Pittsboro wrestler Josh Miller hopes to make Olympic dreams come true at Cleveland’s SPIRE Institute

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CLEVELAND — When Josh Miller looks in the mirror, he doesn’t see a mere bantam bruiser.

Staring back is a future Olympic wrestling champion entering the pantheon of the all-time greats, fierce competitors who converted brawn, blasts of speed and incredible physical feats into mat magic that has mesmerized devotees of the oldest sport for ages.

The Chatham County grappler doesn’t have to gaze far to see what Olympic royalty looks like. He’s training at SPIRE Institute & Academy under Kenny Monday, a three-time Olympian who won gold and silver on the world’s biggest stage and is considered one of USA Wrestling’s all-time international greats.

Miller stunned many wrestling fans in 2021 by capturing silver at the NCHSAA 3A state championship tournament as an unheralded 106-pound freshman at Northwood High School.

He started the 2021-22 season as Seaforth High School’s marquee name and favorite for a state title. But then he jumped at an opportunity to attend SPIRE, an elite preparatory boarding school on the Lake Erie shoreline just northeast of Cleveland, where he hopes to bring his dream closer to reality.

It doesn’t take long talking to Miller to sense an unquenchable intensity.

“If I’m going to do anything, I’m going to do that seriously,” Miller said. “I’m going to do it every day. I’m going to be passionate about it. My goal in anything is to get to the top of it. I don’t care what sport it is, what it is in life, I’m going to get to the top of it.”

Change of plans

Miller’s immediate goal this season was to win a state championship.

“I loved being at Seaforth, I loved being at Northwood,” Miller said. “The coaches there were great. I had a lot of friends there. I was having a fun time.”

But his focus has changed.

“I’m willing to sacrifice winning a state championship if it’s going to get me closer to my world championship, my Olympic championship, my national championship goals and getting into college,” he said.

He was feeling too comfortable easily winning matches at Seaforth, fearing that could make him complacent. He believed a change was needed if he was going to continue to improve because, as he puts it, “You can never be too good at this.”

That’s the sort of hunger Monday looks for in a wrestler, and it’s why he made Miller one of his first recruits to SPIRE.

‘This kid is really special’

Monday first encountered Miller when he was 11 years old.

“From the first time I met Josh, he was serious about himself. He was serious about wrestling, serious about getting better” and being one of the best wrestlers in the country, Monday recalled. “I said, ‘This kid is really special. He’s going to be special.’”

So when he was named head coach to start a brand new wrestling program at SPIRE last year, Monday met with Miller’s parents, introduced them to what was available at the school and set up a program to help Miller fulfill his goals.

“Coach Monday is a great coach. He’s coached a lot of great people,” Miller said. “So whenever I look at the people he’s coached, I’m like, ‘How could I not want to go get coached by somebody who’s known so many of the greats in the past?’ I’m really blessed.”

Coleman Scott, UNC’s head wrestling coach and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, is among those Monday has mentored. Both won NCAA titles for Oklahoma State and co-coached Oklahoma State’s Cowboy Wrestling Club. Before taking the job as SPIRE’s head coach and director of wrestling, Monday was head coach of the Tar Heel Wrestling Club at UNC, a U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center, under Scott.

“He coached me through the Olympics and he was here with me at Chapel Hill for four or five years, so we’ve been together through a lot,” Scott said. “He’s really been a huge inspiration in my career.”

While NCAA regulations bar Scott from talking about individual high school wrestlers, he spoke in general about the advantage of training under Monday.

“You look at any kid, who doesn’t want to learn from an Olympic champ, national champ? He’s a three-time Olympian,” Scott said.

Prep school impact growing

Scott anticipates young wrestlers will increasingly pursue the prep/academy route to get a head start from high-level coaching, and gave a tip of the headgear to Monday for what he’s trying to do.

“We need great coaches at that level who can, in essence, be our feeder program for the college scene and for the international scene,” Scott said. He praised Monday because those coaches are not easy to come by, and it’s not an easy life.

Scott has recruited a blend of public and prep school wrestlers to UNC, ranked No. 12 nationally by Intermat and No. 23 in the coaches’ poll.

“We look, in essence, for the best kid for the University of North Carolina,” Scott said.

But he observed that prep/academy graduates tend to be more academically prepared for the rigors of an elite university like UNC-Chapel Hill because they have already been exposed to highly skilled mentors in challenging college prep classes and on the mats.

That helps to ensure they graduate from college and find success beyond winning matches, which, Scott said, “is one of the most important things we do.”

Academy and prep school sports tailor offerings to the needs of student-athletes. They tend to attract highly accomplished and world-class coaching talent able to produce results generally not available in public schools. Scott said college coaches vigorously compete to recruit from prep wrestling programs in the Northeast United States, where they are more prevalent, although they are springing up everywhere.

In increasing numbers, highly-trained academy and prep standouts are making college and international sports lineups and showing impressive results in national competitions at levels seemingly disproportionate to their more numerous public school counterparts. But finding actual participation data is elusive, in part because there are several governing bodies and, unlike public schools, academies and preps don’t have the same mandates to publicize their data.

What can be quantified are the 21 private schools with wrestling programs in North Carolina in 2022, according to Private School Review. The National Federation of State High School Associations only has pre-COVID numbers available. It lists 7,754 participants at 337 public schools with wrestling programs in North Carolina in 2018-19.

Public-private friction exists

But there is some tension between prep and public schools.

Public school coaches are barred from recruiting participants. They take a dim view when their best talent is lured away by an academy or prep school.

Coaches like Seaforth’s Ryan Armstrong, who are working hard to build powerhouse public programs, dismiss any notion that wrestlers can’t get top-notch coaching at public schools.

Armstrong wrestled for Army.

Assistant coach Pete Rogers was a three-time Wisconsin state champ, four-year letter winner and captain at Division I titan Ohio State, and former Big Ten assistant coach at Purdue.

DeWitt Driscoll, who runs the Seaforth wrestling club, was a Pennsylvania state champion, four-year letter winner at Penn State, three-time Big Ten Tournament place winner and NCAA qualifier, head coach of the Carolina Wrestling Club at UNC and head coach at Carrboro High School, where his team won the 2017 state championship.

Monday is no stranger to prep wrestling. He started a program at Bishop Lynch in Dallas, Texas, that captured second place at the prestigious National Prep School Wrestling Championships in 2005, 2006 and 2008, and fifth in 2007.

He’s hoping to recreate that success at SPIRE, and counting on Miller to help set the tone.

“Josh has two years to get ready for college,” Monday said. “He’s a little guy so we’ve got to focus on getting him bigger. We’ve got to build his body, and that’s kind of the focus right now. The technique and all those things will come, but he’s got to get bigger for college.”

Miller a key building block

SPIRE won’t have competitive wrestling until it fills out its roster next year.

Monday said he’s already got nine commits, including another North Carolina blue-chip wrestler he’s not naming yet.

But Miller will participate in some national tournaments and exhibition wrestling starting in April. Monday said Miller “is a pioneer” who’s helping to establish the SPIRE brand.

“He’s doing a good job in his classwork. He’s doing a good job on the mat in practices. I’m really proud of him,” Monday said.

Miller said a typical week at SPIRE includes weight training on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays in the morning or afternoon, which is a new type of conditioning for him. School starts at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. He hits the practice room at 3:30 or 4:00 and drills until 5:30 or 6:00. Then it’s time for dinner, an hour of study hall to do homework, hit the sack and repeat the next day.

Monday said SPIRE is somewhat akin to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the prep/boarding school that has produced Serena Williams and a host of other athletic greats. Teachers and coaches understand the sports psyche. They employ intricate techniques custom-built for the academic and athletic needs of top-tier competitors.

“We’re building something special. It’s a world-class facility,” Monday said, with 750,000 square feet of indoor training and competition space and outdoor training and competition facilities on the 500-acre campus. SPIRE offers wrestling, track and field, basketball, swimming and lacrosse, and even Esports (video games) and drone racing.

Students hail from 15 U.S. states and 15 countries. They are provided interactive, interdisciplinary learning opportunities to encourage independent and critical thinking, and personal skills and development. There are coaches for performance training who assess technical, physical, mental, emotional, social and tactical abilities.

The food and beverage director works with trainers to teach about proper nutrition and monitor the three daily meals.

Tuition for boarding students is about $60,000 a year.

But sports is SPIRE’s foundation, and Monday is far from its only Olympian.

The swim team instructors feature former Olympians Ryan Lochte, Caeleb Dressel and Elizabeth Beisel. The track and field program has former Olympians Tianna Bartolett, Kibwe Johnson, Tim Mack and Dwight Phillips.

Monday plans to make SPIRE “a wrestling destination.” SPIRE will host the U23 world trials in June, along with world training camps. He is shooting to host the Olympic team training camp in 2024.

Miller said it’s a perfect fit for his pursuit of excellence in the combat sport.

“I’m always adding new things, becoming more of a well-rounded wrestler,” Miller said. He’s not looking to change his style of wrestling, dependent on speed and technique. “We just need to clean it up and build on what I already have and fix a couple of little things.”

Still welcome at Seaforth

Back in Chatham County, Ryan Armstrong is watching Miller’s career.

“He’s a great kid, great family,” and believed SPIRE was the right move for him, said Armstrong, who was in Miller’s corner when he earned second place at states last year.

“Am I upset? No. Am I disappointed? Yes,” he said.

Josh is a part of the family, Armstrong says, and his sons talk to him nearly every day.

“We wish Josh the best,” he said. “If Josh says, ‘Hey, I’m done up there, I’m coming back,’ Josh is always welcome at Seaforth.”

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