Chris FleegerChris Fleeger of Purdue was one of the nation's top collegiate stars before eligibility issues sidelined him in 2005. His wrestling credentials speak for themselves: Four-time Cadet Nationals champion, Junior Nationals champion, Espoir Nationals champion, Junior World champion, Two-time Pennsylvania state championm World University Championships bronze medalist, Pan American Games bronze medalist, and two-time NCAA All-American.
RevWrestling.com's Andrew Hipps recently went one-on-one with Fleeger to talk about his eligibility at Purdue, his past disappointments, and his future aspirations.
What is your current status with the Purdue wrestling team?
Fleeger: I wasn't with them last semester. I failed out of Purdue. I had to go to a community college, get my grades back up, and get back into Purdue. And then I started practicing with them over the summer. So I've been working out with them in the preseason and attending Purdue. Once my grades come out this semester, which they just did, I will be declared eligible and start competing in January.
You won two Pennsylvania state titles and were one of the top high school recruits in the nation. What was the recruiting process like for you coming out of high school, and how did you eventually decide on Purdue?
Fleeger: Well, I made the Junior World Team when I was a sophomore in high school, going into my junior year, which was a pretty big deal. I was the youngest guy on the team. I was the only guy still in high school. Coach (Jesse) Reyes was the coach of that team. It was kind of hard for me to relate to the other kids because they were so much older and everything. So I spent a lot of time with Coach Reyes, getting to know him. Obviously, he showed interest. I was an up-and-coming guy. I got to know him on a personal level. And then I made some other teams and met some of the other college coaches. I really liked Coach Reyes, not only for what he stood for on the mat, but also off the mat. And then I got to know the other coaches when I came on my visit. Coach (Scott) Hinkel is just a tremendous lightweight coach. And Coach (Tom) Erikson is just a great coach. I've seen him on the freestyle scene for years. It was just a really good fit … some other schools showed interest, but I really kind of had my mind made up before I made my visits.
When you arrived on the Purdue campus in the fall of 2000, what were your wrestling goals?
Chris Fleeger's goals when he arrived on the Purdue campus in 2000 were to win three NCAA titles and lead the Boilermakers to national prominence.Fleeger: I had personal goals and team goals. I wanted to be a three-time NCAA champion. It was really something I thought I could do and something I should do. Obviously, I fell short on that. But now I'm still trying to at least win one. I really wanted to place top four at the NCAA's for the team. I wanted a team trophy. That was really important to me because my team in high school wasn't really good. I thought that I could come here and make an impact. I think I have made an impact in some aspects. I think we're getting better recruits. But I feel like I let my team down and myself down.
Was there ever any doubt that you were going to redshirt your first season?
Fleeger: No, I knew that I was going to redshirt. When I first came to Purdue, I had a lot of maturing to do. It was the first time I really lived that far away from home. It was a big adjustment with the school work. It was a lot harder than my high school. The athletics were a lot different. It was just a lot different structure. So I think the redshirt was good. We always knew that I was going to redshirt.
What was that redshirt season like for you in terms of competition?
Fleeger: I wrestled probably about three or four opens. But I wrestled a lot of freestyle. That's really where my passion is and was. So I wrestled a lot more freestyle tournaments. I hated wrestling the open tournaments because I hated seeing these other guys who were representing their colleges. They were keeping team scores at some tournaments… and guys were like wearing their team singlets. I was unattached. I really didn't perform well … and I didn't like it. I didn't feel like I was wrestling for something. So I didn't really like the open tournaments.
The next season, as a freshman 125-pounder, you placed third at the NCAA Championships. Were you happy with the way your freshman season ended?
Fleeger: Yeah, I was pretty happy. I knew that it was going to be really hard to win it with (Stephen) Abas being there. He was on our World Team. He was going for his third NCAA title. I think I gave him a lot better match there than I did in the dual meet. I wrestled a lot of other tough kids … upperclassmen who had a lot more accomplishments than I did, being that I was just a freshman. I thought that I wrestled well. And I thought that I helped put up some good team points. We finished 15th in the nation, which I thought was pretty good for us. I was pleased. It gave me a good measuring stick for the next season.
Your sophomore season, you entered the NCAA Championships with an undefeated record and as the top seed, but lost in the finals to Travis Lee of Cornell. How much did that loss bother you? And is it something you still think about?
Travis Lee of Cornell defeated Chris Fleeger to win the 125-pound NCAA title in 2003.Fleeger: Oh, that loss was the most upsetting loss I've ever had in my life. That was … oh, man … I'm still not one hundred percent over that, I don't think. That took a long, long time to get over. I had a great sophomore year. I don't think I could have done anything differently up until nationals. My first two rounds, my first day, I wrestled great. And then the second and third days, I just wrestled horribly. I barely got by A.J. Grant and Jason Powell, after beating them really good during the year. I pinned Grant twice during the year. I beat Powell really good the first two tournaments of the year. And then I just shut down. My offense was zero. It was really disappointing. I think that I could have wrestled better.
Do you think the cut to 125 pounds affected your performance? Were you cutting too much weight?
Fleeger: Not that it was too much weight, but maybe how I was doing it. I mean, I was eating McDonald's every day. Things like that. The way I did it, I don't think it was the best way. But I definitely wasn't too big for the weight.
You took an Olympic redshirt after your sophomore campaign. When was that decision made?
Fleeger: Well, when I first came to Purdue, when I signed my letter of intent, I told Coach Reyes that a dream of mine was to make the Olympic Team. It was one of my biggest dreams. I told him that I would more than likely take that Olympic redshirt. So he pretty much knew it was coming. After the NCAA finals my sophomore year, he knew that I was going to redshirt the next year for the Olympics. So he knew well in advance. I think it was more of a decision at that point if I should take it.
During your Olympic redshirt season, did you train strictly freestyle? Or did you also train collegiate style with your teammates?
Fleeger: I was trying to do a little bit of both. I didn't do the preseason conditioning. I was on a different training schedule. I was in the room most of the time that I was at Purdue training with them. But I was also doing some freestyle during practice. And then I moved out to Colorado Springs for a little bit.
How long were you out in Colorado Springs training at the Olympic Training Center?
Fleeger: I was probably out there for about a month or so. It was second semester, like February or March.
Who did you workout with while you were there?
Fleeger: I worked out with a lot of guys out there. Kendall Cross came out there a couple of times. I worked out with Stephen Abas a few times. (Sammie) Henson was out there a little bit. It was a bunch of the guys.
I remember reading somewhere that you tore your MCL in one knee and LCL in the other knee that season. How did that happen?
Fleeger: Just from getting banged up throughout the year. Oh, man, my knees are all messed up. Not as bad as some guys. It's just kind of those nagging injuries that you can't do that much about, really.
How did you feel about the way you competed during your Olympic redshirt season?
Chris Fleeger took an Olympic redshirt season in 2003-04.Fleeger: Well, I wrestled the Dave Schultz. That's where I actually tore my knee. I thought that I was wrestling pretty well. I was beating Ryan Lewis when that happened. At the U.S. Nationals, I didn't compete like I should have, I don't think. I was coming back from the injury. I wasn't training as hard as I should have been. I really regret taking that year off. I lost to Travis Lee in the finals my sophomore year. I needed a lot more structure, I think, than I had. I just didn't put my full effort that I think I could have into it. I think it was a real mistake. I needed the structure at the time.
What aspects of your wrestling did you improve during that Olympic redshirt season? Do you think you improved quite a bit?
Fleeger: Yeah, I think that I got a lot better, but I don't think it showed, because I don't think I performed and competed one hundred percent. I think a lot of people underestimate how much better I got. But I trained with people who were winning Olympic medals, people who had won Olympic medals in the past. I learned so much. It was an incredible learning experience. And I also learned a lot more maturity things. It kind of helped me work through my problems, my loss to Travis Lee, and my personal problems off the mat. I think I've learned a lot. I don't think I've necessarily implemented them yet into my wrestling. But I think it will really help me down the road.
You decided to move up to 133 pounds for your junior season. Why the move up in weight? Did you grow quite a bit in the off-season?
Fleeger: No, actually, I didn't really grow much at all. I really wanted to wrestle Travis Lee. I didn't like cutting weight. I wasn't doing it correctly anyways. I never got over 140. I was really close to 133. I just really wanted to wrestle Travis Lee. I didn't think that I need to cut the weight. I thought that I could compete at 133. Now that I'm at 133, I lifted all summer long. I got my weight up. I don't think that I could make 125 now. It was the first year that I dedicated myself to lifting weights and getting bigger.
Last season, you finished runner-up to Travis Lee at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. How would you characterize your performance out there?
Fleeger: I wasn't on my game. I wasn't one hundred percent. I told the coaches before hand that my heart wasn't in it … and that I was going to be ineligible. I knew ahead of time. I stopped going to class. I pretty much gave up. I didn't want to go to school. So I knew that I was going to be ineligible. I didn't think they were going to take me to the Cliff Keen. Coach approached me and said, 'You know, we would still like you to go. We need some team points.' I agreed. I said, 'All right, that's fine.' I told him that it's going to be my last tournament, though, because I'll be ineligible. He said, 'That's fine.' I mean, I went there. I didn't want to lose some weight. I just had a few pounds. It wasn't much, but I didn't want to. I don't know, I mean … oh … it's just kind of frustrating to talk about.
I wrestled in the semifinals, and if you watched that match, you could tell that my heart wasn't in it. I got taken down standing straight up. He was beating me pretty good. I'm always a competitive person, so I competed and came back and beat him in overtime. It was really hard to gut through that match. I don't think that I wrestled very well at all. I think he outwrestled me most of the match. And then I wrestled Travis in the finals. My heart was a lot more into that match, though, because I knew that it was kind of redemption match. But my conditioning wasn't where it needed to be. My heart wasn't totally in it. I mean, I think I wrestled an all right match, though, because Travis is obviously an awesome wrestler, a two-time champ. So I think that was probably the best match that I wrestled that whole tournament. My conditioning just wasn't there. My heart was there more in that match. But it was just another disappointment.
After you were ruled academically ineligible, did you continue to following what was going in the wrestling world?
Fleeger: Yeah. I lost my desire to train. I lost my desire to compete. And I lost my desire for school. But I never lost my desire for wrestling. I went to every dual meet that was at Purdue. I still wanted my teammates and my team to do well. I followed it online. I never lost my love for wrestling. I love wrestling and I'll follow it all the time.
So you stopped training and working out?
Fleeger: Yeah, I actually stopped working out for a while. I went over to a local high school and helped coach there for a little bit. But I didn't work out for a couple of months at all. I actually didn't make the decision to try to come back for a while. It was like the last day that you could register for classes second semester, I ended up picking up some classes that I needed to take to get back into Purdue. I started the long, hard process to get back in. I started really late. I was really down in the dumps for a while.
What are your wrestling goals now?
Chris Fleeger will be looking to capture the 133-pound NCAA title in his final season.Fleeger: I want to win an NCAA championship this year. I would like to just dominate everyone. I think that should be everyone's goal, just to put up as many points on the board as you can. I don't want to get stuck in that rut that I did starting at the end of my sophomore year, when I was winning 2-1, 3-0, things like that. I want to put 19, 20 points on the board every match… that's if I don't pin him. It's my senior season. Obviously, I've been working out with the team. I feel that our team has really matured. We have some individuals, like Doug Withstandley and Ben Wissel, and some guys like that who can really do some damage. I don't think it's out of our reach to place in the top five, top four in the nation … if everyone performs and everyone puts some points on the board, which I think we can. A lot of things would have to go right, but I don't see any reason why they couldn't. Those are goals for myself and my team.
What has to happen for you to be eligible to compete second semester? How soon do you think it could happen?
Fleeger: My grades just came out and they were fine. I fell far behind, so I had to take 25 credits this last semester, which is a ridiculous amount. So I took all of those… and my grades just came out this morning. I got the GPA that I needed. I passed all of the requirements. I'm on track to graduate in May, so that's what they want to know. Now, it's just a matter of filling out the paperwork and getting it through the NCAA. They should declare me eligible in a few days.
Is there a chance that you could compete at Midlands, which take place on Dec. 29-30 in Evanston, Illinois?
Fleeger: No, I'm just coming off a high ankle sprain. I also had to miss a lot of workouts at the end of school here. With my finals coming up, I was really concentrating on my school work. So my conditioning isn't where it needs to be. I got my school work out of the way, now I can concentrate on wrestling. I'll probably go to the Midlands to watch. But my first competition back will be the Lone Star Duals in Texas.
You've been very successful in freestyle. Do you plan on continuing to train freestyle after the collegiate season is over?
Fleeger: Yeah, I don't plan on ending my wrestling career anytime soon. I would love to go to the 2008 Olympics, 2012 Olympics. If I'm still healthy and everything, I'll go beyond that. I love freestyle. That's what I want to do. I'll definitely be at the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials, barring any injuries.
Has being out of wrestling for a while changed your perspective on the sport at all?
Fleeger: I think it helped me straighten a lot of things out off the mat. When your life is chaotic off the mat, it always carries onto the mat, whether you tell yourself it's not, it always is. So I think being able to be away from the sport, and being able to concentrate on straightening my other life out, has helped straighten my wrestling out, and I can concentrate on a lot more. And I have a better appreciation for what I had … and I lost it. I had a scholarship. I was in shape. I was wrestling well. I had all these things. People thought I was still good. And they had respect for me. I pretty much lost all of that. It's kind of like I have something to strive for now. I don't feel like I'm at the top of my game. I feel like I need to get there again. I have a lot of hard work to do … and I think that I have a better appreciation for where I need to be.
Do you have aspirations of getting into coaching when your competitive career is over?
Fleeger: Yeah, I definitely want to coach. That's what I want to do. I love to do that. I helped out with a high school team, and I ran a club this summer, so I love coaching. I would love to coach at Purdue after this semester. I'm not sure if there's going to be a job position available. But that's what I would like to do. I would like help Purdue's team. So, yeah, I would definitely like to be a coach.
How about Real Pro Wrestling? Is that something that you would consider doing?
Fleeger: Yeah, I went out there for a taping. I thought it was really neat. I love what they're doing with it. But I haven't heard much about what they're doing lately. So I don't know if it's still going on or not, but if it is, I would definitely do it. It looks like a lot of fun.