OLYMPICS: Haven man heads to Tokyo to officiate wrestling

·6 min read

Jul. 22—Sam Julian remembers how it all began.

Nearly 20 years ago, as a high school junior, he was competing at a summer wrestling tournament in Mechanicsburg. Sitting in the bleachers with his dad, a call went out for officials to help work the matches. At his dad's urging, Julian gave it a try.

That chance opportunity started a journey that has taken Julian all over the country — and the world — and led to assignments to officiate wrestling at the highest levels. In a few days, Julian will pack his bags for Tokyo, Japan, to officiate the wrestling competition at the Summer Olympic Games.

The Tokyo Games will be Julian's second Olympics as he refereed wrestling in 2016 at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Tokyo Games officially will open today and continue through Aug. 8, with the wrestling competition scheduled for Aug. 1-7. The women will wrestle on all seven days, with the men's Greco-Roman on Aug. 1-4 and the men's Freestyle on Aug. 4-7.

As a 36-year-old working his second Olympics, Julian brings a lot of experience to Tokyo. He's collected several major honors, such as winning the 2009 Glenn Blackman Award (outstanding up-and-coming official in USA Wrestling) and the 2019 Bill Stecklein Award (outstanding international official on the mat who also helps develop other international officials in the organization). Julian said Stecklein is his mentor who worked four Olympic Games and established himself as one of the best officials of all-time in USA Wrestling.

Just last week, Julian added the Dave Errett Award for the official who goes above and beyond nationally to mentor others.

Julian will be one of just two Americans officiating wrestling at these Summer Games. What did he learn from Rio that he will take with him to the mat this time around?

"Just to be ready at any time," Julian said. "You don't know what matches you're going to do. The athletes have worked their whole lives. It's very important that it's a properly-officiated match and that we only see red and blue (uniforms) and ignore what countries are out there.

"I'm completely honored and shocked," Julian added, "and I hope it shows other people that they can reach their goals as well. Not too many officials have done one (Olympics), not to mention multiple."

Julian's first international assignment came in 2010 with the Cadet Pan-American team that competed in Monterrey, Mexico. Since then he's been all over the world, officiating championships in such far-flung places as Croatia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Peru, Romania and Turkey, to name a few.

Just this year, Julian has done the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Fort Worth, Texas; the European Olympic Qualifier in Budapest, Hungary; and the World Olympic Qualifier in Sofia, Bulgaria.

"I really enjoy traveling," Julian said. "I wanted to see as many states and countries as possible. Once I got heavily involved, just the friendships that were made and the networking. It's a big part of my life, so I don't have any plans of giving that up any time soon."

The 2024 Olympics in Paris, the 2028 Games in Los Angeles and the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane, Australia, are on his radar.

"That is the goal, but again, every year you're evaluated," Julian said. "You could be up, you could be down. That is my hope and dream to continue, but I know that it's going to take hard work and dedication."

For now, though, all of his energy is on Tokyo.

Julian's itinerary begins July 28 with a 7 a.m. flight out of Harrisburg to Chicago (a little over 2 hours), then a direct flight to Tokyo (13 hours). Add the time difference (Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of Schuylkill County), and Julian will arrive in Japan more than a day after he left.

He'll need two negative COVID-19 tests, one 96 hours prior to leaving and another 72 hours before his initial flight. Due to the pandemic, the officials will be restricted to the venue and hotel only, with no sightseeing. He'll work the tournaments, then fly out Aug. 8 to return home.

"I was looking forward to that because Japan's on my bucket list," Julian said of exploring Tokyo.

"I was looking forward to the sightseeing, but I feel like this is the light at the end of the tunnel with COVID," he added. "I feel like having all of the countries there, and the athletes competing for medals, and all of us as officials that have gone through the qualification process, this is the premier event. Even though we can't do the sightseeing, it's still going to be fun."

The Summer Games had to be postponed last year, and it was unknown for a long time whether Tokyo would be safe enough to hold the Olympics. Despite calls to postpone again, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo officials moved to go on with the show but not allow fans to attend.

"I'm excited that it's taking place, because ... it crushed a lot of people that things were canceled last year," Julian said. "It's nice to be back out on the mat and have people doing what they love."

The Games will be different in many other ways. Julian said he will wear a face shield when he's on the mat. He won't touch the athletes or raise the hand of the winner. He'll point to the winner of the bout, similar to how it was done in high school wrestling this past season.

"The stands were packed in Rio," Julian said. "Some countries had more of a following: Iran, Russia, USA. You had chanting in the stands, people waiving their respective flags. This year it's basically the athletes, coaching staff, medical staffs for the respective countries, media, team leaders, and that's about it.

"Hungary and Bulgaria didn't allow fans," he added. "The Trials in Fort Worth had a certain capacity. It was restricted. All of the events I've done this year have had a different feel."

Still, it's the Olympics. Julian has gotten the call, and the autistic support teacher at Schuylkill Haven Area High School intends to be there.

"The community support, especially where I work, has been absolutely amazing," Julian said. "My family and friends, the same thing. I couldn't do all this without their support. ... It keeps me involved, and it's humbling too to have this much support and know that people are behind me."

Contact the writer: blipsky@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6012; @boblipskyRH on Twitter

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