So the first time they met up was in 1997 when Mack and Justin were 6th graders. This match went down at freestyle state. Justin won this match and somewhat handily. The way I remember it was that there were a couple of close scrambles here and there, but the match was ultimately decided by a few 1 point takedowns. It was a convincing win. I couldn’t get over how much I thought Mack resembled his older brother, Joe. Justin was in the middle of a 100+ match winning streak at the time and just didn’t ever seem to have a close match around that time. I admit, our club (Burlington Youth Wrestling Club) had reached a point with Justin’s success that we were straight-up arrogant regarding him. None of us thought there was a remote possibility that he would lose even though Mack was a 3X state champion himself at that time. And when Mack walked off the mat, IRATE about losing to Justin, some of our club members kind of laughed amongst each other and made comments like, “did this Mack Reiter kid actually think that he was going to BEAT Justin?!?! HA!” We had all become THAT accustomed to Justin dominating that we found the thought of Mack Reiter beating him to be inconceivable. Arrogance about our guy. It’s funny how things unravel sometimes.
When did you first wrestle each other? When you first wrestled against each other, did you know you had someone good, or was it just another guy to you?
Justin Swafford: The first time I ever wrestled him was at the State freestyle tournament in 6th grade, I beat him 6-1. I was told of his success at the AAU state tournament in weight classes below me by my brother at the time, but I was never a wrestler to get too worked up or psyched out by how good another wrestler was – I would focus on going out there and doing my stuff trusting my hard work at practice would pay off.
Mack Reiter: The first time we ever wrestled was in 6th grade at Freestyle state. Gilbertville and Mediapolis aren’t exactly close so we wouldn’t usually see each other on the Saturday 4 man tournament circuits. The wrestling world is a lot different now then it was back then. There wasn’t Trackwrestling where you could look up someones stats. Amazingly we would almost always win AAU state titles one weight apart, but I didn’t really know a lot about Justin. Obviously that changed quickly because he won the first time we wrestled.
Mark Swafford (Justin’s Dad): Justin and Mack had met for the first time in the state freestyle finals 2 years before that, in which Justin won.
So Justin won the first round and with an exception of Mack being visibly TICKED, most of the Burlington/Swafford camp just thought of it as just another win. As mentioned, when it came to Justin at that time, the Burlington club was wavering on the line of arrogance. Most people didn’t think we’d ever see Justin get beat and it got to the point where the thought of it happening was starting to seem almost far-fetched to us. I remember a teammate of ours named Steve Reynolds laughing and asking everyone, “why was this Mack Reiter kid so fuming-mad? He DID know that he had taken a loss to Justin Swafford, a match that he was never going to win anyways, right???? So why on Earth would he be so mad about it?” The Swafford camp had maybe become a little to accustomed to Justin winning and probably needed to be taken down a peg to be humbled…and if anyone was going to do that, it’d be Mack, because his anger after losing that first match went even deeper than what was on the surface…We didn’t realize that we had summoned an angry pit bull in that match…
Mack Reiter: There’s actually a funny story involving my dad and Justin that not a lot of people know. At Freestyle state as 6th graders, as mentioned, I lost to Justin. I didn’t wrestle very good, and certainly didn’t wrestle good in my dads opinion! Anyway, that was the very first year they were going to have a kids freestyle/greco national tournament and it was in Waterloo, IA. I lived 10 minutes from Waterloo, IA and back then I truly loved to compete. I wanted to wrestle everywhere as often as I could. Now in order to wrestle at nationals you had to compete at your regional tournament, which for the Northern Plains that year it was in Minot, ND. I did NOT live 10 minutes from Minot, ND! Anyway, my dad said I didn’t wrestle well enough to get to go to Northern Plains. It wasn’t so much that I lost, it was that he didn’t think I was competing the way I was capable of. And with dad there was no negotiating. He wasn’t mean about it or anything. After the match he just said get in the car we are going home. Now this absolutely crushed me. The entire drive home from Fort Dodge and probably for at least the next month I don’t think I spoke a word to my dad. But it drove me to do more, it drove me to train harder and compete harder. I remember reading the results of kids nationals in the Waterloo Courier and seeing the results to my weight knowing that there was a chance I could have won a national title. Naturally, like just about everything in my life, my dad did the right thing at the right time for me. He knew what he needed to do to motivate me and to get the best out of me.
So not only was Mack PISSED about losing the match, but he had salt poured on the wound by not being allowed to compete at Northern Plains Regionals because of the loss. We did not realize it at the time, but Mack obviously wanted to get payback for that one. We were in harms way and didn’t know it, for we had all become so used to Justin winning these types of matches that we were all over-confident. It had reached a point where it was kind of difficult to not feel that way, for Justin’s backstory coming into that tournament mostly consisted of winning. And as mentioned, our crowd was over-confident with Justin to the point of total arrogance.
Adam Roberts (Burlington Club Teammate and occasional practice partner): I remember seeing those two staring each other down in the holding area as they strutted past each other. They looked like a couple of roosters warming up before a cock-fight. I remember laughing as Mack would stare back at Justin because I didn’t think he stood a chance and I thought, “well, that kids probably going to be crying soon.”
Aaron Drain (Burlington and Mepo Practice Partner): Justin was one of my primary practice partners throughout my wrestling career. I became pretty good, good enough to the point where I was placing 3rd-5th range every single year at AAU, it seemed. One big reason I did as well as I did was because I had to go through the Justin grind every day. Every year it seemed like I would make the semis at AAU and get beaten there by either Trent Paulson by 4 or so points or Dustin Hinschberger by 2 points. So I knew them well. And I knew Justin well with him being my bully, I mean practice partner/best friend for years…. Put it this way, those two guys consistently beat me by 4 points and Justin, who was always 5-10 lbs. lighter than me, would have practices where he’d kill me. In Junior High, Trent Paulson had solidified spot as the best youth wrestler to ever go through the state at that point for he had broken the record for the amount of state championships with 6. I used to tell people all the time back then that I thought Justin could go with Trent I knew both and I struggled way more with Justin at that time. I fully believed that. I thought he was going to embarrass Mack Reiter. The thought of Justin losing to someone in his grade and his size was just something I couldn’t see happening. Justin was too good. I learned that weekend that Mack is too.
Josh Keller (Justin’s Teammate At Mepo and Burlington): Josh (Swafford) and I had met a couple girls at the hotel that weekend that we were sitting with for a lot of the tourney. I wanted to go out by the skywalk area with Josh and the girls and Josh insisted that we stayed there and watch Justin’s finals match. I thought it was a waste of time because I hadn’t ever seen Justin beaten before.
Steve Reynolds (Justin’s teammate at Mepo and Burlington): I practiced with Justin and was two years older and put it this way… I don’t think I ever watched a match of his where I felt him losing was a possibility. He was mean.
Matt Keller (Justin’s Teammate at Mepo and Burlington): Since I began wrestling, I hadn’t seen Justin come close to losing a match yet. I thought he had it in the bag. None of us even cared who Mack Reiter was, we thought Justin had it locked up.
Joshua Swafford (Justin’s Older Brother and Writer/Narrator of this story): I was probably the one guy from our club who was most shook up. I knew what Mack’s past AAU results were and knew that he had performed well there before. Both of them were 3X state champions at this point. I saw the first matchup they had in freestyle and I felt Justin won the folkstyle situations in that match even more soundly than the freestyle ones… but then a couple months later I saw Mack have an insanely good tournament at a national tourney of some sort and in doing so, he dismantled a kid who Justin had fits with when he wrestled him. I knew we had our hands full and I certainly wasn’t laughing like a few of our onlookers were when they observed those two staring each other down on the holding area. As Josh K. mentioned, we watched that match with a couple of Des Moines area girls that we met that weekend and both of us were crushing pretty hard on them. I remember acting all confident when I explained my brother to them to try to impress them. “oh yeah, my brother hasn’t lost in years, he should win this easy, yada, yada.” Deep down, though…I was anxious as hell. I couldn’t wait for it to be over with so I could focus on trying to look cool for this girl I was talking to. One thing to note is that these girls had a guy who hit on them earlier in the tourney by sitting by them in the stands and saying to them, “you chicks are pretty hot. You wanna grab some munchies?!?!” It was really funny and became an inside joke for the rest of the weekend and comes back later in the story… I’m pretty sure that people from our club remember the stories of Josh Keller, Matt Keller, Aaron Drain and I being girl crazy at all these big events were discussed more than some of these old matches were.
NOW, those were the feelings of guys from OUR squad before they met up… I am sure that guys from Mack’s WAHawk squad were JUST as confident for Mack as we were for Justin. He was, in fact a 3X state champion in his own right and successful on the national level already. I’ll tell you this, they all seemed pretty pumped up for it.
As confident as either side may have been, I think most reasonable fans were anticipating a battle… I don’t think anyone was anticipating the match to go like this:
Mark Swafford (Justin’s Dad): Mack and Justin met in the AAU state finals as 7th graders and Mack buried Justin with a perfectly executed cradle off Justin’s standup in the first period. This stunned us, for it was Justin’s first loss in 2 years.
Adam Roberts: I was shocked. I knew instantly that we were gonna see a year of Bird kicking it in to overdrive right when it happened.
Phillips Klees: I still can’t believe it. They had to have set that up.
Matt Keller: I didn’t even know what to say. Couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe how good of wrestlers there evidently were in the state if someone was able to do that to him.
Riley Ball (Justin’s Burlington Club Teammate/Practice Partner): That was my first time ever at state and that was a match that gave me a good idea of how much better I still needed to get if there were guys like Mack out there because I already knew Justin very well and had the same opinions of him that everyone else did.
Aaron Drain: We weren’t over-confident or arrogant about Justin. He had earned that confidence from us by that point. It was moreso none of us had given Mack Reiter enough credit coming in.
Joshua Swafford: I expected a close match and thought that Justin was going to bounce back even after he was taken down, but after that pin was called, I was shocked and just sat there with my mouth open and making some presumably indecipherable grunts and “what’s?” I remember trying to control my emotions so I didn’t look silly in front of the girl who I watched it with, but there was an avalanche of emotions that I was holding in at that time and I am pretty sure that this girl knew it for after a couple-few minutes of likely appearing visibly shook up, this girl nudged me and smiled and said, “hey your hot, wanna go grab some munchies?!” And it made me laugh. It is probably the one thing in the world that could be said at that point that could possibly result in laughter from me. I spent the entire trip home stressing more about being too much of a wienie to ask that girl for her phone number than I did thinking about that match…which was difficult to ignore considering my dad was stressing about it the whole ride home. Haha, I was pathetic. My dad was pretty upset because he over-heard a coach/fan from another squad who was watching the match say, “I thought Swafford was supposed to be good.” So I knew that we had a long year ahead of us with Justin. I became more upset about that match as time went on that year.
Justin Swafford: My 7th grade year in the finals at AAU was the second time wrestling Mack. That was the beginning of the rivalry and lasted through high school as I ended up a weight class or two above Mack in college. It was a tight match but in the 1st period I turned into Mack off a standup right into his big move, the nearside cradle, and ended up getting stuck. From my memory I remember a rather over-celebratory reaction from Mack’s club/fans and pretty much a large percentage of the entire crowd and that was enough to spark a fire in my gut, let alone it was the first time I had been pinned since early in my career, so that was definitely the start of the rivalry the way I saw it. That was the first time I ever felt hated or disliked collectively by a group of people and Mack was the face and focal point or symbol if you will of me being hated at that time. That’s why it always seemed I had something to prove. In retrospect, I suppose that should have been a good warm-up for being generally rooted against by fan-favorites such as Moza Fay and Wade Satern who I encountered in HS.
Now those are some colorful and artsy planters. MY daughter would love to do this kind project. Joly Stefan Woodley