The Road to the Olympics runs through Eugene
It didn’t take long for Zac Brunson to impress his wrestling coaches with his ability to focus when he dove into the sport as a 6-year-old.
In less than a year, Brunson honed in on the biggest goal available - the Olympics.
“He’s had that goal basically since he started,” says Scott Kearney, who began as Brunson’s coach with the Churchill Wrestling Club more than a decade ago. “He’s been focused on being a high school, college and Olympic champion and that hasn’t changed since he was a little kid.”
When the OSAA/U.S. Bank/Les Schwab Tires State Wrestling Tournament begins Friday, Brunson will aim to complete the first step of his path to the Summer Games by winning his fourth state title.
Following graduation, Brunson will head to the University of Illinois, where his goal is to win four NCAA titles.
Then, it’ll be time to work on qualifying for the Olympics. If his path works as he hopes, that’ll be in time for the Summer Games in Rio De Janiero, Brazil.
“I have goals for later this week, goals for later this year and goals for five years from now,” he says. “I can absolutely see myself in the Olympics in Rio.
“I want to be the best in my sport and if it works out in four years, I’ll be in the Olympics.”
FOCUS ON WINNING
Brunson says he found wrestling to be his sport almost immediately. He showed up in the first week that Kearney, whose brother Chuck was the coach at the University of Oregon, and assistant Jeff Thomas started the Churchill Wrestling Club.
“I love the one-on-one aspect, and think it’s the toughest sport,” Brunson says. “I love how in-depth it goes, how much there is to it.”
Brunson’s skill began to mature as a freshman, when he won the state title at 135 pounds despite being unseeded.
As a sophomore, he won at 145 pounds, scoring a fall or technical fall in all four matches, a feat he repeated last year at 160 pounds.
Heading into his fourth state tournament, Brunson says he’s lost just once to an Oregon wrestler during the high school season. As a freshman, he lost 12-9 to Cleveland’s Eric Luna, a senior who won the state title at 140 pounds later that year.
Brunson’s strategy is very basic - score points.
“My goal is to score 30 points each match,” he says. “If someone takes me down three or four times, I don’t worry about it because I’m trying to score 10 or 12 takedowns and win that way.
“I’ll take a fall if it’s there, but if you can score 30 points, you’ll win.”
“He’s extremely motivated and driven to succeed in the sport,” Scott Kearney says. “He always in the wrestling room, working out, training, figuring out ways to get better.”
Brunson’s skill earned him a national title at the Junior National Freestyle Championships in Fargo, N.D., last summer. He won 11 matches at 152 pounds in three days.
Brunson’s win made him only the ninth national freestyle champion from Oregon, according to Scott Kearney.
Despite being unbeaten and a three-time champion, Brunson was seeded second behind junior Quinn Dreher of Silverton for the state tournament.
Winning a fourth title would put Brunson in a category with only 20 others since the OSAA began sponsoring state tournaments in 1948. Four high school titles has been a goal of his for years.
“When I first started wrestling, I looked ahead and saw you could win four titles in high school,” he says. “That’s something I’ve wanted to accomplish for a long time.”
Three other seniors will be competing for their fourth title this weekend as well. Brandon Griffin (182 pounds) of Sprague, Joey Delgado (138) of Hermiston and Quinn Johnston (145) of Gold Beach have all won titles since their freshman seasons.
Griffin, an occasional practice partner for Brunson, has signed with Lehigh University.
Churchill, which finished second in Class 5A two years ago, also features Chase Kearney, Chuck’s son who won a state title last year. The Lancers expect to compete for a trophy this weekend.
The Next Step
Brunson chose Illinois over programs at Minnesota, Missouri, Cornell and Oregon State, although Scott Kearney says Brunson likely would have chosen Oregon if the school hadn’t cut its program in order to restart baseball.
The lure of the Big 10, though, would have been tough to overcome.
“Earlier this year, the Oklahoma State at Iowa dual had 15,000 people in the stands,” Brunson says. “Illinois at Iowa had almost the same size crowd.
“I’m really excited about competing in that environment.”
Illinois, which can seat 4,500 fans for home dual meets, has never finished as high as second in the NCAA Tournament but was fifth in the latest NCAA Rankings.
“I really like what they have going on there,” Brunson says. “They’ve got a new staff, and I really connected with them when I visited.
“I think they’re the guys I need to be with if I want to win four NCAA titles.”
Collegiately, Brunson will likely run across one of the nation’s top wrestlers, Penn State sophomore Dave Taylor, who competes at 165 pounds and is the leading contender for Wrestler of the Year.
Brunson says he’s ready for that step to college training a competition, which likely will include a redshirt season, along with the challenge of getting a degree.
Academically, Brunson says, there’s not a subject that’s jumped at him as being his career path.
“I look at the education as a bonus,” says Brunson, who carries a 3.8 GPA. “I’m going to get my degree, but my main goal in college is to win four NCAA titles.”
Four titles would put Brunson on a level with Cael Sanderson, who won four while at Iowa State (1999-2002) and then won a Gold Medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Summer Games.
Sanderson, who redshirted as an academic freshman, is Taylor’s coach at Penn State, which won the NCAA Tournament last year.
Recently, Sanderson returned to active competition and is the nation’s top wrestler at 84kg.
THE OLYMPIC DREAM
As a junior national champion, Brunson is among the challengers for the National U20 team that will be determined in summer. The first step toward earning a spot on that team is a tournament in Madison, Wisc., in April. Brunson will be there.
The trials for the US team that will travel to London for the Summer Games will be held April 21-22 in Iowa City, Iowa. Brunson will be following them closely via the Internet.
Brunson would be a college junior or senior (depending on whether he’s used his redshirt season) when the next Olympic Trials arrive, and competition for those spots is likely to be tougher than ever as financial support for the sport increases.
Wrestlers, who used to support themselves as amateurs, are subsidized by USA Wrestling, and many, such as Sanderson, coach.
Mixed Martial Arts regularly attracts wrestlers due to its financial success, something Brunson says has already thought about.
“I can see myself doing that,” he says, “but I look at it as what wrestlers do when they can’t handle wrestling anymore.”
With his focus on and motivation to reach the loftiest of goals, Brunson says he’s very happy with the plan he has for the next stage of his life.
“If I’m good enough, I’d love to wrestle on the Olympic Circuit and make wrestling my profession,” he says. “I’d love to wrestle for the rest of my life.”