Spencer Woods is a relative newcomer to the sport he hopes will take him to next year’s Summer Olympics, and when you hear about his first real taste of Greco-Roman wrestling, you might be surprised it wasn’t also his last.
It happened several years ago when Woods was a Kotzebue High freshman at a tournament in Las Vegas that offered competition in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Folkstyle is the kind of wrestling Woods grew up with in Shungnak and Kotzebue, the kind contested in Alaska high schools. Greco-Roman is the kind of wrestling where competitors must remain on their feet and battle chest-to-chest, the kind of wrestling where a guy sometimes picks up his opponent and hurls him across the mat.
It’s the kind of wrestling, Woods says, that people like to watch.
“It’s a lot of fun watching people go flying through the air,” he said in a recent interview. “And from experience, it’s not fun to look at the crowd while you’re flying through the air.”
Which takes us to Las Vegas in April 2013, when Woods went flying through the air for the first time.
“I was put on a highlight film for some California kid,” Woods remembers. “Oh my gosh. He completely flipped me.
“I helped him get recruited somewhere, I’m sure.”
These days Woods, 21, does as much tossing as flying as one of the nation’s up-and-coming wrestlers. Last month he captured second place at the Bill Farrell Invitational in New York City to secure a berth in the U.S. Olympic Trials in April.
Woods, who wrestles at 77 kilos (170 pounds), is in his second year at Northern Michigan University’s U.S. Olympic Training Site. He transferred to Northern Michigan from the University of Maryland, where he spent parts of two seasons as a Division I wrestler before surrendering to his love of Greco-Roman wrestling.
“At the time it was surprising,” said Mark Lane, the wrestling coach at Kotzebue for several years before moving to Wyoming. “I was really looking forward to how he would do in the Big 10. His time as a Greco-Roman wrestler in Alaska was so minute I didn’t know if he could catch up to those other guys. In my mind he was way behind them.”
Woods closed the gap quickly. His endurance and his willingness to work hard helped, and so did his upbringing in rural Alaska.
Woods learned to wrestle as a little boy in Shungnak, a tiny village above the Arctic Circle about 150 miles east of Kotzebue. He had just started the second grade and was playing outside after school one day when he saw a bunch of his classmates heading back to the school.
“Hey, what’s everyone doing?” he asked.
“We’re going to wrestling practice,” he was told.
Instantly his mind was filled with images of wrestling rings with giant men inside the ropes throwing chairs.
“I thought, ‘No way our school has all this stuff,’ " Woods said. “I got super excited and then I got there and there was this old maroon and gold mat laying there. Where’s all the other stuff?”
It wasn’t what he expected, but once he made the choice to go to practice, his mom and dad — Stephanie Spencer Woods is a Texan who came to Alaska as a dental therapist and Ray Woods is an Inuit who works for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District as its bilingual coordinator — made sure he kept going.
“The first season was really tough,” Woods said. “I wanted to go outside, play in the snow, go sledding with friends. Every single time my parents would hunt me down and make sure I was at practice. They wouldn’t let me quit.
“After that season I was proud of myself. I completed a whole season, and my parents’ friends all said, ‘Wow, you’re a big wrestler now.’ I was 7 years old and that kind of got into my head — ‘I’m a wrestler now.’ ”
Woods was a fifth grader when his family moved to Kotzebue, where he kept wrestling as part of a strong program run by Lane. His teammates included Josh Roetman, a senior at the Naval Academy who qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season.
Woods won two state high school championships at Kotzebue and helped the Huskies win the 2014-15 Class 1-2-3A state championship.
Outside the wrestling room he engaged in subsistence activities like hunting, trapping and fishing. Not only did those things hone his strength and endurance, they gave him a perspective that serves him well as he travels the world to compete in a weight class loaded with talent. It’s hard to rattle him.
“When it comes to these trips, it’s who deals with adversity better,” Woods said. “Growing up in Alaska, it’s always about adversity, especially rural Alaska. You have to get your own wood, you have to learn to live in the cold, you have to go hunting to get your dinner meat.
“When I go on all these different trips, I’m having fun, there’s no pressure. I’ve been doing this since I was 7 years old. I hope things don’t go well, because I do well with adversity.”
Well enough that he spent his entire sophomore season at Kotzebue wrestling with a broken arm and still finished fourth at the state tournament. The injury was misdiagnosed as tendinitis in his triceps, but soon after the season ended he went snowmachining, jumped his machine, landed hard and broke his ulna. X-rays showed the fresh fracture, and the old one no one knew about. Today, several screws hold the arm together.
“From that moment on I knew he was a tough kid,” Lane said. “That was an epiphany for me: He’s got a lot more grit than I think.”
Woods didn’t get a lot of chances to wrestle Greco-Roman in high school. He competed in the summer tournaments in Alaska and the Lower 48, often wrestling in multiple styles. As a freshman at Maryland in the 2016-17 season, he took a redshirt season but still saw his share of Division I wrestling at open tournaments, and in the wrestling room he tried to coax teammates into Greco-Roman matches.
After his freshman year, he earned All-America honors at the 2017 Junior Greco-Roman National Championships and a couple of months later he did the same in the Greco-Roman division at the UWW Cadet & University Nationals and World Team Trials.
By then Woods had decided Greco-Roman was his sport, but he still had unfinished business at Maryland. He wanted to wrestle in a Division I match before he left college wrestling, and he did that early in the 2017-18 season when the Terps traveled to Stanford, a top-20 team. Wrestling outdoors in front of a big crowd, Woods won his match at 184 pounds.
“After that tournament, that’s when I asked my coach to be released so I could train Greco full time," Woods said.
At Northern Michigan, Woods trains in a room filled with Greco-Roman wrestlers and has progressed swiftly. He routinely faces elite competition, and at a recent tournament in Sweden he went 1-2, with one of his losses coming against the Russian who went on to take the gold medal.
“His learning curve was big, but he’s learning fast, which is impressive,” Lane said. "In my mind he’s still really young. And he came from Bush Alaska.
"... If you’ve never been to Bush Alaska, you get off the plane and you want to talk about isolation, it is isolation. And I was in Kotzebue. He was from Shungnak, and for him coming from Shungnak to Kotzebue is like going to Hollywood. I coach down here in the Lower 48 and when I went up there — wow. The amount of work you have to put in to get kids to Anchorage, to fundraise money, it’s a ton of work. Then you go places like Las Vegas, and they go 0-2 because of the deer-in-the-headlight type thing.
“For him to go to a Division I school, for him to be where he is right now, is very remarkable.”
Since Woods graduated from Kotzebue, he has only been able to return to Alaska three times. Flying to Kotzebue is expensive, and his schedule at Northern Michigan is jam-packed. He’s a full-time student studying biology and pre-dental, he’s training daily for the Trials and other competition, and he’s trying to raise money for his trip to the Olympic trials.
At least Woods gets to talk about Alaska a lot, because people are curious about the wrestler who grew up above the Arctic Circle.
“I did go to high school on a snowmachine, my dad did have a dog team, but I can’t see Russia from my house and I’m closer to penguins right now than I am in Alaska,” Woods said, reciting his responses to the many questions he gets.
He said he doesn’t get questions about igloos, but plenty of people want to know if he’s ever wrestled a polar bear.
“I tell them the competition in Alaska is pretty far and wide," Woods said, "and I’m just happy I was able to wrestle the polar bear and not the black bear at the state finals.”