Matt Ghaffari doesn’t look at it like he’s coming out of retirement.
Quite the contrary.
“I never left my shoes on the mat,” he said. “Everyone said, ‘You’re coming back from retirement?’ I said, ‘I kept my shoes. I never retired.’ ”
Ghaffari, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, is once again wrestling competitively.
Prior to last month, when he competed in the Sunkist Kids International Open in Tempe, Ariz., he had not competed since 2000, he was 39.
Now he’s 49. Given his mindset, though, he might as well be 29.
“I’m honored to do the sport that I’ve loved since high school,” said Ghaffari, who celebrated his 49th birthday Nov. 11. “(Even though) people are freaked out that I’m 49 years old and I’m still an athlete.”
Sure, people make snide comments. Some of his peers may think he’s a little loopy. Even Ghaffari’s doctors joke with him that USA Wrestling should have an age limit to kick him out.
“When I do well at Nationals in Cleveland,” Ghaffari quipped, “they’re all gonna say ‘Oh, that’s my patient!’”
A strong performance at the U.S. Open is certainly one of the goals for Ghaffari, a longtime Cleveland resident who was born in Iran. But he is thinking even further down the road, as in the London 2012 Olympic Games. And even further down the road, as in the impact his return to the sport can have on American wrestlers for years to come.
“The bottom line is, I wanted to motivate everybody on the team to not be happy to just be on the national team,” he said. “You should be happy when you’re a world medalist for the U.S. If you go to the World Championships and don’t bring back a medal, you’re basically a tourist.”
Motivating others is a large part of Ghaffari’s mission, but he cares just as much about motivating young wrestlers as he does about inspiring Olympians. Over the last 10 years, Ghaffari has earned his MBA and spent considerable time in the business world, but he has also worked as a volunteer coach at all levels — youth, high school and college — in addition to doing motivational speaking for wrestlers and non-wrestlers alike.
Part of the beauty of Ghaffari is that the message he delivers to aspiring athletes is the same one he offers to his four children.
It’s a message about trying your hardest.
“I say, ‘Did you do your best?’ ” Ghaffari tells his young wrestlers, “and if you say, ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Atta boy, now you’re going to get ice cream.’ And if you say you didn’t do your best, I say, ‘OK, you’re still going to get ice cream, but next time do your best.’ ”
It’s a message about health.
“I never smoked in my life, never drank a sip of alcohol in my life,” he continued. “My dad always said, ‘Health is wealth.’ My family and I, we do activities — swimming, wrestling, whatever. You want to play Xbox? You’ve got to go outside for an hour.”
Most of all, it’s a message about determination and one he still lives by.
“I might not have the speed,’’ Ghaffari said. “I might not have explosion. I might be old. But I know I can work harder than anyone else in the U.S.”
And, in all honesty, Ghaffari does have to work harder than anyone else at this stage of his career. When he returned to the mat in late October at the Sunkist Open, he competed against wrestlers who were much, much younger than him. For instance, in his final match, Ghaffari defeated Kenny Lester, who was born in 1987 — three years before Ghaffari won his first U.S. championship. Ghaffari placed fifth overall.
The age discrepancy doesn’t even take into account that Ghaffari is wrestling at 264 pounds after spending most of his career at 286. And then there are the rule changes to which that he has had to adjust.
Yet, Ghaffari doesn’t view wrestling as that much different than when he joined Team USA in 1989, when he made his Olympic debut in 1992 or when he lost his most recent match against Rulon Gardner back in 2000 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Dallas. Gardner went on to win the 2000 Olympic gold medal, upsetting Russia’s perennial champion (and Ghaffari’s nemesis) Alexander Karelin.
“Wrestling hasn’t changed in thousands of years,” Ghaffari said. “You grab the guy, you pin him.”
What has changed is the amount of wrestling that takes place these days — at every level.
“I have kids in high school that have been wrestling for 10 years. They have rooms full of trophies,” said Ghaffari, who grew up in New Jersey before attending Cleveland State. “Now, there are tournaments every week. … There’s a lot of good competition.”
Thus, Ghaffari is forced to train twice a day, five or six days a week, in addition to coaching, speaking and taking care of his family. He is usually asleep by 10, awake by 5:30 and out of the house before the sun has had its morning coffee.
His routine includes plenty of stretching, as his “wrestling muscles are a little bit out of shape” these days. And he allows plenty of time for recovery, since various surgeries on his shoulders, elbows and knees have made him a charter member of what he calls The Lifetime Rehab Club.
But for all Ghaffari has been through in his life, everything else pales in comparison to the thrill of the mat.
“Nothing I did compares to wrestling,” he said. “I went to the Emmys, been on Jay Leno three times, been to the White House four times, been to some of the most exclusive restaurants in the country, sold million-dollar contracts in business. But nothing I’ve ever done compares to what you feel when you wrestle and you do your country well.”
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Drew Silverman is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.