Olympics In Sight For Penn State Wrestling’s Anthony Cassar…But First: A Repeat
Whatever Anthony Cassar had to prove as a college wrestler, he did that last season.
“My confidence has been there since day one,” he said at Penn State wrestling’s preseason media day Tuesday. “Even when it may’ve seemed unrealistic to some people, I always saw myself as a champion, so it solidifies what I believe in myself, but it’s just another day for me.”
A year ago, Cassar broke into Penn State’s lineup at heavyweight after injuries and a season-long battle for the starting job had previously hampered his career. From the first match of the season when he won via technical fall, he seemed like a man on a mission but already in a league of his own.
He went 30-1 and won 22 of his matches with bonus points en route to an NCAA Championship. In almost every bout, he was both faster and stronger than his opponent, which made way for more than a few commanding, high-scoring affairs and just as many highlight-reel clips of Cassar lifting his opponent off the mat.
The season culminated with a dominant run at nationals, where Cassar went 5-0, outscored his opponents 33-6, and avenged his only loss of the season with a 10-1 win over Oklahoma State’s Derek White in the finals.
A few months after his feel-good championship run, Cassar was granted a medical redshirt and sixth year of eligibility this summer, making a repeat of his national title seem imminent. However, after last season, his sights and astonishing lifting regimen had already shifted to a new goal: a gold medal at next summer’s Olympics.
After receiving his redshirt, Cassar considered not even returning to Penn State this season in order to train for the Olympics full-time. However, it came down to a matter of what would help reach the podium in Tokyo next summer. And contrary to recent trends among wrestlers like Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and
Missouri’s Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman, he opted to go for the Nittany Lions’ loaded wrestling room and meat-grinder of a schedule to prepare himself for next spring’s Olympic trials, which will be held at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“The main factor was, after sitting down with my coaches and family, what was going to be the best thing leading up to my ultimate goal of becoming an Olympic champion in 2020,” he said. “But it doesn’t hurt to help the team win a national title along the way.
“It was pretty fun [winning a national title] the first time, and I’d like to do it again. Just because it’s not my main goal, doesn’t mean I’m not going to give my all to it.”
As he prepares for the Olympics, Cassar will wrestle a modified college season where he’ll miss duals throughout the season in order to compete in freestyle tournaments.
Cassar is one of “four or five” Penn State wrestlers who want to make a run at the Trials in April, according to Sanderson. As a result, the Nittany Lions built their schedule for this season around them and their needs and will go with multiple lineups throughout the season to fill in for wrestlers like Cassar who are absent.
For example, Penn State was noticeably missing from the Southern Scuffle (or any mid-season tournament, for that matter). Instead, while the Nittany Lions as a team may be idle over winter break, the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club will be busy with the US Olympic Trial Qualifier in Texas on December 20-22.
In contrast to other teams where Olympic hopefuls are taking the year off to train, Penn State’s only wrestler to do so is Mason Manville, who’s training to compete in the Greco-Roman style of the sport and needed to focus on it exclusively, as opposed to college’s folkstyle.
“I’m confident based on history that running through an NCAA season can be a blessing,” Sanderson said. “We’ve seen several guys come off an NCAA season and make a World team and win medals. You’ll be well-conditioned, but maybe not traveling the world as much.
“What we’re doing and not doing is unique, because we’re trying to get guys ready for the Trials.”
Part of what will aid Cassar’s training is the opponents he faces in the wrestling room, not in front of sold-out Rec Hall crowd. Every day, he has his choice of Olympic champions to work with.
With Sanderson, a 2004 gold medalist, assistant Jake Varner, a 2012 gold medalist, and new NLWC resident athlete Kyle Snyder, a 2016 gold medalist, Cassar can go head-to-head with some of the best upper-weights to represent the United States this century. They, as well as Nick and Seth Nevills, who are both much heavier than Cassar and mirror the opponents he’ll face internationally, make for a challenging slate of partners to push the limits of his strength.
And when he isn’t looking to test his strength, but instead wants to improve his speed, a key aspect to his style, he can work with some of the other smaller wrestlers — whether it’s fellow Olympic hopeful Bo Nickal, World champion David Taylor, or one of the handful of other national champions sprinkled throughout the Lorenzo Wrestling Center.
“You want to surround yourself with the best possible people who have similar philosophies, work ethics, and values,” Sanderson said. “We want to have the best training opportunities in the world. That’s my job as coach of Penn State, to do what it takes to make sure we have that. It’s the kids’ job to take advantage of that.
“It’s not about being the best in the room. It’s about being the best in the world.”
What’s the effect of training in a room where you aren’t the best? Cassar said he’s spoiled now that Snyder’s arrived and that even after only a few weeks of working together, he’s noticed improvements in himself and even in Snyder.
One partner Cassar won’t pin and tell about, though, is Sanderson. When asked if he’s ever beaten the 11th-year coach, Cassar said he couldn’t say, because he’d be kicked off the team. Although we don’t know the details of their match-ups, Sanderson’s high praise should be enough of an indicator of how things have gone behind closed doors.
“Cassar is extremely committed to everything he does, and I think that’s why everyone saw jump levels over the last couple years,” he said. “I think he’s jumped another level. It’s because every day is about doing the right thing and he’s not cutting any corners. He’s moving enough weight in the weight room that it’s making me uncomfortable.”
And if the numbers Cassar is putting up in the room are of interest to you, that’s another thing he won’t share.
“They’d scare you,” he said. “They’re high.”
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