COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Justin Ruiz never imagined he would still be wrestling at age 30.
But here Ruiz is, still winning matches and looking like a top contender to make his fifth U.S. World Team in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Ruiz has come back strong after taking the 2008-09 season off. He won the New York AC International in November and went 4-0 last weekend against foreign competition at the Kit Carson Cup. He competes at 96 kg/211.5 lbs.
"I was very happy with Justin Ruiz's performance at the Kit Carson," U.S. National Coach Steve Fraser said. "He really seems to have his game cleaned up. He wrestled very well and was very strong in most all positions. His attitude is great. He is getting the international matches that he needs to get him back to the top level."
Ruiz is scheduled to return to the mat on Thursday for the Dave Schultz Memorial International Open at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Ruiz won the Schultz the last two times he entered it, in 2007 and 2008.
"The transition back to wrestling has gone pretty well," he said. "When I first started training again, my body didn't feel all that great. It has taken me a little bit of time to get back into wrestling shape."
Ruiz trains in Boise, Idaho. He is coached by Ivan Ivanov, who built a successful program at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan.
The 2005 World bronze medalist took last year off after being upset by Adam Wheeler in the finals of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Las Vegas. Wheeler went on to win an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing, China.
"It was good to step away from wrestling a little bit and take a break," he said. "But it was hard being on the sidelines last year. I really missed it."
Now the father of a seven-month-old daughter, Ruiz said his outlook on his wrestling career is a little bit different now.
"I have a young family now, with my wife (Sarah) and my daughter (Brinklee), and that helps keep everything in perspective for me," he said. "I'm still training really hard and I still want to win really badly, but I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself in 2008 to make the Olympic Team. I'm not saying that's why I lost, but I did put a lot of pressure on myself and I was pretty nervous when I went out there to wrestle. I'm trying to have more fun now and stay more relaxed now when I get ready to compete."
Ruiz said he plans to compete in a tournament in Cuba later this month before focusing on April's U.S. Open in Cleveland. He won five straight U.S. Nationals titles from 2004-08.
Ruiz went 0-2 at the Ivan Podubbny Grand Prix last month in Russia. He lost to two wrestlers from Russia.
He came right back to go unbeaten against wrestlers from China, Japan, Czech Republic and Uzbekistan in the Kit Carson Cup.
"It's real important and beneficial to wrestle some of the foreign athletes. They give you a different look and they have different styles of wrestling," he said. "It's huge for me to get as many matches in as I can right now. That competition helps you take the steps you need to make to beat those guys."
Ruiz last competed at the Worlds in 2007, when the U.S. won the team title at the World Championships.
"I am looking forward to having another shot at competing against the best guys," he said. "I didn't think I would still be wrestling when I was 30. But I still enjoy it. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens this season."
Ruiz said he enjoys competing in the Schultz event.
"It's a great tournament," he said. "I remember getting Dave Schultz's autograph at a tournament when I was a kid. He was a great wrestler who touched a lot of people's lives. He was remembered for being a great person. I've thought a little more about him after we just lost Jake Curby."
Curby had been training alongside Ruiz in Boise. Curby unexpectedly passed away at home recently at age 25.
"I had spent a lot of time with Jake," Ruiz said. "It's just so sad, it's such a tragedy. I enjoyed Jake's wit and his dry sense of humor. I was excited to have him in Boise. I was around him the day he died. He had a good day of practice and I saw him in the locker room, and he seemed OK to me.
"Then Ivan Ivanov called me that night, around 8:30, and said he had horrible news. He told me Jake Curby had passed away. I was in shock - I couldn't believe it. I felt so bad. He was a great kid who had so much going for him."