One-on-One with Stephen Abas

Andrew Hipps

9/9/2009
Andrew Hipps, InterMat Senior Editor
andrew@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @InterMat

Stephen Abas is one of the greatest U.S. wrestlers of the modern era. He was a three-time California state champion, three-time NCAA champion at Fresno State, and a 2004 Olympic silver medalist in freestyle. In 2005, Abas was one of just 15 wrestlers to earn a place on the NCAA 75th Anniversary Wrestling Team of all-time greats. Abas battled injuries 2004 to 2008, but returned after a long layoff to compete at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, where he finished runner-up to 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo.

InterMat recently talked to Abas about what he has been doing since he last competed at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, where he might be coaching this winter, whether he is considering an MMA career, what his emotions were after Henry Cejudo won the Olympic gold medal, what made Jamill Kelly so successful, and much more.

Stephen Abas (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)
What have you have been doing since you last competed at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials?

Abas: I moved out to San Diego to try to get my own wrestling school started. I have been doing a lot of clinics in the area, visited a lot of the high schools. I did a lot of free clinics just to kind of put my name out there and let people know I'm in the area and teaching now. Things really started picking up in the summer. I had a few wrestling camps, a couple in the LA area, one in Michigan, and one in New York. I have just been traveling around the last six months. After the Trials in June of 2008, I had knee surgery and was pretty much laid up for the next couple months trying to rehab my knee. Then I moved out to San Diego.

So are you running a wrestling school right now?

Abas: No. Actually, I just recently got a job offer (coaching) at Duke University, so I will be looking into that this fall.

Congratulations. So you have not accepted yet?

Abas: That is correct.

You reached the finals of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials while battling injuries. How healthy were you at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials?

Abas: I had a missing ACL in my left knee. The great thing about my career is that I didn't have too many serious injuries up until my last few years of wrestling. Those last three years starting at the Olympics in 2004, I tore a ligament in my knee in the finals. Six or seven months after that was when I tore my ACL for the first time and my LCL. That was kind of the beginning of my knee problems. Since then, I had two more surgeries. The last few years have been real tough on my body. It was kind of the reason for my retirement.

Stephen Abas (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)
Describe your emotions after Henry Cejudo won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China?

Abas: I watched him wrestle on TV. I stayed up until three in the morning when they aired those matches. I watched every one of his matches. As he made it further and further along, I was a little surprised. When he won the gold, it was kind of a bittersweet feeling. I lost to this guy who was the best in the world and won the Olympic gold. I had that opportunity. It was a little hard to deal with at first. It has already been a year. Obviously, I felt like I could have won the gold medal as well. I'm happy for him. I'm glad he did it. I wish him nothing but the best in his future.

You won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. When you reflect back on that Olympic experience, does it bring back good memories? Or is something that still eats away at you because you didn't accomplish your ultimate goal of winning a gold medal?

Abas: It brings back good memories. It took me a long time to get to that point and be at the top of my game. There are a lot of things that happened in that match that could have gone differently. I think of it as just another experience. It's the biggest wrestling experience that I have had. I can't think of anything negative about it. It was the peak of my career. I felt that I did my best. I can't be mad at that. I moved on. Obviously, I tried to make another Olympic Team, so I'm happy about my medal and my experience at the Olympic Games.

Stephen Abas
You had a phenomenal collegiate wrestling career at Fresno State, winning three NCAA titles and posting a record of 144-4. However, your collegiate wrestling career may have been a little overshadowed by Cael Sanderson's collegiate career at Iowa State. Does it bother you that you maybe didn't get as much national attention as you deserved because of Cael's success?

Abas: It's hard to think that because I lived that whole era when I was competing at the same time as Cael Sanderson. I grew up with Cael. We wrestled when we were kids. I have known of him for years. That's just the way it happened. It's just the way it goes. I can't really be mad or angry that he overshadowed me. He was a great wrestler and I was a great wrestler. He just happened to get all the titles and awards. There's a part of me that wishes that I would have gotten some of those awards. But at the same time, I believe in what he did. He went undefeated. I wish they could have given out two awards. As it goes, that's just the way the wrestling world is right now.

With your prep wrestling resume -- three-time state champion, NHSCA Seniors Nationals champion, and Junior Nationals champion -- you could have gone to virtually any college in the country to wrestle. Obviously, your brother, Gerry, wrestled at Fresno State and was a coach there. You're also from California. But did you strongly consider any other schools besides Fresno State coming out of high school?

Abas: It was really important for me to stay close to home and be close to my brother, Gerry. He was one of my main coaches growing up and one of my main inspirations. To have him around and helping me out technically, I think was key for my success. It's funny, but I tried to withhold my signing with Fresno State so that I could take some recruiting trips. Ironically enough, nobody really recruited me. I didn't get any phone calls from Oklahoma State or Iowa. I think they assumed I was going to go to Fresno State because Gerry was so successful there. They knew we were close. I was happy with my decision. I had a great college career, so I can't be mad about that at all.

You defeated Jody Strittmatter 14-1 during your senior season ... and then you went on to beat him again 13-11 in the NCAA finals. I have heard that you were sick during that NCAA finals match. Is that true?

Abas: Yeah, it was a snowy weekend in Iowa City. I had some kind of cold. I was coughing and staying up late. I don't think I felt it until the last few minutes of that last match. I got pretty tired there at the end. I was feeling it for sure.

Stephen Abas (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)
This summer, USA Wrestling announced the creation of the Living the Dream Medal Fund to provide compensation for U.S. wrestlers who have success at the World Championships or Olympic Games. A wrestler who wins an Olympic gold medal will receive a quarter-million dollars ($250,000). World medalists are also compensated. What was your reaction when you heard about the Living the Dream Medal Fund?

Abas: I thought that was pretty cool. Finally they are giving some money to the guys for the hard times they are putting their bodies through. I'm happy for the new generation of wrestling. Obviously, I wish that they had that when I was competing, but just like anything else, time moves on. It's good for the wrestlers now. Hopefully it gives them more desire to do better and work harder. Our country needs it. We need some medals. Hopefully that can motivate them to work harder.

There has been a lot of talk about this year's U.S. World Freestyle Team being inexperienced. None of the wrestlers have ever competed at the World Championships. Is world level experience overrated or underrated when it comes to competing at the World Championships?

Abas: I think the majority of Americans don't realize the intensity of the World Championships. With it being a new team and no experience, it's somewhat common being the year after the Olympics. Usually there are a couple guys who were on the Olympic Team that compete the next year. It will be an experience for them. It's really the toughest competition in the world. I think they have a lot to be ready for. With Zeke Jones coaching them, I believe he can prepare anybody to be a champion. It's all about their experience and what they actually put down on the mat.

Jamill Kelly was never a California state champion or a Division I All-American at Oklahoma State, but went on to win a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. How do you explain that?

Abas: I grew up with Jamill here in California. I was on multiple Cadet and Junior National teams with him, so I know him fairly well. I got to know him a little better when he went out to Oklahoma State. I went out there a few times to train. Jamill Kelly was a student of the sport. I have never seen another athlete that really broke down technique like he did. He was really technical and really open-minded in the things he saw. He would watch foreigners, the Russians, the best guys, like the Saitievs, and I think he really learned a lot from that. I believe that he could have been a champion for a while. I think it was just his time coming into his own.

Stephen Abas (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)
A lot of former wrestlers have found success in MMA. Is MMA something you ever considered?

Abas: I have. Actually, I'm considering it now. It's been a year since my retirement. My body is pretty much held together now. Every time I step out on the mat and do these clinics and camps, I get a little bit of that hunger back, that desire to compete. Right now, it's just a matter of finding a regular training environment. I think if I could get that, who knows, I might start training. I know there are a lot of people who are willing to help me. I think I could do well at it. I think it's the purest form of combat. It sounds like something I would like to try at least once. I don't know. We'll see what happens ... if I start training and get some good sponsors and people that would want to see me fight.

You mentioned that you have a job offer to coach at Duke. Is one of your aspirations to someday become a Division I head wrestling coach?

Abas: It hasn't been. But since this opportunity has opened up, I think that can be an alternate path for me. Ultimately, I would want to open up a wrestling school and just teach wrestling. I love to teach and share my knowledge with people who want to learn. I believe there is always an opportunity for me in coaching ... if I want to take on that kind of profession. Right now, it's just the opportunity to step into that world and try it out.

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