Back to basics, olympic style
July 2, 2013
By Neil Pierson
Former world champion Sammie Henson leads Skyline High School wrestling camp
For each of the past nine summers, a former American wrestling standout has been on the Sammamish Plateau to pass along his love and knowledge of the sport.
Sammie Henson connected with the Skyline High School wrestling program nearly a decade ago, and he helped draw about 75 youth wrestlers to the school for an intense, three-day skills camp last week.
The 42-year-old Henson, who won two NCAA titles at Clemson University, a world championship in 1998 and an Olympic silver medal in 2000, has transformed from a star athlete into a star coach. He works full-time in the Midwest, the hotbed of the sport, as an assistant at the University of Missouri. During his coaching career, he’s helped develop several All-Americans and three national champions.
He also works with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club, an Arizona-based organization that has produced 55 Olympic medalists since 1976, and founded Henson Wrestling, which traverses the nation during the summer for a series of youth camps.
The event at Skyline also featured two clinicians with serious resumes — Tyler Caldwell, an NCAA runner-up and four-time Kansas state champion; and Kyle Detmer, a two-time Kansas state champ and Greco-Roman junior national winner.
The skill level of the coaching staff was highly advanced, but Henson’s message stayed simple. The camp focused on takedowns, in particular using single-leg, double-leg and “high-C” maneuvers.
“I believe you learn a system, and my guys are still messing up with this stuff in college,” Henson said. “If they mess up or forget, then younger kids definitely are, no matter what level you are.”
Sean Gullickson, who’s been assisting the Skyline program for eight seasons, said Henson’s camp is helpful because it’s relatively small and the instructors spend a lot of time on each move. The camp was designed for wrestlers in grades six through 12, although a few younger athletes with previous experience were also accepted.
Several high schools were represented, including Skyline, Eastlake, Issaquah, Eastside Catholic and Newport.
Skyline won its conference title and tied for 16th place at the state tournament last season, but Gullickson said the program has higher aspirations. Having athletes train year round with instructors like Henson could help it grow.
“We’re spending a lot of time trying to build the popularity, build the skill level, build the depth for all the high schools in the area, so we as a region become stronger and more competitive in the state,” Gullickson said.
While middle-schoolers with relatively little experience comprised a large chunk of the camp roster, several high-school standouts were also in attendance. They included Sammamish resident Matt Iwicki, of Eastside Catholic, who won the 120-pound state title in February, the first crown for the school in 27 years.
Iwicki said he appreciated Henson’s focus on fundamentals, which were being ingrained through repetition.
“He’s got a lot of good moves, for sure,” Iwicki said, “but he also teaches a lot of life lessons during the camp. You’ve got to be accountable, responsible, get all your stuff done. I like that about him.”
Joseph DeMatteo, a 2013 state qualifier who will be one of Skyline’s captains next season, stressed the importance of offseason training.
“You get to touch on a lot of the little details that really are important in the sport,” said DeMatteo, who has bulked up more than 20 pounds since the end of the Spartans’ season. “You also just get more wrestling time in the summer. If you take nine months off, you’re not going to do well in the season.”
Gullickson has seen Skyline slowly improve during the past eight years, going from a .500 program to one that went undefeated in KingCo Conference duals.
“We’re on the razor’s edge of turning a corner and being a really solid program in the league,” he said. “There’s a lot of good competition out there, and everyone’s doing their part to be better, too, so you’ve always got to improve.”
A few girls attended the camp, a positive in Henson’s eyes. He recently began working with Clarissa Chun, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, who came to Missouri to train.
Many collegiate wrestling programs have disappeared in the wake of Title IX; getting more women to wrestle could be a way to resuscitate the sport without compromising gender equality in amateur athletics.
“Everybody has their own views on women in wrestling, and I think it’s an awesome, awesome thing in our sport,” Henson said. “I think it elevates our image, and we need that. It’s a tough sport.”