner also placed 8th in the 2002 Fila Jr. World Greco-Roman Championships and 5th in the 2002 U.S. Sr. World Team Trials. He is currently the head coach at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. He was kind enough to answer some questions for, and what follows is Part One of the interview. Part Two will appear tomorrow. During your senior year of college, you defeated future 3x NCAA Champion Ryan Allen of UW-Lax in the 2003 NCAA finals. Please fill us in on what you’ve been doing since then.

LeRoy Gardner: Long story hold on…this may be the whole interview. It was really a whirlwind time, looking forward to graduation and trying to make plans for post graduation. I debated options for competing still, I looked at going out to the OTC, or ironically joining the armed forces. I had a semester to finish in the following fall for one class. I used that time to look at options. Incidentally in the meantime, in August of that year my wife became pregnant with our son due in March, following my graduation in Dec. after completing my class in the fall semester. This fact and I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue training at the level required to be successful at the next level, I started looking for job/career options.
I wasn’t in the position to immediately take Grad Assistant position or volunteer asst position like most of my peers moving into coaching due to my pending familial responsibility. I was looking at Management since I could use my degree in Psychology and still be competitive in that environment. A teammate of mine, Zach Weiglein (’00), was working in this executive management training program at a national chain retailer in distribution. We talked and I passed my resume, interviewed and got the job over Thanksgiving to start Jan 1. I worked at the distribution center for almost two years, and also coached at Wartburg while there.

My wife hadn’t been back to visit her family since we’d been married (~4 years at that time) so we looked at the possibility of going to work in Uzbekistan so I could meet my in-laws, my son could meet his grandparents and my wife could see her family. Also I could gain some valuable experience working in management overseas.

I worked almost a year with a defense contractor there as a manager of a regional office. About half my workers spoke English and the rest Russian. While working there I also still worked out and helped coach at a club over there (all athletics are club based over there, like all the former Soviet Union), Club Dynamo (Dinamo). I was lucky to have two world champs in the room, Dilshod Mansurov and Adam Achilov both at the 60kg. I got to know them and worked with them quite a bit it was great to share with them some of the US ideas and they with me the Russian type tactics and training. Through my wife I also am fairly close with Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov (American University, 3rd in 2006 DI). They are great guys, in addition to being great wrestlers.

I wanted to go back to grad school and realized that later it would be more difficult than sooner. I must’ve sent out emails to all but about 5 D1 programs/coaches, some I knew personally from age group stuff and some I didn’t at all. I sent my resume along as well. You and I both know there aren’t a whole lot of ways to support a family as an Assistant Coach in most divisions except about the top 30 programs in D1. Joel Sharratt (my Freestyle Coach in MN during HS for Jr. Nationals), who is now the head coach at Air Force was still at Navy as the head assistant, and I had been in touch with him because most upper weights know of other upper weight coaching opportunities. He said he didn’t know of any assistant gigs but knew they needed a head coach for their prep program. I talked with Bruce Burnett and we knew each other from my working his camps while I was in college. I had some discussion about a couple of options, and my current job working with Bruce Burnett, through their Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, RI, turned out to be the best option. I was commissioned as an Officer in the Navy in November, so that helped take care of benefits for my family which for me was the first priority wherever we went, Bruce is a top notch coach having been the Olympic and National team coach for many years, and Navy has a solid and growing tradition. I am in this role for 3 or 4 years (4 is the max). I have a small team; I try to keep it under 15 guys for logistical purposes also since I haven’t had an asst. coach so that multiples the challenges for a new head coach. So now we are caught up to current times.

d3: How has coaching at the Naval Academy Prep School been different than assisting at Wartburg, as you did from 2003-2005? What about the two teams is similar?

LG: There are number of differences. As an assistant at Wartburg, which has a long history and tradition of excellence, all the athletes know for most part what they are walking into and what is expected out of them. You are consistently around supporting parts that help the guys to achieve at Wartburg, from other alums, administrative support, community and just the history like I said. No one wants to be the weak link. As a coach I had a number of guys on the team to work with to improve motivation, technique, performance, academics or otherwise. I would work with that handful pretty in depth, and left macro level stuff to Head Coach Jim Miller and Assistant Dave Malacek (now the head coach at UW-Lax). I didn’t have any administrative stuff to deal with, no talking to professors for the most part or otherwise, just really focused on wrestling. Everything else was built in; I just had to help contribute to the performance on the mat. That could have been anything from reviewing technique, reviewing tape, scouting opponents, wrestling situations, and mental work with guys.

At Navy Prep (NAPS), this is the first time we have ever had a full time coach up here just due to financial stuff. Really, there never has been a presence up here for wrestling. It is in a region without a very strong history of wrestling. It is a military school, with military regulations and etc. I am now a head coach and an officer in the military.

I have to build this program from the ground up with support of Burnett and Navy, doing everything from budgeting, guidelines, expectations, scheduling, learning the region, and learning how to navigate a military institution and fulfill my role as an Officer. It is really a night and day difference. Iowa eats and breathes wrestling. New England doesn’t. I think they just don’t have the wrestling role models out here that show them HOW they can achieve the highest levels of success. The path isn’t innovative, it is already laid over and over again little by little by many athletes all over the country; it is just a matter of putting the pieces together at the right time. Also without an assistant I have to do it all, and it was definitely a learning curve this previous year trying to put everything in the places needed to be. This has been a great experience though to learn from.

Similarities are just that wrestling is wrestling no matter where you are. I have to help athletes to buy in and commit to a goal/goals, and then we need to do the work to get there. They still have to believe in themselves and then plan and execute on the mat. I obviously brought with me a lot of the mentality/philosophy from Wartburg for what I have seen elevate and allow people to achieve to their highest ability.

d3: Can you tell us a little bit about what it is like wrestling in the Navy and what it takes to represent your command in competition? Also, can you try to describe the atmosphere and intensity at the recent Armed Forces Championship in March?

LG: The Armed Forces are a great option for continuing to compete. All branches really value physical fitness and celebrate achievement in most any athletic endeavor you can think of. For example, my current Commanding Officer, Capt. Hautau, USN, competed for the Navy in Track and Field. There is a lot of respect for those that have achieved; I mean, Dremiel Byers is fairly well known in the Army for his World accomplishments and celebrated by his peers for that.

Administratively, I had to apply to the governing body of Navy Sports for an invitation first. I got in touch after I was commissioned with the Head Coach, Rob Hermann; he routed all that to me. I completed the packet about my accomplishments and then had to route that up my chain of command including Bruce Burnett at Navy, our Athletic Director here, Executive Officer and finally to the CO and they all signed off in support of it. I am very thankful for the chance to represent NAPS and Navy Wrestling, Navy-wide and Armed Forces-wide as an athlete. I owe them all a very big Thank You. For the next step, Navy Sports sends your command your acceptance or not, and your command has to issue you orders to training camp and, if you make the team, to the Championships. The great thing about Navy Sports is that this is all set up and funded by them; my command doesn’t have to foot my bill for training, etc. I think without these opportunities set up like this, it wouldn’t exist as an option at all for military athletes. After all the admin stuff, then I went to training camp after our season was done. We trained for roughly six weeks to get ready. Some weights had to wrestle off, at 120kgs. we didn’t have to. Once the teams were settled we went out there.

As far as environment, it is very fraternal. I mean, we all recognize what a privilege it is to honor our commands, respective branches, fellow armed servicemen and servicewomen past and present through the spirit of competition. It is similar to the Olympics; by that I mean we all put aside differences and share in the spirit of athletics. Some athletes have been deployed to Iraq and other war areas, so everyone is very aware of how much this opportunity means to bring honor to and positive attention to what it means to serve. On the mat, it is a senior level event for the most part. Army’s team has multiple world team members on it, and the Marines have a history as well. It is cut throat competition. Everyone is fighting for every point, because when it is all said and done, it is bragging rights on the line. You don’t want to lose to another branch, and also people who don’t perform sometime don’t have the chance to come back a following time, and that means come March next year they could be at any hotspot on the globe depending on their job and branch of service. The objective of all of these programs is to prepare Olympic level competitors and if you’re not showing any performance improvement, you can be done, since these aren’t developmental programs. Everyone fights very hard for everything, and it is intense. It is a great experience like that of any high level championship but more intimate because it is so small and with so much gravity and history, especially while each service is losing people over in Iraq or Afghanistan, etc.

Finally it also brings good publicity to have our school represented, and Navy too in the minds of the community and recruits. Having Scott Owen be in the hunt for a world team membership and me still actively competing adds that much more to the Navy program.