As the coronavirus outbreak halted collegiate athletics, perhaps no Virginia Tech student-athlete was affected more than sophomore wrestler Hunter Bolen. The Christiansburg Cowboy was poised to be the 2-seed in the 184-pound weight class at the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis, but never got the chance to wrestle.
“It all happened so fast and it was hard to take it in, it’s honestly still setting in for me now,” Bolen said. “I tried to just put it out of my mind and stay focused because I didn’t think it would ever come to that point.”
Winter sports athletes like Bolen were not awarded an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because almost the entire season was over. However, this doesn’t take into account the athletes who were preparing to compete for a National Championship and had their dreams dashed out of nowhere.
“It doesn’t surprise me. The NCAA doesn’t care about their athletes, they really don’t,” Bolen said. “All they care about is money, they don’t care about the athletes, and I think everybody knows that.”
His frustration is understandable considering the position that he had put himself in through his performance this season. At 24-2, Bolen was dominant after taking a redshirt during the 2018-19 season. One year after Mekhi Lewis pulled out upset after upset to win a National Championship at 165-pounds., Bolen was a favorite to make it to the championship in his weight class.
No one will ever know what would have happened in Minnesota, but Bolen believes that this outbreak may have taken a ring off of his finger and the NCAA didn’t give him a chance to earn it back.
“From when you’re in elementary school, you spend your whole life training for that tournament,” Bolen said. “Obviously, there’s nothing I can do about it now, but the NCAA could have done something about it by giving us another year.”
Although his season ended so abruptly, the Christiansburg Cowboy had a year to remember. Bolen was the only Hokie to bring home gold at the ACC Championships after defeating North Carolina State’s Trent Hidlay, 2-1, in the finals. The Southwest Virginia native came up just short of this feat in his freshman season, finishing second at ACC Championships.
“It was really great, and it felt really good to get that after coming up short during my freshman year,” Bolen said. “It was also kind of a strange feeling for me being the only champion and our team not finishing the way that we should have finished. It was not quite as fulfilling as it could have been…”
Bolen also was just named VaSID Wrestler of the Year as the best collegiate wrestler in the state. The accomplishments that he was able to achieve as a redshirt sophomore show great promise for his future in and beyond Blacksburg. However, the disappointment of what could have been this season still looms for now.
Now, like all other winter sports athletes, Bolen has to move on and look forward to his next venture. It’s hard to wrestle and social distance at the same time, so Bolen and other wrestlers have had to find other ways to train and improve. He’s tried to remain productive with regular runs as well as lifts in his garage to look forward to next season.
“A lot of people aren’t going to be able to get the workouts and focus and actually gain something out of this time, that’s what I’m focusing on,” Bolen said. “I don’t want to stay the same, I want to get better out of it. I don’t want to lose ground; I want to gain it.”
Bolen and Hokies Wrestling didn’t finish the season the way that they wanted, but there is a lot of optimism about the future. With Lewis coming back and plenty of young wrestlers like freshman sensation Bryce Andonian, the future of Hokies wrestling is bright. Tech may have disappointed this year with injuries and struggles during the ACC season, but the program still looks to be on the rise.
“I told a lot of people back in the fall that I thought we would surprise some people, and we did early,” Bolen said. “I think we peaked a little bit too early, but changing a few things up training wise will help us as a team.”
Bolen will be the cornerstone of the program next year, and with two years left in Blacksburg, he’ll almost certainly get multiple shots at a National Championship before his college career ends.