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Photographers Sachs, Rotundo chase passion

Imagine working a second job that demands long hours and time away from family and friends, that can be both physically and emotionally exhausting, all while not getting paid -- or paid very little -- for the work. For most people, that does not sound like much fun, let alone a dream job. It is for John Sachs and Tony Rotundo.

Tony Rotundo (Photo/Larry Slater)
Sachs and Rotundo, who live only an hour's drive from each other in Northern California, are two of the world's top wrestling photographers. They are chasing a passion that has taken them all over the country and world and provided them with unforgettable experiences. It is a love for photography and wrestling, coupled with wanting to give back to the sport, that drives them.

"Wrestling is a fantastic sport," said Rotundo, who spends his days working as a producer for a multimedia company called MX Production Studios, located in San Francisco. "It builds so much character. It sort of speaks to why I called my website Wrestlers Are Warriors. It's not a military thing. It more just gets to the fact that it takes so much guts to get on a wrestling mat. The sport just needs more people to give back. It took me a while to really be thankful for the sport."

Rotundo, who grew up just outside Buffalo, N.Y., was born into the sport. The son of a high school wrestling coach, Rotundo was first introduced to wrestling when he was 5 years old. He ate, drank, and slept wrestling during his early years. His father, Joe Rotundo, a well-known high school wrestling coach in New York, coached him and passed on his love for the sport.

"I just have so much respect for him because of how much he put into it, how passionate he was," said Rotundo of his father. "It's really mind-boggling. He was not only our high school coach, but also the kids club coach. We would practice six days a week, and Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays we would do a kids club practice, double sessions three days a week."

Joe Rotundo coached champions and demanded a lot out of his wrestlers, including his son.

"My dad was not like the mellow coach," said Rotundo. "He was high strung, high intensity, lots of yelling, watching video right after the matches, and lots of weight cutting."

Naturally, Rotundo found some success in the sport. He competed at the 1984 Cadet World Championships in Greco-Roman. He also placed third at the Empire State Games. But he narrowly missed qualifying for the New York State Championships. (Interestingly, his nemesis in high school wrestling was former Hofstra coach Tom Shifflet's brother, Timmy Shifflet.) Rotundo continued on with his wrestling career in college at the University at Buffalo. But he left the team after two years.

"I never made the varsity lineup there, " said Rotudno. "That was really around the time that I was starting to wane from the sport. I discovered beer and girls."

After college he worked as a copywriter in Washington D.C. ... before deciding to move across the country to California.

"My job as a copywriter wasn't really going anywhere," said Rotundo. "I broke up with my girlfriend who I had met in college. I came out to San Francisco to visit some friends. As I was leaving, one of them said, 'If you ever move out here you have a sofa to stay on.' So that sat with me. About six months later, I said, 'Screw it, I'm going.' I was 25. I had a car, some money, and no girlfriend. "

Tony Rotundo photographing the 2010 World Championships in Moscow, Russia (Photo/Larry Slater)
At that time, wrestling was the furthest thing from Rotundo's mind. He was living and working in California, and content with where his life journey had taken him. But eventually the wrestling itch came back. Rotundo knew that he wanted to get involved again in the sport in some capacity, but did not know exactly what he wanted to do with the sport. He tried his hand in refereeing, which he says was a disaster.

"It sucked," said Rotundo. "I reffed one JV tournament and had these coaches screaming at me that their kid wasn't pinned. I'm like, 'Dude, it's a JV tournament. Your kid was on his back for a minute. He was stuck. Why are you screaming at me? So I didn't do that for very long."

Eventually he got into coaching wrestling at Berkeley High School, first serving as an assistant coach before taking over as head coach. That lasted five years. It was during that time that Rotundo met John Sachs at a high school wrestling tournament in California.

"It was our state qualifying tournament for the North Coast section in California," recalled Rotundo. "John happened to be next to our team. He was frustrated because they wouldn't let him photograph from the floor. We just started talking."

Rotundo knew as soon as he began talking to Sachs what the next phase of his life would be.

"The minute I met John and asked him what he was doing, I knew at that moment that I was going to work with him," said Rotundo. "It was like there was no question in my mind at all. It was like a flash ... I was like, 'Yes, that's exactly what the next phase of my life is going to be with wrestling.'"

John Sachs (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)
At that time Sachs had already begun to make a name for himself as a wrestling photographer. He had launched his sports photography website Tech-Fall.com and photographed some of the nation's premier wrestling events, like the U.S. Open and U.S. World Team Trials.

Sachs took Rotundo under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of wrestling photography. Soon the two began working together, traveling the country and world shooting wrestling events for Tech-Fall.com.

"John has been an amazing mentor to me, completely selfless, just showed me the ropes in every way," said Rotundo. "I owe him a lot of credit. He's a great guy. He really helped me get to the level that I'm at now."

There is a mutual respect between the two.

"Tony is a comfortable guy to work with, a comfortable guy to be around," said Sachs. "He cares a lot about the sport and really enjoys his work and working with the athletes. Tony loves to feel connected to the athletes. You can see that he really enjoys what he's doing and enjoys the participants. We've always just had a good relationship. He's just a fun person to be around and a fun person to work with."

Rotundo thrived under Sachs' tutelage. His work has appeared in all the national wrestling publications and he has had several cover shots. His photos are also used by several Division I wrestling programs. In 2010, Rotundo was named Photographer of the Year by the National Wrestling Media Association.

Tony Rotundo shares a laugh with Flowrestling.com's Joe Williamson at the 2010 Reno Tournament of Champions (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
Sachs and Rotundo worked together for five years, and still do on occasion, but in the fall of 2010 Rotundo launched his own wrestling photography website, WrestlersAreWarriors.com. The website includes photo galleries, as well as a blog, downloadable posters, news feeds, and other features. He recently launched another website called AthletesAreWarriors.com that includes photos from sports other than wrestling and MMA.

Rotundo recently returned from photographing the 2011 World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. It was his third straight World Championships, but his first experience shooting a U.S. wrestler winning a World title.

"Having Jordan Burroughs win was a really special experience, one I hadn't had yet," said Rotundo. "As serious and focused as it is for the athletes and coaches, given I take vacation time and pay my own way, I have to have fun doing it. That said, it's a tremendous amount of work, and hard to explain to friends and co-workers when they ask how fun Istanbul was."

Rotundo's goal is to photograph the Olympics Games. He does not know when that opportunity will present itself. There is a chance it could happen as early as next summer for the London Games ... or he may have to wait another four years.

"It's a great goal for me," said Rotundo. "There's no higher credential than the Olympics. The Super Bowl would probably be tough to get a credential for, but really an Olympic credential is the highest photo credential you can possibly get."



John Sachs grew up as a military brat, bouncing from school to school and state to state. He attended 13 schools in 12 years. He went out for wrestling in junior high, but did not find it to his liking. As Sachs puts it, "I had one miserable season before moving on to another sport."

John Sachs at the 2010 World Championships in Moscow, Russia (Photo/Larry Slater)
He eventually graduated from Southern Regional High School in New Jersey. He spent time in the Coast Guard during the Vietnam War era, working in communications and doing a lot of Morse Code. Sachs' job required him to listen and sort out particular sounds amongst 10 to 12 different sounds. He would be on watch for four to six hours at a time and be able to stay focused and listen for not only friends, but also distress signals. It was that experience that Sachs credits for his ability to concentrate and focus while photographing.

Sachs was reintroduced to wrestling when he told his son, Albert, when he was in seventh grade, that he had to choose a sport to participate in ... and to Sachs' surprise, his son chose wrestling.

Sachs attended his son's meets and tournaments as a spectator, but it wasn't until after his son stopped competing in high school wrestling that Sachs began photographing wrestling events.

"I never took a picture of my son wrestling, which is really funny," said Sachs. "If I did, they probably wouldn't have been very good because I would have been too nervous to take quality pictures."

Tech-Fall.com Website
Sachs began taking wrestling photos in 2002 after working with his son's high school wrestling coach on developing standards of achievement for the wrestlers.

"I thought about how that kind of setup would work in anything you did," said Sachs. "I thought, 'Well, how can I apply that to my photography? What would it take in order for me to go from being a not very well known or accomplished photographer to an Olympic photographer?' So I just started to put that down on paper and decided at that moment that I wanted to be an Olympic photographer."

So Sachs set about on the course to accomplish that goal, just like any athlete would to reach the pinnacale of a sport.

Sachs launched his website Tech-Fall.com in 2002 and began populating it with wrestling photos from youth, high school, college, and international wrestling events.

Sachs continued to gain experience and notoriety with each wrestling event he photographed. He photographed the 2003 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships in New York. Tech-Fall.com continued to expand and grow its audience every year.

Sachs was named Photographer of the Year by the National Wrestling Media Association in 2005.

John Sachs photographed Henry Cejudo when he won Olympic gold in 2008 (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
In 2008, Sachs achieved his goal of becoming an Olympic photographer when he was granted a photo credential for the Olympic Games in Beijing. He was matside to photograph U.S. freestyle wrestler Henry Cejudo winning an Olympic gold medal.

"There's nothing that compares to the gold medal experience," said Sachs, who will be in London next summer photographing his second Olympic Games. "Getting that opportunity to be matside for Henry Cejudo's run in Beijing is just something you'll never forget. The high from that experience stays with you for a very long time."

Sachs makes his home Petaluma, Calif., with his wife, Anne. He is most comfortable with a camera in his hand. When Sachs is not photographing wrestling, he is photographing students and other non-wrestling-related things for a company called LifeTouch Studios.

Wrestling and photography are his passions, but he is a man of many interests and hobbies. The sport of cycling is another one of his loves. He has photographed all of the Tour of Californias. He and his wife traveled to France to photograph Lance Armstrong winning his seventh Tour de France title.

"To me, it's about the speed, the recklessness and the tactics that are involved in the sport," Sachs said of cycling. "I'm really amazed at what these athletes do and what risks they take. That's the big draw for me."

John Sachs at the 2011 NCAA Division I Championships in Philadelphia (Photo/Elite Grappler App)
Sachs is also a wine connoisseur and has been for many years. He lives in Sonoma County, which is at the beginning of California's premier wine country. He knows many of the wine makers and is involved in charity work within the wine country.

"It's a great way to relax, to get out in the vineyards and be part of nature where it's so quiet and so beautiful," said Sachs. "This is an amazing part of the country, all of the small valleys, all of this different terrain that allows for a lot of individual spirit to come out in the wine making. There are a lot of fun and interesting people."

Sachs prefers shooting international wrestling over shooting any other level of wrestling. He will be photographing the Pan American Games for the first time in his career later this month in Guadalajara. He would like to someday photograph the Military World Championships.

He still remains as excited as he has ever been about wrestling photography.

"I'm still excited every day," said Sachs. "I'm anxious for this season to get started. I wish there were more wrestling events to shoot. As long as I feel that way, I'm going to keep photographing and seeing how much more I can do for this sport."

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