'Warrior mindset' puts Kennard-Dale grad in strong position to earn unlikely Olympic berth

Kennard-Dale High graduate John Stefanowicz, right, has his hand raised after he won the 82-kilogram (181-pound) gold medal at the 2020 Pan Am Games in March. Stefanowicz is ranked No. 1 in his weight class for Team USA.
  • John Stefanowicz is No. 1 on Team USA in Greco-Roman wrestling at 82 kilograms.
  • The 2009 Kennard-Dale High School graduate won gold at the 2020 Pan Am Games.
  • Stefanowicz is sponsored by Adidas. Ex-K-D star Chance Marsteller is his brother.

For years, it seemed that John Stefanowicz’s aspirations of representing Team USA in the Olympics were just dreams that would never come true.

Especially when the 2009 Kennard-Dale High School graduate was a 5-foot, 3-inch, 125-pound high school senior who had never reached a state wrestling tournament for the Rams. Not surprisingly, he also had no college offers.

More than a decade later, the chance to compete for a gold medal, that Stefanowicz has craved since he was young, is there for the taking after a grueling journey in the sport.

The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Tokyo Summer Games for a year, but Team USA Greco-Roman head coach Matt Lindland said an extra year of preparation might be exactly what Stefanowicz needs to ensure not only a spot on the Olympic Greco-Roman team, but a chance to leave with some hardware around his neck.

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“His skills have caught up with his desire, work ethic, toughness and grit,” Lindland said. “All the intangibles are there; I think those are innate with the warrior mindset he has. Now he has added the skills to beat these guys. Some of the stuff he’s doing is incredible.”

Reigniting the fire: Incredible might not be a strong enough word to describe the transformation that Stefanowicz’s body, mind and abilities have undergone since he left K-D.

Two years after he graduated, Stefanowicz started wrestling again in the armed services as a way to stay active. By the time he picked up the sport again, Stefanowicz had grown seven inches and gained nearly 75 pounds. He applied for the All-Marine wrestling team and made the squad.

At first, he was just happy to be a member of a group that included elite collegiate and international wrestling champions. Soon, however, just being part of the team wasn’t enough and the fire inside Stefanowicz was reignited.

“Once you taste victory or defeat, you come to the point that where you’re at just isn’t enough,” Stefanowicz said. “Once I got that drive back, things started changing.”

Kennard-Dale High graduate John Stefanowicz, right, wrestles for Team USA at the 2020 Pan Am Games against Mexico's Jose Andres Vargas Rueda. John Stefanowicz won a gold medal at the event.

Hard work pays off: After high school, Stefanowicz started to focus on Greco-Roman wrestling, where holds below the waist are forbidden, and finished fifth at the 2014 U.S. Open. Although he didn’t meet the requirement of a top-three finish to make Team USA, the result served as a notice to him that his Olympic goals as a kid were no longer dreams. With enough hard work he had a chance to get there.

“I realized where I sat, how close I was and how much better I could be,” Stefanowicz said. “Everything kind of came around and was like, this is our goal, this is what we can do and we’re going to burn a trail going forward and become an Olympian and it has been like that ever since.” 

Fast forward to 2017 and Stefanowicz had earned a spot as a member of Team USA. He was runner-up at the Greco-Roman World Team Trials and won the Dave Schultz Memorial International event that year. In 2018, he grabbed the Armed Forces titles in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. Then, 2019 was highlighted by a Greco-Roman Final X victory over two-time U.S. Open champ Kendrick Sanders.

All the wins and the meteoric climb up the Greco-Roman rankings aren’t lost on Stefanowicz. The No.1-ranked Stefanowicz doesn’t forget all the times he struggled with losses when he was young. He now enjoys the opportunity he has to educate kids on how important it is not to dwell on results and rankings.

“Just because you didn’t place in the state tournament, just remember you got a lot further than I did,” Stefanowicz said of his message to young wrestlers. “Today I’m ranked higher in the world than I was in my own district in high school. It truly can turn around full circle, and when it does, it’s going to make you that much better.”

Learning from losses: The ability to deal with losses and bounce back is something Stefanowicz takes pride in. Defeat isn’t something he has to deal with as often now as he did in high school, but some recent losses on a big stage allowed him the chance to make some necessary adjustments to his process.

Stefanowicz’s Final X victory earned him a spot in the 2019 Greco-Roman World Championships in Kazakhstan. Coming off a major win, Stefanowicz wasn’t sure if he had become complacent because of the success, but after a pair of losses where he didn’t score a point, the K-D grad left the event questioning his ability to mentally focus. 

He got the chance to respond in March, when he represented Team USA at the 2020 Pan Am Games. Stefanowicz won the 82-kilogram (181-pound) Greco-Roman gold medal. It showed himself, and all the people who helped him prepare for the tournaments, the level he can perform at internationally.

“This is what I do, this is how I do it,” Stefanowicz said. “Sorry I didn’t do it at worlds, but this is what you can expect from me here on out.” 

Kennard-Dale High graduate John Stefanowicz, center, receives the gold medal he won in the 82-kilogram (181-pound) class at the 2020 Pan An Games.

Lindland added that the mental toughness Stefanowicz showed by responding with a big victory is exactly what the squad is in need of from a leader.

“That’s the kind of individual you’re looking for in your program,” Lindland said. “Somebody who’s willing to make mistakes, fail and figure out what they need to do next time to make those adjustments and succeed in the future.”

Sights set on Tokyo: The 28-year-old may not be the only member of his family in Tokyo next Summer. Stefanowicz’s younger brother is Chance Marsteller, who is regarded by many as the best high school wrestler in York County history. Marsteller won four state titles at Kennard-Dale, where he finished at 166-0. He went on to become a two-time All-American for Lock Haven University.

Marstellar will compete for a spot on the U.S. freestyle wrestling team. The pair is now sponsored by Adidas Wrestling, a fact that is still crazy to members of their family, who remember the duo as kids.

“We would get yelled at for running in the basement or blasting the music too loud working out and now we’re the faces of a major brand,” Stefanowicz said. “My mom thinks it’s awesome, but it still brings a little joy for sure.” 

Lindland and Stefanowicz both say that another year to prepare is only going to help him reach the Olympic dreams that seemed impossible after high school. Stefanowicz doesn’t have the elite high school or NCAA resume that most members of Team USA have, but once he steps onto the mat, past results aren’t worth anything.

He has had to battle for everything he’s earned to this point. Anybody that stands is his way will have to go to war against a Marine staff sergeant. They will learn first hand just how badly he wants to taste the Olympic gold in 2021.

“When I walk out there, it’s a fight,” Stefanowicz said. “I have lived and breathed that and my success comes off the fact that when someone goes out there with me, it’s a fight and I either come out as a winner or a person that never wants to be wrestled again.”

Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.