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One-on-One with Brandon Paulson

Brandon Paulson coaching in Fargo (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)

Twenty years ago Brandon Paulson captured a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Greco-Roman wrestling. He represented Team USA at the World Championships in 2001, 2002, and 2003, and earned a world silver medal in 2001. He won 16 national titles in Greco-Roman between the cadet and senior levels.

Today Paulson is one of the nation's top wrestling club coaches. He's co-owner of PINnacle Wrestling School in Shoreview, Minnesota, with Jared Lawrence. Paulson has won multiple national coach of the year honors and has been inducted into numerous hall of fames.

InterMat recently caught up with Paulson.

The 2016 Olympic Games took place a couple months ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Do Olympic years take you back to your Olympic experience in Atlanta?

Paulson: Always, especially since it was the 20-year anniversary this year. I have always been a big Olympic fan since I was 10 years old. Every four years I'm always excited for the Olympics. This year I actually got the chance to go visit Atlanta with my family. That was pretty cool. We did that in August. The Olympics are always special. Every four years it comes up, and that's what our family does, watch the Olympics and cheer on Team USA.

When you reflect back on the 1996 Olympics, what stands out the most in your mind?

Paulson: I still have a ton of memories. Running out onto the mat, I just remember being so pumped up and ready to get after it. It's hard to explain how loud it was. It felt like the place was shaking. So that was awesome. For the opening ceremonies we had to walk up a ramp and you could see the whole stadium. That was unbelievable. I stayed for two weeks after the Olympics and got to go to a bunch of events and meet a bunch of different people. The whole experience was unbelievable for me.

Brandon Paulson was inducted into the Alan & Gloria Rice Greco-Roman Hall of Champions in 2013 (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)

I have heard you say that watching Steve Fraser win an Olympic gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles inspired you and gave you your Olympic dream. LA is one of the finalists to host the 2024 Olympics. How much would you like to see LA get that bid?

Paulson: I would love it. It would be great to have the Olympics back in the States. Some people were like, 'It's kind of a bummer that [1996 Olympics] was in the States and that you didn't get to go overseas. For me, home country was awesome. As you said, LA was my inspiration. If the USA could get it back that would be exciting.

You came back to college wrestling after winning an Olympic silver medal and became an NCAA All-American at the University of Minnesota. Was it difficult transitioning back to folkstyle after wrestling Greco-Roman at the highest level?

Paulson: Yeah, but I liked the college atmosphere. Folkstyle had never been my favorite. I grew up wrestling freestyle and Greco. I didn't really start wrestling folkstyle until seventh grade. I actually was wrestling very well when I came back. Unfortunately, I had ankle surgery in January, and that really put my spirits down. It was kind of a downer. But I still am glad that I wrestled folkstyle. I met a lot of people. I'm glad I went to the University of Minnesota and had that whole experience. Wrestling-wise, it might not have been the best for me. For my life experience, it was the best decision for me.

You retired after the 2004 Olympic Team Trials at the age of 30. Were there ever times where you seriously contemplated coming out of retirement for one last run?

Paulson: No. If you remember my last match [against Dennis Hall], I figured that would have been a good one to end on. In previous years there had been a lot of times where I would be like, 'I'm done. I don't know if I can do this anymore.' I had a family. That hunger always came back. I would take six months off and then it would be like, 'I still want it.' After 2004 I never really got that hunger back where I thought I could make a run. My wife even said, 'Maybe you should try it out.' I was like, 'No, no, I'm good.'

Brandon Paulson and Jake Deitchler hug at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials (Photo/The Guillotine)

Four years after retiring from competition you coached Jake Deitchler to the Olympic Games in 2008. What traits did Deitchler possess that allowed him to get to such a high level at such a young age?

Paulson: He was so coachable. He did whatever I asked of him. He was a great athlete. He would run through a wall for you. That kind of kid doesn't come along often. Coaching now, I still have great kids and a lot of them listen and are coachable, but he worked his tail off. He just had an amazing motor for how hard he could wrestle. Guys just could not stay with him for the amount of time he wrestled. He was a competitor as well. That's why he was coachable. He was going to do whatever it took to get to the top. It was amazing to watch. It still blows my mind that he did what he did. To know how hard it is to make the Olympic team, and he did it when he was 18. It would have been great to see him continue and not have the concussion problems, but he accomplished a lot in the time that he had.

Team USA fell short of an Olympic medal in Greco-Roman for the second straight Olympics. No wrestler finished higher than ninth. What's the biggest hurdle or challenge for the Greco-Roman wrestling program in the United States?

Paulson: To me, there are two big challenges. One, of course, is talent, getting the best guys to wrestle Greco. It doesn't even have to be the best. You don't need to get Jordan Burroughs. But to get some of those guys who actually love the sport, and you've got to love it. It's hard to convince somebody to love it. You have to get them when they're young. For me, it was when I was in ninth grade. Same with Dennis Hall. We trained more Greco in high school than any other style. So I think getting the best wrestlers to wrestle Greco is important. The other thing is I think our style of wrestling right now is not really playing with what we have learned as kids. Americans should have a different style of wrestling Greco-Roman than other countries. I think we have in the past. I don't think we do now. We could be attacking more, getting to the body more as that is what our roots are in. We have been taking shots since fifth, sixth grade. Although shots are different, we should be attacking. There's no reason we need to be wrestling an Eastern European style. The Koreans don't wrestle that way. The Iranians don't wrestle that way. Why are we trying to wrestle that way? I think we need to use our base better than we are right now.

Brandon Paulson, along with Mike Houk, coaching Pat Smith at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)

United World Wrestling recently announced a major rule change in Greco-Roman on the senior level. Forced par terre has been removed. What are your thoughts on that rule change?

Paulson: Mixed. I would have liked it when I wrestled. I worry that guys are not going to be able to score points, and the refs aren't going to call the correct wrestlers for passivity. If you look at what they've recently been calling for passivity, it's whoever is controlling the center and controlling a tie, which doesn't necessarily mean they're trying to score points. To me, these officials should be looking at who is trying to score, and then when somebody isn't they're passive. We'll see how they call it. I hope that the guys are attacking and trying to score points. I worry a little bit that it's going to come down to a referee's decision. We never want to see that. It's good for the United States. We should do better. We have spent most of our lives wrestling on our feet. I think in the past we have lost in par terre. There's no country that should beat us on the feet in wrestling. That was my attitude when I wrestled, and the guys I wrestled with. It was like, 'We've got to beat these guys on the feet. We've got to score. We're better on the feet.' So hopefully they can take that attitude now as well.

You competed at the highest level as an athlete. Now you're coaching athletes of all ages. What do you enjoy most about coaching?

Paulson: Just seeing kids accomplish their goals, and that's not always being a national champion or an Olympian. Sometimes it's making the varsity team or making the state tournament. Every kid is different. But to watch a kid that worked his tail off and improved and accomplished one of his goals, and how excited he gets, that's what it's all about for me. Make a kid great basically. Every kid has a different sense of that depending on his or her dedication and talent level. To see them accomplish their goals is awesome.

In your opinion, when should winning become important in wrestling?

Paulson: For us, we're all about development, but we still want the kids to enjoy success because they have more fun and it teaches confidence. We don't want them to win at a younger level with stuff that won't win at a higher level. We're about development for our kids. When you get to Cadet Nationals, that's kind of our turning point where it's like, 'OK, we're going to try to win here.' Fargo is a big tournament for us. That's kind of what we train for a lot in the spring. At that age it's still about development, but we want to win a national title as well. It's not the most important thing at that level, but it's a goal for a lot of wrestlers.

You coached Griffin Parriott to double titles in Fargo this past summer. He's now at Purdue. What kind of impact do you think he can make in college and potentially beyond?

Paulson: He's very talented and he's a competitor. He's coachable. Mentally, he needs to be stronger. If he can do that, he has unlimited potential. He can be an NCAA champion and Olympian. He's talented. He's strong and athletic enough. So it's about his drive, which I think he has. I'm going to try to keep him a little bit in the loop for Greco because he likes Greco and try to have him wrestle a little bit his redshirt year. Right now he's wrestling in college. Hopefully everything is going well. I haven't heard from him in a couple weeks, but before that it was going well. Purdue has a good thing going.

Brandon Paulson with Mitchell McKee in Fargo (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)

Mitchell McKee, now a freshman at the University of Minnesota, is another wrestler you have coached to multiple national titles. Is he someone that is ready for Division I wrestling competition right now?

Paulson: Absolutely. He has the physical strength for it. He has wrestled his whole life and competed a ton, so it's not like he's short of matches. I think he could wrestle right away. It's just a matter of weight to me. I think Tommy Thorn is still at 141. Is Mitchell too big for 133? I'm not sure. We'll have to see. He would be a big 133-pounder. For him to wrestle right away, I think that's the weight he would have to go.

J Robinson was fired as Minnesota's head wrestling coach in September. As someone who wrestled for J at Minnesota, what was it like for you seeing that whole situation play out?

Paulson: It was painful … not just for J, but the program. It put a shadow over the program. I never like to see that. Specifically for J, he did a lot for Minnesota wrestling. From when he came in, if you looked at our program before that and looked at it now, he did a lot. I'm sorry to see he went out that way. Looking at the coaching staff now, I'm excited that Eggum is a head coach. I actually really like where they are at with coaches. I just wish J didn't go out that way and could have retired on his own terms.

This story also appears in the Oct. 14 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.

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