American NCAA qualifier Jack Maida (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Jack Maida burst onto the scene at the end of the 2022 season as a true freshman. He entered the EIWA Conference Championships as the seventh seed. He lost the first round and battled his way to fourth place - just shy of earning an automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Championships. After winning five straight matches, his chance to qualify came down to the wild card bid selection process. With no assistance from the NCAA, his season was over. It was time to go back to work. "I started to realize how much harder I'm going to have to work, that I needed to improve a lot, and put a lot more effort in" was how Maida described his thought process after that season. "There are levels to it" he added with a smile, knowing it sounded a bit cliché.
In order to observe this next level firsthand, Jack made the trip to NCAAs in Detroit - as a fan - with some of his teammates. This was his first time ever traveling to the NCAA tournament, which is quite a contrast from any wrestling tournament he's ever attended or competed in. "I think that was beneficial because I got to see what I was working for. It made me more excited and confident for next year" (referring to the 2022-23 season). From my conversations with Jack, he is a rather quiet person, who seems to keep to himself. He says the right things. He lives his life the right way. He's the perfect guy you want on your team. However, just like any college-aged person in America, there were outside factors he was dealing with.
His adversity started before he stepped foot on campus in the fall of 2021. His mother, Michelle, was diagnosed with cancer right before leaving for college. This caused an obvious dilemma for Jack and his family. Does he stay home in New Jersey to help care for her? Or does he continue his plan to go to college in Washington DC, as originally planned? Without a doubt, his mom wanted him to go to school and achieve his dreams. Jack's decision to continue his original plan of enrolling at American was made, in large part, by his mom and family supporting her. She was his biggest fan. Maida stated, "She brought me to every practice, for like 12 years, since kindergarten." It is somewhat rare to have such a strong wrestler-mother dynamic in this sport, which goes to show how dedicated she was to his craft. Jack's dad worked crazy-long hours at his job, so his mom was the one getting him to practice, events, and whatever else he needed in order to succeed. He wouldn't change a second of it.
Jack's freshman year was filled with ups and downs. This is not rare by any means. But, his freshman year had a little extra "baggage" on his mind. He said, "I didn't know exactly how bad it was" when discussing the diagnosis. I asked if this was purposefully done by his family to keep him focused, and in the right mindset. His response was a simple, "Yeah, she wanted me to be here…" As I saw his smile quickly turn into a straight face. I understood how hard it must have been to relive some of these memories. In regard to not knowing how severe his mom's diagnosis was, "I tried to block it out most of the time so it would not affect my performance in the classroom and on the mat."
It was barely a month into this school year when Jack got a call from his dad that he needed to come home to New Jersey. Friday, September 23rd, 2022 is the date that Jack, along with his family, will remember forever - the date his mother, Michelle, passed away. According to coaches, she was the rock of the family. The timing of this catastrophic event was not ideal for Jack. He just began getting into a good cycle with training, dieting, etc. all while classes are in full swing. He seemed to be on a good path, until life took a turn for the worst. "I had to stop training for two weeks to be with my family. That's not optimal right before the season, obviously." No training also meant no school. These are all things he'd need to deal with once he had his time to grieve.
He could not thank his support system enough. His entire team made the trip to New Jersey for the funeral. The staff cancelled practice and encouraged everyone to make it, if possible. Jack's teammates, coaches, administrators, and everyone involved were so generous and thoughtful helping him get through the toughest of times on the athletic side of things. However, once he came back to school, he found himself two weeks behind academically. He was back grinding, doing everything he could to catch up. The professors, advisors, and others were very accommodating to him and his circumstance. He found the best way for him to "zone out" this reality was wrestling. In a bizarre way, he found another reason to love the sport again. The sport that connected him and his mom was the reason he kept pushing through, even after she passed. The semester he took time away from happened to be his worst semester thus far with a 3.35 GPA. That's a GPA most would be happy with. Not Jack - he was looking to improve. Jack is someone who overcomes.
American NCAA qualifier Jack Maida (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Looking at his early season results, it was somewhat noticeable Jack had some struggles on the mat. He and I both agreed that he "lost to a few guys he probably shouldn't have" in his words. His season was a bit of a roller coaster ride, with this extra chip on his shoulder. He continued "It's amazing how much it was on my mind. Whenever I was cutting weight, especially." Having been a competitor at this level, the weight cutting is when the so-called "demons" begin to creep into your mind. Some demons are different than others, but overcoming them shows character like no other. These demons can eat away at you - if you let them. Jack kept going, one day at a time.
The option for him to redshirt was brought up by the staff - mainly to ensure his mental state was in a healthy place. Another option was for him to sit the first few weeks, and ease into the season. Ultimately, he decided against both options because he felt his mom would want him out there competing. Again, Jack overcame - putting his foot on the line whenever he could. Coach Borrelli mimicked this thought, "He was eager to wrestle. We, as a staff, felt it was the best thing for him at the time. Looking back, I believe we made the right decision," said Coach Jason Borrelli. Jack seemed to be laser-focused, and taking him out of this weekly grind, of what we wrestlers call "a routine," may have negative consequences on him.
The loss of his mother was a time to reflect, internally. "Some things are real, and REALLY matter." He continued, "At the end of the day, I just do wrestling because I love to do it, it's fun. It helped relieve a lot of pressure." He continued, "I felt like I was wrestling better this way - not worrying about winning or losing." This immediately gave me visions of a video clip that made its rounds on social media. The video was at a press conference, where Cael Sanderson said something along the lines of wrestling is "just a game." There is something to this thought process, and Jack used that mantra heading into the postseason.
Fast forward to the 2023 EIWA Championships in Philadelphia. Jack earned the 12th seed in a weight class that would automatically qualify the top 5 place winners. He would have to pull a few upsets in order to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Similar to the year prior, he lost the first round. Finding himself in familiar territory, he trusted his training. More importantly, he was able to relax and focus on "just wrestling." Using this thought process, he battled back one match at a time. His third win on the backside came over an opponent from Bucknell he already lost to during the year. He dropped his next match to the Navy opponent. It all came down to this one final match, for fifth place. His opponent was from Drexel, a familiar opponent, who had already beaten Jack once this season. He'd need another revenge win to qualify for the National Championships.
I remember watching the match at EIWAs. It was tightly contested. As time was winding down, I saw the passion in the eyes of Maida, the coaches, his teammates, and everyone supporting the American Eagles. The celebration continued in the hallway. Hugs and high-fives, even tears of joy from some of the fans, as he was surrounded with support. I'm a sucker for that type of stuff, so I almost got a little emotional watching it unfold. I did not know about his story, until after the fact. If I would have known beforehand, I would have needed a janitor to mop up my tears. Coach Borrelli's statement on the match was simple. "His win was a special moment for all of us. Very emotional."
One step towards his goal - check. He was an NCAA Qualifier. In fact, he was the first for Coach Jason Borrelli, as American University's head coach. Reflecting on this "winner-take-all" match at EIWAs, Coach remembered, "I was at peace before the match, like way more than usual." Ironically, the next words out of his mouth were "It was odd not to be nervous, like I usually am. But, at the end of the day, it's just a wrestling match." This was eerily similar to what Jack said - almost as if there was a calming Zen amongst them at the moment. He remembered they were all very calm, and relaxed - ready to go.
I asked Assistant Coach Joey Dance what his first words to Jack were as he came off the mat after this big win. "I told him 'Your mom was with you the whole way.'" Keep in mind, I talked to each coach individually. These stories are not corroborated. This is where you can use your own personal beliefs and potentially make the connection to Coach Borrelli's "at peace before the match" comments, if you choose to. It gave me goosebumps - maybe that's just me? Continuing our chat, Coach Dance also had high praises for Jack - "I always had a lot of belief in him. It is rewarding to see his hard work pay off."
Two weeks later, Jack's season came to an unfortunate end. He did not earn the desired All-American honor he dreamt of. He was victorious in one of his three matches, which not many people can say they've done. All of his wrestling goals have not been achieved yet. He's back in the room improving his technique and tweaking some details to help achieve them. He utilizes his assistant coach, Joey Dance, a lot - who was a 2X All-American wrestler at Virginia Tech. "Coach Dance is always available. Anytime I need a workout, or want to work on a certain position, I can text him. All the coaches are extremely accessible."
American NCAA qualifier Jack Maida locking up a cradle against Central Michigan (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Both Coach Borrelli and Dance said the same thing about Jack. "He's competitive, in everything we do, he is always looking to win." Interestingly, they both used the word "fiery" to describe him. I'll tell you what, fiery is not a word I would use to describe Jack, solely based on our conversation. But watching him on the mat - that's a different story. When he is focused "on just wrestling" as he simply stated previously, he will be a force to be reckoned with on the national stage. Ultimately, the hope is that Maida's season can help motivate teammates to put in the work needed. Coach Dance half-joked "Jack got lonely in the hotel room at NCAAs. He definitely wants some company next year."
In closing, I wanted to write this article for a few reasons. First, everyone has struggles of varying degrees. Many do not realize the magnitude of these struggles - whether they be internal or external. Wrestling has always been the "toughen it out" type of sport, and, for the most part, always will be. It does not go without saying, the mental aspect is much more respected and appreciated in the current day. The culture of the American University wrestling team is one every athlete should want to be a part of. Jack did not do this by himself. He relied on teammates to talk to be there to talk. The coaches constantly checking-in and understanding when he was "a little off." It's so important to have the emotional intelligence needed to know "when tough talks are needed" as one of the coaches put it.
Lastly, we cannot be too quick to judge others, or make assumptions. Sometimes, we lose awareness of our surroundings and do or say things. One point Coach Borrelli mentioned that brings this point home was something a teammate said in the vicinity of Jack at practice. The innocent words (to another teammate, in a joking way - totally unintentional) "Don't be such a momma's boy!" Coach Borrelli instantly saw Jack's demeanor change. Borrelli continued "You can see how important words are and how they affect others. Even something silly like that." Was it because Jack was a momma's boy? Maybe. Was it because Jack was going through a tough time losing his mom? For sure. Did it make him miss his mom even more? Most likely.
Regardless, it's a friendly reminder that people react to words and experiences differently, based on their own life's happenings. Next time your favorite wrestler (or athlete) does not perform up to par, let's remember we're all human with emotions and that athlete may have some other things going on inside their head that are most likely more important than "just a wrestling match."