For the first time in nearly 30 years, a U.S. Marine will be wrestling at the Olympics.
“It’s amazing … I never in a million years thought I’d wake up one day and say I’m an Olympian,” Staff Sgt. John Stefanowicz said after three consecutive wins at Olympic Team Trials in Fort Worth, Texas over the weekend.
The 29-year-old member of the All-Marine Wrestling Team is now the best 87 kg (181-pound) class Greco-Roman wrestler in the country, according to The Jacksonville Daily News, which described Stefanowicz as feeling “unstoppable” and ready to bring home a gold medal. He’ll be one of 15 American athletes competing at the 2020 Tokyo games this summer, which were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every time I step out on the mat and I wear USA on the back, that means something greater than just myself and my last name,” Stefanowicz told Task & Purpose.
“What it means is to truly show the world what we’re about and what my brothers here do day in and day out,” Stefanowicz said of his Olympic dream. There has not been a U.S. Marine wrestler at the Olympics since 1992.
(We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the fact that the Corps announced a Marine had made it onto the U.S. Olympic team with a photo of Stefanowicz sporting a shiner, which is fitting and great.)
“I fight for everything that I believe in and what the Marine Corps stands for,” Stefanowicz said in 2019, describing his style in training and on the mat as “high intensity, high impact, no forgiveness.” He’s made a name for himself as a top athlete, despite his age and untraditional path into the sport.
Stefanowicz also has a black belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program — though it’s unclear if any of his Marine ninja skills have ever come into play during an official wrestling bout.
As the wrestling website Five Point Move explains, wrestlers usually train and compete full-time sometime before or after college before they make it, or give it up entirely. But Stefanowicz instead spent years training and competing with the All-Marine Team, racking up tournament rankings and wins along the way. Not bad for a guy who never won a district or state wrestling title in high school. That’s to say nothing of the fact that he has to balance wrestling with his job in the Marine Corps’ intelligence field as an Imagery Analysis Specialist with Headquarters and Support Battalion based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
In addition to being a competitive wrestler, Stefanowicz somehow manages to stay on top of his daily Marine Corps tasks, take care of two kids with his wife — an “essential worker” in North Carolina — juggle several college courses, and serve on multiple wrestling committees, though he admits it can be overwhelming at times.
He credited his wife with helping him maintain his schedule and a helpful chain of command that keeps him on track.
“I have two kids at home and a large group of Marines who I know in some capacity look up to me in a sense of, What’s he doing?” Stefanowicz told Five Point Move. “I want to be able to be there. If I let that go, I’m just not setting the right example. So, I am going to keep setting the example for everyone. That’s really it.”