By Markos Tsegaye
After another year of competition and growth for the Minnesota Storm, tournament season has come to an end. The organization continued to make strides this season as Patrick Smith just earned his 4th U.S. World Team spot and Christian DuLaney has risen in the ranks as he now finds himself to be one of the top wrestlers in 97 kg. This is just a glimpse of what the Storm achieved as a collective over the past year.
Storm coaches Dan Chandler and Brandon Paulson have worked alongside their team on a daily basis throughout the season, preparing the Storm for another year of development and battles against the world’s best. Chandler, a former Olympian and USA Wrestling Coach of the Year recipient, has coached greco-roman wrestling for over 30 years.
“I do it because I love the sport, the club was founded in 1964 and we want to keep it going as long as we can,” Chandler said.
Chandler said he wants to keep his commitment to the Storm intact, regardless of the organization’s lack of funding.
“Just trying to hold on, we don’t have a lot of funding but the wrestlers still have a great deal of enthusiasm for the sport so that’s promising”
Macaron “Mac” Kukowski was complimentary of Chandler and Paulson in terms of how influential they were in his progression this past year. Since he began training with the Storm at 15-years-old, Kukowski’s time with the organization has largely been on an inconsistent basis. Shortly after he graduated from high school, Kukowski started dedicating more time to his craft.
Kukowski said Chandler has helped him with his conditioning this year while Paulson has worked to improve his technical ability. Kukowski said he’s now “coming for it all” as he strives to make an Olympic team, World Team and a chance at representing the United States at the U-23 World Championships.
“This year was a wake up year for myself, I’ve competed on the senior level before but this was the first year where I won a lot of matches and showed improvement,” Kukowski said. “This year I was able to push some of the higher level guys, next year I’m looking to beat them.”
Christian Rouleau has also been complimentary of the commitment the Storm coaches have put forth. Rouleau, a 28-year-old from Honolulu, Hawaii, joined the Storm in 2018 when his friends connected him with Chandler, he moved to Minnesota shortly thereafter.
Rouleau said he believes a lot of the shortcomings the Storm experienced will only work to benefit the team going forward.
“He [Coach Chandler] was getting me to believe in myself a lot more and I was starting to feel more comfortable in certain positions,” Rouleau said. “Same thing with Paulson, anytime we can go to Pinnacle [Wrestling School] and practice with him is another wealth of experience we have access to.”
In terms of Rouleau’s year, he said he thinks he made a lot of progressions, particularly in his technique and mental strength. While he didn’t accomplish everything he wanted to on the mat this year, he said he’s most looking forward to improving his strategy in matches.
“The thing I caught myself in, especially at the [US] Open, was I was working on one move a lot and I was feeling comfortable in it, but when I got there it was the only thing I was trying,” Rouleau said.
As far as recent success, look no further than Ryan Epps who competed at the 2023 Final X in June, Epps lost his series to Spencer Woods 2-1 after a tightly contested matchup. Before earning his spot at Final X, Epps had little time to prepare after transitioning from basic training to the World Team Trials in just two days.
Epps said while he knew it would be a quick turnaround, he attributed his triumph to his mental preparation as he was unable to partake in much wrestling activity ahead of the tournament.
“I just had a lot of belief in my skills and what I had done prior to that tournament,” Epps said.
Epps has now transitioned from the Storm into a role with the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), a program that allows soldier-athletes to compete at an international level while serving their country in the military.
Epps, a Minnesota native, said while he will miss his time with the Storm, this new journey was the right move for him.
“Just being able to expand my skill set and other benefits like my grad school being paid for so I don’t have to work another job [while] I focus on training,” Epps said. “I weighed out the pros and cons for about a year, it was a big decision but at the same time a new door is opening.”
For Smith, it was a year filled with moments of perseverance and discipline. It started at the US Open where he lost in the Finals to Justus Scott of Army WCAP 6-4. Smith said despite that moment being a setback for him, he said it’s ‘awesome’ to get another chance to represent the United States at the World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
“We train to be able to compete at the highest level, it’s not always guaranteed but you don’t always get there, when it does happen and I don’t take the opportunity lightly,” Smith said. “It’s one way to lose when you feel like you wrestled your best, it’s another way to lose when you feel like you left something out there, I didn’t want to leave something out there.”
Smith said he’s in one of the better places in his career to ‘make some noise’ at the World Championships. At 32-years-old, Smith said he understands opportunities are dwindling at this point in his wrestling career but he remains dedicated to finishing strong.
“A nice ending to my career would be getting a medal at the World Championships and Olympic games, that would be pretty awesome,” Smith said. “I’ve put a lot of time into this sport and that’s the ultimate goal.”
If there was a “Most Improved” award for this Storm roster, it would be hard to vote against DuLaney. Raised in Shakopee, Minnesota, DuLaney developed into one of the Storm’s top contributors this season as not only did he climb his weight class ranking, but he’s now able to set his sights on a realistic chance to represent the United States in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
DuLaney said that while this past year has been a step forward for him, he’s not satisfied with where he’s at right now.
“I’ve gotten a lot better but work needs to be done, even though I got better, I’m not satisfied with being a backup,” DuLaney said. “It’s [the Olympics] a great opportunity, I’m very excited to chase down that dream and work on the areas I need to improve on so I can be ready.”
The development of Donny Longendyke and Richard Carlson can’t go unnoticed either as they both qualified for the US National Team this year. For Longendyke, 2024 will be his third time trying to qualify for an Olympic spot. Longendyke, like Epps, competed at Final X in June. Longendyke wrestled a “True Third” placement match against Brandon Metz of North Dakota and won 6-4 to earn a spot on the National Team.
As for Carlson, his route to the National Team was slightly different. Unlike Longendyke, Carlson didn’t have to wrestle a true third match. At the World Team Trials, Carlson would lose in the 87 kg final to eventual World Team member Zachary Braunagel of Illinois. Despite the loss, Carlson earned his spot on the National Team having already beaten the eventual third place winner, eliminating the need for a true third match up. A year of firsts lie ahead for Carlson as he will not only be on the National Team, but he’ll be eyeing a strong performance at the Olympic trials.
As for the rest of the Storm, while they didn’t experience some of the success their teammates did, they too have something to be proud of. Many Storm wrestlers were able to compete in tournaments throughout the year and make strides in their development. In addition to Smith making the World Team, he made the US National Team alongside Longendyke, Carlson, Epps and DuLaney.
“We still have a ways to go, we’re going to have to keep working but I’m happy with the progress,” Chandler said. “I don’t think anybody expected us to get five guys on the national team but we’ve got to look to the Olympic year, we don’t have any shoo-ins.”
As for what’s next, The Pan American Championships will commence in November, another opportunity for the Storm to elevate their status as an organization. In addition, the U.S. Olympic Team Trials will commence in April 2024 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pennsylvania. The trials will determine placement on the Olympic team, an opportunity Storm wrestlers will be striving to achieve.
Another year of progress comes to an end as the Olympic year gets underway. It only gets better from here, just remember one more thing, STORM UP!
2022-2023 by the Numbers
1 World Team Member, 5 National Team Members
Bill Farrell International
Richard Carlson – Second
Ryan Epps – Second
Donny Longendyke – Second
Christian DuLaney – Third
Fritz Schierl – Third
Pat Smith – Second
Mac Kukowski – Fifth
Barrett Stanghill – Sixth
Christian DuLaney – Sixth
Donny Longendyke – Sixth
Alec Ortiz – Eighth
World Team Trials
Pat Smith – Champion
Ryan Epps – Champion
Christian DuLaney – Champion
Donny Longendyke – Second
Richard Carlson – Second
Barrett Stanghill – Third
Mac Kukowski – Qualifier
Pat Smith – Champion
Ryan Epps – Second
Christian DuLaney – Second
Donny Longendyke – True Third