Aaron Pico Turns Pro

Russia-Pico

 

Aaron Pico likes boxing and enjoys grappling. He’s talented and one day, he’d like nothing more than to be a professional mixed-martial artist.

But right now, he’s the high school sophomore who has gone pro in wrestling.

“A lot of stuff has been said about MMA,” says Aaron. “But I am focused on international wrestling right now. I want to be an Olympic champion before I ever step in the cage.”

Aaron is much more than just “focused” on becoming an Olympic gold medalist; he has changed the course of his life in order to achieve his dream. This month Aaron chose to forgo the rest of his high school wrestling career and forfeit his collegiate eligibility, in order to train solely as a freestyle wrestler.

Wrestling fans have reason to question Aaron’s choices.  Peering in on the life choices of a 17-year-old can always create a stir, but Aaron’s ascendency and choice to forgo amateur wrestling looks like that of former teen golfing sensation Michelle Wie. A young athlete ready to play at the highest level, but can they compete?

For Aaron the answer so far has been a definitive “yes.” In addition to winning the 2013 Cadet World Championships in Zrenjanin, Serbia, he’s managed to beat senior-level Russian opponent Alibeggediz Emeev at a dual meet in upstate New York last December. That win sparked a lot of interest and forced Aaron and his father Anthony to reconsider the star wrestler’s options for attaining gold in 2016.

Pico Defeats Alibeggediz Emeev

 

The American mindset towards wrestling has always put NCAA Wrestling above international accomplishments. To get a full scholarship, high school wrestlers are asked to compete year-round. From there they graduate on to the NCAA, where a brutal five-month schedule exacts a hefty toll on the athlete’s body.

“College wrestling is a grind,” says Mr. Pico. “Two-day weigh-in’s, Big Ten schedule, five months season. None of these guys are making it out of college without serious injury. If they are, they’re lucky.”

The international scene isn’t doesn’t require as many tournaments, or weight cuts. Wrestlers focus on technique, training and health. Tournaments last one day, not three like the NCAA Championships in March. The international system also promotes a rule system that doesn’t brutalize wrestlers in transition from bottom position to neutral.

But Aaron didn’t choose to leave high school and forgo the NCAA wrestling experience because he feared injury. He just wanted to win an Olympic gold medal more than he did an NCAA Championship.

“I love wrestling, but my heart is in freestyle. It’s what I prefer and now I’m blessed to be in a situation where I can pursue it full-time.”

Aaron competes for wrestling philanthropist Andy Barth’s Titan Mercury WC and is being supported in his quest by a variety of organizations and individuals, most notably USA Wrestling, and MMA super agent Derek Zinkin.

While USA Wrestling helps pick up the tab for training and travel, the agent deals – and there are several, including the tee shirt company Dethrone – help Pico create an income while he competes. In addition to the money, Pico can train anywhere in the world, and is able to bring with him his longtime personal coach Valentin Kalika, a former Ukrainian freestyler who came to American in 1992 and has been at Pico’s side for several years.

“The money is good for Aaron, but I pay for my son’s costs,” says Mr. Pico. “I’m his father, it’s my responsibility to pay for my son’s life. The money can be for investments when he gets older. I want him to come out of this time in his life with every advantage.”

Maybe the biggest assumption being made about Aaron and his wrestling future is that he’s dropped out of high school and won’t be attending college. The opposite is true.

In negotiating with Zinkin –who hopes to represent Pico during any MMA career after the 2020 Olympic cycle – Aaron and his father negotiated a full scholarship to the college of their choice.

“I want to go to UCLA or USC,” says Aaron. “I might want to study communications or something like that, but the real thing is that I want to go to college. That’s my goal. I think I will get more from it by not having to also wrestle the college schedule while going to class.”

For now, Aaron is still enrolled in St. John’s Bosco in California. An honor roll student, the school was willing to the work with the Pico’s to create a curriculum through the school and National University (an online school) to complete his high school credits in June of 2015 – a year earlier than scheduled.

“I want to focus on training for the 2016 Games,” says Aaron, who will be 19 years old during the Games in Rio. “I’ll finish high school, go for the Olympic team, and then reassess my options for college and 2020. Right now I just want to take advantage of my opportunities.”

“Aaron’s not fixated on 2016,” says Mr. Pico. “He’s focused on competing at the senior level. The goal of his family and supporters to slow-cook him up — there is no big rush.”

This month the opportunity is a trip to Krasnoyarsk where Aaron will train with members of the Russian National team as they prepare for the Ivan Yarygin Memorial Tournament, widely known as the “Toughest Tournament in the World.”

“Aaron’s not ready to enter that tournament,” concedes Mr. Pico. “But Valentin knows plenty of wrestlers there and I think he’ll have an incredible three weeks of training.”

“This is a different way of training,” admits Aaron. “But it’s incredible that I get to see the world and wrestle with the best from every country. My goal is to be an Olympic and World Champion. I know that won’t be easy, but I want to give myself every chance to do that.

“This is my dream.”

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