Youssif Hemida reached the NCAA quarterfinals last season before place eighth (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
William Faulkner once wrote, "Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."
The line from Light in August seeks to encapsulate how people struggle with the legacy and burden of the past. While the novel deals with much heavier issues, wrestlers often find themselves in a similar struggle. Seasons or individual matches are collections of split-second decisions, movements and challenges. For some, a simple six-minute college match can be transmogrified into a lifetime of nostalgia or regret.
At the 2017 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Maryland heavyweight Youssif Hemida found himself one match away from becoming an All-American for the first time. In the aptly named blood round, he faced off against Arizona State's Tanner Hall. While the match was close, as they often are in the heavyweight division, Hemida ended up on the losing end via a 2-1 score.
"It is just something that I thought about almost every day," Hemida said. "It was just that one match, that one point. What if I did something more? I kept looking back. I don't think I cut corners necessarily. It was more like, 'What could I have done more?' or 'What could I have done differently?'"
Despite the negative memory, Hemida was able to use the experience to move forward. This past season, he found himself in the blood round once again. This time, he became an All-American for the first time with a win over Lehigh's Jordan Wood.
"It was a huge motivator," he said. "I was like, I cannot walk away from the national tournament without becoming an All-American. It was just something that I needed to accomplish for me, and it was something that felt really good. [The loss] definitely lit a fire underneath me and let me know how close I was and that if I don't do the right things it could happen again, or I could push myself a little harder and try to achieve it."
Progression from season to season has become a theme in Hemida's career. In his true freshman season, he finished with a sub-.500 record. The following season, he became an NCAA qualifier. This past season, he was an All-American. Hemida enters his senior season ranked No. 3 at heavyweight.
"Something similar happened to me in high school where freshman year, I had a winning record, but I did not qualify for my sectional," Hemida said. "Sophomore year I was hurt. Then, junior year I did well, but I didn't quite do as well at states. Then, my senior year, I won a state title. I kind of feel like I want to be on that same path with [college] freshman year getting adjusted, sophomore year qualifying, this past year placing, and now all I am looking forward to trying to win it all."
Youssif Hemida battling Wisconsin's Ben Stone at the Big Ten Championships (Photo/Richard Immel)
In order to meet his goals, Hemida will need to navigate the always arduous Big Ten heavyweight division. Multiple time champion Kyle Snyder and perennial contender Adam Coon have moved on, but there is still plenty of competition in the division.
"I am very grateful that we are in the Big Ten. I picked a school that wrestles in the Big Ten. It really tests you." Hemida continued, "There is no returning national champ in our weight class, so I think it is anyone's to grab. I am really excited for it. Yeah, there are some people coming in, and it is reloading. There are some returning All-Americans, but I am less trying to worry about them and more trying to focus on what I can do to improve myself. I mean, I am going to scout them and everything like that, but I am not like 'Who is coming in?' or 'Is Gable redshirting or not?' or 'What is Conan doing?' I am not too concerned about that. I am more concerned with what I can do to make myself the best that I can be."
As the team's only returning All-American, Hemida sees himself taking on more of a leadership role in the wrestling room.
"For me, I was never in the room with an All-American," Hemida said. "For the guys, they can say, 'I am doing the same things he is doing' so a lot of it is leading by example. They see me doing extra work, and they might be encouraged to do that, or they see me pushing it when we go live they might be able to dig deep. It is definitely no pressure. If anything, I hope that I am encouraging the guys."
While Faulkner describes memories as a burden from the past, memories themselves are not inherently negative. The pain of remembering a loss can be depressive or serve as motivation, but at the same time, a recollection of a victory can evoke a certain sentimental longing for the past. This type of nostalgia played an interesting role in how Hemida ended up at Maryland.
"My club coach John Degl from the Empire Wrestling Academy always talks about how he beat this guy in the state finals who ended up becoming a national champion and a two-time Olympian," Hemida said. "I never really thought anything about it."
In the 1991 177-pound state final, Degl, representing Mahopac High School knocked off Longwood High School wrestler Kerry McCoy. The very same McCoy who is currently coaching Hemida at Maryland. The same McCoy who Hemida calls, "One of the best heavyweights to ever do it."
For Degl the match serves as a positive memory and a story he can tell to the wrestlers he trains. For McCoy the loss likely motivated him to continue to progress and eventually represent the U.S. in the Olympics.
With one more season left as a college wrestler, Hemida has the opportunity to determine what kind of memories he will be able to look back on when his career is over.