When all is said and done, the Sebolt family will go down as one of the most legendary and influential wrestling families to come from Iowa. What TJ accomplished on the mat was extraordinary. What TJ and his father, Scott Sebolt have not only accomplished, but have done for others in the clubs they have run and continue to run is heroic when you think about it. That goes for all the guys who run clubs. I will say with confidence, that in Scott’s work with Higher Power Wrestling Club and TJ’s work with Sebolt Wrestling Academy, they have likely saved a few lives with the values they instilled in their athletes. There were probably kids who are in successful in life now, but would have been lost had they not discovered wrestling and met the Sebolt family. No matter whether someone likes it or not, the Sebolt family has already accomplished and influenced so much that they are cemented in time as being one of the most important wrestling families to join the wrestling world in the state of Iowa…
And yet, they have also been the most publicly disrespected family by general fans and message board warriors that I have ever seen go through the state of Iowa by far. I’ll get to that later…
I was lucky enough to witness TJ’s 2nd tournament of his High School wrestling career his Freshman year. This took place at The Mediapolis Invitational. This was a pretty big deal. Every little thing he did seemed to be a big deal to some people because there were fans out there who literally seemed to track every move the Sebolt’s made so they could have ammo to post hateful messages about them on message boards. There was a group of people who were awful to the Sebolt’s. I have been an avid message board poster myself for 20 years and have had my own moments that I am not proud of, but it almost comes off as an unwritten rule of message board etiquette that there are certain lines that you never cross, ever. Like taking jabs at someone’s personal life for example. People crossed these lines every day with the Sebolt family. And TJ entered the world of being a message board target at an early age, for it started when he was a 7th or 8th grader. With that said, when he started competing in high school, there was a lot of buzz and a lot of eyes on him at all times.
My first time ever watching TJ wrestle was one of the most memorable wrestling moments I have ever been present for. It was borderline surreal, the feel in the air and the excitement that he sparked from every fan in the gym. I’ll try my best to describe it, but it will be difficult.
TJ was in a pretty tough bracket at the Mepo tournament. He was at 103 pounds in a bracket that included the #2 ranked guy in 1A named Derick Ball, a Senior from Columbus Jct. and another phenomenal Freshman wrestler that I got to watch for the first time named Russell Weakley from Fort Madison. Weakley went on to win a couple state titles himself in 3A. When someone pointed TJ out to me, he was warming up on the mat and an argument that I had read from a couple haters on the message boards was immediately void of any sort of merit. A few people’s undies were in such a wad about Sebolt that they actually had the nerve to hate on him for being held back when he had a Summer birthday. Their argument was that it “gave him an age advantage.” Keep in mind, TJ has a June birthday and had the choice to be either one of the youngest kids in the grade or one of the oldest. Every kid with a Summer birthday is faced with that, not just TJ. I didn’t understand what the problem was at all and when I first saw TJ, it made me want to lash out at his haters myself as to how asinine they were acting. TJ was tiny as a Freshman!!! Anyone who tried to make the argument that TJ would have an “age advantage” because he had a (gasp) early Summer birthday was just straight up delusional. TJ did NOT have an advantage. He looked like he was about 90 lbs. soaking wet. The year before, he had the choice to either start HS wrestling and be at a disadvantage considering how small he was or allow himself to have another year to grow into the 103 lb. weight since they had eliminated the 98 lb. weight a decade or so before. That choice is a no-brainer, IMO. If you love wrestling and have plans of having wrestling as part of your life for the long-term future, you don’t start things out in a manner which you would have a significant disadvantage, which TJ would have had a disadvantage had he not been held back and STILL appeared to be at a disadvantage a year later when his HS career began. He was a very small 103 lber. Most the guys he wrestled looked bigger than him.
So the wrestling began and I was blown away by how good Sebolt and Weakley were. They appeared to be phenomenal Freshmen and the big talk in the gym seemed to be, “can this TJ Sebolt Freshman beat Senior and 2nd ranked Derik Ball???” Honestly, I was impressed by TJ when I watched him wrestle Russell Weakley in the semis, but I felt that he may have been just a bit too small for Ball. Ball was a HUGE 103 lber. And I knew Ball well. I had seen him wrestle for several years and he was really good and always improving. I had a ton of respect for him. Still do. My impression was that I thought Derick may be too experienced and too big of a 103 pounder for TJ to handle. That seemed to be the general opinion of those who were anxiously awaiting the match-up in the gym.
So the finals match began and TJ was on Derick right away. And when I say, “on him,” I mean it took him a millisecond to work a set-up, another millisecond to shoot a shot and another millisecond to score the takedown. TJ put the packed gym on notice that he meant business right away in that match. He looked like the Tasmanian Devil out there. Just relentless and it was kind of odd to see because as mentioned, he was wrestling a great senior 103 lber who was so much bigger than him. And he didn’t let up. He just kept going and kept building his lead and would not take any sort of a breather between separations and seemed as if he really didn’t want his opponent to breathe in general. The general mood of the crowd at this point was, “oh my God, are you seeing this? This kid can’t be THAT good, can he?” For the first 4.5 minutes or so, the fans seemed to be collectively trying to make sense of what they were watching, because this cat was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before. TJ was winning big. It was at this point where something that seemed almost magical took place in that gym… The feel in the air when this happened as well as the way the crowd responded was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and have never since. TJ and Derick had a scramble by the edge of the mat, but were not called out of bounds, and when they separated, TJ wanted to bring the action back to the center, so he ran to the middle and waited for Ball to meet him there. Ball kind of stood up and appeared disheveled, but not necessarily gassed for he had a great gas tank and he paused for a second and looked at TJ while TJ was still in his stance in the center of the mat and gave him a look like, “ummm…kid…how on Earth is it possible that you are THIS good?” Ball was not broken and not fatigued. He just looked shocked. TJ was looking Ball right in the eyes when given this look and his response won the entire gym over. He responded by getting right back to business and circling and bobbing and weaving on the middle of the mat despite the fact that Ball was still 10 feet away from him. He just would not stop. Even if separated, he was still in the zone. When he did this, the entire crowd, meaning every fan from every school excluding Columbus Jct. gave an excited and collectively awe-struck cheer to this little guy and it continued for the remainder of the match. It’s not that they were rooting against Ball. Everyone liked Derick Ball. It was that the entire crowd was ok the same page as the one another that they were witnessing something special and that there were 4 seasons to watch of this little kid. TJ won the respect of that entire gym in that match…even the ones who hated him coming into the tourney despite not knowing him due to some toxicity they read on the message boards. They now just simply admired this kid’s skills. The atmosphere was just… electric. TJ went on to win the match and his skills were officially the big talk of the entire tournament. I was blown away. Will never forget that moment.
So when the guys all grouped up to pick up their awards, I walked over to the girl I was dating at the time, which happened to be a Mediapolis cheerleader. I was in my first year out of high school and had the appearance of the general preppy jock with blonde highlights in his hair that used to be so common in 2001-2003. And I was big at that time because I was lifting… I was weighing 190, bench-pressing 315 at the time. A stereotypical 2001 graduate jock. I looked like a meathead. And while talking to my girlfriend, TJ walked by us and since I am a guy who has never had the ability to keep his mouth shut, I blurted out something that was intended to be a joke and a reference to how impressed I was by him. I had to let him know. I loudly and with intentions of TJ hearing it, said to my girlfriend “I don’t want you getting near that Sebolt kid! I don’t want you leaving me for him!” TJ kinda seemed off guard after I said this, as if he didn’t know if he heard me say that or not… and when he looked at me I said to him, “YOU are a badass, kid!” TJ responded like a deer in the headlights. I had for sure made him feel uncomfortable by saying that to him. His response was something I recognized right away for it was something that I had experienced myself a few times. It was social anxiety… And it immediately hit me why he would have felt anxiety in that situation despite fact that I was complimenting him…In fact, he may not have known that my big “meathead-looking” self was joking to begin with. Plus I was a stranger, I was older and physically, I was almost twice his size at that time. I think I had my answer to whether or not the kid had read the hateful comments about himself on the message boards. After reading the venom written from several others, mostly strangers every day for over a year at that time, you couldn’t blame the kid for being apprehensive of every stranger he encountered like that he did me in that situation. I felt terrible about it. I thought to myself, “ahhhh no, hopefully I didn’t make that poor kid feel awkward,” which I clearly did.
About 10 minutes later, TJ and I were in the same vicinity again and we made eye contact. And when we did, he kinda nodded at me indicating “thank you for the nice words.” I was relieved that he was able to take some time and make sense of the situation and what I said to him. I pointed back at him and mouthed back to him, “I mean it, kid. You are incredible.”
Ladies and gentlemen, TJ Sebolt. One of the sport’s all-time greats and still currently one of the biggest influences in the game. A relentless competitor and equally relentless ambassador for the sport.
What clubs, schools, etc. did you wrestle for?
-Started out in Centerville Mat club, spent some time in the Oskaloosa kids club and was part of the first core group of Hawkeye kids club with Pablo Ubasa when he first started that club in Iowa City. Wrestled for Centerville in junior high and Centerville in high school.
What year did you graduate?
-I graduated in 2006
Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?
-My dad. I brought home a flier from school when I was in first grade. He pretty much said I was doing it and the rest is history.
Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?
⁃ I have two sisters and they were never wrestlers. My dad wrestled when he was in high school. He was decent. I also have a six-year-old daughter who kind of plays around with wrestling.. we’ll see where that goes, haha.
What were your youth results? Any rivals there?
-Well I started off getting pinned my first 27 matches in a row. But ended up doing pretty well before entering high school. I was a two-time AAU state champion, several time Tulsa nationals place-winner. USA folkstyle national champion and had a lot of freestyle success, Etc. I would have to say my biggest youth rival was probably Joe Slaton. We went back-and-forth all the time. It seemed like neither one of us could win two matches in a row against each other. We ended up being training partners and close friends still today.
What was your record in HS?
How did you place at state every year?
-1st, 1st, 1st, 1st
What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?
-Returning to the wrestling scene when I decided to start coaching was a challenge for me. I had left the sport and there were a lot of people who had opinions and negative things to say about me. At the time I was worried about what people thought and/or said about me. That is something I had to get past and it was tough for me at first. I’ve really grown up and matured mentally since then. I think things have turned out alright.
How would you describe your style?
-Technical, physical and relentless. Putting my opponent under pressure for the full duration of the match
How many guys in high school did you go back and forth with or exchange wins with?
⁃ I had one loss to Ryan Moyer of Parkhill, Missouri early in my freshman season. I never wrestled him in a official high school match again. But the summer after he had defeated me, I had my redemption in freestyle.
Who was your most influential coach?
⁃ That is a tough one. I am hesitant to say my father because he was my father. I was able to work a lot with John Strittmatter during his time in Iowa City and that was huge for me. But there are several others who had strong influential roles in my career.
Was your team competitive in HS/college?
⁃ We were in the hunt to win it my junior and senior year in high school, especially my junior year. I think we lost to Emmetsburg by two points or less and finished second both junior and senior year at the traditional state tournament.
Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?
-I was around the Iowa Hawkeyes a lot growing up. I became obsessed with Mark Ironside and then I became obsessed with Doug Schwab. I wanted to be just like them. I remember crying when Doug Schwab lost his senior year in the NCAA finals.
Who would you consider the GOAT Iowa HS wrestler?
⁃ I am biased… so I would say Drake Ayala, Cullan Schriever, or Cory Clark. But if I can’t include people I’ve been close with on a personal level since having coached all of those young men, I think I have to go with Jeff McGinness or Eric Juergens.
Who are your favorite current wrestlers?
⁃ All of my club kids. But I think you’re asking college and senior level.
American wrestlers – Spencer Lee, JB, Kyle Dake, David Taylor, Thomas Gilman, Dayton Fix, and Nathan Tomasello
Others – Zaurbek Sidakov, Zavur Ugaev
What music would you listen to back in the wrestling days?
-mostly classic rock or country
What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?
-I would probably have to say the one loss I had in high school. The expectation was to be an undefeated four times state champion and right out the gate I had a loss.
If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?
⁃ If I could change some things in my wrestling career I would spend less time cutting weight and more time improving at wrestling. I would better prepare myself for college academics as well as develop stronger social skills at an earlier age.
What was your best wrestling memory or accomplishment?
– The best wrestling memory competitively would be my dad running onto the floor to hug me after my finals match my senior year and the relief I felt after that accomplishment. However, now, my best memories are watching my athletes in the club work their tails off and reaching their goals.
Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?
–On a national level I would say Henry Cejudo, Mike Grey, Nick Gallick, and Spencer Mango
-In state level – Nick Pickerell, Patrick Makey, Russell Weakley, Zach McCool, and Zach Kressley
Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?
-All year – I don’t remember exactly when I started wrestling year-round but I want to say probably sixth grade.
How would the guys from your day stack up against the guys today?
⁃ Wrestlimg has evolved so much since then it is a tough comparison. I think if you put those same guys in today’s world, they would still be highly competitive because they were good athletes that put in the time. However, if you straight up take a 2005 version of whoever vs 2020 Drake Ayala.. haha good luck!
Did you wrestle after high school?
-I went to Iowa State my freshman year and wrestled under Cael Sanderson as a redshirt. I went home for the summer after my freshman season and never went back.
What other sports did you play?
-I just wrestled. I did some gymnastics in my early years.
What are your favorite sports teams?
-Kansas City Chiefs
What are your hobbies other than wrestling?
-riding ATVs, hunting, fishing, grilling out with my family, watching movies or Netflix.
How good does it make you feel to give back to the sport?
It’s an honor to give back to the sport of wrestling and make an impact on kids lives. It’s a great way to transform personal experiences to help guide others in their wrestling paths. I find satisfaction in helping kids thrive and be successful.
How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?
-In one word I would say, discipline. Discipline is what gets things done.
What do you do now?
-Owner and Head Coach at Sebolt Wrestling Academy
Are you still involved with wrestling?
Was Higher Power Wrestling ahead of its time?
-I don’t think so, we were just blessed with a lot of talented kids that wanted to be great and were willing to work their asses off to do it.
When you were competing, was it tempting to read the message boards when you knew people were talking about you?
-I remember reading them and I wish I would never have because it was nothing but a bunch of haters.
How would you compare and contrast you and your dad’s coaching styles?
I focus a lot on the technical side of things and developing skill, character and relationships. I’ve become a lot more open minded over the years while my dad’s style was more old school, hard ass, run you into the ground while outworking everyone three times over. Which, don’t get me wrong, I do a little bit of that as well.
Do you approach every kid in your club the same or do you handle them differently pending on which coaching approaches they respond to the best?
⁃ Yes, you have to. Everyone responds to things differently but you have to figure out what makes them tick. How to push their buttons. How to get them to get the most out of them.
How much of what you learned from your dad at Higher Power WC do you implement into Sebolt Academy?
⁃ The basis is there but SWA as evolved – and we have to continue to evolve. However, to this day we still do some of the same drills and situations I grew up doing at Higher Power.
What are some basic principles you have instilled into Sebolt Wrestling Academy?
⁃ the will to win
⁃ no regrets
⁃ be the best version of yourself
Do you have Centerville Pride still and do you still follow and root for them?
⁃ Centerville will always be where I’m from with having deep roots there. I do enjoy continuing to watch them have success at the high school state tournament.
How often are you approached by people who tell you how much they looked up to you growing up? How does it make you feel?
⁃ I don’t know if I get much of that anymore. If anything I am approached more about our wrestling club these days. I’m not much for patting myself on the back, but I do appreciate them noticing good things within our club. But, there is always more work to do.
Who were some older wrestlers you looked up to growing up?
⁃ Tom & Terry Brands
⁃ Dan Gable
⁃ Lincoln Mcllravey
Who came up with the Superman Sebolt design? How long did it take to come up with that?
⁃ Not long at all. I was a big fan of Superman as a kid – and still am. When I was young, I was too nice. In order to get me to go out on the mat and be more aggressive, my Dad always used the analogy, “take off the glasses Clark and bring out the red and blue”. This has clearly stuck with me and has been influential. I like everything the analogy stands for – you can be a nice easy going person, yet can be a total beast on the mat. Not to mention the fact that Sebolt starts with \S/.
What is the story about how when you first started you barely won, but eventually something clicked and you gradually became the winner TJ Sebolt that people remember and know you as?
⁃ As mentioned above, 27 losses by fall in a row, eventually my Dad got sick of watching me get my ass kicked. He started me on a exercise routine and hired Centerville state champion Jason Hellupnik to train me and help me understand the sport. That was the big turning point for me. Goals, expectations and a lot of time is what lead to success down the road.
You’ve coached tons of kids with a variety of different goals and talent levels… does it mean as much to you when you have a guy with less talent than some qualify than when a kid wins state? What are some of the wrestling coaching memories that are most cherished by you?
⁃ Helping a kid improve and reach their full potential is just as satisfying as helping an elite athlete reach the next level. One of my most cherished memories comes from a wrestler who wasn’t very talented, but somehow made the state finals, finishing second. From where he started, to where he finished was amazing and nobody saw that coming.
What is more of a challenge? Wrestling in competition yourself or coaching?
I would say coaching is more of a challenge because if you’re competing you only have to worry about getting yourself ready – your weight, nutrition, workouts, etc. As a coach, you are trying to help manage all of these things for several individuals.
Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?
– In the beginning, don’t necessarily worry about winning or losing – just give 100% effort, have a great attitude and try to improve everyday.
Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?
⁃ never say never
Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?
⁃ I’d like to give a shout out to all of our club seniors who are headed to college — keep doing things right and believe in yourself!
Do you have anything to add? Funny/interesting stories? Trivia? Etc.
⁃ I have some good Joe Slaton stories but for his sake I’ll keep my mouth shut.