COLUMBIA — Nick Marable is having an identity crisis.
Each day, he arrives at the same wrestling room he has trained in for the past five years. He changes into his wrestling gear and squats under the same weights that his muscular, 165-pound frame has always lifted. He is side-by-side with men who, just 10 months ago, were his teammates, but something is different.
Marable, who finished his senior season on the Missouri wrestling team last spring, returned to Columbia this year as the team’s new assistant strength and conditioning coach. It's a long title, a lot of words for a man who seems not far from a teenager. It's just part of the limbo Marable is in this season, adjusting to his new position while training for the 2012 Olympics. Officially, he is Coach Marable, but sometimes he slips. Sometimes the wrestlers forget, and sometimes he is just Nick. It’s a tough transition, especially when so much remains the same.
What Marable is doing isn’t unprecedented. His former teammate, 2007 graduate Matt Pell, is an assistant coach on the team, but Pell spent two years coaching at the University of Virginia before he returned to Columbia in 2009. The presence of both Pell and Marable in the humid, sweaty rooms on the fourth floor of the Hearnes Center represents a sort of continuity, a family atmosphere that head coach Brian Smith hopes will benefit his wrestlers. Forming that family though, is not without its challenges.
Marable, a two-time All-American, approached Smith in the fall of 2009 about remaining with the team after graduation. He asked if there might be a position available, a part-time coaching job that would allow him time to train for the Olympics. Smith said that he would see what he could do for the wrestler whom he had watched grow from a restless teenager into the unassuming but mature adult he is today, and in the end, he made it happen. He not only created a position for Marable, Smith also arranged for the team's booster club to sponsor his training. Smith went beyond his responsibilities as a coach, stepping in as a mentor and advocate for Marable.
The first thing you notice if you step into Smith’s office are the photos. They’re the difference between a windowless, nondescript cell and the office of a coach who has made the room, the position, a home. They’re bright, colorful snapshots of his wife and children, flashes of color against the plastic-looking wood and mottled brown-gray carpet. They're a decoration, but at the same time a message — Smith is a family man.
But Smith’s family is bigger than the pictures indicate. Sure, every coach who knows what he’s doing says that his team is a family, that his players feel like sons and daughters to him. Smith is serious about it. When Pell was in college, his parents spent time in South Africa, so Smith took him in, allowing Pell to watch his children and spend holidays with his family. Although that was a special case, Marable said that Smith would do anything for anyone on his team, and having Pell and Marable around reinforces the feeling that this is more than a team.
"This team, the team that we were on and the team now, you just kind of feel like family because you're around each other so much,” Pell said. “You know, you're here over vacation more than you're home with your family over the holidays. I think of him (Marable) as a brother, so it's just like having your little brother with you working. It's awesome."
In his new position, Marable works out with the team and comes up with each wrestler’s weight room workouts. In addition, he attends the athletic department’s general strength training meetings and is working on his certification. Smith said that he thinks Marable might even continue with strength training once his wrestling days are over.
Marable is less concerned with his long-term goals. He seems almost overwhelmed by the thought of longer-term planning and only shrugged at the mention of his future career. But don't be fooled by Marable's sheepish, almost laid back persona — he is a wrestler, a successful one, and with that comes the level of intensity that colors everything he does. Right now, he is focusing that intensity on training and becoming the best coach he can be, and between those goals, he has a full-time job. He is just beginning to fine-tune exactly how to be the best coach he can be.
Smith said that the biggest challenge for a young coach is gaining respect, and Marable is grappling with the line between friendship and respect. Smith said that it’s natural that the older wrestlers sometimes forget that their former teammate is now their coach. He looks like he is one of them, trains like he is one of them and might even act like he is one of them — up to a point.
"Part of being a young coach is that you do relate to these guys in a way that they can understand,” Pell said. “You're not so far out of college that they would see you as someone that might not understand what they're going through . . . When I say something to them, they know it's probably good advice, but then it's hard to say something serious . . . and have them take it the way they'd take it from a father-figure."
When Marable is goofing around on the bus or staying after practice to talk with the team, the job seems almost effortless. He surrounded by old friends like Pell and even his current roommate, senior 133-pounder Luke Cherep, so the fun comes easily. It's not hard to picture him in the role of fun older brother, buddy. It’s when that first hint of criticism appears, when he notice something on the mats or in the weight room that needs to change, that the difficulty creeps in. He has learned when it's time to stop laughing, and when the jokes end, when they have to tell the wrestlers things that they might not want to hear — that’s the part that’s not so fun.
"At the beginning of this year, I was kind of nervous,” Marable said. “I didn't want to yell at anybody because I thought it was weird."
The weirdness has passed, partially because Marable has realized that his former teammates look up to him and value what he has to say. He seems almost surprised by this, as if he's just beginning to buy into his own authority. But there are only eight juniors and seniors on the team, so most of the wrestlers know of Marable only as either a team captain or coach.
"I think right now the older guys listen to me out of respect, and the younger guys listen to me as a coach," Marable said.
Obviously, the wrestlers see Marable as a coach, deserving of attention and respect. The coaches see him in the same way. The only person who’s still skeptical, who still forgets sometimes, is Marable. When he attends competitions with his former coach Joe Johnston, Marable often forgets to call him “Joe.” Instead, he refers to him as “Coach,” confusing many of the other wrestlers at the competition. When asked if he’s coming to view Smith as more of a peer, Marable laughed. No way.
Pell, in a way, is Marable’s link to the coaching staff. Marable has always considered him a friend, and having his former teammate on staff makes him feel more like a part of the group of coaches, a group that Marable unquestionably needs to feel a part of. He’s no longer a member of the team that defined his life for the past five years, but returning this year for Marable seemed almost like coming back from another summer break. It’s crucial that he realize how different it actually is.
"He has to draw the line where he can't hang out with them socially anymore,” Smith said. “I mean, he can hang out with them, but it just can't be how it used to be."
Those could be tough guidelines to follow, putting boundaries on friendships. Pell said that he learned quickly that there’s a difference between cutting ties and creating boundaries. Marable has been working to build those boundaries since he arrived back in Columbia, but he knows that avoiding the wrestlers completely outside of the Hearnes Center is impossible.
Cherep has a unique perspective on Marable’s new role — not only does he live with Marable, he is also been friends with him for years. Cherep said that, in his eyes, Marable's transition from friend to coach will never be complete, but he is proud of the way his friend has handled the situation.
“He knows he has to maintain that boundary,” Cherep said. “He does it well. He understands why it has to be that way sometimes, but he’s still a very good friend of mine and a big part of my life.”
The most difficult boundaries to draw come at Marable and Cherep’s home. Although not much has changed between the two of them, there’s one downside to their living situation. When Cherep has friends over to hang out, Marable stays downstairs in his room. That’s the only difficult part, Cherep said, and he thinks that living with a coach has provided him with a unique opportunity. Referring to Marable as the “guy on my shoulder,” Cherep said that Marable watches out for him both in the wrestling room and at home, monitoring his diet and making sure he is making the best choices for his wrestling career.
The awkwardness of Marable’s situation — hiding in his room, having a friend call him coach — is soon to end, he thinks. He said that by next season everyone on the team will see him as a coach rather than as a friend, and he is excited for that shift in perception. He just hopes that it won’t be too much of a change, because he values the role he can play in relating to the players.
Although Marable is sensitive to the change, his transformation from wrestler into coach, Smith views the situation as natural. Having his two former wrestlers, Marable and Pell, around is an outgrowth of the kind of program he has built, one where players grow not only into better wrestlers, but also into role models.
"They grow up, they mature and they learn from the older guys,” Smith said. “That's how our program works, and Nick (Marable) and Matt (Pell) are a part of that."
Within that system, each has his title of assistant coach, but those descriptions fall short. Just as Pell did two years ago, Marable is learning the art of balance, of mentoring. The window is short, only a few years, but Marable has a unique opportunity, bigger than training or designing workouts. While he is still so close in age to many of the men he is coaching, he has the chance to develop a special relationship with them.
He can be many things: a mentor, a coach, not quite a peer, and maybe, just maybe, even a bit of a friend.