John Freeman’s rare intensity on the wrestling mat was sharpened in the fire of years of competition against stronger foes. He also had a father who would not let him quit. “My dad was my coach in the background the entire time,” he says. “Every weekend we would find a summer tournament. We would take his VW Bug up to Pennsylvania and all over. There were so many times I wanted to quit. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I did not win a match. Then when I was 9 or 10, against my protests of ‘I want to quit,’ he had a knack for disagreeing without being pushy… He wouldsay, ‘I understand, and here’s why you shouldn’t,’ and that was exactly what I needed. Wrestling is littered with talented people who quit; it is grueling, and it is hard.”
What is possibly most surprising is that his dad was not a wrestler: “My brother was 12 years older. A coach had told him he was too small to play football and that he should try wrestling.” From that point forward John, his brother, and his dad took on a love for the sport and the “physical chess” it displayed at its highest levels. His dad, always a fan of Saints wrestling, sadly passed away in 1992 from pancreatic cancer, but not before he had a chance to see John’s fellow Hall of Famer Khalil Abdul-Malik ‘92 also wrestle for our school.
Former Wrestling Coach Herb Soles convinced John to come to St. Stephen’s School and coached him during his freshman and sophomore years. David Hooper was his coach during his junior and senior years. Coach Soles taught him mat wrestling, and Coach Hooper taught him standing wrestling, and that variety of expertise made John a gifted opponent. He wrestled in the 126-pound weight class during his freshman and sophomore years and in the 145 and 155 classes his junior and senior years.
From the start, the expectations placed on John were only surpassed by the expectations he had for himself. “It was a lot of pressure. I took it very seriously, very quickly,” he says. “I remember losing the match in the finals of the Virginia state tournament my freshman year. I was super bummed out. Everyone cheered me up. I took it very seriously, and I wanted to represent the school. I knew as a freshman that this school was going to change my life, and it did. I knew this as a freshman. Going to St. Stephen’s has had the single biggest impact on my life. There was some pressure on me when I got here, but I got through it with the help of people like Andy Fellows ’82, Hassan Rifaat ’81, and Mark Prince ’83.” John looked for bigger challenges and tougher opponents. He trained with college wrestlers. He would head over to George Mason University, where anyone could walk in and work out. He recalls, “It was mostly college kids in an informal practice. That is absolutely critical to getting better—you have to have someone who beats you up. One of the lessons I learned was to be a tough partner when you are drilling with your partner. There’s a Bible quote: ‘Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.’ Paul Riegert ’84 definitely helped me a lot by being a tough drilling partner.” John admired Olympic wrestlers, many of whom were vegetarians. So, he became one, too.
John’s outer enthusiasm belied a keen dedication to the inner study of wrestling. Coach Soles says, “A lot of non-wrestling types don’t realize the chess match that goes on in a wrestling match. The real thinkers, like John, are scholars of the sport. Much more nuanced than the intensity, which was apparent to everyone, was how he went about it as a scholar. Dave and I used to laugh about it. We would be sitting on the bench together watching John. One of us would say to the other, ‘I showed him how to do that.’ And then the other one would say, ‘I showed him how to do that.’ Then John would do something indescribable that neither one of us had seen before, and we would say to each other, ‘Did you show him THAT?!’ John went beyond our coaching, and he studied the sport on his own. He was always coming back to us and saying things like, ‘The Russians do this,’… and we would say, ‘How do you KNOW that?!’ After practice, everyone else would go home exhausted, and John would stay and do more practice.”
John looks back fondly on his experience on the mats and fields of St. Stephen’s. He was starting center on the football team his senior year and played on the undefeated football team as a junior. He also enjoyed playing lacrosse (“rugby with a weapon”) and was a captain of the relatively new Saints boys lacrosse team his senior year. “It was empowering, incredibly empowering, but a little misleading,” John says. “It was just sports. Life is not sports. You don’t always know the score. But it laid the foundations for whatever I did in the future. Whenever life has thrown me a bunch of challenges, I think … if I can do that, I can do anything.”
“One of the things I learned is that if you just keep plugging away, life will end up giving you a reward,” he reflects. “The mundane consistency and drudgery of practice will pay off over time; it is absolutely worth it. There are a lot of people who believe that talent is the largest part of being a great athlete … I don’t think there are very many great, natural athletes. They are made through the more mundane aspects of achievement.”