Comfortable with Uncomfortable: A Behind-the-Scenes Photo Story of Duke Wrestling by Peyton Williams


A terse handshake ends seven minutes later with a mat smeared with sweat.

Wrestling is a sport like none other in college sports, but what makes wrestling such a different sport than others? Is it truly an individualistic sport?

From October 2017 to March 2018, I followed the wrestlers of Duke University in Durham, NC, from season preparation till just before the NCAA championships. I entered as a neophyte to the sport and left with an appreciation of the never-ending work the wrestlers and staff put in. Through their experiences and my camera lens, I tell the story of what life is like in college wrestling.

Maliik Marcin does lunges holding Mitch Finesilver on Saturday, November, 11, 2017.

The Preparation

Practices are intense. Football players watch a wrestling practice and say, ‘Oh my god’.

It’s a brisk late October morning in Durham, NC. Cold air shivers through Duke’s campus as bundled students scurry to early morning classes. I head to my first wrestling practice and I don’t know what to expect. I walk into the wrestling practice room and it is all quiet. The wrestlers don’t notice me walking in; they sit, transfixed in thought, their backs resting on the wall. I don’t take a photo, fearing the camera’s shutter piercing the silence in the room.

Jacob Kasper hasn’t been sitting. He’s been dutifully applying athletic tape to his hand. Finished, he walks over to a giant digital timer on the wall and begins pressing buttons. Hitting “start”, a tone chimes from the timer and instantly the entire team leaps to their feet and begins running in place around the wrestling room.

Through my life as a sports photographer I have been to many team practices, but none compare to wrestling. One of my first “wow” moments covering the Duke wrestling team was witnessing how much preparation and sweat goes into practice. “It’s just a seven-minute match, how much preparation could it possibly take”, the uninitiated may ask.

It’s relentless.

The coaches employed methods I didn’t know existed to work out the guys. The wrestlers would do lunges with another wrestler on their back or even use another wrestler to do bicep curls. The guys would be pouring sweat after practice on the mat that looked more like a Slip ‘N Slide instead of a wrestling mat. One particularly poignant moment that made the intensity hit home was watching Alec Schenk sit after practice on the mat, and watch sweat pool underneath him on the mat; it looked like someone had taken a glass of water and poured it under him. “Can’t hide hard work”, as Jacob Kasper would say.

Portraits taken of some of the wrestlers after a practice. (taken with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at f/1.2-f/2.0)
One surprise for me as someone less steeped in wrestling was how engaged the coaches are in practices. Rather than barking orders from the sidelines, they are on the mat with the guys teaching. Here, head coach Glen Lanham with Ben Anderson on Wednesday, November, 1, 2017 during practice.
Maliik Marcin, Araad Fisher and Ben Anderson run sprints during practice on Wednesday, November, 1, 2017.

Individual vs. Team Sport

You tell the other person, 'This is how you can beat me next time.' That is what makes you better. It forces you to learn and adapt

Being comfortable in my own ignorance I'll admit that, when I came into wrestling, I perceived it as only an individual sport. I was wrong. No one can improve on their own in wrestling; it takes teammates to push you and make you work hard to get to the next level. Don't believe me? Go to a wrestling practice and listen closely to the wrestlers. Listen closely and you'll hear them talking to each other, helping each other, teaching each other. They'll tell the guy they just pinned how they did it, how they found their weak spot, and how they can get better. The coaches are also watching closely, stepping in and offering guidance during and after practice.

Break him! If you love him and you love the team, you will break him.

I heard Jacob Kasper yell this as one wrestler was pinning another in practice. The wrestler being pinned was audibly in distress and the other wrestler was about to lighten up. But Jacob's words disabused the pinning wrestler of any mercy.

For me, it was an emotional moment that shook me for a moment. I went back to Jacob and talked to him more about what he meant.

"If you are just like a dude on the team you’ll probably lighten up and take it easy because you only like him and therefore care about his well being in the present moment. But if you love him, and really love him like a brother, you will beat him down as far as you can. He has to go to that dark place and answer the questions he has about himself. Is this something he really wants? Is he a quitter? What is he willing to go through to be the best? What is he willing to give? If you love somebody you will take them there so they have to grow and become a better wrestler, athlete, teammate, student, brother, son, husband, father, and just person in general."

On the mat, however, your teammates cannot save you. Seven minutes on a mat, one on one with another wrestler who has watched video of you to find weaknesses he can and will expose. "Winning and losing in a 1-on-1 setting brings humility. There is nowhere to hide and no one to blame but yourself," notes Cael Sanderson.

Jacob Kasper rests in a puddle of sweat after a workout.

Dead weight lifts

One of the harder workouts I saw was the wrestlers use each other for weight resistance. These workouts especially were fatiguing. I felt most for the poor wrestler who was in the role of the weight; their face at times had the look of "please don't drop me."

Sweat pools on the mat after practice

The Training

The preseason is filled with three main activities: Practice, weights, and conditioning. When not practicing, the team was in the capable hands of Alex Merrill, its sports performance coach who has a masters in applied exercise science. Merrill continually found novel ways for the guys to work out, keeping sessions fresh and interesting.

Strength coach Alex Merrill coaches the team during sprints.

The Body

Like any sport, wrestling causes stress on the body. Beyond the typical injuries, wrestlers also are susceptible to cauliflower ear and "mat herpes". When Kaden Russell mentioned mat herpes to me, I thought he was kidding. It's actually a thing though and the CDC documented in MMWR a case when it spread during a Minnesota high school wrestling camp.

Thankfully the team has at their disposal its athletic trainer, Devin Demyanovich, MS, LAT, ATC, who can provide expert guidance on prevention and treatment.

Treatments in the sports medicine facility.
Treatments on match day.
Anthony DeMartino reacts to the frigid water in the cold bath after practice on Saturday, November, 4, 2017

Match Days

At last, all the practices, weights and conditioning lead to match day. If you play lacrosse, and you are the third best at your position, there is a good chance you will start. In wrestling, where only one wrestler can wrestle per weight class in a typical match, you may not see the mat.

Wrestlers warm-up during the Southern Scuffle
Head coach Glen Lanham meets the team in his hotel room on Sunday, December, 31, 2017 before the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, TN. Coach spoke of wanting to make a statement at the Scuffle -- which the team did, capping it's most successful Southern Scuffle appearance, including placing four on the podium.
Wrestlers walk up the steps from their practice mat in Card Gyn to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a match.
Assistant coach Brandon Nelsen checks his watch before a match against Pittsburgh on February, 11, 2018.

Before matches, all wrestlers have to weigh-in. If even fraction of a pound over their weight limit, they are eliminated from the match. Making weight in one of the more unique aspects of wrestling. Here's another observation from a neophyte: I went to practice and noticed some guys were wearing only a singlet and others wearing sweat pants and a hoodie. At first I couldn't figure it out, but the answer later became obvious: Some guys were trying to shed water weight before a weigh-in.

Matt Finesilver, center frame, waits for weigh-ins before the Southern Scuffle with other wrestlers.
Weigh-ins during match days.
The team looks on during a teammate's match.

The Camaraderie

My favorite moments with the team were after practices in the wrestling room. After practices ended a few would stick around and hang out. These were the best moments and when I made some of my favorite photos of the team. It was in these moments the team seemed to bond even more, in the joy of each other's company.

Beyond a time to make photos, after practice was also my favorite time to hang with the team. It was endless fun talking with them about their sport, hearing them share stories, and listening to their jokes. I never wanted these moments to end; they were so much fun.

Kaden Russell, Matt Finesilver and assistant coach Ben Nelsen horse around after practice.
Post-practice moments, including with Coach Ben Wissel's children.
Jacob Kasper (bottom) on the bus trip to Chattanooga with Matt, Mitch and Josh Finesilver.
The team gathers at Jacob Kasper's house.

A Thank You

Me (left) with the team on January, 2, 2018 after the Southern Scuffle at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, TN. (Photo Courtesy: Brad Kasper)

When I finished grad school in May 2017 I wanted to find something interesting to fill the new-found time I would have with school finished. During this time I was watching some amazing photos taken by Michael Mardones that were being reposted by Jacob Kasper. Kasper was in California over the summer helping train Daniel Cormier. The photography was compelling and so different than the typical lacrosse or other sports I cover. “Too bad there’s not someone training for the UFC in Durham,” I thought.

I realized there was an amazing potential looking me right in the face: The Duke wrestling team, including Jacob Kasper. This brings me to the first person I’d like to thank, Meredith Rieder, the media relations contact for Duke wrestling, and someone I’ve had the opportunity to know for some time due to lacrosse. I pitched the idea to her and she helped with behind-the-scenes work of getting the necessary permissions and also helping me along the way with logistics.

I would also like to thank the coaching staff, head coach Glen Lanham, and his assistants Ben Wissel and Brandon Nelsen. I appreciate the leap of faith it required to let someone in from the outside follow their and I am thankful for the opportunity. Thank you for putting up with me at practices and matches and your endless support.

A special thank you is required for Jacob Kasper. I’m a bit of an introvert and meeting new people doesn’t come easily for me. That was going to be an initial barrier to me working on this project. The first team event I showed up to was a weightlifting session. After the session, my Instagram started to be followed by members on the wrestling team. A bit confused, I wondered how they knew who I was since I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to any of them that day. The second team event I attended was a practice. After practice wrestler after wrestler came up to me. “Hello, I’m Thayer. Good to meet you.” “Hi, I’m Josh, brother with Matt.” Unknown to me, Jacob has sent a message to the team breaking the ice for me and at the next opportunity they introduced themselves. One thing I came to realize about Jacob is how he makes you feel welcome when you’re on the team. The photo above encapsulates that sentiment. I was taking a photo of the team after Southern Scuffle and Jacob invited me to be in the photo because I was "on the team". It was an amazingly thoughtful gesture that made me feel a little less like an outsider.

Finally thank you to the wrestlers themselves. Thank you for letting me understand and appreciate what wrestling is like through your experiences and helping me learn more about what drives you. Also a big thank you for answering all the stupid questions about wrestling I continuously asked you. Hopefully I came out a bit smarter.

How you can help

If, like me, you came out with a new respect for these student-athletes, can you consider helping the team? You can show your support by following them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Next winter, come out to matches.

Financially, the team could also use your support. Follow this link and select "Iron Dukes Varsity Club" and then "Varsity Club - Wrestling".

The 2018 Duke Wrestling team after a February 24 practice.

All photos by Peyton Williams.

Created By
Peyton Williams


Peyton Williams 2017-2018