FORT WORTH, Texas — Last year at this time, Barrett Stanghill of Philipsburg and Helena’s Toby Erickson were training for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team wrestling trials in the Greco-Roman discipline.
Until they weren’t.
“After a training cycle, I kind of got the hard news and we thought it was just going to be postponed,” Stanghill said. “And then everything got shut down completely.”
The onset of the pandemic ended their seasons prematurely, moved all competition to 2021 (including the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo), and more acutely shut down nearly every avenue that senior athletes had to train and compete.
“COVID has made it really hard for us to get out and train and compete and other aspects,” Erickson said.
Erickson was a two-time state champion at Helena High School who went on to collegiate and international success. Wrestling at heavyweight (130kg), he’s qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials twice in 2021 and 2016, finishing in third place both times.
He is a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and was forced to train at home for a time before receiving approval to resume training with his teammates.
“We just found different ways to compete with each other in the the army WCAP program,” Erickson said. “So now I’m just excited to go out there, wrestle someone else and go have fun.”
Under normal circumstances, men’s senior wrestlers would enter around five tournaments a season and wrestle close 30 matches. But when Erickson and Stanghill take the mats at the trials in Texas on Friday, it will be the first actual senior competition they’ve seen in over a year.
Stanghill was a two-time state champion at Granite High School in Philipsburg who moved to Michigan as a senior to the Olympic Training Center in Marquette.
He qualified for the 2016 Olympic trials but couldn’t finish the tournament after a back injury and a flareup of Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with in 2014.
He again qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials at 87kg by finishing fifth at the 2019 Senior Nationals as a member of the Minnesota Storm wrestling club. But when the pandemic shut down his ability to train, he had to get creative.
“I was living in Montana and working for my father. And then I ended up moving down to Georgia where my fiance lives in Clayton, Georgia,” Stanghill said. “And so I started helping kids a little bit. And then there was this fun kid named Miles and he ended up winning state. And he's been helping me train and we just have a little 8x10 mat that we roll out and across the gym. And so it's been interesting. Nothing has been uniform or structured like it has been in the past.”
It was an unorthodox approach to training, but Stanhgill feels ready for what lies ahead in Texas.
“The best part about wrestling is the competition,” Stanghill said. “So, I didn't train as much, but I'm going to be able to compete and I'm pretty excited about it. I got that itch to go out there.”
There were silver linings from the year-long hiatus as well. Erickson cracked three vertebrae and had two bulging discs near the end of his training cycle in 2020. He and his team were trying to find ways to compete, but the cancellation of the trials solved those problems organically.
“Right before I got ready for my first round of any sort of medical intervention, we got the call saying it's canceled,” Erickson said. “I probably wouldn't have been able to compete at my best if I would have went then, but I let my back heal up and now I get to be healthy. I get to be healthy and compete at my best for this Olympic trials.”
For both wrestlers, the trials offer an opportunity to continue chasing their lifelong dream of reaching the Olympics. But it also serves as a chance to represent Montana on the biggest stage possible.
Erickson and Stanghill are friends and former roommates at Northern Michigan. They talk a lot about setting the example for future generations of Montana wrestlers.
“We’re representing Montana. This is awesome,” Erickson said. “And we are trying to fill the shoes that past Montana greats left for us to fill -- guys like Gene Davis, Bill and Mike Zadick, Brandon Eggum.”
Both Erickson and Stanghill have taken unorthodox paths to domestic and international wrestling success, and they encourage others to follow their dreams no matter the obstacles.
“I think the coolest thing is to be able to show some of the younger kids who are interested in doing great things,” Stanghill said. “Just because you're from Montana, doesn't mean the opportunities aren't there. You just have to go out and find them.”
Only the winners of each weight class will represent USA in the Olympics. The trials begin Friday morning and run through Saturday night. Every round will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network and Peacock streaming service.