HILL AIR FORCE BASE — For Senior Airman Jeffrey Warra, wrestling was simply a high school sport he played after a friend talked him into it. Seeing himself as one of the little guys at school, Warra knew basketball and football weren’t in his future, so he joined the wrestling team.
He ended up competing at state all four years, with a fourth-place finish during his senior year in Kentucky.
After high school, Warra put wrestling aside, thinking he wasn’t good enough to compete at the collegiate level. But after joining the Air Force, Warra’s section chief discovered his hidden talent and recommended him for the Air Force Greco-Wrestling team.
It paid off. Three years on the team and a recent third-place win in his 59-kilogram weight division at the Armed Forces Championships this spring in Fort Carson, Colorado, Warra realized he underestimated his full potential after high school.
“I thought my wrestling days were done because I wasn’t quite good enough to be on such a high level. I never would have imagined because of the Air Force wrestling program, I’d be training at the Olympic training center with high-level athletes,” Warra said.
However, it’s not a piece of cake — just ask one of Warra’s training coaches, who says the monthlong training is brutal. “We prepare them to basically do battle on a mat, and we rely on the individual athletes to prepare themselves ahead of time,” said Coach Steve Horton, since the team competes against the best Greco-Roman team in the country — the Army — which trains year-round.
The Air Force mission comes first, so that branch’s wrestling training is limited. The team hopefuls practice up to four times a day.
“You wake up each day sore and beat up, but you just have to keep going. Before you get to camp, you already have to have that mental toughness because camp isn’t long enough,” Warra said. “It is challenging.
“At some point during camp, you are going to mentally break, especially when you are training with Olympians and other guys who have been doing this their whole life, but then you wake up the next day and think, ‘What was I thinking? I am getting paid to do what I love, and you can’t beat that.’ ”
Warra didn’t realize he had broken his ankle on day three of camp during his second year on the team. He was slammed in a heated match with a practice partner and continued training and competing, thinking it was just a sprain. He had surgery on the bone when he discovered several months later that it was actually broken.
Around 20 people from the entire Air Force are invited to attend the Air Force Greco-Roman wrestling camp, with only about a dozen making the team. The team competes at the Armed Forces Championships in late spring, and then the top five wrestlers on the team, including Warra, were invited to compete at nationals.
“Our mission for the Air Force wrestling team is to compete at Armed Forces Championships and do our best there, where we beat the Marines for the first time in a long time. Competing at nationals is like a bonus,” Warra said.
Warra has since transitioned back to his job as a maintainer at Hill AFB, although he will be transferred soon to Eglin AFB in Florida to work on F-35s.
“The transition isn’t hard, but it is weird because you start to miss wrestling and you feel like you aren’t doing enough because you are always so busy at camp from sunup until sundown, and when you get back to your job, you still have a mission, but in a sense, it is slower,” Warra said. “It’s almost like a vacation while at camp, and coming back to the job brings you back to Earth.”