Kennard-Dale High grad John Stefanowicz gets sendoff from family, friends before Olympics

Rob Rose
York Dispatch
Team USA Olympic athlete and U.S. Marine Corps SSgt. John Stefanowicz, left, of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., talks with Sgt. Maj. Adrian Lopez before community members celebrate Stefanowicz during their Hometown Olympic Sendoff parade beginning near Stefanowicz's parents' home in Hopewell Township, Saturday, July 10, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

When John Ondrasik released his song “Johnny America” in 2006, he had no idea it perfectly described a boy who grew up in central Pennsylvania.

The song by Ondrasik, known by his stage name, Five for Fighting, describes the life of a child who continues to fight an uphill battle while most people doubt him but a few believe in him. In the end, he succeeds and reaches the top despite the struggles along the way.

“A head full of hopes, a pocket full of dreams,” Ondrasik sings. “Some think he'll make it to the top today, some say he never will.”

So as Suzanne Marsteller was looking for a soundtrack to the Kennard-Dale High graduation video for her son John Stefanowicz before he joined the Marines in 2009, “Johnny America” was the perfect fit with his name in it and passion for the U.S. 

Marsteller couldn't have known how much of a perfect match it would become.

Stefanowicz wrestled in high school, but as a 5-foot, 3-inch, 125-pound senior his career didn’t amount to much for the Rams. He never reached a state wrestling meet and gave up the sport when he enlisted.

Meanwhile, his younger brother, Chance Marsteller, became a wrestling phenom, going undefeated at Kennard-Dale during his career and winning four PIAA titles.

In 2011, Stefanowicz picked up wrestling again while in the Marines and restarted the journey to achieve his dream of representing the U.S. in the Olympics. Ten years later, Johnny America was back on the street where he grew up on Saturday as his community showed support before he headed to Tokyo to achieve a dream few believed was possible but can be explained perfectly by the lyrics Ondrasik wrote years ago.

“It talks about the kid as he's growing up, and he just isn't the number one guy and is a late bloomer,” Suzanne Marsteller said. “He's always getting bruised and battered, and he just doesn't stop. He constantly perseveres, and then at the end, he's on top of the mountain, he wins, and everybody realizes that. That's his whole story.”

From left, Suzanne Marsteller, of Hopewell Township, looks on as her son, Team USA Olympic athlete and U.S. Marine Corps SSgt. John Stefanowicz, of Jacksonville, N.C., talks to his son Connor Stefanowicz, 6, while wife Samantha Stefanowicz, back right, gathers Colton Stefanowicz, 3, as community members prepare to celebrate John during their Hometown Olympic Sendoff parade beginning near Marsteller's home in Hopewell Township, Saturday, July 10, 2021. The Olympic athlete will leave next week for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Stefanowicz was celebrated by friends and family on Saturday at Suzanne Marsteller’s house, a few hundred feet from the house he grew up in. Red, white and blue decorations covered the house and road surrounding it as members of the community honked their car horns as they drove by.

The Kennard-Dale High graduate is less than two weeks from representing Team USA at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Stefanowicz earned the 87-kilogram Greco-Roman spot on the team after he finished No. 1 at Olympic Team Trials in April.

Since he relocated to North Carolina, Stefanowicz saves his trips home for special occasions, which certainly described Saturday’s affair. In addition to the patriotic decorations, Stefanowicz received a sendoff from several police officers and local firefighters as well as community members who wanted to show their support.

“Coming back and seeing it is definitely one of the things you just start smiling about,” Stefanowicz said. “It's not something you ever anticipate. It's not something that was forecasted.”

Well wishes and community sentiments fill a banner celebrating Team USA Olympic athlete John Stefanowicz (not pictured) at Bonkey's Ice Cream and Snoballs in Stewartstown, Saturday, July 10, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The day was even more special for the family because they won’t be able to join Stefanowicz in Tokyo after Japan’s latest COVID-19 concerns forced officials to ban spectators from the event and issue a state of emergency. Stefanowicz was disappointed to hear the news because of how much the support of everyone around him has meant during the process.

“My family and friends are going to have an experience taken away from them as much as it is taken away from me,” Stefanowicz said. “They've been with us the whole time. They've been on this Olympic journey with me. I might be the one in front of the camera here and there or being able to go compete, but they've earned it just as much as I have. So, it's definitely a series of unfortunate events that have occurred, the way in which Tokyo has worked, but at the end of the day, you can just be happy. We're blessed, we're healthy, and that’s all we can really ask for.”

Ten years after he restarted his wrestling career, Stefanowicz is approaching a level that at times not even he believed was possible. 

Clockwise from top left, Team USA Olympic athlete and U.S. Marine Corps SSgt. John Stefanowicz, poses for a photo with wife Samantha, and sons Colton, 3, and Connor, 6, all of Jacksonville, N.C., as community members prepare to celebrate Stefanowicz during the Hometown Olympic Sendoff parade beginning in Hopewell Township, Saturday, July 10, 2021. The Olympic athlete will leave next week for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Dawn J. Sagert photo

As he began the nearly 7,000-mile trip to Tokyo, Stefanowicz was given a reminder of how far Johnny America has come with the lyrics “Go, Johnny Go” written on one of the cars in his caravan — and at the same time how much more work there is to do in the coming weeks to achieve the ultimate goal of a gold medal.

“Sometimes it's the best thing in the world, and sometimes it is frustrating to know that you've worked so hard, and then something's going to come by so quickly,” Stefanowicz said. “Other times I sit back and I stare at the kids and I see anything can be accomplished, no matter what, no matter who you are, no matter when, or no matter how big that obstacle is. Eventually, if you do the right things or you surround yourself with the right people, that opportunity is going to present itself, and it's up to you to capitalize and that's been great. It's been great knowing that it's actually happening, but it's still been surreal at times.”

— Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.