JD Bergman is a complex and talented man embarked on the mission of his life, which is to say his entire life. He is just the kind of person you think of when you hear the Abraham Lincoln quote which is something like: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
While JD (twitter handle @jdbergmanusa) came to Ohio State in Fall, 2003 on a full scholarship to wrestle–a sport which he loved and at which he excelled (having won two state and three high school national titles), he really had visions of parlaying his preferred walk-on status on Jim Tressel’s football team into a becoming a starting linebacker or fullback. There was no secret about this intention: OSU wrestling coach and 1976 Olympic Silver Medalist Russ Hellickson (himself a three sport star at Wisconsin) knew of the plan and embraced it—if JD’s plan worked Russ would at least get his scholarship back and be no worse for the wear—if the plan did not work, Russ would have a wrestler on his squad who could perennially challenge for a national title.
At Oak Harbor High (a few miles southeast of Toledo), JD was the guy on the football team: running back, linebacker and punter. In fact, he was first team Ohio Div. III-IV as a running back–future OSU and NFL running back Antonio Pittman, ironically was named to the Div. III-IV second team. In the spring of his senior year, he was invited along with a few dozen players from southern Michigan and northwest Ohio to an all-star high school football banquet attended by at least 1,000 persons. Speaking extemporaneously, guest speaker Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel (twitter handle @JimTressel5), just a few months after leading his Buckeyes to a national title, specifically cited JD for his hard work on the football field and on the wrestling mat. The bond established, one thing led to another and before he knew it, JD had two opportunities at Ohio State, even if the football opportunity did not come with a scholarship attached–yet. What the relationship with Jim Tressel did for certain was that whatever doubt there might have been about his collegiate choice, JD was now going to be a Buckeye.
Life as a Gridiron Walk-on
JD did in fact start his freshman year at Ohio State as a wrestler. In fact, he had a stunning freshman year–after losing in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tourney, he won his next seven consolation bracket matches to place third in the nation–as a true freshman! Still, he stuck with his plan to pursue Ohio State football glory in the spring football season following his freshman year of wrestling. Unfortunately, after the season he participated in the freestyle wrestling US Open and injured a hand. Not being able to participate in football contact drills he hung out with the kickers, hoping to make an impression as a punter. He was befriended by then Buckeye kicker Mike Nugent and seemed to be off to a flying start.
Three events standout from JD’s brief Buckeye football career. First, at a scrimmage in Ohio Stadium, supervised by coach Tressel, JD lined up to take a long snap to punt at about his endzone in a full contact practice. The snap sailed over his head. Although he was able to get ahold of the ball before it went out of the endzone, he could not evade the 300 pound defensive linemen in ravenous pursuit and was tackled for a safety. As a walk-on JD was not coddled from facetiously loud veteran player abuse. The second event went much better—at a spring practice in front of invited Ohio high school coaches, JD bombed kicks so deep that coach Tressel told him he would be punting at the upcoming spring game.
Dream becoming reality—anyone who knows anything about Ohio State football knows how huge the spring game is. With the name “Bergman” on his back, JD ran out the tunnel for the 2004 edition with the likes of AJ Hawk, Anthony Gonzalez and Pittman. In front of a reported 45,000 screaming fans. When it came time to get on the field, JD was relieved to be kicking from mid-field, not the back of his endzone. Preparing for a high snap, JD was ready. “Hut!” The ball came low, headed for a point on the grass well in front of JD. Prepared as he was for a high snap but being shocked to see a low snap instead, JD stepped forward attempting to scoop at the same time but muffed the snap. In front of 45,000 for his only appearance in a Buckeye football game, his punt was blocked.
Sadly, or mercifully perhaps, the closest one can get to finding a record of JD’s appearance is the following from the Ohio State website “Leading the Scarlet defense was Matthews with five tackles and two sacks, while sophomore defensive back Ashton Youboty (Klein, Texas/Klein) recorded four tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, one pass breakup, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt.”
Although Coach Tressel made it clear JD could try again when healthy, knee surgeries among other injuries never permitted that to happen again. But when one door closes…
Chasing the World
Now, after a successful Ohio State wrestling career, like long-time teammate Reece Humphrey (twitter handle @reecehump60kg), JD has won two national freestyle titles sandwiched around a year of heartbreak in the 2012 Olympic qualifiers, and is poised to compete for a world title in Budapest, Hungary in September.
Buckeyes Humphrey and Bergman comprise two sevenths of the US World team—two others, Keith Gavin and Tervel Dlagnev train with them on the Ohio State campus at the Ohio Regional Training Center (ORTC). There are striking similarities between their Ohio State and national freestyle records (both lost NCAA titles in one point losses in the championship match). (The 2007 NCAA championships were especially eventful for JD. Wrestling in the 197 pound class, JD lost in the first round as a sixth seed. Then, starting from the very beginning of the consolation bracket, JD started an yet another epic run which like is freshman run is still talked about. Along this long and torturous route he had to beat a succession of wrestlers as they themselves dropped down from losses deeper into the championship bracket. In the consolation semifinals he beat current UFC terror “Phil Mr. Wonderful” Davis from Penn State before settling for fourth place by losing in the consolation finals to the 11th seeded Hofstra wrestler, Chris Weidman (twitter handle @ChrisWeidmanUFC), now a reigning UFC champ after his recent dramatic knockout of Anderson Silva).
Before going any further, let’s acknowledge just a few of the great coaches JD has encountered along the way, starting with youth coach and sixth grade teacher Mike Eshrich (“Mr. E”) and his dad, Jim Bergman (Ohio high school state champion from Toledo’s Cardinal Stritch–curiously, as noted in Archie Griffin Where Art Thou, Archie was a favorite by many to contend for the 1972 167 pound title–to win it, he would have had to beat actual champion Jim Bergman). He was also coached by his uncle Joe Bergman in junior high and George Bergman (longtime Oak Harbor High wrestling and football coach) in high school. He was then blessed to do his collegiate wrestling under the great Russ Hellickson mentioned above and the youthful Tom Ryan (twitter handle @buckeye158, an NCAA runner-up at Iowa where he was a teammate of the irrepressible current Iowa coach Tom Brands). He has also greatly benefited from the tutelage of Ohio State associate coach and ORTC Head Coach Lou Rosselli (@LouRosselli), who judging by the success of the ORTC, has something magical going. JD especially acknowledges the strength training he receives from JL Holdsworth and the “crossfit and crossfit mobility” training he receives from Joe Snider. (Humphrey was recruited by Hellickson and also coached by Ryan and Rosselli, and no doubt also gets an earful from old teammate, two time National Champion and current Ohio State Assistant, J. Jaggers @jjaggers2x.)
Pursuit of Personal Excellence the JD Way
JD Bergman bursts with energy in conversation, going into extraordinary depth in rapid succession on a host of different topics, but it is clear his life has evolved to one comprised of a unified collection of devotional, relationship, dietary, athletic, training, intellectual, recreational and health pursuits. He describes with charismatic evangelism the interconnectivity of the various facets that comprise his assault on life. So when you ask JD about his diet, he refuses to describe it as such—instead he refocuses the discussion on a lifestyle in which diet is but one essential part. His evangelism certainly includes that with a capital E—his Christian faith is the umbrella within which his life fits—but in toto he is an evangelist with a lower case e—all the many complex and moving parts that make up his life are to be experienced and shared with those who will receive his message, hopefully as a whole, but he is more than happy to break it down and share by component parts.
JD’s approach has evolved over time, though recently the approach has incorporated a few drastic revisions. There are several differences between the JD Bergman of last year, who lost his Olympic bid, and the JD Bergman of this year, who has emerged as a more dominant national champion than before.
JD has had his share of devastating injuries—a broken back, four knee surgeries, multiple shoulder and disc surgeries. Within the last eighteen months, he has been told that surgery is required, not merely to wrestle, but to ensure he can continue to simply walk. Indeed his wrestling, let alone wrestling at such a high level, at one point represented a clear and present danger to his health. Facing such a prognosis just when he was in a position to strive for athletic achievement on a world stage, JD has addressed it with strict faith/mind/body/care assault in an effort to change his reality.
From a training regimen standpoint, JD took three months where he only stepped onto a wrestling mat a few times a week. When not wrestling during that period, he substituted cross training methods, especially borrowing from the increasingly popular crossfit and crossfit mobility regimens (crossfit mobility uses things like foam rolls and pvc pipe to do a sort of deep tissue massage). For his specific challenges, this type of cross training reduces the strain on troubled parts of his body while letting him better dictate how his training can help reduce the risk to and support the injured areas.
JD says that although blessed with youth and extraordinary athleticism, his inattention to nutrition was significantly hurting his ability to compete. He now believes, and there are persuasive voices from the scientific community in agreement, that the body was designed to run at a high level primarily using fat as a fuel source, not carbohydrates. Fat is a by-product of eating anything, whether it has nutritional value or not, that is stored until burned. Carbohydrates and their resulting sugar provide little nutritional value but are either turned to fat or burned more quickly in the expenditure of energy. Proponents believe that because of the typical American diet, most people burn sugar first and fat secondarily, thus first relying on a fuel source that introduces little nutritional value. So as a body loads up on bread, rice and pasta that convert to large amounts of sugar, the fuel source is sugar. Proponents believe a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables, fish, grassfed beef, eggs (including the yolk) and nuts, without reliance on dairy, breads and rice converts the body, especially the body of an athlete, into a machine that uses fat as its primary fuel source, which is a more powerful and efficient source of fuel. JD also insists that quality matters in the consumption of food and so he submits that food should be organic where possible and genetically modified food should be avoided.
One might think a wrestler, under constant weight loss pressure, would be burning large amounts of fat and if not losing enough to be attempting weight loss results from forskolin or other alternatives, and that’s certainly true on a relative basis. However, wrestlers pay the biggest price for weight reducing inefficiency—those who are the most inefficient wrestle at competitive disadvantage compared to the more efficient weight losing wrestler. So the margin for error is small—unnecessary pounds cannot be left on the table, so to speak. A fat burning program intuitively would seem ideal for the wrestler to the extent it is true such a program burns all available fat before sugar is added to simply fuel a training regimen.
And to JD’s mind the food dilemma involves much more. The typical American diet leads to cell inflammation which inhibits cellular waste discharge and restricts cellular nutrient intake–a double whammy. Thus the body feels unnecessary inflammatory pain (not just in muscles and joints where the pain is noticeable, but throughout the body) while starving a little at the cellular level. Again, proponents believe that the bread, rice, pasta and dairy diet leads to and exacerbates numerous health problems including diabetes, arthritis and allergies.
Strategic Use of Medical Care to Improve Quality of Life and Avoid Injury
As part of his holistic assault, JD also relies heavily and primarily on chiropractors, who he believes as a profession, are focused on and rooted more in prevention of disease. He does not quibble with the extraordinary value of modern medicine in cases of emergencies or severe damage, but so much of modern medicine is focused on addressing problems once they have occurred (after all, hospitals that need to fill beds, doctors who get paid by insurers only when patients have a clear medical need and pharmaceutical companies looking to sell drugs for actual conditions cannot really make money unless someone gets sick–prevention is bad for the provider part of the system generally). Again, these thoughts have support in the health care field at large, though reliable data is still sparse. JD’s experience is that chiropractic practitioners, who are generally cheaper and more available than doctors, have a fundamental focus on and have carved out a niche in disease prevention, and in a sense, guide their patients in more systemic ways to avoid illness and injury. He then believes the specific training they apply using mechanical methods takes stress off the nervous system and other areas of the body, including joints that are so susceptible to injury.
In practical terms, JD has combined all these elements in such dramatic fashion that surgery is no longer recommended by his physicians. Not only have his measurable conditions improved, but he is now out of substantial zones of risk. He also indicates his energy level is much better, he is far less fatigued, his workouts can now be more strenuous because his recovery time is so much shorter (in effect, naturally duplicating the effects of steroids without the harmful side effects) and he is therefore stronger and in better cardiovascular shape. His allergies have also disappeared. To a large extent we have to take JD’s word for it. However, in real terms, on the mat, anyone who saw him compete in the World Team Trials in June in Stillwater knows how dominant he has become. If you still don’t believe just watch this—->
ORTC coach Rosselli is emphatic about both JD’s dominant turnaround and the effect of JD’s programs. “There is not one formula in my experience that works, but the important thing is to have a program that works for you and that you can believe in. When JD is healthy he can beat anybody. A lot of guys don’t know what they have until it is too late. JD has grown. His nutritional plan has been exceptional and the consistency with his training has been at an elite level. He understands his body and has learned to listen to it. Sometimes we push him like we push all others but I know with JD that he is going to need to figure out what is best as he goes along–and seeing the growth he has gone through gives me confidence that I can trust him to do what is right. And he has, so sometimes when he needs a pause to do things differently, we respect that and plan accordingly. But as you saw in Stillwater, this is a guy who at age 28, in a brutally demanding sport, is on the rise and he will continue to get better if he sticks with what he has learned.”
The results are apparent to us. The reasons are clear to JD.
A Man on a Mission
Spirituality plays a large role: one can readily understand the clarity JD insists he achieves through devotion: whether before a match for concentration on the specifics of the task at hand or as a resort to a source of strength; or in training as a means of breaking down his sport in ways he can understand to better attack his own areas of weakness. One can also understand how thoughtful attention to a code of conduct can simplify choices and remove the tugs of self doubt or uncertainty as one decides how to deal with those choices. But to JD it is more. God has given him a body that is intended to be fed and cared for in a certain way—it is his job, in commanding the machine God has blessed him with, to operate it effectively and efficiently.
Thus, in this context, what seem to be setbacks, especially when viewed from the narrow perspective of pursuing an Olympic title, actually become opportunities when viewed in light of the broader goal. So it is that, rather than complain about time lost to injury, JD approaches the time off as a blessing because it affords the opportunity to be involved with youth projects and share on several levels, including spiritually.
Likewise, while losses on the mat are not a frequent occurrence, to JD they have to be put in perspective. Woody Hayes once said, “show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you a bus boy.” JD has his own perspective: “People often don’t understand losses. Don’t get me wrong, I really hate to lose and think only about how I win every match, and I drive through each match so that if I am in danger of losing by one point, I win by one–it takes a mindset. But it is important how you handle a loss when it happens and put it in perspective regarding how you are growing. Win or lose you can learn and keep getting better. But if you lose and think that just because you lost you’ve regressed, guess what? You just really did regress. Fear of losing becomes a big liability for a lot of people and it retards their growth and artificially lowers their ceiling.”
For much of what you might expect an athlete to do in retirement, you see JD doing now. Public speaking, whether through wrestling camps or as an invited speaker in a variety of settings—church, sport, alumni, promotional, civic—is a cherished opportunity to share his approach to life. If JD were to settle on a specific non-wrestling goal right now he does not jest when he insists it would be to host a food or nutrition show that meets his evangelical approach to eating and living. It is no surprise that JD has found himself in front of a camera—when the eagerly awaited Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell wrestling movie “Foxcatcher” comes out about the time this fall that JD is involved in his world title quest—he can be seen in the movie. He and Humphrey can also be seen with Buckeye Tommy Rowlands (twitter handle @Tommy Rowlands) in the Ithaka Project, a moving documentary on wrestling (see twitter @IthakaFilm2012). But first things first. JD was selected to film a potentially lucrative Nike commercial—an opportunity he had to turn down because the filming coincided with his date in Stillwater, Oklahoma last month for the World Team Trials.
JD also is a huge ambassador, inside and outside of his sport. For years he has served on USA Wrestling Committees, serving as a voice for the safety and concern of the athletes. An enthusiastic and engaged communicator, he takes on several causes simultaneously—again, as part of his interconnected approach to life. Emblematic is a t-shirt JD produced calling attention to wrestling’s fight to stay in the Olympics, his own pursuit of Olympic gold and his deep faith, emblazoned with “respect all, fear ONE.”
Wrestling is, as almost everyone knows, the oldest original Olympic sport, and is in an uphill fight (a fight that seems increasingly winnable) to stave off Olympic ostracization. While wrestling is in fact one of the most popular sports in the world—170 countries wrestle at the Olympic level—it is a sport that perhaps because of its ancient roots and because of where it is most popular (Russia, Iran, Bulgaria, to name a few)—has resisted change. It is ironic that the potential Olympic abolition of the most ancient Olympic sport is in many respects attributable to holding itself hostage to ancient precepts. The move to more actively involve athletes in wrestling’s administration, the scoring rule changes to make the sport more understandable and exciting for the fans, and the expansion to include female wrestling are breathtakingly beautiful changes that were long overdue.
JD thus believes that while dropping wrestling from the Olympics would be “ridiculously stupid, the changes that are resulting by the threat are some of the best things that could have happened.” In September, the International Olympic Committee will finally decide wrestling’s fate. In September, JD will chase the dream of becoming world champion. Almost simultaneously, JD and his sport will look to overcome adversity and become all the richer because of it.