Wrestling Olympian joins coaching staff

Pictured is Rodriguez with his club wrestling team in 2015, which includes many athletes from St. John's.

Courtesy Photo

Pictured is Rodriguez with his club wrestling team in 2015, which includes many athletes from St. John’s.

Dave Schultz. Kenny Monday. Nate Carr. To American wrestling fans, these men are legends. To Alberto Rodriguez, they are just three wrestlers of the hundreds he has defeated.

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, was the last competition in his wrestling career. More than 20 years later, Rodriguez was hired as an assistant wrestling coach for St. John’s.

Rodriguez is a 12-time Cuban national champion and six-time major world tournament finalist, but before the accolades and medals, he was just a skinny boy living in Pinar Del Rio. Rodriguez is no stranger to adversity. As a 76-pound, 12-year-old boy in a tough Cuban town, he was often bullied by his classmates and neighbors. When he turned to wrestling, he was initially rejected by coaches because of his frame and had to learn from his older brother.

“The coaches didn’t want me because I was too little,” Rodriguez said. “But I was still determined to keep going, I would never give up. I was a wrestler and I knew I would always be a wrestler.”

I was a wrestler and I knew I would always be a wrestler.”

Rodriguez continued to face challenges even after his first Cuban national title in 1984. He says that many referees were prejudiced against Cubans in international competitions, so he had to beat his opponents decisively in order to secure wins. After establishing himself as an elite wrestler, he was unable to participate in the Olympics during the prime of his career due to Cuban boycott in 1988 and a knee injury in 1992.

“It felt really bad not to be able to go the Olympics,” Rodriguez said. “Cuba mixed politics and sports. Politics should never be mixed with sports because it hurts the athletes.”

Winning wasn’t everything. Rodriguez wanted to share his accomplishments and his experiences.

“I feel great about my career because I am now able to give all my knowledge to the new generation,” Rodriguez said.

Cuba mixed politics and sports. Politics should never be mixed with sports because it hurts the athletes.”

Upon emigrating to America, Rodriguez took coaching jobs in Michigan and Ohio before moving to Texas, where he coaches his own club team, Alberto’s Wrestling.

“At first, I was doing a lot of clinics and coaching at all kinds of colleges and high schools,” Rodriguez said. “When I got to Texas I had already coached so much that I wanted to start my own club.”

Yo Akiyama (‘16) introduced the current 11th grade captains to Rodriguez’s club the spring of their freshman year. The captains consistently practice at Alberto’s Wrestling and credit much of their improvement to Rodriguez’s coaching.

“Coach knows an incredible amount technique and and has wrestled the best in the world,” junior captain Evan Hammerman said. “He’s been able to teach me a lot based on those experiences.”

Rodriguez wins a match against 1994 World Champion Turan Ceylan in the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta.

Unlike many of his competitors, Rodriguez never cut much weight to make the 74-kilogram weight class. Throughout his career, he often faced opponents who were significantly bigger than he was. Rodriguez attributes his success to solid positioning, efficient technique, and awareness of his opponents’ weaknesses.

“I worked hard so I could be as strong as my opponents,” Rodriguez said. “I used whatever moves the other guy would give to me. I would look for his mistakes. I knew my moves and combinations would work.”

Greco-Roman and freestyle are the main international styles of wrestling. In the U.S., high school and college athletes compete in folkstyle wrestling during the regular season. Although Rodriguez trained exclusively in freestyle for the majority of his competitive career, he has adjusted to coaching all styles.

“The moves and wrestling are basically the same. It’s only some rules that are different,” Rodriguez said.

The St. John’s wrestling staff recognizes Rodriguez’s extensive knowledge and experience as both a wrestler and a coach.

“He represents the absolute pinnacle of technique,” head wrestling coach Alan Paul said. “He will not only be teaching the wrestlers, but also teaching our coaches.”

Rodriguez will attend practices and key competitions, including the SPC and Texas Prep State Championships. 

In 1988, Rodriguez became Cuba’s first World Cup champion in freestyle. This season, he looks to make history again by helping the Mavericks win their first team state title.

“I’m watching the wrestlers very closely to see what they need and how they can improve,” Rodriguez said. “I expect them to be the best and I know they can be the best, but we’ll need to work hard.”