Kenny Courts after earning a fall over junior world champion Arsenali Musalaliev at the Bill Farrell International (Photo/Justin Hoch)
Last month, Arsenali Musalaliev, a junior world champion who recently finished third at the Russian nationals, appeared to be well on his way to moving into the finals of the Bill Farrell International. He was leading 9-0 over former Ohio State All-American Kenny Courts in the semifinals. One more point would have sealed the technical fall for the Russian. Instead, Courts hit a snap down, positioned himself properly and finished the match with a mixer for the fall.
"I've been hitting that move since I was 7 years old," Courts said. "People have been like, 'I can't believe you hit that.' What the heck else are you supposed to do when you are down by nine and have to win a match? You don't ever just give up. You have to go big."
Courts went big on the mat that day. In the process, he qualified for the World Team Trials as the highest finishing American in the tournament. In wrestling, "going big" means having faith in yourself and trusting your abilities. It means believing that all the time and energy spent in the practice room will payoff when it matters most. In that sense, Courts went big six months ago when he returned to competition following a two-year absence.
Kenny Courts defeated PSU's Matt McCutcheon in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2014 (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
As a junior at Ohio State, Courts made a memorable run through the NCAA tournament. He picked up a pair wins in sudden victory over Hayden Zillmer (North Dakota State) and Matt McCutcheon (Penn State) en route to a fifth-place finish. His victory in the fifth-place match clinched Buckeye's first-ever team title.
Courts returned for his senior season as a favorite to repeat as an All-American. However, it was clear from the start that it was going to be a struggle.
"I came in 30 pounds overweight," Courts said. "The whole season was basically a lot of running on the treadmill, a lot of bad matches, and that really killed my love for the sport. I went 0-2 that season at Nationals, after coming into the season ranked fifth. I actually lost my wrestle-off that year to a freshman. After that season, I was over it."
Courts thought he was done competing. After finishing his eligibility at Ohio State, he stayed away from the sport until receiving a somewhat unlikely call. Maryland coach Kerry McCoy needed someone to help work with his upperweight wrestlers, including David-Brian Whisler and Youssif Hemida. Shyheim Brown, Courts' high school teammate, was on the team at Maryland and made the connection. Even after agreeing to come in, Courts made it clear he would just be coaching.
"Coach McCoy reaching out didn't even really get me back into competing," Courts said. "I told him that I would come back to help the guys, because I still had a lot of skill that I could give the guys, but I didn't want to compete by any means."
For an entire year, Courts worked with the Maryland team in a strictly coaching capacity. Along the way, he helped Hemida have his best season in a Terps singlet and become an All-American for the first time. All the while, McCoy kept prodding.
"Coach thought I would be fine to wrestle at the U.S. Open [last year] at 97 kilograms," Courts, who wrestled in college at 184 pounds, said. "I know he believed in my ability. He was trying to get me to wrestle up for [U23 Nationals] too, and I said, 'Coach, no way."
Six months ago, Courts relented and decided to return and compete on the freestyle circuit. While he says that the addition of the 92-kilogram weight class was not a determining factor in his decision to return, it certainly helped push him in that direction. After having his senior season defined by weight issues, the opportunity for an easier cut was very appealing.
"When I saw the 92 weight class, I was like, 'Dang, that would be a nice little comeback weight for me," Courts said. "It would mean that I would not be cutting too much weight, and I could actually come in and wrestle and show people what I can do and actually be shooting, showing some offense, not just on an energy conservation management plan. The weight class definitely helps, but it was not a make or break."
When Courts talks about training now, he sounds like someone who never took a break from the sport. Despite qualifying for the World Team Trials, he will compete at the U.S. Open. After years of avoiding the mat, he is looking for every chance to set foot on the Resilite.
"I just went out to Ohio State this past weekend," Courts said. "I got some good training there. Now, I am back at Maryland getting ready. Coach McCoy is going to have me ready to go. I did qualify for the World Team Trials, but I really didn't want to wait for the Trials. The more I compete, the better I'm going to get. Competition is my friend at this point."
When it comes to his second-place finish that the Bill Farrell, Courts might have even surprised himself.
"The Farrell was my first tournament back in two years," Courts said. "Maybe I set my expectations too low, because sometimes when you haven't been on the mat, you have some doubts. Coach McCoy told me I was ready to go, and regardless for me, that was just a stepping stone. Either I won the tournament, or I lost my first match. Either way that was just building me up for where I want to go."
No matter where his freestyle career ends up, Courts' performance at the Farrell has already proven something. Whether he has been out of the sport for two years or down 9-0 against a world champion, he will believe in himself and go big.