Adam Fager has been confident on the wrestling mat for as long as he can remember. That level of self-belief has carried him to the NCAA championship wrestling tournament the last two years.
Utah Valley University is the home of the state’s lone NCAA wrestling program, but it is still working on becoming a national force. Fager is playing a role in bringing that respect. If nothing else, the Wolverine heavyweight will give it his best effort. He has learned how critical that effort is.
“My junior year in high school, I had a breakthrough match,” Fager said. “I had wrestled a kid from Millard High School (T.J. Robbins) two weeks earlier and he beat me 8-4. He took me down four times, easy.
“I was matched up against him for the all-star match. Everyone thought he was going to kill me. I went out and we shook hands, and in the first 10 seconds, he goes out and double-legs me and then puts me on my back. For the first minute and 50 seconds, I was fighting off my back. I talked to the ref after, and he said I was this close to getting pinned.
“I fought the whole time and I didn’t give up when a lot of people in that situation would have given up. I kept fighting and then the period was over. We went back to the center and it was his choice. He chose bottom and got an escape, but I noticed a tendency of his that led to me being able to do one my moves, so I did a head-throw and then pinned him.
“From there, it just taught me that if I give myself a chance and keep fighting and if I’m unwilling to give up, I can beat anyone.”
An uphill battle
For UVU, national respect has been coming slowly, and Fager’s success is a sign of that. The Wolverine wrestling program has been eligible for participation in the NCAA championships for just four years, but Fager reached a national ranking of No. 12 this year.
“(To get ranked) you have to beat the guys that they recognize, and it takes even more for us,” coach Greg Williams said. “You have to beat them and then beat more (of them). If you’re from a Big 10 school, they know the kids because they’re ranked No. 1, 2, 3 in the country coming out of high school. They’re a known name and then they come up and they beat somebody who’s ranked and they’ll pop him right in there (in the national rankings). But we’re Utah Valley, and we haven’t done that much as a program yet.
“Last year, when the RPI (rating percentage index) came out, we had five or six guys hitting the RPI, but only two of them were in the rankings from the coaches or from the magazines or whoever else is doing rankings. Yet we had proven it by beating those people. Then the RPI comes out and proves it, that you’re wrestling at that level.”
Fager has been in the middle of helping Williams and his young program prove itself. By qualifying for the 2013 nationals as a sophomore, he put himself on the map, which led to his ranking this season and his selection as an at-large entry into this year’s NCAAs.
“It’s pretty hard for us at Utah Valley,” Fager said. “There’s been times when we’ll beat ranked people and instead of moving us up, they just drop the person that was ranked. For me, I feel like I ‘m starting to earn some recognition. I qualified last year and I’ve beaten enough decent guys to keep my spot at 13, but I think the Top 10 are really all interchangeable at heavyweight.”
The 2014 NCAA experience
Fager’s run to his goal, an NCAA title, was slowed midseason this year when the junior suffered a concussion in practice and was forced to sit out a couple of weeks. He got back well enough to finish second at the West Region/Western Wrestling Conference championships, and while that did not get him an automatic entry into the NCAA tournament, he did earn one of 45 at-large spots at nationals.
The missed time may have played a role in Fager’s results in Oklahoma City, where he was seeded 15th of 33 heavyweight wrestlers. He lost his first match, and then won an 8-6 decision over Max Wessell of Lehigh before being eliminated on Day 2 by Oregon State’s Amarveer Dhesi.
For Fager, wrestling is all about learning about yourself and then coming back stronger. He has one more year of college eligibility.
Growing up wrestling
The Fagers are a wrestling family, and Adam grew up with the sport. He dabbled in other sports before finding his way to the mat for good. Fager, who played football in high school in addition to his wrestling, tried Junior Jazz in his youth, but the results there only convinced him further that his future was wrestling.
“I tried it one year but I fouled out every single game,” Fager said. “My oldest brother is the one that started (wrestling). He was in eighth grade and his friends were telling him to try wrestling. I have three older brothers and then we all just started wrestling. I was like four at the time and I’ve been wrestling ever since.”
Williams coached in a club wrestling program, and that was where he first met the Fagers. He has been watching Adam’s development for several years.
“They’re a wrestling family. They love wrestling,” Williams said. “He moved to Arizona for a while, so I didn’t get a chance to see him his freshman and sophomore year (of high school). Then, he came back out and wrestled for his older brother, John, at Layton, for his junior and senior year, and he wrestled for me in club, so I got a chance to work with him during the off-season.”
Having been around wrestling so long, Fager has developed a skill set that prepares him well for his success at the collegiate level.
“He’s got a great feel for wrestling,” Williams said. “He’s a coachable kid and we knew he was going to be special. I knew that in high school. He placed in nationals as a junior and as a senior. Then, he came in and started for us his freshman year and ended up having the most wins. I think he was like 30-10 or something.”
Actually, the two-time Utah state high school wrestling champion at 189 pounds (undefeated during his senior campaign), was 32-11 in 2008-2009 and was voted one of the western region’s top freshmen. At the time, he was competing for UVU at 197 pounds.
Then came a two-year mission for the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints followed by a redshirt year during which Fager competed unattached in a few tournaments. He compiled an 11-4 record in those matches, still at 197 pounds. Before his sophomore season, a change in weight class caused Fager to remake himself.
Becoming a heavyweight
Williams says that circumstances led him to move Fager up to the 285-pound weight class. Between going on a mission and then getting married, Adam was carrying more weight than anticipated after the summer.
“His weight was pretty high, and we just felt like, the way he wrestles, he could put on enough weight and be strong, plus he’s terrible at cutting weight,” Williams said. “He was weighing like 230, maybe just under that, and I said ‘if you’re not down 10 pounds by the middle of September, then we’re going up.’ We had to make a decision, he’d already started to go that way, and we thought he’d do well. He wanted to go down, but when we gave him that ultimatum he didn’t mind going up.”
Fager needed to change his body type and adapt to wrestling bigger and stronger men and that took some time.
“There’s a big difference. At that lower weight, I was pretty strong and my hips were pretty heavy so I could get away with a lot,” Fager said. “In going heavyweight, I can’t get away with the things I got away with at 197. I almost had to become a completely different wrestler. It was a big transition. I struggled a lot last year because I was transitioning my technique, my strength and just carrying the extra weight – from weighing like 225, 230 to carrying like 260 in three months. Being able to move and be athletic with that much extra weight is tough.”
After the transition, Fager won a conference title and earned the automatic NCAA berth. He lost his first two matches at nationals.
“Last year, it was tough, because he hadn’t planned that all summer – how he ate, how he lifted, how he trained was as a 197-pounder,” Williams said. “It was a little bit of a transition last year, and he still he did just fine. This year, he came in and he was stronger and his weight was much more where it should have been as a heavyweight. It really shows in his wrestling.”
The weight class shift has caused Fager to make some changes in his technique.
“It is about position and technique over strength,” Williams said. “If you have a wrestler who has technique and who understands how to hand fight and understands good position, and he’s not as strong as a kid, and that kid doesn’t understand those things, that strength’s not going to do you any good. If they’re equal in strength and athleticism, then the person who has the better technique has the advantage. He’ll be able to create more opportunities and make the guy miss when he’s trying to attack.
“Most of the heavyweights are pretty strong. Sometimes you’ll get someone who’s in that 240-range or maybe a little lighter that’s super quick and tall enough that they’re just great athletes and they can use their leverage to help them, but most of them are pretty stout fellows.”
Fager is working his way up to maintaining his ideal weight in the 260 range, but his height and weight can still be a challenge against some opponents.
“I think the guys who are at the full 285, who are taller (can give him trouble), that understand position because then it’s harder for him to get to the legs,” Williams said. “They’re longer and he’s got to get further to get to their hips and it causes him some problems. He’s short for a heavyweight, so if they know how to use their leverage, and use their weight, they make it a little bit harder for him, but there’s not one guy in the country he can’t go with.”
Giving something back
Fager said he can’t imagine a day in his life without wrestling. He sees it as a way of giving back the wrestling community in the state of Utah that has given so much support to him.
“I know that wrestling has really changed my life and in my opinion, it’s the best thing a young man can do for himself to become a man,” Fager said. “The more people that are doing that, the more we can grow the sport in Utah, the better it’s going to be for everyone.”
The thing Fager missed most about home during his two-year mission was wrestling.
“I just love the sport. It’s such a passion of mine and I can’t imagine going a day without it,” Fager said. “Every night, I’d lay and just drill every single move that I know, just because I missed it so much. Since I’ve been back, I’ve done some coaching with young kids and I was able to see where they were and where they grew to, and it’s just such a rewarding experience to know that you made a difference and you helped them feel the same feelings that you feel.”
Fager stops short of calling the sport “fun.” Instead he revels in the head-to-head battle between two competitors alone in the center of the mat.
“It’s not for people looking to do something fun, but the thing is, it’s the most rewarding sport on the planet,” Fager said. “It’s a team sport, but it’s also individual in the sense that you’re responsible for everything you do on that mat and whether you win or lose, no matter what happens, it’s on your shoulders. It’s you that goes out and defeats your opponent one-on-one. I don’t know of any other sport that really compares to that.”
Williams has high expectations for Fager, who will return next year as a senior and a leader for the Wolverines. He knows that Fager has the technique and the strength to compete with anyone. If there is something for his heavyweight to work on, he believes it is his consistency.
“Being intense on the mat every second is an attitude and it’s taking it up a level, and it’s a huge transition from high school to college,” Williams said. “Most kids don’t get that until a couple years, three years in, and Adam’s no exception to that. Once you taste it and you know what that looks like, then you can start to wrestle at that level continuously.”
Fager seems to get that now and it is one of the messages he shares with young wrestlers.
“The No. 1 thing I try to teach — and it’s something I try to do. I ask them, what is the goal?” Fager said. “The goal is to make your opponent never want to have to wrestle you again. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, make them terrified to have to step on that mat again with you. That’s what I teach, just the relentlessness and the desire to get after it.”
The past two seasons have found Fager right where he wants to be when March rolls around, at the NCAA Championships. As he looks ahead to his senior year, he has the same goal. It has eluded him thus far, but the vision doesn’t change.
“I really do believe that if I go out and wrestle to my potential and wrestle to the best of my ability I can be a national champ,” Fager said. “I really believe that and have faith in it. It’s always my goal. It’s a big goal, but you have to shoot for the stars to land on the moon.”