Eight Snohomish County wrestlers represented their country in international competition before Stanwood High School senior-to-be Mason Phillips earned that honor in June, qualifying for the World Cadet Championships in Athens, Greece beginning on Sept. 4. They shared their experiences and advice with The Herald before Phillips becomes the ninth member of their exclusive club.
By the time Everett’s James Stephens made his international wrestling debut in the summer of in 1990, he already had a lengthy resume in the sport.
He had just finished his senior season at Everett High School with a state championship at 122 pounds, his second Mat Classic crown to go along with two other podium appearances.
An original member of the USA Everett club team that produced five of the eight wrestlers on this list, Stephens won the Washington USA Wrestling freestyle title three times and the Greco-Roman championship four times. He was a regular at Junior and Cadet national tournaments, winning a championship in Greco-Roman that summer that would send him to Barcelona, Spain, for the Junior World championships.
But for as many big tournaments in which he’d wrestled — with success — he still wasn’t totally prepared for everything that came with competing on the international stage.
“The Soviet Union had just broken up, and a coach from the new Republic of Georgia was given all these wrestling shoes by the government. They were supposed to be for his team but he was selling them,” Stephens, now 44, said. “I bought some because you just couldn’t get them around the States. Everyone was buying them. The wrestlers from Georgia were wearing these crummy old shoes while their coach was selling their new ones. It was pretty different.”
Locker-room capitalism aside, Stephens was able to treat the Junior Worlds like all the other big tournaments he’d wrestled in, down to the team camaraderie.
“Before we left, we went to a training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, and I barely knew anyone,” he said. “I was a little homesick, but then everyone voted on a team captain and I won. It was massive for me, just a tremendous feeling of respect from everyone and I felt so much pride in being from the United States. I was just blown away.”
Stephens said the team unity forged in training camp carried over to Barcelona, where the Team USA wrestlers were energized by each victory.
“When one person on the team would win a match, everyone would just start feeding off one another,” he said. “You really feel like you’re with the best of the best, and it feels almost like a high school dual.”
Stephens went on to place fourth in Barcelona, and wrestled collegiately at the University of Oregon. He went to Athens to compete at another world championship, in the Espoir category, which is for men from ages 19-20. He placed sixth.
It’s a common refrain among wrestlers on this list that as the years go by, they wish they would have focused more on the full experience of competing internationally, outside of just the battle on the mat.
“When you’re there at the time, you’re just happy and joyful and you might say it’s just about the wrestling. Especially for me, making weight was just a huge thing,” Stephens said. “I wasn’t thinking as much about all I got to see and and all I got to do, like watching the different countries and seeing how much different things were than here in the States. I wish I would have appreciated it more then. I was just thinking about making weight and wrestling.”
Stephens hasn’t been involved in wrestling for eight years, other than encouraging his four-year-old grandson, whom he says will be a wrestler.
He’s worked as a utility lead with the Woodinville Water District for 11 years, and still lives in Everett.
Stephens hasn’t seen Mason Phillips in action, but advised him to, “try to take things in stride and don’t be overwhelmed. It’s not some fluke or something that he’s there. He belongs. You can’t get all in your own head.”
Another of the founding members of the USA Everett wrestling club, Boyd Ballard won a pair of state championships for Marysville Pilchuck High School.
To go along with three state freestyle and Greco-Roman crowns apiece, Ballard added a trio of top-eight finishes at Cadet and Junior national tournaments.
Ballard competed twice internationally in 1994, wrestling in open tournaments in Bulgaria and Israel, placing fifth in the former and second in the latter, and trained as a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“You form really strong bonds with the people you train with and compete with, just knowing that they were going through the same things that you were,” Ballard said. “It makes it so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t see each other for five or six years.”
Ballard wrestled collegiately at Oregon State and is the step-son of USA Everett’s original coach, Ron Bessemer.
He lives in Mount Vernon, Illinois, about 80 miles east of St. Louis, where he teaches and is the varsity wrestling coach at Mount Vernon Township High School.
He hasn’t seen Mason Phillips wrestle but suggested that when Phillips heads off to Athens in September, he find a way to get enjoyment out of the trip outside of wrestling.
“It can’t just be about the wrestling,” Ballard said. “There’s a lot of pressure on you when you compete internationally, and he’s got to enjoy the fact that he’s able to do something that way. If you asked me (in 1994), I would say I just wanted to win the tournaments. Now, I have a little bit more perspective.”
The first 4A wrestler to win four WIAA state championships, Burke Barnes was just 14 when he traveled to Moscow to compete in the World Youth Games in July of 1998.
For Barnes, his international debut forced him to take control of his own wrestling destiny.
“It’s not like going on high school trips, where you have a lot of supervision,” said Barnes, whose father, Brent Barnes, is the wrestling coach at Lake Stevens High School. “A lot of times you have a coach that you’ve never met, and you have to truly take your craft and your career into your own hands, maybe for the first time.”
Barnes still found enjoyment on the trip, and it provided some perspective.
“It was very cool for a kid from Lake Stevens, Washington, which was then a pretty blue-collar town, to have that kind of experience,” he said. “I still look back on it now, not because of the tourist stuff I saw, but what sets those trips apart and makes them important is how you immerse yourself into a community that is so unlike your own.”
Barnes formed the Pin City Wrestling Club in 2011 to give back to the sport that gave so much to him, but has had to step back from the club a bit in order to focus his energies on Team Nelson Earthwork and Utilities, a Woodinville-based company where he is a project engineer.
“With the growth of Team Nelson, I have had to put coaching on the back burner,” he said. “I am still involved in fund-raising and the overall direction of the club, and I also work out with the wrestlers and assist my father with the high school team throughout the season.”
Barnes has seen Phillips wrestle on several occasions and said he thinks the Stanwood wrestler has what it takes to excel in Athens.
“Mason has a lot of leverage because he’s longer than guys at his weight. He’s taller and has longer arms, and physically, that’s a big advantage,” Barnes said. “And obviously, he’s put his time in. There’s no wasted motion when he’s out there, and it makes him look faster than he might be.”
Though he would later garner international acclaim for his career as a mixed martial artist and actor, Lynnwood native Randy Couture won a WIAA state championship for Lynnwood High School as a senior in 1981 before serving in the U.S. Army.
He went on to qualify for three U.S. Olympic wrestling teams as an alternate (1988, 1992, 1996) and was a semifinalist at the 2000 Olympic Trials, the last of the four in which he competed. During this time he won U.S. Greco nationals four times, won the World Team Trials three times, and placed in the top 10 at Worlds.
Couture wrestled collegiately at Oklahoma State, finishing as a national runner-up in 1991 and 1992. He later was an assistant coach at Oregon State before making the transition to MMA.
One of the most decorated wrestlers in Washington history, Olson won three Mat Classic championships for Everett High School from 1994-96, to go along with four district and regional crowns.
He attended the University of Michigan on a wrestling scholarship and was a three-time All-America selection and a two-time Big Ten champion (2001, 2002).
Olson competed in freestyle internationally in Bulgaria and France with a team of Big Ten All-Stars in 1999, going 5-0 combined in the two trips.
He finished second at Espoir Nationals in both freestyle and Greco-Roman and second at University Nationals in freestyle. Winning any of those three tournaments would have qualified him for a spot on the corresponding World teams.
“Unfortunately I do not have time to follow the wrestling scene, but I love to see other kids find success and get the opportunity to travel the world through their hard work,” Olson said in an e-mail to The Herald.
The 2000 4A state champion at 275 pounds for Marysville Pilchuck, Israel Silva took a circuitous route to international wrestling glory.
He competed for junior-college power North Idaho College out of high school and blossomed, placing in the top three at the Junior College National Championship in both of his seasons in Coeur d’Alene. His success there led to a transfer to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he won a Southern Conference championship and entered the USA Wrestling pipeline.
“At the time I was 24 or 25 years old, and there were four or five guys ahead of me on the U.S. ladder,” Silva said by phone from Fresno State, where he is an assistant wrestling coach. “Kevin Jackson was the coach at the time, and he knew that Mexico had reached out to me about competing for Mexico, and that I had dual citizenship. Instead of going through the meat grinder with the U.S., Coach Jackson told me to go do it. They needed guys that had dual citizenship to compete for other Pan-American countries.”
Silva was born in Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico, but moved to Southern California when he was an infant. He and his family then moved to Marysville when he was 10.
Beginning in 2009, Silva was a regular with Team Mexico wrestling, competing in the 2009 Senior World Championships in Herning, Denmark. He made four World teams and medaled in three Pan-American Championships.
“It was incredible to travel all around Mexico competing and see my grandparents and great-grandparents and how proud they were,” Silva said. “All my training was done in the U.S., at the Northwest Regional Training Center at Oregon State, but I got to travel the world for free.”
Fresno State is among the schools Mason Phillips is considering for his collegiate wrestling.
A bit of good fortune helped get Brandon Springer to Budapest, Hungary for the 1995 Cadet World Championships.
At the team trials in at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Springer finished as the runner-up in both freestyle and Greco-Roman at 154 pounds, with the same wrestler winning both disciplines. The champion elected to only compete in freestyle at Worlds, so Springer accepted the spot on the Greco-Roman team.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said Springer, who won the first of his two state championships for Monroe High School in 1995 before heading to Hungary. “We got to Hungary about a week before the world championships and we got to stay and train with the team from Hungary. It was a wonderful experience to see some of that culture.”
Springer didn’t place at the tournament, but still has fond memories of the event and the experiences in the leadup to it.
“I got to compete against the guy who won it, and the guy who got third,” he said. “Looking back, that guy who won, I was freaked out and I kind of wanted to see his birth certificate.”
Springer trained at the University of Oklahoma before heading off to Worlds, and got to know Cael Sanderson, who was also competing for the United States that year.
Sanderson went on to become one of the greatest American wrestlers ever, and is still transforming the sport as the head coach at Penn State, the NCAA’s most dominant program over the past eight years.
And Springer played hooky from workouts with him to play Nintendo 64.
“He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” Springer said of the American wrestling legend. “Just being in the same weight class, we would talk about who we had on deck and stuff like that. It seemed like he knew everyone, and you could see he was a real student of the game even then.”
Springer said he hopes Phillips gets to experience Athens away from the arena.
“The stuff outside of wrestling, those experiences will impact his life bigger than he thinks,” he said. “And after that, he’s going to be in great shape and really well prepared for the moment. He can just relax and do his thing.”
Like his younger brother, Brandon, Springer was another product of USA Everett, and after a standout career at Monroe High School, he competed at the Cadet World Team trials at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1993. He won, qualifying for the Cadet World Team in Greco-Roman, just as Mason Phillips did 24 years later.
“It was my pinnacle,” Springer said. “An absolute high point.”
He competed in Germany for Worlds, and while he didn’t place, he reveled in the enrichment of international travel.
“Mason’s going to look forward to seeing competitors wrestling different styles than what he’s used to, and observe different cultures and different fan bases,” Springer said. “He’s going to have an opportunity to train with some of the best our country has to offer, and travel with the team that represents the USA.”
Springer has been a Monroe police officer for 10 1/2 years. He’s also coached at his alma mater. He stays involved in wrestling by coaching at Pin City three or four days a week, where his sons are among those honing their skills.
From a coaching perspective, Springer sizes up Phillips as a smooth operator.
“I’ve seen him on film and in person, and what jumps out the most is just how fluid he is,” Springer said. “He has an answer for every opponent’s attack, and if something is being countered, his transitions to another attack are so smooth it’s unbelievable.”