South Dakota State University assistant wrestling coach Jon Reader went to high school in Michigan. He wrested in college at Iowa State and was a 3-time All American. He won the 174-pound national championship in 2011.
Reader came to Brookings last fall to coach... and to train for a shot at the 2016 Olympic Games.
"Every morning when we walk in there at 5:15 AM he is listening to his music and dressed and ready to roll," says SDSU head coach Chris Bono. "He is ready for practice that starts at 6 o’clock. He is ready. It’s his time."
"I was never a skilled or God-gifted wrestler," says Reader. "I had to outwork guys. I had to find a way to get an edge on guys and that was staying extra and getting extra work in and ultimately, that is what has got me to where I’m at."
Reader and Bono have built what they say is an unbreakable bond that started in Readers senior season at Iowa State. Bono, a national champion for the Cyclones himself in 1996, was an assistant coach at ISU when Reader won his NCAA title.
"Coach Bono was a reason why I won a national championship at Iowa State," Reader explains. "He was one of my coaches there and we had built an unbelievable relationship and he is truly a best friend to me."
"I got to be with him, only for a year, but that is where we really hooked up because we had the same mindset for wrestling," says Bono. "It is our passion… it’s all we do. And I got there and I thought, 'This guy is kind of crazy for his work ethic and what he wanted me to do with him… show up, do this, do that… stay late, come early.' And then I realized, I am kind of crazy because I kind of like it… the things he was doing."
Three years ago when Bono got the job in Brookings he wanted Reader be his assistant, but Reader was still working out at Iowa State and did not want to make the move. When Bono tried again last year Reader was working out full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. He thought he had everything he needed there, but he also had an allegiance to Bono. And Bono was very persuasive.
"He gave me a call," says Reader "and said… I want you to come out here to Brookings with me. And when he said Brookings, I said… where is that? Where is South Dakota and why do I want to be in South Dakota?"
Because it turns out South Dakota was the best place for him to be. Bono says Reader had gotten too big and even teased him about being fat and slow. He wanted Reader to get back to being “that dog on a bone” as Bono puts it.
"If you look at his training now, he has leaned out. He is training 15 pounds lighter. He is down in body fat. I’ve got him hooked up down at Sanford Health doing the sweat tests and giving him some stuff that is really helping him with his nutrition. And he is a different guy in terms of when he came here last October."
"I wanted to get back to the way I used to train," Reader says. "Hard-nosed and up at 5:00 AM and that is what Coach Bono is. He is going to run circles around you until you fall down. He is a tireless worker and one of the most focused wrestlers when he was competing… and the guy still trains every day. He is 40 years old and still trains harder that most guys in the room. To be back and be coached and mentored by him is truly an honor and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else."
"Back at the Olympic training center he was training with 2 or 3 guys and it is getting stale for him," Bono continues. "Here he’s got 15 workout partners. Are they Olympic quality? No. But I believe it has helped him. I’ve got three guys rotating in on him and getting him exhausted. He is training like a college guy and Jon Reader needs to grind. Jon Reader needs to train like a college kid."
That is the model in college wrestling. They are "a little different" Bono says with a chuckle. Wrestling coaches get in the room and work out with and against the college kids every day. So Reader gets to compete and teach and lead by example. And it is Readers lifestyle that sets him apart, according to Bono. The way he eats and the way he trains and the way he treats people are a model for success.
"Jon is one of a kind," says Bono. "Jon is the only one I have seen as a coach on a long-term basis that does everything exactly right. It is something that we preach to our team and preach to everybody, but this guys does everything right. If there is ever anybody that deserves to win every single match at the highest level it is Jon Reader. I would never bring that up but that is what separates him from 99 percent of the people in this place. He is not going to treat somebody bad. He’s not going to hang out with bad people that are not going to live the life he wants, and that is what I have really been impressed with."
And don’t get him wrong… Bono is quick to point out that Reader will do whatever it takes to beat you.
But somehow he is able to maintain a balance between being a gladiator AND a good guy.
"We’ve got little fourth graders running laps with Jon Reader on Saturday mornings at 7:00 in the morning. Who does that? Guy is trying to win a gold medal. Who is inviting fourth graders to come run with them? Not many people."
Reader and Bono just returned from the Yasar Dogu International tournament in Istanbul, Turkey. Reader finished 5th at 189 pounds and lost to an American in the third place match. So that is what Bono wants Reader to concentrate on right now… be the best in the country first, and then be the best in the world.
"When he was at the Olympic training center he was traveling overseas five or six times a year," says Bono, who has a lot of his own international experience, "and I put it to him as… you are wrestling all these foreigners and then losing to the guys in the United States. You are fifth or sixth on the ladder. We’ve got to beat the Americans… and that is the way I approach it. You can’t win a gold medal unless you beat the best Americans. So we have really focused on the Americans and we’ve got a game plan down now for all eight of them. I’ve got guys in this room (at SDSU) that wrestle like all eight of them. So now we are putting that game plan together in case we get eight of the best guys in the United States… and I expect to see every one of them in the next year and a half."
Reader will compete in the U.S. Open in early May and then the World Team Trials later this summer. In the meantime, he will keep grinding it out… exactly what he loves to do. Stay longer and work harder than the other guy and make his SDSU bosses proud.
"These guys have given me a unique position to be able to train every day towards an Olympic gold medal," Reader says, "and to be able to bring that back to Brookings would be unbelievable. I remember my dad got me the 1996 Olympic highlight video and I used to watch it all the time… seeing those guys with the flag around their back running around the mat because they won Olympic gold. It gives me goosebumps right now and it is something that every day I visualize. That is going to be me."
With Bono pushing him all the way through to the Games in Rio De Janeiro in August of 2016. That is the plan.
"He gets this crazy notion," Bono says, "that I am actually going to compete again and he is saying just another year and a half and train with me. And I keep telling him, Jon, man… my gold medal is going to be when you win your gold medal. I didn’t do it competitively but when you win that is going to be my gold medal… to see you do it."