Southern Olympians to Watch: Camp Lejeune Wrestler Takes Unconventional Path to Olympic Dream
How does a Greco-Roman wrestler train amid social distancing restrictions? Creatively.
When Staff Sgt. John Stefanowicz earned his first Gold Medal at the 2020 Pan-American Wrestling Championships, his goal was to return to train for his next step: qualifying for the United States Greco-Roman Olympic team. That was March 9, 2020. Instead, he returned a world that began to shut down. Two days later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
How does a wrestler—who competes in one of the most close-contact sports—train for the Olympics during a time of social distancing?
"[My coach and I] figured out how we were going to make the Olympic team by working out the backyard, flipping tires, and throwing dummies," Stefanowicz told Southern Living. "Use what you have and make more out of less. If anything, it actually increased that level of grit."
But training for the Olympics became a mere fraction of Stefanowicz's daily to-do list in 2020. He's a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolna. While much of his job responsibilities could be done remotely, his wife Samantha's could not: As a veterinary technician and essential worker, her work hours increased during COVID-19. For much of the year, Stefanowicz had three jobs: Marine, stay-at-home parent, and Olympic hopeful.
Between Zoom meetings and parenting a three-year-old and six-year-old, Stefanowicz continued flipping tires and throwing dummies in the backyard to work toward his goal: becoming the first Marine in 29 years to make the Olympic wrestling team.
He made it. On August 2, 2021, Stefanowicz will represent the United States—as well as the Marine Corps—as he competes in Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling in Tokyo.
"If there's a less conventional path, I'd like to see it," Stefanowicz laughs. "I'm pretty sure I'm one of the record holders for the most unconventional path to the Olympics right now."
While Stefanowicz wrestled since he was a kid, he never made a high school state wrestling tournament. While most Olympic wrestlers come from elite college programs, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2009 at age 17. Back then, he didn't realize that the Marines had a wrestling team, so he believed the start of his military career would mean the end of his wrestling dreams.
A couple years later, Stefanowicz had a motorcycle accident that changed his life. As he recovered in the hospital, he wondered if he should ever get back on a bike again. Was the thrill worth the risk? Then, words formed in his mind, almost of their own will: "Never sacrifice the thrills of living for the security of existence." Those words, now tattooed on his arm, inspired him to take chances – on and off his bike.
So, when the Marine Corps wrestling team recruited him, Stefanowicz said yes to the team and to the thrills of living. Even when wrestling injuries sent him back to the hospital for surgeries on his hand and arm, he always returned to the mat.
In the Marine Corps, his wrestling skills advanced to the next level. Was it the fellowship of joining a team of Marines, who understand camaraderie more than most people ever will? Was it the maturity that comes with a little age and experience? Stefanowicz acknowledges that perhaps it was a little of both, but mostly, it was his coach, Jason Loukides. He says that he and Loukides can communicate without words, that his coach can intuit when and how to push him harder. Loukides has become more than a wrestling coach but a personal mentor, too.
"Most of [Loukides'] wrestlers who are complete success stories now didn't start out that way. He's one of those old school coaches who doesn't just recruit the stars, but recruits athletes that he can mentor," he says. "You can really tell how much he shapes everyone as a Marine and as a person."
And now, all of these elements—the thrill-seeking, the Marine Corps camaraderie, Loukides' inspiration—have combined to create an unconventional path to a lifelong dream.
"I've always wanted to be an Olympian… Even after [I qualified], I was kind of in a state of surrealness, like, 'Is this what it feels like? Am I really going to smile all the time?" he says. "Yep. I'm still smiling."