Training alongside Penn’s 31 grapplers are four wrestlers working full-time to win gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
These four wrestlers train full-time as part of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center, a joint partnership between Penn and Drexel’s wrestling programs. The PRTC is one of 34 sites designated by USA Wrestling, the sport’s national governing body, as an Olympic Regional Training Center dedicated to training Olympic hopefuls.
Over the past year, under the leadership of the program’s executive director — Wharton graduate and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Brandon Slay — the PRTC has recruited Richard Perry, BJ Futrell, Dan Vallimont and Chase Pami, four former champion collegiate wrestlers who possessed the skill and the desire to continue their wrestling careers at the next level. The organization pays stipends, as well as insurance expenses, so that these athletes can focus on training full time.
“We’re able to focus on just competing because training is a full-time job,” said Perry, a 2014 graduate of Bloomsburg University. “If you want to be the best in the world, it’s a 24/7 commitment.”
The PRTC is one of USA Wrestling’s newest designated training centers, joining similar programs housed at the facilities of other top wrestling programs such as Ohio State, Penn State, North Carolina State and Iowa. The idea for the program came about during the transition from former Penn wrestling head coach Rob Eiter to current head coach Alex Tirapelle following the 2013-14 season.
“A lot of the candidates that Penn interviewed for what eventually became my position brought up, ‘Where’s your regional training center?’” Tirapelle said. “It became very apparent from those conversations that this was something we’re missing in order to be where we want to be — a perennial top-ten program.”
The PRTC, whose board of directors includes both Penn and Drexel wrestling alumni and is chaired by former longtime Penn wrestling coach Roger Reina, brought Slay on to head the program last April.
After winning gold in the 76-kilogram (167-pound) weight class at the 2000 Olympics, Slay entered commercial real estate in his native Texas, believing he would use his Wharton degree to focus on a career in business. However, after five years, he began to miss the sport in which he had been so successful.
“I began to miss what I call ‘Olympism’ — the idea of training guys to become the best not just in their city or in their country but on the planet,” Slay said, cracking a smile. “Beating the Russians and the Iranians.”
Slay was offered the opportunity to coach at the Olympic Training Center at USA Wrestling’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he spent the next eight years training future Olympians. Slay helped coach Team USA at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, amidst a number of other tournaments. While Slay enjoyed the experience, the job was taxing for the husband and father of three, who had to travel over 100 days per year.
“To be best husband and father I could be, I needed to find something that was more user-friendly for my family,” Slay said. “I thought, if I’m going to stay in coaching, what could I do?”
That question caused Slay’s attention to turn to his alma mater. The PRTC’s board, of which Slay was already a member, was looking to bring on an executive director and head coach, so in April 2016 Slay was named the inaugural holder of the position. A few months after finishing his stint coaching Team USA in Rio, Slay officially took on day-to-day duties running the program in October.
While finishing out his duties coaching Team USA, Slay recruited three of the four wrestlers who are now part of the PRTC program from coaching positions they had taken up at various colleges or other regional training centers they had joined. Even though the PRTC is one of wrestling’s youngest regional training centers, with four full-time wrestlers, it is already the one of the largest.
The wrestlers have already had some success in tournaments preparing them for the big show in 2020. On Nov. 11, Futrell, a 2013 Illinois graduate, won his weight class at the Bill Farrell International Open while Perry took third in his category. Additionally, the four grapplers have been called upon to represent Team USA at various tournaments around the globe.
“Team USA sees some of our guys as the best guys in country and are already taking them all around the world, so I think that bodes well for our future,” Slay said.
The four wrestlers have been active in the community as well, helping to coach young wrestlers through Beat the Streets Philadelphia, a program that coaches nearly a thousand kids throughout the city.
“We’re committed to serving this community,” Slay said. “The community service is something that separates us from other RTCs across country.”
The PRTC has been a boon for Penn wrestling as well, as it gives Red and Blue grapplers the chance to practice with some of the best wrestlers in the world.
“I think to a degree, everybody benefits from having these guys around,” Tirapelle said. “I would say the easiest cases to see are our guys that are at the upper level of the college wrestling world that are still able to wrestle with guys at the PRTC.”
One of those wrestlers is senior 174-pounder Casey Kent, who earned All-American status last year, and often wrestles against Vallimont, a 2009 Penn State graduate.
“It’s good to come in and sometimes get beat up,” Kent said. “They’re really good competition, and I think it’s really good for everyone else in our room too because when you wrestle good guys, you get better eventually.
“It’s probably the best thing you can have.”
Perry, Vallimont, Futrell and Pami have a long road ahead of them to reach the next Olympics, but they’re ready for the challenge.
“It’s four years away, but the preparation starts now,” Perry said. “Everything builds up to that. It’s a full process — we’re all bought into the four years of work.”