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Striving to be stellar: Olympic dreams drive Chance Marsteller to wrestling's next stage

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This story was originally published in June 2014.

The most formidable obstacles in Chance Marsteller's run to a fourth straight state wrestling title — to an undefeated career — didn't really have anything to do with his opponents.

Rather, it was the turmoil that swirled around his college recruitment.

It was his fractured back.

And it was a family breakdown so severe that he rarely speaks to his parents and hasn't lived at home in months.

Most never knew the weight of those struggles.

Despite it all, the recent Kennard-Dale graduate ripped through one of the most dominating seasons on record in arguably the most talent-stacked state in the nation. He not only won all 41 of his matches, but he did not give up a single offensive point. Then there's this: Friends and teammates, opponents and coaches, say he did it all as his typical humble, helpful self.

Now, he's at Oklahoma State, having arrived a couple of days after his high school graduation. He talks excitedly about what comes next: college wrestling and attempting to make the U.S. Olympic team and winning a gold medal.

His toughest, strongest opponents are ahead.

Those other obstacles?

At least the recruiting saga — which included backing out of his commitment to legendary coach Cael Sanderson and Penn State and switching to the Cowboys — is long over.

The bad back, which required wearing a brace for seven weeks, apparently has healed.

But his family issues persist, and although he and his parents did not want to discuss most details, Marsteller did admit to living with an uncle for a time as well as with friends. He stayed the past few months with his girlfriend and her parents.

Like most everything else in his life, he said, he has tried to turn the difficulties into motivation.

"Wrestling, that's the easy part of my life, that's the easy job. That's where I go to get away. That's why I drive myself so hard and push myself beyond (exhaustion). It's the best stress reliever there is.

"What also pushes me is that I always know there's somebody out there who has it tougher. That's why you can't get down on yourself. It all has made me grow up faster. It's made me more of an adult in some ways. ... When it comes to serious issues, it drives you to do more on your own."

That's part of why he feels so sure about going 1,300 miles away to pursue his lifetime goal.

• • •

The way he remembers it, he was 11 years old and sitting at the kitchen counter with a blank piece of paper.

Marsteller's unrelenting youth coach wanted him to write down his goals. What did he want out of life? What did he want from wrestling?

So the kid thought as big as he could.

He wrote how he wanted to become an Olympic champion one day.

Ever since, wrestling has simply been about accomplishing one small task at a time, and methodically turning that into what most perceive as jaw-dropping feats, statistics and awards.

And yet it all has just been steps toward what lies ahead for Marsteller, the most decorated wrestler ever from York and Adams counties.

A recent conversation took him back to that kitchen counter seven years ago.

"That was just an idea at the time," he said. "It has developed into a passion and into a drive."

The teacher back then was Cary Kolat, the first Pennsylvania schoolboy wrestler in decades to finish with an undefeated high school career. Then, during college at Penn State and then Lock Haven, Kolat won two NCAA titles and nearly a third. He was an Olympian in 2000.

Marsteller studied all of that. But he mostly saw Kolat as a back-breaking, unforgiving coach who not only challenged his pupils, but blistered and berated them, if need be. And the kid devoured every moment of it. He bought in so deeply that he lived the routine for four years, eventually spending nearly every day with Kolat, who was based in Timonium, Md.

All these years later, that beginning resonates. He said he could never be where he is without it.

"Just the mentality. He gave me the drive, the work ethic, the conditioning, the style," Marsteller said. "A brute mentality, to not care what the circumstances are, to always overcome."

And yet even with Kolat doing the pushing, Marsteller showed almost no limits to how hard he would work. All of that provided him with the ultimate springboard into the sport. He started making waves throughout the state and beyond as an eighth grader.

"Chance ... definitely was unique in his drive at an early age," said Kolat, 41, now the head coach at Campbell University in North Carolina. "A lot of the kids (I coached) are now wrestling in college and doing well, but Chance stood out because of his internal drive."

Kennard-Dale wrestling coach Mike Balestrini said he witnessed the same thing, day after day. It wasn't uncommon for Marsteller to lose six pounds during a workout.

"He was just non-stop. In the mat room he always was pushing, pushing, pushing," Balestrini said. "Never a moment giving anything up."

His parents described how Chance would hole up in the barn they fashioned into a bare-bones training facility behind their home. He'd work out there by himself two and three times a day, for hours in the summer heat. He'd run, jump rope, "shadow wrestle," do pushups and pull-ups and climb ropes.

"He's almost robotic when it comes to that," said his mother, Suzanne Marsteller.

All of that eventually led to an unprecedented kind of success:

He won four state titles in the largest school classification ... in the nation's most demanding wrestling state ... and in the most challenging middle weights (from 152 to 170 pounds).

He not only won those titles without ever losing a match, he rarely was even seriously challenged. In four years, you could count the number of offensive points he yielded on two hands.

The last time he outright lost a match was in 10th grade, when two college wrestlers took him down at junior nationals in Wisconsin — although he was coming off a severe bronchial illness. He hasn't lost to a wrestler his own age, anywhere or at any time, in at least five years.

Kolat and Marsteller are the only two Pennsylvania wrestlers with undefeated careers in the past 50 years.

But, again, they both downplay what most keep buzzing about — if only because it's just another required step to something bigger.

"That first year, that's the hardest year going undefeated," Kolat said. "And when you get over that first hurdle you start putting so much distance between people.

"Everybody likes to be in awe of the feat, but if you're around him, that's what he's supposed to do. If you want to be great, that's what you're supposed to do."

Marsteller said he's glad he stayed at Kennard-Dale to help build a program and to teach youth wrestlers and to make an impact in York County. But he knows it prepared him only so much for what's next.

"The hardest part probably will be getting back into a (wrestling practice) room where every day's a grind," he said of college. "I feel like I've gotten soft the past few years. I warm up the same way and everything, but the drive gets taken away a little bit. As a wrestler, it's a good thing to be on edge, it's a good thing to be a little ticked off, because that's what it's about. It's about the grind."

He certainly may be his own toughest critic. His recent award haul proves that, like when he was named USA Today's Wrestler of the Year.

That's the top high school wrestler, regardless of weight class, in the entire nation.

• • •

Most everywhere he went, people asked about Penn State, even urged him to go there.

He would be only 2 1/2 hours from home. He would be wrestling for a team that won its fourth straight national title in March. He would be wrestling for an Olympic gold medalist.

He admits those expectations and pressure took a toll. The way he tells it, he was lining up in-home recruiting visits last summer around working a camp in New Jersey and trying to find a bit of time to relax. The noise around his college choice kept building.

He called the recruiting process, "One of the most miserable times of my life."

"I was getting a thousand phone calls and I had to turn my phone off for two days and I got home and Cael shows up. I was overwhelmed, so I'm like, 'I'm done.' I was going to take all five official visits, check out all my options, and yet three days into it I was done."

But as the weeks passed, he said, the uneasiness of his quick verbal commitment to Penn State gnawed at him. He finally took his recruiting visit to Oklahoma State and said he loved everything about it. He clicked with the Cowboys' legendary coach, John Smith. He likes their longer-standing tradition of producing Olympians. He embraced the idea of making his mark far from home.

"I think Pennsylvania would either be too much pressure for him because everyone expects so much," his mother said, "or he would be able to get away with too much because that's where he grew up. There would be no middle ground for him ..."

While recruiting wore on him, it didn't threaten the end of his high school career. But this did: aggravating back pain that escalated into a nearly debilitating injury as the postseason progressed.

It became so difficult to move during his district final match that he was called for stalling three times. Some in the Hersheypark Arena crowd booed.

"I was in excruciating pain. I was having trouble walking," he said. "I was at my breaking point the whole tournament, not just that match."

The diagnosis was a stress fracture in his back, and some advised him not to wrestle in the PIAA tournament. That, he said, was not an option. He still dominated a fourth state title match, winning 14-2.

"To do that with a broken back, that's nuts," said West York senior wrestler Kyle Narber, who trains with Marsteller and wrestled him in the sectional finals. "Your lower back is always bending and moving differently."

Even the fracture would heal relatively quickly.

Meanwhile, his home life has been a much more complicated ordeal.

Both sides agree that problems escalated when his parents separated and remained apart for about two years. His mother moved to West Virginia for a time. He remained living with his stepfather, Darren Marsteller. (Chance said he has no contact with his biological father.)

"We had a lot of problems. I was a bunch of the problems," Suzanne Marsteller said. "It wasn't what it should be at all."

Chance decided to move out of the house at the end of the summer before his senior year, close by at first, then farther away with friends. His parents reunited around Christmas.

Each side shifts the blame for the problems to something different. Through it all, the country's most coveted high school wrestler was trying to maintain focus and keep things together in the middle of turbulent waters.

His parents say they hope time will help heal. Chance's older brother, John, is wrestling in the Marines and said he has recently worked his way back onto decent terms with his parents.

"I know things will be OK. It's one day at a time," Suzanne Marsteller said. "There's so much success and pressure for him. As an adult, I couldn't do a quarter of what he's done under that pressure.

"Just being Chance is a lot of pressure."

• • •

The next stage in his pursuit of a lifetime goal already has begun.

It's there, halfway across the country in Stillwater, Okla., where head coach John Smith learned of Marsteller's talents as a sixth- or seventh-grader.

Smith won four straight NCAA titles (2003-06) as the Cowboys' coach and five overall. He won gold medals as a wrestler in two Olympic games and was a six-time world champion (1987-92).

In that vein, Marsteller's unique talents and accomplishments mean only so much right now.

"People have a tendency to think he'll be a four-time NCAA champion and go undefeated," Smith said. "The likelihood of that is almost nil. ... And he's probably going into the toughest weight class in the nation in the next two or three years.

"In some ways, he's going to be an underdog. He's not going to be a guy ranked No. 1, and he'll have things to learn."

Kolat, who hasn't worked with Marsteller in years, said his future will depend on maintaining that unrivalled focus and drive despite injuries, losses — anything.

"Everybody assumes that the jump will be just like going from middle school to high school and a flight of stairs," Kolat said. "Actually, the jump from high school to college is like 10 stories. When you roll people for four years in high school, that's what he has to be careful of. He has to make sure to get that hunger back."

Of course, there's also the possibility that Marsteller might actually improve in ways he never could before by working with older, stronger, more experienced wrestlers each day.

"I know in his mind he's going undefeated (in college). Can he do it? Yeah, in my opinion," Balestrini said. "Will he? There's a lot of variables. Now he's going to be hitting (opponents with) man-strength."

Marsteller talks as if he's fixated on the challenge. He arrived in Oklahoma early to get a jump on his studies and in preparation for his freshman year, whether he redshirts or jumps into competition; whether he wrestles at 174 pounds or trims down to 164.

He speaks confidently but isn't cocky, say those who know him.

"I like the way he handles himself and carries himself. I felt like he was never out there embarrassing a kid or showboating against teams," said Central Dauphin High's Jeff Sweigard, who has coached for 30 years.

"I didn't see his personality change for four years. I never heard a negative comment come out of his mouth." After a match, "he gets up and shakes hands. He's not throwing the No. 1 sign up in the air. He's had all the right to do that, but he didn't do any of it."

Rather, Marsteller relishes having to prove himself in a much different way now, of being at the bottom again.

While his parents say they worry he's being pulled apart by the peer pressure and the demands of his success, there doesn't seem to be a question of handling anything on the wrestling mat.

His first college match could come in less than five months.

His first shot at the Olympics is in two years.

"I love the pressure. I love being in front of thousands and thousands of people when I wrestle. It's great because I feel like my whole life I've had to deal with pressure. ... The more pressure the better. I'm ready for it."

Contact Frank Bodani at 771-2104.