Kennard-Dale grad John Stefanowicz reflects on 'humbling' and 'inspiring' Olympic journey

ROB ROSE
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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.
  • Kennard-Dale High graduate John Stefanowicz had earned an Olympic wrestling berth.
  • Stefanowicz has qualified in the Greco-Roman 87-kilogram class.
  • Stefanowicz is a Marine who never made a state high school tournament.

When John Stefanowicz entered the arena for his first U.S. Wrestling Olympic Trials, he was naturally a little nervous.

A chance to achieve his dream and represent the United States in Tokyo this summer was on the line. One loss would end his hopes. Fortunately for Stefanowicz, he had something special happening next to him to help him shake off the nerves.

His younger brother and fellow Kennard-Dale High School graduate, Chance Marsteller, was in the middle of his match. That helped relax Stefanowicz as he took in the memorable moment. Once Marsteller advanced with a win, the calm that Stefanowicz had felt turned into inspiration after the public-address announcer alerted the fans that a pair of siblings were on the mat at the same time.

“It was really inspiring because I was down during the first round and I remember hearing them call Chance’s name and that he won,” Stefanowicz said. “I'm like: ‘Oh man, I can't lose now, I can't be the brother that loses right now.’”

Losing was not a part of Stefanowicz’s weekend in Texas. The 2009 K-D grad won the 87-kilogram (192-pound) Greco-Roman spot on Team USA’s Tokyo squad. Greco-Roman wrestling features only upper-body moves. Stefanowicz entered the event ranked No. 4 in the Challenger Bracket, but defeated the No. 3 and No. 1 seeds to reach the championship match.

In the final, Stefanowicz twice beat Joe Rau, who was a World Team member at the weight, to secure the best-of-three series win.

His brother, however, fell short of his Olympic dream in the 74-kilogram freestyle division, suffering a loss in his second match.

No Cinderella: The 87-kilogram weight class was a new venture for Stefanowicz, who previously competed at 82 kilograms. Stefanowicz won a gold medal at the 2020 Pan Am Games at his original weight, but didn’t get the respect he anticipated in the pre-trial rankings.

His victory over No. 1 seed Alan Vera was called the best win of the event at the time by wrestling media members, and after he secured his Olympic spot, Stefanowicz was called the Cinderella of the team trials, a title he doesn’t want.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the opponents, but I've been doing this for years now,” Stefanowicz said. “I've made every national team since 2017. I've gotten medals overseas and we have killed ourselves as a team just about every camp, and everywhere we went. So, I'm grateful for the recognition and for the team's recognition, because they really put in a ton of effort that can't be quantified, but I'm not surprised.

"Everyone calls it a Cinderella story. I'm more just happy that that part of the job is just complete, and now we're moving on to something bigger. So, I'm happy and at the same time, I'm ready for something else.”

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.

Overcome with emotion: After Stefanowicz locked up the win over Rau, his first reaction was to check with his coaches and the officials that the result was real. He was overcome with emotion and dropped down to his knees for a few seconds before he popped up and celebrated. The Marine staff sergeant realized he had just achieved a dream after a very difficult year.

“I realized that I'm good, there's no reason to drop down. I made it and it was a great feeling,” Stefanowicz said. “I can't put it into words. The amount of tribulations, the roadblocks that we had with COVID, with the weight-class change, with this seed in the tournament, military obligations, and we just navigated through everything. All the feelings come together right there at the end. Just the best win that I've ever had.”

Before he gets a chance to represent his country in Tokyo, Stefanowicz will wear the stars and stripes during the Pan-Am Senior Championships in May before he heads to Japan early to prepare for the Olympics.

Currently, he’s in the middle of a well-earned rest week after his prolific performance on the biggest stage of his life.

Overwhelming response: Stefanowicz said the response after his win has been overwhelming.

As a kid that set a goal of making an Olympic team, but as a youngster he couldn’t reach the state high school tournament or get a college scholarship offer. So he joined the Marines, where he grew seven inches and gained 75 pounds en route to becoming an international standout.

He hopes his Olympic berth will inspire other underestimated athletes to achieve what seems improbable. He doesn’t want to be viewed as the underdog anymore, but after his unlikely journey, Stefanowicz understands his success on the mat could motivate another kid to make his dreams come true. He carries that with him each day.

“Honestly, it's pretty humbling,” Stefanowicz said. “I've never had so many people tell me how I've inspired them, their kids, or just groups of people. But really the inspiring part, it goes back to the old Cinderella story, it's great, but you know, that road is filled with a lot of failure and it hasn't been an easy road.

"I didn't have success at every level. I didn't have something in my corner at every venture. So, wins like this, opportunities like this, they're a lot sweeter than other ones because it wasn't supposed to happen. I have people that look up to me, and quite honestly, I've walked around the past couple days and it's been a great feeling where I can't think of anything that's wrong right now.

"But at the same time, I feel like I have a greater responsibility. I just know I owe it to those same people to continue to perform and continue to prosper. That way they have something else to look forward to.”

Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.