Spencer Woods

For Alaska wrestler Spencer Woods, there’s a world of difference between the leadup to last year’s World Championships and the leadup to this year’s World Championships.

It’s the difference between happy-to-be-there and belonging there.

A year ago, Woods was a last-minute replacement on Team USA’s Greco-Roman squad. The alternate at 82 kilograms (181 pounds), he spent the weeks before the tournament on a roller coaster as officials grappled with eligibility issues facing the man who qualified ahead of Woods.

“The No. 1 guy was battling sanctions so I didn’t know if I was going to wrestle or not,” Woods recalled in a recent interview. “So it was kind of hectic in the sense of how to stay prepared — some days it was definitely yes I was going, some days it was definitely no.

“That adds stress to a high-stress tournament.”

There’s no uncertainty about his return trip to the Worlds — Woods, 25, secured his spot more than two months ago with a victory at USA Wrestling’s Final X meet.

And so, since returning to the United States from a multi-country training camp last month in Hungary, he has pursued the proper preparation that eluded him a year ago.

He spent a week visiting relatives in Texas. Then he headed home to Colorado, where he’s been spending time working on his golf game.

Proper preparation, it turns out, doesn’t always mean mat time.

“Last year it felt a little nonstop and I didn’t get that mental break,” Woods said. “So this year I’ve spread out some mental breaks to keep me fresh and energized.”

More energy is on the way in the form of his mom. Stephanie Woods is moving in temporarily so Woods can focus on training when he returns to the wrestling room for a Team USA camp at the end of the month. “I’m going to cook, clean, wash dishes, do laundry, run errands,” she said. “Anything I can do to alleviate pressure off him.”

The World Championships, set for Sept. 16-24 in Belgrade, Serbia, will mark the end of Woods’ finest season, and Stephanie and Raymond Woods of Kotzebue have been along for much of the ride. They cheered Woods to championships in April at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, in May at the Pan-Am Games in Argentina and in June at Final X in Newark, New Jersey. They plan to be in Serbia too.

Woods trains and competes a world away from rural Alaska, where his roots run deep — his dad was born and raised in Shungnak, a Kobuk River village above the Arctic Circle. Woods lived there as a child before the family moved to Kotzebue, where Woods was a two-time Alaska high school wrestling champion.

After his 2016 graduation, Woods wrestled at the college level and club level before joining the Army’s World Class Athlete Program in 2020.

He was an emerging talent when he finished fourth at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — held in 2021 because of the pandemic — and now he’s one the top wrestlers in the country. He’s eager to test himself against the best in the world.

“I’m no longer the new kid on the block,” Woods said. “I really found a mature and dominant wrestling style that I can repeat for every tournament, which is key to success in the World Championships. All the guys who medal, you know what they are going to do.

“I’m confident in wrestling in this tournament because I earned my spot this year. I’ve been dominant in the U.S. and competitive in the world. Physically, technically, mentally — I really feel like this is my dominant (time). I’m excited to see where I stack up among the best of the best. I’m confident in this summer’s training, and I know I’m capable of going toe-to-toe with the best out there.”

Shungnak’s Spencer Woods was a 2-time state champion for Kotzebue High. Photo by Sandy Slater.

Woods was one-and-done at last year’s World Championships. He was leading 13-10 late in his opening-round match when his opponent pinned him.

The experience sparked a revelation. Not knowing from day to day whether he was on the U.S. team was stressful, but he realized the smart move going forward was to not waste energy and emotion on things beyond his control.

“What can I control, and what are the things that are important and not important?” he said. “I really feel like rest and recovery are really important. You’ve got to learn when you need a little bit of time off. That’s what I’m trying to do now.”

Visits with relatives and rounds on the golf course notwithstanding, Woods loves to train and approaches it almost analytically, his mother said.

In high school, Woods decided to try cross country running and instantly showed promise. “He said, ‘If I’m going to run, I’m going to do it right,’ so he bought books and bought a Garmin watch and wanted me to time him doing things,” she said. He went on to win a regional championship for Kotzebue.

Stephanie Woods calls her son the complete package — “Natural talent and the hardest worker in the room” — and earlier this season she saw the kind of healthy self-assurance required of an elite athlete.

In order to qualify for the Pan-Am Games in Argentina in May, Woods needed to win his weight class at the U.S. Open in April. And in order to win the U.S. Open, he needed to beat two-time Olympian Ben Provisor, a nemesis who had defeated Woods in all six of their previous meetings.

Spencer Woods (Army WCAP) vs. Ben Provisor (New York Athletic Club). Photo courtesy USA Wrestling

“A few months before, he said, ‘You can go ahead and buy your tickets to Argentina, because I’m gonna win that thing,’ ’’ Stephanie Woods said.

No refund needed: Woods edged Provisor 4-3 to punch his own ticket, and a month later he came back from Argentina with a gold medal.

A month after that he earned his World Championships berth by beating Army WCAP teammate Ryan Epps in a three-match showdown at the Final X tournament. The victory also qualified Woods for next year’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which are April 19-20 at Penn State. Champions there will qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

There are fewer weight classes at the Olympics than at other international meets — six versus 10 — so Woods will have to jump to 87 kilograms next season. That’s about 10 pounds heavier than his current weight, but the Army program has a nutritionist who will help him manage the weight gain, he said.

Just don’t expect him to lose an ounce of confidence along the way. The way Woods sees it, making the Olympic team is a continuation of the process that led to three major championships this year.

“It’s the same thing,” he said. “I’d never (beaten Provisor) before, I’d never won a Final X before, but when I did do that, it wasn’t any sort of great feat in my mind. I trained really hard to make it all happen. Wrestling is an unforgiving sport, but I have confidence in my training and my coaches and the WCAP program in putting me on an Olympic team.

“The same way I’m expecting to eat dinner tonight, I’m expecting to make the Olympics.”

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