Brent Barnes has won 11 state titles at Lake Stevens along with leading three American women to world titles at the international level. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Legendary wrestling coach Barnes still growing, learning

If Brent Barnes retired tomorrow, he’d do so as one of the greatest high school wrestling coaches to ever sit in the corner of a mat in the state of Washington.

His Lake Stevens Vikings have won 11 state championships since 1990 and at least one of his wrestlers has claimed an individual title in each of the past 21 editions of Mat Classic, a preposterous feat of consistency and excellence.

The 56-year-old Barnes also has coached at the international level for USA Wrestling, helping guide three American women to World Cadet and Junior championships over the past five years.

Earlier this month, Barnes was on staff as Colorado’s Maya Nelson captured the 63-kilogram (139-pound) crown at the World Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland.

He’s been at the highest levels of the sport, and has helped mentor the best young wrestlers our country has to offer.

But he never stops learning.

“If you don’t change on a regular basis, you lose, and you stop getting better,” Barnes said. “You have to change and try to improve all the time. Part of improving is learning. When you’re at a world championship, it’s an intimate thing. You get to be up close and personal with the best in the world. You get to watch athletes from countries like Japan, who have had enormous success on the women’s side and see how they warm up, watch them train a little bit, watch how their coaches coach and have some social time with them. It’s a real learning environment.”

After years of involvement with USA Wrestling at the state level on the men’s side, Barnes parlayed a 20-year relationship with women’s national team coach Terry Steiner into a position as an assistant coach in 2004. He served as a coach at an international event in Sweden that year, but it was a one-off deal until he came back on board as a world team coach in 2013.

In the past five years, Barnes has traveled to Serbia, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, coaching Cadet women (ages 15-17) in 2013-15, and to France and Finland in 2016-17 guiding Junior women (ages 18-20).

“All my experience internationally has been with the women, basically because of my relationship with Terry and because the guys’ side is so hard to crack,” Barnes said. “You basically have to be a world placer yourself to coach the guys, and when they get to the junior level, the guys all have a personal coach that’s going along with them.”

In preparation for Junior Worlds, Barnes met the United States contingent at a 10-day training camp in Ohio in late June before reconnecting with the team at a six-day acclimatization camp in Finland before the world championships.

“It’s a lot for these girls to handle as far as time, money and everything else,” Barnes said. “It’s a huge commitment, but one of the reasons we do it is to try to get the women’s program up to speed.”

While Barnes was not in Nelson’s corner for her world championship victory, they came into the USA Wrestling program together in 2013, and he has watched her progression from just another wrestler in the room to the best in the world.

“She’s come a long way,” Barnes said of Nelson, who has traveled to Lake Stevens for a few camps. “She’s really stuck with it, kept grinding and made a huge jump this year. She was just dominant (in Finland). It’s really fun to watch the progression. That’s the beauty of working with the cadets.”

The other two world champions Barnes helped coach are Teshya Alo and Ronna Heaton, and he was in the corner for Alo’s victory in Snina, Slovakia, in 2014.

Being in the corner at a world championship is much more involved than sitting on the folding chairs at the Tacoma Dome for Mat Classic. At the international level, coaches are allowed to throw a foam block that indicates that they’d like a scoring decision to be reviewed by the officials.

If the call is upheld, the wrestler whose coach threw the block loses a point. If the call is reversed, it could change the tide of a match, and alter who comes away with a medal.

“There’s a lot of pressure, because throwing the block can go terribly wrong,” Barnes said. “You have to know what you’re doing and have a great feel. I threw the block once in a big match for Teshya and it went in our favor and it turned the match. It’s like the red challenge flag in the NFL times 100, because the time is so much shorter and the points are so much bigger.”

The amount of time catering to the athletes’ needs are one of the primary differences between coaching at the international level and at the high school level, Barnes said.

Whereas the World team members have earned the right to be taken care of a little bit more, Barnes said when Lake Stevens goes to a tournament, he wants the Vikings to fend for themselves.

“We don’t want the girls to worry about anything other than relaxing and getting ready to compete at that championship level. That’s a big part of our job on the coaching staff,” he said. “When I take my high school team to a tournament, I want it to be hard on them. I want them to take their own meals and rely on themselves for all that stuff.”

Coaching young women also presents unique challenges for Barnes, whose Lake Stevens program hasn’t experienced the groundswell of girls competing for an entire season in the same way that schools such as Arlington and Everett have.

JoMae Alewine won a state title for the Vikings in 2010, but Barnes said a full-time women’s coach is needed to solidify Lake Stevens as a girls wrestling program.

“You have to earn their trust first, and there’s some skills to that,” Barnes said of working with young women. “They come from programs where they trust their coaches and work with them year-round, and then they’re sent off on trips with strangers that they don’t know. If you try too hard, you’re going to chase them away.”

Barnes called it “a gift” to be able to work with athletes such as Nelson, Oveionce Ray (bronze medalist at 44 kilograms) and Yakima’s Cameron Guerin (fourth place at 51 kilograms), but the Lake Stevens program was never far from his mind.

On each of his trips abroad, Barnes identifies something, be it a drill, a warm-up technique or even a phrase that can be used in the Vikings’ wrestling room to keep things fresh and new.

“Every year I pick up one or two things that I bring back,” he said. “You coach these kids in high school for four years, and with our club (Pin City) you might have them for 10 years or even longer. My goal is to keep it fresh and keep it new without abandoning the core stuff that we believe in.”

Andy Knutson, who was a junior on the Lake Stevens wrestling team when Barnes arrived in 1987 and has served as his former coach’s assistant since 1995, lauds his boss and friend for being so willing to change with a changing sport.

“I think the biggest thing is the humility he has to try and constantly improve and not think he’s got it all figured out,” Knutson said. “Really, the key to what we talk about with the kids is that if you’re not going forward, then you’re probably going backward, and if you’re not willing to improve then we’re kind of done. The improvement and the journey of the sport is really what we’re into, and he wants us as coaches to do the same.”

Lake Stevens finished tied for seventh in the team standings at Mat Classic XXIX in February with just 67 points. It may have been expected, to some degree, with a young team, but it certainly chafed everyone involved with the program to not be in title contention after taking three of the previous four crowns.

Ten of the Vikings’ 11 Mat Classic participants return for the 2017-18 season, however, and a return to title contention is more likely than not for Lake Stevens.

Maybe a warm-up routine or a drill cribbed from the Japanese junior women’s team that Barnes so admires will be the difference that leads to state championship No. 12 for the Vikings.

“I spend every day thinking about wrestling. I go to sleep at night thinking about it and I wake up in the morning thinking about it, but when you’re on a staff like I’ve been with the World teams with such phenomenal coaches and people, you can’t help but pick things up,” Barnes said. “The beauty of these trips is that you’re always learning.”

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