Corey Hope: Wrestling on the Edge of a Cliff
The journey to the Olympic Dream comes in many forms and, with the growth of wrestling in the Unites States, there have been more opportunities for wrestlers to earn monies through the sport and other platforms that have provided more financial and training freedoms than in years past. However, to no fault of anyone, there are still a majority of athletes who have had to find time to train and work and family and fund their own trips and competitions and live without the advantages of such finances. But, regardless of how the road to the dream is journeyed, it all comes down to two days on four platform- raised mats inside of Dickies Area in Fort Worth, Texas. And all that matters in the end is the quality of wrestling that takes place.
Starting today, the Olympic Dream for many wrestlers who have sacrificed and suffered, trained and dreamed, will begin to unravel on those blue and gray Dollamur mats. For a select few, they will advance on those mats and go on to represent the United States of America in the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. For everyone else, their Olympic Dream will perish on those very same mats with questions left unanswered and moments left unfulfilled in memories that will forever remain.
And that is the beauty and the tragedy of the wrestling journey: it simply does not care how a wrestler gets to any one point; it only cares how the wrestler performs on the mat when that opportunity arises.
For Corey Hope, his journey back to the Unites States Olympic Team Trials has been a difficult one, maybe even unconventional in some ways to some people, but it has been a journey filled with a love for the sport, hard work, personal growth, respect for and from his peers, a family bond, an unwavering support system, no regrets, and a lifetime of memories. The Carol Stream, Illinois, native will, for the second time, step onto the mat and look to make his Olympic Dream a reality. And, according to the 77- kilogram Greco-Roman wrestler, Hope believes that the only thing that can get in the way of his dream is his own performance.
Hope’s wrestling journey comes in four parts, but neither moment seems separated or more important than the previous one. It began at Jay Stream Middle School before it took him through Glenbard North High School. It sent him and his twin brother, Ryan, off to Northern Michigan to focus on Greco-Roman wrestling, earn a degree, and experience the senior level. And, finally, there was a serious knee injury and a stubborn comeback that has brought him to this moment.
The three Hope brothers, Chandler, the oldest, and twins, Corey and Ryan, all began wrestling at the same time. For the twins, it was sixth grade, for Chandler, it was seventh. “We really didn’t know about all these different clubs that were out there,” Hope said. “So, for us, when we entered middle school, that was our chance to finally try wrestling. We went to a dual the year before and we were like, ‘Yep, this is what we want to do.’ For my parents, I think it was one of those things where they had three boys, all within a year of each other, and it would be a way to harness some of that energy.”
As the boys entered middle school, they were soon introduced to Glenbard North’s feeder club, the Cougars, and North’s off-season club, Mat Rats. “Coach [Ryan] Bonelli and Coach [Brendan] Doyle were our coaches at Jay [Stream Middle School], and they told us about the club and the I.K.W.F. [Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation], but it would be two years before we would join club wrestling. It was quite a steep thing for my parents, financially, to just put all three of us into an off-season club. But, when it was time, my parents and the coaches figured it out and we never missed a practice or an event.”
Even though Hope had already been wrestling for two years in the middle school, when he began his one-year kids’ club career, he remembered that he did not fare too well in those opening tournaments. Fortunately, through hard work and being headstrong, by season’s end, “I had qualified for the I.K.W.F. State Championships by the skin of my teeth,” Hope laughed. “I didn’t win a match at state, but I had two crazy matches to get me there. I think those last two matches really drew me in closer to the sport. I think it was the work ethic that was needed and the challenges it presented that I loved the most.
“To me,” Hope continued, “wrestling is the greatest sport because it is the greatest equalizer.
Wrestling doesn’t care if you’re short or tall or skinny or wide or if you have a big gas tank or no gas tank or much or little strength or whatever—wrestling allows you to take whatever talents you have and apply them to what you do best to make your wrestling your own. There is no one feature or attribute that makes a dominant wrestler. You can take what you have and make it successful for you. And I have always appreciated that about the sport.”
When it was time to wrestle in high school, the twins followed their brother Chandler through Glenbard North. For them, North was a special place with a number of family ties.
“It’s actually pretty funny when I think about our family’s connection to Glenbard North,” Hope laughed. “The first wrestler to ever step on a mat for Coach [Bob] Fulk and Glenbard North when the school first opened, was my uncle Glen [Paul]. He was the first Glenbard North wrestler to step on the mat for a match, the first Glenbard North wrestler with a win a match, and the first Glenbard North wrestler to win by fall. So, there’s this family connection to the wrestling program that’s special to us.”
While Hope was in North’s room as a Cougar, he would look up at the “Wall of Fame” and see pictures of Glenbard’s greatest wrestlers and hear coaches tell their stories. “As a kid in middle school,” Hope explained, “as funny as it seems, even though they are just a few years older, those high school guys were heroes to us. Watching them wrestle and do well was highly motivating. We wanted to be like one of those guys. And then the fact that they would come into the room and work with us, talk with us, warm-up with us—them giving back—had a major impact on us and what we would do later on.”
When Hope finally entered high school, he would be in the freshman room and wrestle mostly on the freshman level. “I was between 112 and 119 pounds,” Hope remembered, “but I was still having trouble finding my way being in a weird growing cycle. Since I could not make the freshman line-up, I wrestled with the sophomore team when there were openings. I did well at the tournaments and in duals and slowly came into my own. Then, in time, I was starting on the freshman team. I finished above average and had a very good sophomore season. As a sophomore, I won every tournament I entered and had less than a handful of losses.”
But it was the summer between Hope’s sophomore and junior season that would impact his Greco- Roman journey the most. “We started working with Coach [Mike] Pineda at House of Pain [Wrestling Club],” Hope remembered. “We weren’t focusing specifically on a style, we were just focused on training and continuing to find our individual style. It wasn’t until [Coach] Pineda brought in Joe Williams that Greco became our thing. We went through one practice with him and Joe said, ‘You have to wrestle Greco.’ So that’s what we did. The first Greco tournament I ever entered was the Illinois Greco-Roman State Championships. I didn’t win a single match—but I did hit one good arm throw, and that lit a spark in me. That next year, Greco is all we did. After that, we were introduced to guys who were pushing Greco a lot. Guys like Jake Harrell and Nate Piasecki, and Bryan Medlin and Mike Powell, and we were finding our way.”
In 2008, in Corey and Ryan’s senior season, they would be part of, arguably, North’s best team. And even though Hope’s regular season did not end the way he wanted, he made sure his final high school tournament would be his best; and it would become his most pivotal match in his career to that point.
“At the individual sectional,” Hope explained, “I lost the wrong way and didn’t qualify for state. I was too hesitant in my matches. I had openings and angles and I just didn’t attack them. I promised myself I wasn’t going to let my senior season end the same way. For the weeks leading up to the team duals, I put in extra time and was, maybe, a little too over the top and consumed, but I was so upset with myself.”
In the opening round of the Dual Team State Championships, North, ranked number seven nationally, would draw into Montini Catholic, ranked number five nationally. “Headed into that match,” Hope explained, “I had the confidence to win. We were the two best teams in the state, but we were wrestling first round because the I.H.S.A. does not seed wrestling. When the coinflip went Montini’s way, they bumped their 145 pounder, Isaiah Gonzalez, to wrestle me at 152—he just took second in state the week before to our guy, Vince Ramos, and he also [handled] me two months earlier at The Clash. But I felt good. The strategy was for me to keep it close, but I thought I could beat him. All year I never came close to Vince, whether it was a wrestle off or a live go in the room, but in our warm-up, something clicked. I felt like I got the best of Vince and he wasn’t just pushing me around—that gave me confidence. I kept telling myself that there was no way I was going to lose.
“In that match-up against Isaiah,” Hope continued, “I started slow. I know I gave up an early takedown and he let me go, but I rode him out in the second period and put some hard mat returns on him. In the third, I could feel he did not like being in the upper-body positions that I loved. I used those positions and scored a late take down to win the match—it was an upset and it was a big win for the team. But that match was also a pivotal moment for me in my career. Knowing I had given so much and won, it confirmed what I had been doing. It was a special moment.”
North would lose the dual, 27-29, and Hope’s high school career would end devastated that the season had concluded without a team trophy. And, like any senior who wanted to continue wrestling, but who had limited accolades and individual exposure, the Hopes were struggling with how to wrestle Greco at the next level. It would take the aid of an unlikely person, in their eyes, to help them find their way.
“We were in a tough spot,” Hope remembered, “because if you wanted to wrestle off-season at that time, there were really only four top-tier clubs in Illinois: Overtime, Izzy Style, Pinnacle, and Oak Park. Overtime was just too expensive for us, Pinnacle was going through some changes, and Oak Park was simply too far away. So, we turned to Izzy Style because it was right down the street. It was very humbling—almost biting our teeth, really—because we just lost to those [Montini] guys in that first round at state. But, Izzy [Israel Martinez] had a top club and, to our surprise, was very respectful to us and went out of his way to help us with our growth in Greco. He knew it was our passion—he even made sure we had specific technique and live Greco matches during practice. After Fargo, we received a call from Jim Gruenwald and he wanted us to come up to Northern Michigan as walk-ons. It was an opportunity to go to college and wrestle, and mostly we wanted to make sure we were still wrestling. This would give us the chance we wanted and give us a shot at the senior level.”
As for what high school did for the Hope brothers, it simply helped pull out the work ethic that was already instilled in them from their parents; it simply gave that work ethic an opportunity to flourish outside of the home.
“My biggest foundations as a person came from my experiences as a Glenbard North wrestler and being around that coaching staff and how they mentored and crafted us into wrestlers and people,” Hope said. “Everything they did still impacts me today. I look at where I am, and it all goes back to those coaches and that program. Those guys always had our backs and supported us good or bad. It is hard, even at this level, to find that strong and that cohesive of a support system. There are a few, and those are the coaches I drift toward.
“And when I think about what [former Head] Coach [Mark] Hahn did for us,” Hope continued, “it will never be matched. He supported us in so many ways. He still supports us. And any time we get back in town, he is the first person we contact. My time at Glenbard North was essential to who I am now as an athlete and as a person.”
As Hope reflected on what he felt was his greatest lesson learned, he laughed and spoke about what he called “Hahn’s Mantra: The Average Person Speech.”
“My favorite quote from Hahn,” Hope explained, “is his ‘Average Person’ speech. He told it to us before practices, during tournaments or after duals, and during various breaks in the season. He said, ‘You can be average and be like everyone else. You can go out and do the wrong things—which is a heck of a lot easier than doing the right things, the hard things, the things that make you a better person— but that doesn’t help you, and that doesn’t help the team. We need guys that want to be above average.Why would you want to be part of the rough instead of part of the diamond? Anyone can be an average guy who walks the halls; be an above average guy with goals and a focus.’ And that has always stuck with me to this day. I try to do the things to not be part of the rough. I don’t want to be average or a general association, I want to be more. His whole ‘Average Person’ mantra ties into all aspects of my life, and it has been something I have truly looked to when I am making decisions.”
When the Hopes entered Northern Michigan as walk-ons, they truly felt that they were in the right place, they just did not know where they fit in. So, with their new coaches, Jim Gruenwald and Ivan Ivanov, the Hopes did what they had always done: they simply worked hard. By the time first semester ended, they had earned scholarships.
“The style up there matched with our style at Glenbard North,” Hope explained. “It was hard-nose hand fighting and hammering home the basics. It was those basics, it was taking guys who didn’t wrestle Greco that much, and turning them into contenders. This was a turning point for me. I was wrestling Greco and I fell in love with it. This is what I wanted to do and I was anxious to see what was going to come of it. We matched up with Coach Gruenwald’s and Coach Ivan’s mentality; they reminded us a lot of the coaches we had at Glenbard—it was easy to be drawn to them and things took off.”
In 2009, the Hope’s first season and the start of the 2012 quadrangular, they learned that spring breaks and summer breaks, and breaks in general, were simply opportunities for training. There was nothing glamorous with beaches and parties and girls and the such—it was wrestling and they embraced it and grew from within it.
As the boys entered their sophomore season, however, Coach Gruenwald took the head coaching position at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, about ten minutes from where they grew up, and the new head coach would be former World Champion and Olympic silver medalist, Dennis Hall. And when he entered their lives, everything once again changed for the better.
“He is my base,” Hope explained. “There is a chemistry that he and I have that I do not have with a lot of coaches at this level. He is the reason I had such a breakout season in 2010. He instilled so much into me—mentally and physically—that I grew as a wrestler and a person. I trust him and he means a great deal to me. He was another perfect fit for me as an athlete and a person and, under him, I excelled.”
However, Hall would leave after one year and another coach would enter. “I will keep it simple,” Hope said, “it was just a bad situation for Ryan and me. We did not agree with the training and the philosophy and we also felt that this new coach did not fully support us. On top of that, Ryan and I both got injured and we were unable to compete at the nationals. Then, we were reinjured before the Last Chance Qualifier for the 2012 Olympic Team Trials. It was devastating for us because we underperformed and we did not have the chance to qualify. Making World Teams is important, but there is something special about the Olympic year, and missing that opportunity hurt a lot. So now we had to wait another four years, but we knew something else had to change.”
For the Hopes, that change would come in 2013 as they took a four-month trip to Armenia for training purposes. It was not only pivotal in their career, but it helped remove them from a situation they were not very comfortable in.
“When we left for Armenia,” Hope said, “the change came at the right time. Out there, there were so many guys looking to chip away at the top. The 2012 Olympics just ended and they had a silver and a bronze medalist—so those guys were trying to get that. They had a successful team and being emersed and living in a Greco culture made the difference. It was not an easy place to live, but we were so appreciative with what we were given.”
In retrospect, the Hopes found that the living conditions was what made part of the trip so great.
“We were in a situation at one point where the electricity would go out at random times,” Hope explained. “Or, at times, the water would stop working for a week. Because of the water issue, Ryan and I garbage-picked a hose and cleaned it in a local water fountain. We then then grabbed those delivery- style five-gallon water jugs, cleaned them out, and we would take everything down to the drinking fountain in the city center and fill them up. We would run back and forth with what we could carry to make sure we had water for showering, doing our dishes and laundry, and for during practices. It was not always an ideal living situation, but it hardened us up a little more than we already were.
“On top of that, everyone was tough at wrestling. Since we had a language barrier, we had to learn technique off of feel and repetition. They also trained differently—and this is where we learned the value of par terre. We would have a three-hour practice, and two hours of that would be a live go in par terre. The philosophy was if you were taken down, you wouldn’t get turned. And, if you took someone down, you could turn them. Their mentality was anyone can fight on their feet, but true champions can wrestle and score and defend in par terre.
“Most people don’t know or hear about this aspect of training,” Hope continued, “but wrestling doesn’t bring you to beautiful and exotic locations that people desire as a vacation spot. The places that can bring out your best wrestling are remote and cold and not what you would find in a travel brochure.
Wrestling doesn’t bring you to resorts, it brings you to places that harden you and test you. And even though we felt strong, these training periods, especially in Armenia, only made us stronger.”
That trip to Armenia changed their mentality, and having Coach Momir Petkovi? at the Olympic Training Center made another difference for the boys between 2012 and 2016. “In Petkovi?,” Hope said, “we had a coach that believed in chain wrestling and sensing things on the mat—creating action and angles based off what your opponent was doing. It was refreshing and it revitalized our wrestling.”
The results were strong performances in 2015 heading into the 2016 Olympic Team Trials. Hope believed that he had a pretty good national tournament in 2015, placing fourth. And then, in December, at the qualifier, he placed fifth. Not long after, at the Dave Schultz Memorial in Colorado, Hope won the tournament and felt that he had all the confidence he needed headed into the Olympic Team Trials at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
“For me,” Hope said, “winning the Dave Schultz meant I had grown in my wrestling. Up until that point, I had lost my first or second match pretty much every tournament, and then I would come back and take third. It frustrated me, but it frustrated Momir to no end. He would tell me, ‘You lose your first match, and then you come back and destroy everybody. You lose to a guy maybe you should beat, but you wrestle soft. And then once you are backed up to the edge of the cliff, then you come out and wrestle like you should—burning through people.’ So, winning that tournament was monumental for me. It meant I was past it all—or so I thought.”
When Hope stepped onto the mat for his first-round opponent at the Trials, everything felt right and everything was going as expected. That was, until he was hit with headlock and pinned.
“The guy wrestled at the University of Indiana,” Hope remembered, “and he was a head locker. I got super into my own head. I had a two-on-one and I elbow passed it by to a reach around, and I was pretty much in good position to score on him. And then I panicked and pulled my hips away. As I did that, he squared up, hit a head lock, and I got pinned. I remember lying on the mat with my head between my legs so distraught. I was like, Your Olympic run is over.”
After his match, Hope sat in the stands next to his parents and brothers and was emotional. He did not want to talk to anyone, and he began to question what had happened, what he did, and how could he have allowed that to happen. But also, in that moment, he knew he was not going to let that be the end of his tournament. He made a commitment to himself that he was going to see it through. And that is what he did. Hope would go on to place third, burning his way through the competition in the mini tournament. Then, in the true third place bout, he would lose and miss his opportunity at being on the National Team.
“I was proud of coming back the way that I did,” Hope said. “I turned a really [bad] tournament into something I could be proud of, but I was still upset that I missed making the National Team—I needed that funding and opportunity because I was not in a good financial situation. I remember telling my coach, TC Dantzler, I don’t want to go back to sleeping on people’s couches or living in people’s homes. But, at the same time, seeing my family and friends and high school coaches made some of that go away, for a little while anyway.”
After the Olympic Trials, Hope did not take any time off. His partner, Andy Bisek, had made the Olympic team and Hope was still training with him. If Bisek needed someone for a video or anything, Hope was there. But as Bisek was heading overseas to train, Hope was back to work trying to build his budget doing odd jobs—whatever he had to do to make money—to live and survive and travel overseas and compete. But Momir wanted something else for Hope.
“He told me to go home to Illinois and take time off,” Hope remembered. “I mean, he was adamant about it. He actually stood over me and watched me buy a ticket home. I bought it and set up my return with my brother and father. But that Wednesday, a day we were not supposed to be in the room, and two days before I was supposed to leave, we were live wrestling. Some of the guys refused to do the live drill a coach gave us, but I wanted to prove something. Once I was lifted in the air—the position that we were practicing—I tried to scramble and, as he threw me over and as I tried to swing my leg out, my left leg got planted in the mat, up against the wall, and we rolled over my whole leg. It was a total dislocation. The outside of my left foot was literally touching my left hip—it was like a closed book. I didn’t notice anything at first, and as I got up, I hit the ground.”
After the trainers came up and put the knee back into place, there were some tests done before phone calls were made. Ultimately, Hope was rushed to the hospital where he stabilized and given the news. He had a full knee dislocation, a torn MCL, ACL, MPFL, and he also tore both of his meniscus.
Once surgery was completed, there was a concern of a second surgery. In that, Hope showed up everyday for two weeks, eight hours a day, just doing rehab. Anything that was beneficial, he was doing. Hope would eventually hit all of his benchmarks, so he avoided the second surgery, but it would be eighteen months before he would step on the mat for competition.
“I had a few setbacks,” Hope recalled regarding his rehabilitation, “but I wrestled in Russia and took a silver, and, at a qualifier for the 2018 World Team Trials, I took a bronze in Finland at the Arvo Haavisto Cup. I had great performances at those tournaments even though I had not been competing and wrestling live; I felt I hadn’t skipped a beat. I mean, some things did not feel right, but I felt like I hadn’t missed too much and I was wrestling well.”
But just as Hope was feeling that his knee was strong, his back started to act up. That Christmas, he could not tie his own shoes, he struggled to go to the bathroom, and he spent the holiday in a chair. But, through it all, he refused to stop training. His girlfriend, Haeleigh, even had to help him put on his socks and shoes and get dressed. Before practice, Hope struggled to get ready, and he did just enough of a warm up to be loose enough to wrestle—he just did not wrestle in par terre.
“I had just spent a year and a half off the mat,” Hope explained, “and I was done sitting out. I was too stubborn and set on wrestling. But I was forcing my body to do things it was not ready to do, or healthy enough to do, but I was determined to fight through it. But, since I had already qualified for the World Team Trials, my coaches made me see the harm I was going to cause, and I conceded and found modified ways to stay in shape. But, as I tried to stay in shape, I injured myself even more and was taken out of competition. At this point people were asking me if I was done. I was not done. I told them that I love what I do too much to stop now even through all of this. I needed to see this cycle through and that is what I did. In fact, COVID helped me heal; that has been a positive for me. But there has been hardship and difficulty, but I worked through all of it, and I am better for it.”
Since, Hope has healed and qualified for this weekend’s Olympic Team Trials through the 2019 December qualifier where he placed fifth. “Going into that tournament,” Hope confessed, “all I needed to do was qualify—that was all that mattered. And now that I am qualified and healed and healthy and here, I am confident in myself and in my corner.”
Cornering Hope this weekend will be one of the same coaches he had at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials, TC Dantzler. “He has always been drawn to Ryan and me,” Hope explained. “He has always been extremely supportive of me and I know he has my best interests in mind. Just having him there brings a comfort to me and my wrestling. He gives me the positive talk and confidence that I need to do what I am here to do. I trust him and I am beyond grateful to have him with me on this journey.”
For Corey Hope, make no mistake about it, he feels his training has been consistent, solid, and it has given him what he feels is the opportunity to make his Olympic Dream come true this weekend. “Having this extra year has given me time to heal and reflect and better my wrestling,” Hope explained. “And I guess this weekend will really let me know if all that I have been doing has been the right thing. Given the chance to do it again, I would not change a thing. I am ready to just wrestle, and I cannot wait to get on that mat and put it all out there. My plan is to wrestle on the edge of that cliff from the start of the tournament, instead of waiting, and see where it takes me.”
STORY BY: TC LIFONTI
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