It was a banner wrestling season for Glendale High School grad Brayden Ambo, who is currently in his fourth year training with the University of Western Ontario Mustangs, and has been on the London university wrestling team for the past two years.
Ambo is currently looking for sponsors so he can compete at the 2018 Pan-American Wrestling Championships in Lima, Peru, May 3-6.
Season highlights included competing at the U SPORTS national championships, Feb. 23-24, in Sault Ste. Marie, where Ambo finished fourth overall in his Men's 76 kg weight division.
Each weight class was divided into two pools of four wrestlers. After three matches, wrestlers were ranked, then crossed over to meet their counterpart with the same ranking.
Ambo defeated De'Andre Willimas (Fraser Valley) 11-2, lost 10-0 to Tyler Rowe (Brock) and defeated Matthew Vilain (New Brunswick).
"I finished second in my pool so I was going for bronze."
Ambo crossed over to meet second place in the A Pool, Ben Zahra (McMaster), and was defeated 13-8.
Rowe, the same age as Ambo but in his final year of eligibility, won three of his four matches 10-0, and pinned a fourth in just 1:22, racing to gold.
"I lost to him (Rowe) at OUA's as well," noted Ambo, who was also third at the provincial university championships. "It's just how the seeding worked, I was placed on the same side as him.
"He actually beat me pretty handily there. I've never beat him before and I've faced him probably four times now. A couple of times were very close."
Ambo recalled a match against Rowe where he was up 9-0 (10-point differential ends the match), but the Brock wrestler overcame the massive deficit.
On another occasion Ambo was leading 11-0, and would have defeated Rowe by technical superiority, but it was 'continuing action'... meaning Rowe scored points before a stoppage in action, then 're-rolled' Ambo to win by pin.
At provincials, Ambo had Rowe on his back, almost pinning him... but again lost the match.
It wasn't as close at U SPORTS, however.
"He tactically wrestled me very well, he got me in tilt (over aggressive) and beat me by technical superiority, so he figured me out by that point," Ambo admitted with a laugh.
"He was always the favourite though. It was kind of cool that I was always the underdog going against him, but I haven't made it happen yet."
In 2017, he met the lower end of his goal qualifying for the university nationals and finished seventh.
"It was my first year doing it and it's a really high-pressure tournament. I kind of reached my goal there but I kind of thought I had more in me."
This year his goal was to be in medal contention, defeat two wrestlers and if he had a really good day, potentially beat Rowe.
"I wasn't upset with my performance in the bronze medal match because I have beaten that guy (Zahra) before and he has beaten me. For the last two seasons we are actually 2-2... he beat me twice, I beat him twice. So it's a little bit of a rivalry setting up."
Ambo still has three years of university wrestling eligibility remaining.
At the Canadian Senior Nationals in Montreal, March 17-18, open to any age, he was third and brought home a bronze in the Greco-Roman Men's 79 kg division - his hardest tournament of the year and his best results.
"I guess I did it where it counts," he laughed.
Ambo's nemesis, Rowe, wrestled in the 74 kg division.
"Depending on their weight, people will go up or down. And we do morning-of weigh-in now so that will kind of change people. I'm on the heavier end, I went up, he's on the lighter end so he went down."
It was a roller coaster tournament for Ambo, who opened against a wrestler he had defeated by technical superiority.
"I wasn't mentally prepared I guess, so I wasn't focused. One mistake and you can lose a match just like that... so he caught me and I got beat by technical superiority within the first couple of minutes."
Mentally, he admitted it was hard to get over that.
"It's funny, out of the blue I saw Lloyd (Renken) there," said Ambo, recalling a chance meeting with his GHS Gemini coach. "Talking with him helped me. It got me into a tough mindset again... with everything he taught me in wrestling and getting ready... it's a long road but take one match at a time and just fight hard. He didn't even say much to me in terms of wrestling, but just having him be there kind of got that stuff in my head. It helped my next matches."
He had a rematch against Zahra, the same wrestler he lost the bronze to at the U SPORTS nationals. In a double knockout (two losses) format, it could have been a very short tournament for Ambo.
"I ended up beating him by a technical superiority. I knew that if I want to do this, I need to be ready and I need to hand-fight hard right off the start."
Ambo almost immediately scored a huge five-point move, then dominated the rest of the match.
He won two more matches, including a pin over a silver medalist last year, with the right mindset to come out on top.
In his final match against an older, more experienced wrestler, he knew he had to be smart but at the same time went into the match confident.
"I've never won a freestyle national medal before so I just wanted to get it done. I made a few mistakes against him, but I wrestled very offensive... and when I kept that the whole time, I ended up coming out on top."
Since nationals, Ambo was selected for Team Canada and will compete at the 2018 Senior Pan-American Wrestling Championships in Lima, Peru, May 3-6.
The event is not funded by Wrestling Canada, Ambo noted, and he is currently raising money through GoFundMe (www.gofundme.com/2018-panamerican-wrestling) to fund his trip to the Pan-Americans.
He estimates the trip will cost $2,800, and so far he has raised $440 of that total through the fundraising website.
If you are interested in sponsoring Ambo to help get him to the Pan-American Wrestling Championships, you can share your contact information with Ambo through gofundme - "any donations will be greatly appreciated."