COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Should Jenn Suhr find herself, perhaps after spending a few weeks amidst the hustle and bustle of a London bursting at the seams with people for the 2012 Summer Olympics, feeling nostalgic for her native Fredonia, she won't have to phone home to find someone to share in a memory or two of simpler, less-crowded times.
That's right, defying the odds for its modest size, Fredonia - a village home to only a little more than 11,000 people, a number dwarfed in size by the four million expected to descend on London from July 27 to Aug. 14 - will not be sending just one participant to this latest edition of the Olympics, but two.
Fredonia wrestling coach?Alex Conti will be traveling to London for the 2016 Olympics as a member of the USA Women’s Olympic?Wrestling team as a coach.
Fredonia Hillbillies wrestling coach Alex Conti.
But while Suhr will don the red, white and blue for Team USA as an athlete, Conti will be wearing the colors on the sidelines, or rather, off the mat, for the four-member USA women's freestyle wrestling squad.
"I found out (that I was selected to be an assistant coach) toward the end of May," he explained by phone from the squad's practice facility in Colorado Springs on Friday evening, "and they gave me official word on June 11 or 12.
"It's a great honor, and I have to thank the Fredonia school board superintendent (Paul DiFonzo) and principal (Todd Crandall) for giving me the opportunity to go and (miss some work)."
Conti, whose coaching resume includes leading the Hillbillies to a Section 6-first No. 1 state ranking (in 2011) and a 37-0 record over a two-year span, will join head coach Terry Steiner, assistant coach Vladislav "Izzy" Izboinikov and development coach Erin Tomeo.
Steiner was a 1993 national champion at Iowa, won a gold medal at the 1996 Pan American Championships, placed fourth at the 2000 Olympic trials and has been the one, and only, U.S. women's national team coach since women's wrestling was introduced as an Olympic sport in 2004.
Izboinikov, meanwhile, was a champion in Russia before moving to the United States, where he built a powerhouse wrestling program at Yucca Valley High School in California; and Tomeo was an accomplished wrestler herself who, among other things, placed second in the U.S. Nationals and third in the U.S. World Team Trials in 2007.
It is, to say the least, an impressive staff, one with which Conti, despite his protestations, belongs.
"It's great to know that they think that I fit what they needed," he said before adding with a laugh, "I think they just needed someone to keep things light, keep things fun. I may offer some small amount of tactical advice, but really, that's not my primary purpose. My job is to keep the athletes, and coaches, loose."
So when the U.S.A. women's Olympic wrestling team needed a calming presence on its staff, Izboinikov knew just the person to call.
"Alex and I, our relationship goes back 20 years ago," he said. "We have coached together in California. Alex was an assistant coach for me from 1993-1995. We built a great relationship and became best friends. I knew the qualities Alex possessed as a teacher, motivator and coach. Most of all, he is a great leader. Many coaches can coach technique, but not many can lead. That's Alex's biggest thing. He can lead and really make people believe in themselves and motivate them to do things they think they can't do. I recognize those skills. I thought those are the same skills to build a championship program, and same to help our Olympic team win gold medals."
Conti, however, is being overly modest considering he has built one of the strongest wrestling programs in New York during his tenure with the Hillbillies. With Conti at the helm, Fredonia has won six of the past seven Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association Division 1 titles and six straight Section 6 Class C titles. He has coached U.S. women's teams in Belarus and also coached Fredonia-native Carlene Sluberski, currently a rising junior at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University, when she became the first female to place at a boys wrestling tournament in New York state.
"Because of my association with Carlene is how things moved along," Conti said. "Give her a lot of credit. The reason I am involved is because of Carlene and her dedication and success. It all comes back to her."
Adding to the honor of representing the United States at the Olympics is the fact that Conti, who for a time was the New York State women's wrestling director, was chosen by the members of the U.S. squad as the best man for the job. Among them are Elena Pirozhkova, who hosted a wrestling camp with Conti in Fredonia about three years ago - right after she became the U.S. World Team Trials champion - and Kelsey Campbell, who he has known for six years.
"They felt like I knew them as well as anybody," he said of his selection. "I've known some for quite a long time. I don't like to talk about it much, but who am I kidding? It was great, and it was really nice of them to think that I could be of some help."
Most recently, that help has come in the form of offering a little perspective during the grueling training period prior to their departure for London on Tuesday.
"We've been doing some inter-squad stuff, just practicing, not competing (against any other teams)," he said. "We had three practices yesterday, two today, so it's been busy."
He joked, "(Thursday) we had a pretty tough practice, and it was my job to talk some people off the ledge."
"He strives in situations like that," Izboinikov said. "He doesn't run away from a challenge. The girls were doubting themselves. He stepped in and reminded them who they are and rechannel them and put them in the right track. He is skilled in that area and is unbelievable. He brings athletes from rock bottom to the top in no time."
The team will arrive in London and remain there through opening ceremonies, of which only athletes will take part. Following the ceremonies, the squad will travel to France, where they will train so that they can "practice away from it all" until they must return for the competition on Aug. 8 and 9.
Conti is looking forward to the trip, though admitted he still feels a little "unworthy" of the honor.
"I just know that there are hundreds of other deserving coaches," he said. "I'm just grateful and honored."
And for Conti and Izboinikov to share the experience together adds extra special meaning for the both of them.
"There are few moments when you get to share a special moment with the people you want right next to you," Izboinikov said. "For both of us being there and sharing those moments together, we are just extremely excited to do this trip together. Being my best friend. I still think in a lot of ways as him as my mentor. From a life-lesson standpoint, I consider him my mentor. I couldn't find a better guy to go to battle with."