Hayden Tuma graduated from Centennial High in 2014 as one of the most decorated wrestlers in Idaho history.
He won four 5A state titles, two United World Wrestling Junior Greco-Roman Nationals titles and was a four-time U.S. World team member before his 18th birthday. He accepted a full-ride scholarship to Nebraska, where his success in college seemed guaranteed.
But enrolling at Nebraska ended up being one of two mistakes that led him to where he is now — a member of Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), a reigning U.S. national champion and a 2020 Olympic hopeful.
A week after becoming the sixth Idaho 5A prep wrestler to win four consecutive individual state championships, Tuma had the first of two surgeries to repair a shoulder injury.
He arrived at Nebraska in the fall of 2014 with his left arm in a sling.
“I just felt like I had a lot going on,” Tuma said. “I was doing my rehab from surgery on top of still doing workouts, going to classes, study hall hours. It was just a lot.”
Tuma said he originally wanted to take a year off before becoming a Husker, but his parents convinced him otherwise.
“I probably made a mistake pushing him to go to college,” said Michael Tuma, Hayden’s dad.
Tuma’s grades suffered, and he left Nebraska after one semester.
“He’s no different than any 18-, 19-year-old who goes off to college. It’s a maturing process, and it’s a growing process,” said WCAP head coach Shon Lewis, a 2012 U.S. Olympic coach. “We had to let him kind of weed his way through the woods, if you will, and kind of mature a little bit and make some decisions for the betterment of his life.
“Over here, we’re trying to make Olympic and world teams and get world medals and Olympic medals, but it’s also about quality of life.”
In January 2015, Tuma became a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he resumed Greco-Roman training with the hope of competing for a spot at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. There he was reunited with one of his club coaches, Ahad Javansalehi, a former Iranian Olympian.
“He was really happy to have me,” Tuma said.
But Tuma’s decision to wrestle at 145.5 pounds was his second mistake.
“I was giving up weight to a lot of people,” Tuma said. “When I wasn’t cutting weight, some of the guys were bigger, and it was harder to move them in certain positions. So I had to adjust my style of wrestling.”
He fell short of a spot in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and he knew it was time to reevaluate.
Herb House, a retired athlete from the Army’s WCAP program who helps train athletes at the OTC, talked to Tuma about joining the Army program.
“The WCAP team trains at the Olympic Training Center sometimes because we’re so close,” Tuma said. “I kind of just clicked with the coaches really well, and I liked their style of coaching. So I just figured that would be a good transition for me to go from the OTC to their program.”
The WCAP provides active duty, National Guard and reserve soldiers the opportunity to train and compete at national and international sports competitions with the ultimate goal of selection to the U.S. Olympic team. Tuma is awaiting medical clearance for his shoulder before starting basic training.
“It is hard for these guys to put in two or three practices a day and hold down a job to make an income,” Michael Tuma said. “The thing about WCAP is you are a paid soldier. You wrestle for the military.”
Once Tuma was accepted into the WCAP program, he dropped down to the 130-pound class last summer.
That’s when his wrestling career began to pick up steam again.
We have no doubt that he’s going to be an Olympian, and he’s going to be an Olympic medalist, but that gives us no satisfaction if he’s a failure in the race of life. We want him to have a balance and after his wrestling career is over that he can look back and say, ‘I made a really good choice, and I’m glad I made the U.S. Army part of my stepping stone in life.’
Shon Lewis, Army WCAP head coach
He finished second to Japan’s Shota Tanokura 4-3 at the Bill Farrell Memorial International Open in September in New York.
Two months later, he cruised through the competition at U.S. Senior Greco-Roman Nationals, affirming his status as one of the country’s best and a natural front-runner for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“No one really knows the level of greatness that he can achieve,” Lewis said. “But the potential is definitely there, and we are just happy to be a part of the supporting cast and just enjoy this ride.”
Tuma, 21, will have to defend his title the next few years before he gets a shot at his first Olympic team.
“I enjoy it, because I have had a dream since I was a little kid and I’m trying to pursue it,” Tuma said. “I don’t think too many people get to be able to say they get to do what they love every day.”
Another Centennial grad on Olympic path
Jon Jay Chavez, a sophomore at 10th-ranked Cornell, qualified for last spring’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the Greco-Roman 165-pound division but did not compete. Chavez and Hayden Tuma helped Centennial win the 5A team title in 2014 (classification record 320.5 points).