Ponce Trained – In Wrestling and In Life

Before high school, Orlando Ponce wasn’t going down the best path. When introduced to wrestling, his path started going in a positive direction. After high school, when he thought wrestling was out of his life, Ponce began to go down some troubling roads again. Wrestling would get re-introduced into his life, and he has never looked back.

“My high school coach and the people who influenced me through wrestling,” Ponce said, “if not for them, I would be in a much different situation.”

Now, Ponce has devoted his life to influencing kids through his faith and through wrestling.

Ponce didn’t grow up in a wrestling hotbed.

“I was born in Nicaragua and was raised in South Florida. It was not a big wrestling community. I got a later start in wrestling. My brother started wrestling but dropped out of high school. He encouraged one of my other brothers to wrestle. This brother was a state champion and went on to wrestle for Lock Haven in Pennsylvania. I was a ninth-grader when he was a senior. My brother encouraged me to wrestle.”

His success on the mat had little to do with Ponce’s desire to stay with his new sport.

“I had a tough start. I had a state champion as a drill partner, and he was rough on me,” Ponce admitted. “I didn’t enjoy my freshman season, but then my brother won a state title that year, and when I saw him go to Lock Haven, I knew there was something I liked about the sport. I saw the changes wrestling made in my brother.”

The changes he observed changed his brother’s life and his own.

“My brother was like a father to me. He took care of me a lot, and I spent a lot of time with him. I was around him a lot when he started wrestling, and I could see the transformation and what wrestling was doing for him. He was a little chubby kid and a wannabe gangster. He went from that to a state champion, a high school graduate and a college enrollee. He was the first person to go to college in my family and the first family member to graduate from college.”

Although he started slow, Ponce would become a two-time Florida state entrant.

“I had a strong athletic background. I was always playing sports. I had a .500 record my first year. In my junior year, I qualified for the state tournament. In my senior year, I placed fifth.”

Wrestling in college was not in Ponce’s immediate plans.

“I didn’t think I would be wrestling in college. I helped at my high school a little bit. Then I went to a Division II school called West Liberty in West Virginia – where my high school coach wrestled. I didn’t have a lot of success there. It was a small town, and coming from Miami, I just didn’t fit. I came home, and my brother was coaching at our rival high school, so I started helping him.”

Ponce took three years off from being a competitor.

“I didn’t have the best influences in my life outside of wrestling. When I didn’t reach my goal of being a state champion, I didn’t feel like I was good enough to wrestle in college. I gave up. Without the guidance of Coach Michael Turner, I went off the deep end. I wasn’t living the most positive lifestyle and was getting into things I should not have been getting into.”

His brother originally got him into wrestling and indirectly got Orlando back into wrestling.

“My brother was the first in our family to have a real career. He got a teaching job and the head wrestling job. I thought – he is set for life. That was a big reason I came back to the sport. He encouraged me to come back and help him coach. I was a knucklehead for a few years, and my brother was graduating from college. I went to his graduation and to see the tears in my mother’s eyes – my mom broke her back, raising us. To see the pride my mom had in that was big. I wanted to make my mom proud.”

Ponce started to see how impactful the sport – and the lack of the sport in his life – had become.

“Wrestling was the only constant and the only positive thing in my life for a long time. I knew I wanted to give back through wrestling. I wanted to help somebody the way I was helped.”

“Finally, I took a chance and came to Augsburg,” Ponce continued. “Minneapolis was big enough where I didn’t feel like an outcast. It was different because there was really no Latino culture. In Miami, there is a lot of Latino and Caribbean influence. Minneapolis has a lot of immigrants, but very little Caribbean, Central American influence. That was hard for me. Once fall hit – I thought that was winter.”

The climate and the culture were not the only adjustments Ponce had to make.

“I loved wrestling on my feet because of my high school coach, Michael Turner. He is a great man, has a different approach, and serves a different community of wrestling. I didn’t learn wrestling as a sport; I learned it as self-defense, as a fight. I could care less about wrestling in the top or bottom position. When I came to Augsburg, I struggled on the mat. Augsburg wrestling is very dominant in the top position. It was a whole different style of wrestling.”

Coach Turner exposed Ponce to yet another style of wrestling leading up to Augsburg. Little did he know – it would change the course of Ponce’s life. It would awaken Orlando to the possibilities of a life in wrestling and a life of spirituality.

“When I started wrestling at Augsburg, Turner knew I had taken a few years off, so he sent me to Jeff Jordan and the Jeff Jordan State Champ Camp in Ohio in the summer to work and train. That is where I learned the wrestling business. It is a Christian based camp. I didn’t know the blessings I was receiving at the time, but I was learning the wrestling business, I was getting world-class training virtually for free. I was getting room and board for free. I was getting paid. I didn’t realize what God was doing in my life – God was preparing me for Ponce Trained Wrestling.”

Ponce’s Augsburg success went beyond his active wrestling career; he became the second person from his family to graduate from college and continued working with the school as a coach.

“I was very fortunate to become a three-time All-American and national finalist; we also won a national title in 2010. As a coach, we won a national title in 2015. Helping Coach Moulsoff, I would help run a few events. We would get random phone calls asking for a coach to come. Because of my experience working for Jeff Jordan, I would do that for Augsburg Wrestling also. I would run sessions and was the head counselor for many years.”

Ponce was learning how to run wrestling camps in Minnesota and Ohio. One of the biggest things he learned from his time in Ohio had nothing to do with wrestling.

“The amount of people Coach Jordan can reach, and the amount of influence he has in kids’ lives and with coaches and their teams – that aspect was cool. Obviously, I took mental and physical notes of what he was doing. Because I worked hand and hand with Jeff Jordan for five straight summers, (starting the business) came easy for me. I thought this was something I could do. The best thing I learned was his ability to remember names and shake hands and the value of that. When I worked with him, things were already shifting to online, but he was still shaking hands and writing things down with pencil and pen. Jeff Jordan runs a multi-million-dollar company via pen and paper. I don’t know anything about technology, but I know how to shake hands and be personable. The value of a handshake still means a lot.”

His time with Jordan and Augsburg continued to change his spirituality.

“Now, it is easy to look back and see how many times God stepped in and took care of me. When I was coming up, I ran from God. I didn’t want to believe in him. My family went through some dark times, and I failed to believe there was somebody out there that was letting me live how I grew up. I was rebellious and angry. When I worked for Jordan, one of the things I appreciated – he ran a Christian based camp. They pray before every dinner. That stuck with me. Everybody who comes through that door – they don’t have to pray – but everyone sits and either prays or is respectful when they pray. At the time, I wasn’t a believer, but I respected it. God was also involved at Augsburg. Olympic champion John Peterson is the spiritual coach at Augsburg. He is highly successful in all areas of his life, and he is talking about the word of God. Things started to click for me. That’s how Christ got to me. I thought to myself, ‘what better way to share wrestling then through faith?”

Ponce gave up a stable paycheck, and a job he enjoyed, to pursue his passion.

“I was working for a group home company and working part-time at a homeless shelter. It was not that I didn’t like the work, but I was away from wrestling. I could be growing kids through wrestling. When I am working in wrestling, it is not work. It is tough going to work. That is harder than wrestling. That was why I made the leap into self-employment. I have a family now, but then it was just me, it was easy to leave a stable paycheck.”

“I didn’t know anything about business,” Ponce added, “but I knew about wrestling and coaching wrestling. I knew there was a need for our service. I knew wrestling was good for kids, and kids need it. I knew Minnesota had a large wrestling community, and I am good at connecting with wrestlers.”

He took the leap with his then-roommate – Jake Saatzer.

“Jake and I started No Nonsense Wrestling together,” Ponce explained. “Jake is a great guy, and our coaching philosophies are very similar – it is all about the kids and the families. After a year together, I started Ponce Trained Wrestling, and he has continued with No Nonsense Wrestling and continues to do great work.”

Ponce started the business by hitting the road.

“When I first started, I would say, ‘let me come in and work with your kids.’ I would travel to youth programs and work as a clinician. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was doing what I needed to be doing – going out and meeting people. Through my connections with Augsburg, I was able to get out and meet a lot of people and run Augsburg camps. I didn’t know much about business. I just knew Coach Jordan shook hands, said names, ran camps, and that is what I knew as business.”

Being a traveling coach would unintentionally lead Ponce Trained Wrestling down a different road – one that is still part of the company to this day.

“Wrestling clubs would hire us. When I would go around and meet people, I would see they didn’t always need a technician, they needed a system of coaching and running their program. Originally, I started my business by filling the void of a technician. Eventually, I started helping more with lesson planning, curriculum development, schedule planning – things that can make a wrestling program better. Now, when we work with a program, it isn’t just us coming in as technicians. We give them valuable information that will help their program succeed.”

The shift in focus came from wanting to grow the company, but also from wanting to grow wrestling.

“We want to see the wrestling community grow. If these programs are needing someone to come in and act as a coach – that is great; we can do that. That is not going to help you in the long-term. What you need is a plan, consistent curriculum, and lesson structure. We work with a lot of coaches – shoulder to shoulder – that is more of our role now. That developed from years of being in the trenches with clubs and seeing a need in the wrestling community.”

Eventually, Ponce hoped the brand would become established, and people would start to come to him. That would not come quickly.

“We didn’t host a service until 2017. Before that, we tried to host a service, but only one kid came. We changed it from a camp to a private session. I was trying to be positive and enthusiastic, but I remember how embarrassing it was. Adversities in business come and go, but thank God for wrestling because wrestling teaches you to overcome. You don’t win every match, but you need to keep your head up and keep chugging away. That is what we do in business. We have had to cancel services; we have had to do all kinds of things to overcome, but we’re still here. The beauty of it is that kid still comes to this day.”

Things have improved from that one kid. Last summer – 150 kids came to the camp.

On the mat, the programs are based on their PT3 theory.

“We like to do things in threes,” the former Auggie said. “Our lesson plans have three different sections – warm-up, skill development, and live and conditioning. We operate Sunday, Monday, Wednesday – three days a week. We teach three points of contact. Our sales process is a three-point process. I think it is easy to learn in threes. If I can teach one kid, three things for one month or one thing for three weeks, he is going to learn it well. You have to teach more than one thing, but I am a big believer in doing a few things right. Have a good leg attack to one side, have a good leg attack to the other side, and have a good snap-down attack. That coincides with good shot defense into short offense, front headlock attack. We are very repetitive and very systematic. Kids are learning consistent, systematic lessons.”

Most of the clientele is youth, and most of the instruction is in folkstyle geared towards peaking during the winter state tournaments.

“We start with a positive introduction – whether it be a game or a discussion or the kids just having a good time – to make sure we start with a positive environment,” Ponce explained. “We create positive energy in the room. Think of a chaotic home, and a kid is trying to read or do his homework. That kid is not in a learning environment. Sometimes there is chaos in wrestling rooms. The one thing you will see about our practices is structure. That goes back to the PT3 wrestling system; it is very systematic.”

“We do a safety introduction,” Ponce continued, “with a full-time safety officer on staff. Then we do warm-up and skill development – warm-up and skill development are the biggest part of our practice. I believe you have to work on your skills – your footwork, your stance, your core strength, and your positioning. Then the smallest part of our practice is technique. I don’t believe in hammering kids with tons of technique. I don’t believe that is productive.”

Their regular weekly schedule hits all aspects of the athlete – including the spiritual dimension.

“Sunday, we do an academy. It is an academic approach to wrestling. We talk and go through technique and do skill development. It is a little more laid back, a day to take a more relaxed approach to the sport. Monday night, we run our pee-wees. We are very good at working with young kids and beginners. Then we run our champion program for older youth kids that is more intense and takes a more combative approach. On Wednesdays, we do a strength and conditioning session where it is more of a strength and speed specific approach to the sport – similar to cross-fit training.”

“We don’t slap kids over the head with the Bible, but we let them know we are a faith-based organization,” Ponce continued. “We don’t make you worship God, but there is a message of God. We always have a Bible study on Sundays – not always about a Bible verse – sometimes it is just about doing the right things in school and life.”

One of the reasons they operate on the days they do is to make sure kids can also stay in the programs in their cities.

“I would first point a parent to their communities,” the three-time All-American said. “Every community can use an extra kid in their wrestling room. We structure our practices around Tuesdays and Thursdays so kids can still be involved in their community. We want to grow with you. We don’t want to take you away from your program.”

This article also appears in the May 15, 2020 issue of The Guillotine.

Although his name is on the product, like with any business, it takes many hands.

“My wife is my right-hand woman,” Ponce – who has an exercise science and physical education degree – said. “She has a master’s in business administration, and she is the behind-the-scenes force in the company. On the mat, Ryan Brandenburg has been with us for two years. He is our full-time safety officer, a great wrestling coach, and a great leader. His safety and leadership role allows us to be better. Jackson Mboma, Donny Longendyke, Malcolm Allen, we work with several wrestling leaders that are not full-time but make a great team. Rashad Kennedy has always been willing to help us as a clinician, as a coach. There are a lot of guys I wrestled with at Augsburg – if I call on them, I know they are willing to help us. We have an intern – Lorenzo Hernandez. He is a marine and was a wrestler and a football player at Augsburg. He has a busy schedule, yet he still finds time to give us a full day once a week.”

One other person in Orlando Ponce’s life continues to influence the way he runs his company – and his life.

“Part of the reason I want to be such a loving coach and loving husband and father is because of the love I felt from my mother. We try to express our love through our services and through joy, fun, and growth and success and failure on the mat. We live in a world of hate, but there is love in every corner. Love is the greatest motivator. One thing you will see at Ponce Trained Wrestling is love. Love for the sport, love for the kids, love for the families, and an ability for those kids to bring that home – whether it is in wrestling or something else.”

Because of that love, the expansion of the business has been deliberate. Ponce Trained Wrestling camps would rent space from Augsburg or school districts, and each day would be in a different home location. 2019 was the first year they had a home that wasn’t Augsburg or a school district that they rented from. One of the next steps in the growth of the company is a permanent home, but the company will never rush into anything.

“We are at capacity at our facility – that is a blessing and a great problem to have. We are all about the people we serve,” Ponce said. “We never want to be about the numbers. We are running a business, and everyone knows that, but we are about great service, growth, kids, family, growing the sport, and everything involved. Numbers take care of themselves when you put people first. Wrestling grows when you’re an organization that puts kids first. That’s what we do and why you see us growing. To support that growth, a permanent facility is coming.”

The steps he will take will always be measured alongside his faith, his faith in God, and the faith he has in the people in wrestling.

“Thank God for our wrestling community because we have been in business for six years now, and we are not stopping anytime soon.”

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