2021 16U freestyle National Champion Gabe Arnold (Photo courtesy of Josh Conklin; JoshConklinphotos.com)
"It's just wrestling, it's just a game," I remember hearing J'den Cox utter these words in his 2017 post World Team Trials victory interview, after defeating the favored David Taylor, and being in complete disgust. Just wrestling--a game?!
Just hours beforehand, my husband and then, father of two, Richard Perry, got caught in a chest lock and lost to Nick Heflin on his path to the 2017 World Team Finals. I saw the disappointment on my husband's face as he exited the mat and left his dream of earning a 2017 National Team place and extra stipend behind. The countless hours of physical, mental and emotional preparation, the missed birthdays and anniversaries so he could attend extra training camps and trips with some of the best wrestlers in the world, the weeks apart from our children, and the endless studying of his opponents--it was not just a game. Wrestling, for many at the senior level, is a full-blown career; it's how these athletes support their families and secure their future as coaches. Each match, every tournament is an opportunity for a bonus check, accolades to propel your career, sponsorship opportunities and the ability to extend your resume. When I heard J'den Cox utter these words, I was furious; It took weeks, if not months, before I truly understood what J'den meant, and about a year before I actually knew where this philosophy developed and why it was so important to him.
If you've followed J'den's career, you know his skill set is unmatched, and his work ethic, if measured by sweat, is insane. You also know his family plays a huge role as his support system--his mother, his sister, his grandma are always seen screaming and crying as they praise the Lord for each victory at almost every single domestic tournament. Typically, they are accompanied by Phil Arnold, J'dens uncle. While he is a little more on the quiet side than J's mom, he definitely is known for allowing his emotions to show, bursting into tears as though each of J'dens victories was his own. But that's just it, of all the family members found in J'dens cheering section, it's Phil who understands just how much is sacrificed to compete at this level, it's Phil who pours into J'den on the phone for hours at a time, it's Phil who helped to instill this, "it's just a game, it's just wrestling," mentality.
Phil Arnold, if you know Missouri wrestling, you know the name. The 2x State Champion, who began wrestling at the age of 14, was no stranger to hard work. "Too large to join the basketball team," at 171 pounds as a freshman, Phil tried wrestling, determined to become a 4x state champion. Despite never achieving his ideal High School goal, Phil found success on the mat when he became a 2x State Champion (90' & 91'). Although his success led to piquing interest from D1 College programs around the country, Phil knew from the start where he belonged. From the beginning of his wrestling career, Phil held a special place for the University of Missouri and had long dreamed of becoming a Tiger.
While his family was unable to financially support Phil's dream of becoming a great high school wrestler, we all know camps are not cheap; Phil worked out a deal to attended the wrestling camps held every summer at the University of Missouri, which ultimately landed him at his dream school, "Wes Roper worked out a deal with me that if I cleaned the mats everyday, I would be allowed to attend the camps for free. Columbia, Missouri, was my home, so it only made sense that I would be a Tiger… .that's where I signed my national letter of intent to wrestle. I had a scholarship, school was paid for, and it was time to set goals again!"
With one goal achieved, more were set. Unfortunately, these would not come to fruition, "I was going to be Missouri's first multiple-time NCAA Champion, plus a world and Olympic champion, but that never came to be." For Phil, a very outgoing and social guy, wrestling and community was everything, and his grades, well, they never took priority, "I partied, hung out with the cool guys on the wrestling team, got in a lot of trouble academically and legally, and found myself kicked out of Mizzou. My career as a Missouri Tiger never even got to see me putting on the singlet. Dreams gone. No NCAA titles. But I got a second chance! Missouri Valley College reached out and offered me a scholarship to attend there. So I jumped on it!"
One thing you'll notice about the Arnold's, they never seem to linger in the past. Sure they enjoy reminiscing about the good ol' days and family functions, old matches and such, but they don't dwell on the hard stuff--they use it to learn from and propel themselves forward, "I was the big D1 wrestler in a small college, I was going to shine," Phil remembers. With plans to continue down the track that which would hopefully one day land him on a World and Olympic team, Phil was ecstatic about this new opportunity to shine on the mat.
Sadly, during his third week of practice, Phil Arnold blew out his knee and had to undergo surgery. The injury was so severe, rehab wasn't enough and his wrestling career ended. If you've ever witnessed a talented wrestler be told they would never wrestle again, you can understand the heartache and pain Phil, and so many others have felt. In a pivotal turn of events, wrestling, Phil's entire future, completely changed, "The one thing I loved more than life itself, was taken away from me. And now it was my job to hate it--I hated wrestling and everything about it. To me, I had just wasted the last 6 years of my life. I would spend the next twenty years cursing the sport and everything about it."
While wrestling no longer existed in Phil's mind, his family, who fell in love with the sport alongside him, saw success on the mat. That's the funny thing about wrestling. Sure, physically it's just you out there on the mat with your opponent, but every wrestler knows that they have their family in their corner, their aunts, their uncles, their cousins and so on. The Arnold family was no different; Phil's two nephews, Zach and Drea Cox, were at almost every match and practice following their uncle's career and learning a thing or two. Both saw success on the mat and ironically, did so in their uncle's headgear, along with the most decorated wrestler in their family, 2016 Olympian, World Team Member and NCAA champion, J'den Cox, "From 1989-2013 I can't imagine how many matches that thing went through. But, at the end of the day, it was, and is, just a piece of equipment." This same mentality of it is and always will be, "just a game," that's what this article is about anyway, isn't it?
You see, the Arnold/Cox family fell in love with the sport of wrestling. While Phil allowed the sport to consume his every thought, his every dream, he learned the hard way that in doing so, you put all your eggs in one basket, you go big or literally go home. Either the dream comes to fruition, or you're left bitter wondering what could have been if only. Witnessing his nephews, and eventually, both of his own sons take to the mat, Phil knew he couldn't stay away from the sport for long--Phil found himself in the stands cheering on his family as they had done for him, and loving every moment of it. In return, his family was able to learn from Phil's mistakes, they knew wrestling as a means of being a part of a community, earning scholarships and propelling themselves forward, but it should never be the only thing, because, with one wrong move, it could all end. This concept of, "it's just wrestling," was born long before Phil, his nephew J'den or Phil's son, Gabe, ever coined it; they just weren't yet aware.
In 2014, decades after his wrestling career ended, Phil was asked a very peculiar question as he said his goodbyes to his passing father, "When are you going back to wrestling?" I figured it was the medication talking. I told him, "Daddy, I don't wrestle anymore." I'll never forget him looking at me, and saying, "That's always been your problem, Phillip. You've always thought it was about you. Your job was simply to plant the seed. Now you're supposed to be watering it."
Phil's dad passed away in February of 2014. A month later, J'den won his first of 3 NCAA titles at Mizzou as a true freshman. I was in the stands that day and I can clearly remember J'dens mother yelling out, "that's my baby," as he stood in the middle of the mat with his hand raised. Phil remembers it slightly different--on one side of things, Phil was pained as he realized his dream never came to be; on the other hand, he was ecstatic to see his nephew win an NCAA title. Despite several family members pouring into the sport and showing great promise, J'den was the first and only to achieve such a tall task for the Arnold/Cox family.
J'den Cox winning the first of his three NCAA Championships (Photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
It was no surprise when Phil's younger son, Gabe, also took an interest in the sport at the age of 6. "It was a disaster; he was horrible. Gabe was the chunky little kid that rolled, not wrestled. In his first tournament, he was so excited because he took 3rd place and got a medal--out of three wrestlers. I couldn't take it and was so happy when he started playing soccer. My kid just didn't have it." That was until, a few years later, because all good things take time, and Gabe, well he is good.
Fast forward four years and a few of Phil's CrossFit buddies put together money and essentially told Phil he would coach their new wrestling club. If you're a coach, your kids follow and play the sport, "I didn't want my kids to have the pain and heartache that I did as a wrestler. I wanted them to have fun, to enjoy it. That's when it really dawned on me, 'It's just wrestling,' all my kids were brand new to the sport, so I reminded them often. The only thing they need to worry about were three things: Wrestle Hard. Wrestle Smart. Have Fun. Win or Lose. It's just wrestling."
This mantra, mindset, tokened phrase, was already put into motion--it was one J'den was already tied to. Phil recalls, "J'den and I would talk a lot of how the sport would never define him; it was only a small facet of who he really was. Those conversations passed over to the same conversations with Gabe. To this day, wherever either one of them are wrestling, no matter what they are doing, they have each received a simple text from me that just says, Wrestle Hard. Wrestle Smart. Have fun."
Just as J'den has taken career-changing advice from his uncle Phil, "it's just wrestling," Gabe has learned something from his older cousin and wrestling superstar J'den Cox, "don't allow the sport to define you, create your own path." Gabe is doing just that; he is the first to never compete in the 30+-year-old headgear, as Phil remarks, "Remember, the headgear was the reminder to everyone of who we are. Make sure they remember who we are. Gabe made me understand that he didn't need the headgear to remind others of that. He'd do it on the mat. So the text messages to Gabe before his matches have an extra line to it: MAKE SURE THEY KNOW WHO YOU ARE."
Gabe has a legacy of wrestlers behind him, one that started with his father then passed to his three older cousins and has now landed at his own feet. While the vision remains the same--NCAA Champ, World Team Member, Olympian--the mindset has evolved. It's not about wins or losses; it's a genuine passion for the sport. Spend five minutes with Gabe and you'll realize there is so much to this high school kid. His love for the sport is evident, but so is his love of life and he is so full of it; Everything he does, whether it's his music or sharing his vast knowledge of reptiles, he radiates joy and never passes up an opportunity for a challenge.
In 7th grade, Gabe passed up an opportunity to compete at Nationals to train at the OTC with his older cousin. It was then he realized he, too, wanted to be the best in the world. By the 8th grade, Gabe and his parents decided it would be best for this Georgia boy to move a thousand miles away and attend Wyoming Seminary, the #2 school wrestling school in the nation with one of the best academic programs. Gabe notes, "Some felt I didn't deserve that opportunity, some felt I wasn't good enough, some felt disrespected cause I left Georgia, and a lot of them voiced these feelings. Whether it has been on Facebook, Instagram, direct message, or any other platform, they voiced it. At the end of the day, though, my parents and I were happy with the decision we had made. Of course, being 1000 miles from home wasn't easy, but the sacrifices my family and I made were worth it." In fact, Gabe ended his freshman year ranked top 10 in the nation, and #1 recruit in the class of 2023.
His sophomore year, Gabe was predicted to earn his spot on the 2021 Cadet World Team, but in a matter of seconds during his first match, that dream dissolved as Gabe found himself in an unfamiliar place, on his back and pinned in less than a minute, "The hard work felt like it was a waste a time, wrestling was no longer fun for me the rest of the tournament. I felt like I was forced to do something I thought I loved." Years later, generations between them, yet the pain of losing, of not accomplishing, was still there and Phil ached for his son. Yet he knew, "it's just wrestling!"
Phil gave Gabe time and space to process, as he reminded his son that this loss does not define him, just as much as any win does not define him. "It will never define me as a person. Although the goal of being a 2021 world champ was gone, the dream of still being a world champ was still there. The burn and desire to be the best in the world was still there. After World Team Trials, I immediately had Prep Nationals a week after. At first, I didn't want to wrestle because I wanted to be done with the sport for awhile, but through a little encouragement through my coaches and my dad, the decision to compete became a no-brainer."
Like most athletes who face a difficult loss, many questions circled in Gabe's mind as he wondered if he was good enough, if he could win and if he is prepared. "These thoughts circled in my head all the way up to my first match of the tournament and then I was quickly reminded of who I was, and it was time to remind the rest of the nation who Gabriel Arnold is. They were going to need a lot more than one tournament to tear me down. After National Preps, the grind continued. I continue to get better and I focused on achieving a new goal, 2021 USAW 16U Fargo National Champion. I worked hard and I ultimately wound up achieving that goal, arguably my biggest wrestling accomplishment. The feeling of being back on top was and is indescribable." On cloud nine, as he relived his moments on the podium, Gabe reminds himself, "But once again, "It's Just Wrestling," and achieving that goal meant I have to set an even bigger and better goal! This sport will always be a part, but it'll never define the type of person I am and who I will become."
It's just wrestling, is a mindset that was born amid heartache, yet evolved over time to create perspective and lighten the load of hefty goals; It has helped lead J'den Cox to achieve more on the wrestling mat than most can even fathom, and no doubt will help take Gabe to new heights as he continues his journey on the mat, "For now though, I will continue to strive to be the best that I can be both on and off the mat because in this life there is so much more than wrestling. I'm blessed to have such success in this sport, but even if I didn't, I would still love this sport."
From successful wrestler, to inspiring coach, and even now as father, Phil has seen all this sport of wrestling has to offer and finds the greatest love for it now, as he watches the sport shape his son into the independent, God-fearing man he always wanted him to become, "My job as Gabe's dad is really simple: Keep him motivated. Give him 110% support. Listen to him. Guide him when it is needed. But most importantly, just be there for him. I don't need him to be a great wrestler; our family is well established in great wrestlers. I just need him to be a great person, and if wrestling is a facet of that, then so be it. The journey we've been on has taken us around the world. All those things that I dreamed of doing when I was in high school and college, I've had the complete pleasure of sitting front row watching my son and my nephew fulfill every single one of them. It's not living vicariously through them--It's realizing that my job was just to plant the seed for them. All I have to do is continue to water and nurture it and see it grow into something beautiful. There are NO expectations, I have placed on Gabe. All he has to do is Wrestle Smart. Wrestle Hard. Have Fun. It's just wrestling. And that's all it ever will be."
1991/Phil; 2004/Zach; 2008/Drea; 2010/J'den