In the centuries-long history of the University of Pennsylvania, only one graduate has ever taken home an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. Brandon Slay, Wharton Class of 1998 graduate, cemented himself as the most decorated wrestler in Penn’s history during the 2000 Sydney games, winning the gold in the 76 kg weight class.
When his wrestling career ended, Brandon became Coach Slay, joining the USA Wrestling coaching staff in Colorado Springs, Colo. — much closer to his birthplace of Amarillo, Texas — and he had no plans of returning to Philadelphia.
“Candidly, when I graduated in 1998, I got in my Dodge Ram pickup truck and I started heading 95-South. And I’m like, 'I’m never coming back.' I was ready to head back home,” Slay said.
But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the saying goes. In 2016, Slay traveled back to the City of Brotherly Love after seven years of Olympic coaching in Colorado to become the head coach at the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center.
Slay wasn’t the only one who had to change their plans. Penn coach Roger Reina left Penn wrestling in 2005, shifting to an administrative role on an NCAA level, before his work slowly brought him back to coaching. In 2014, Reina, along with several others, worked to found the PRTC, the first Olympic regional training center in the Philadelphia area.
“The PRTC was founded in August 2014. Myself and a few other alumni were the founders, and then just after the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 is when Coach Slay came in to take over as the head coach and executive director,” Coach Reina said.
So, what exactly is the PRTC?
“I believe the best way to describe us is as a professional sports team that exists in Philadelphia,” said Slay. “We kind of see ourselves as the sixth pro sports team in Philadelphia.”
While they are like a professional team, the PRTC is a unique athletic organization in many ways. Slay described the PRTC as having four components: professional wrestling, Penn wrestling, Drexel wrestling, and Beat the Streets Philadelphia. These four collaborate throughout Philadelphia, working with wrestlers anywhere from the Olympic level to high school student-athletes.
The PRTC’s main focus is coaching wrestlers to success, and they take extreme pride in their athletes. One of these athletes is Doug Zapf, who graduated from Penn in the spring and now has become a coach for the PRTC. As a 2023 U23 national champion, Zapf's success is a marker to both the ability of Penn and the PRTC to produce world-class athletes, and also an inspiration to other wrestlers in Philadelphia.
“I think [Zapf’s U23 Championship] gives hope to some of these wrestlers that, ‘Hey, I’m going to Penn and I can graduate from Penn and I can train for the Olympics. If Doug can do it, I can do it,’ so I think that’s really important,” said Slay.
Slay also prides himself and the PRTC on their ability to consistently create firsts. With the training center about to enter only its tenth year, almost every major accomplishment is a first for the organization. He noted that Zapf became the first Penn or Drexel wrestler to join the PRTC after graduating, and he looks forward to more accomplishments from his wrestlers.
For the PRTC, though, giving back to the community is just as important as success on the mats. Their partnership with Beat the Streets Philadelphia allows the coaches and athletes to mentor high school wrestlers in at-risk and underserved communities. BTSP was also founded by Penn alumni Clinton Matter and Brett Matter, and the PRTC athletes and coaches find it to be an important outlet to give back and contribute to the Philadelphia wrestling ecosystem.
“We want to continue to enrich the lives of the local community here, the high school kids, through our partnership with Beat The Streets, and really grow wrestling in Philadelphia and the surrounding area,” Reina said.
The partnership between Slay and Reina has been key in building this ecosystem, a relationship that has lasted for decades. Slay was recruited by Reina to wrestle at Penn as a 17-year-old in 1993, and the two have stayed in touch ever since.
“I think it's new from the aspect that he was always the coach, and I was the athlete. Now it’s new, working together, really side-by-side. He’s running the Penn wrestling program and I’m running the Olympic training center, having him as a counterpart, you know, working together to grow our Philly wrestling ecosystem,” Slay said.
This ecosystem has grown and improved in the past decade, as Penn has seen firsthand. In 2022, the Quakers reached the NCAA top-25 for the first time since 2013, and were ranked 25th in the November 14 NWCA Coaches’ Poll. As the year progresses, the focus will shift to Olympic training, with the Paris games right around the corner and both Penn and the PRTC working to have their athletes succeed next summer.
“Here there's a lot of focus, you know, really laser focus on the Paris Olympic Games. Qualification starts at the New York Athletic Club in New York City. Then we have the senior nationals in December, then the Olympic trials will be here at Penn State and State College, Pennsylvania in April,” Reina said.
The PRTC hopes to continue taking the world by storm, both with international wrestling success and with their philanthropic endeavors.
“We just went to Kazakhstan, and we had an opportunity to go speak to some kids at an orphanage in Taraz, Kazakhstan. So we weren't just over there just to wrestle,” Slay said. "Yeah, Jordan [Burroughs] won the gold medal and Joey [McKenna] won the gold medal [at the DA Kunayev Tournament]. But we also have an opportunity to really enrich lives on the other side of the world. And I just appreciate the university supporting our mission to continue to do that."