Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer
After the final whistle blew, an exhausted Demetrius Thomas held up his arms victoriously, taking in the standing ovation of blue and gold around him. The 2020 ACC Wrestling Championships took place at the Petersen Events Center, a fitting location for the end of the Pitt senior’s collegiate career.
But Thomas didn’t know that it’d be the last time he stepped onto a mat representing the Panthers. He had just won the ACC Championship for the heavyweight division, his second conference title in a row, and was scheduled to compete in the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis just over a week later. He’d earned the No. 7 seed and would face Purdue’s Thomas Penola in the first round.
But the college career of Pitt’s decorated heavyweight came to an abrupt end just a few days after his bout at the Pete, when the NCAA canceled all 2020 winter and spring championships on March 12 in response to the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread the pandemic and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said at the time.
The news disappointed Thomas, mostly because it prevented him from the opportunity to “earn” All-American status. Unlike college sports such as football or basketball, where coaches and media members use their best judgment to select recipients, college wrestlers automatically receive the honor if they make it to the final eight competitors of their weight class in the NCAA Championships.
Because the pandemic cancelled the NCAA Championships, the National Wrestling Coaches Association selected the All-American team based on athletes’ resumés up to that point. Although Thomas made the team, he didn’t feel that the award had the same authenticity with the new circumstances.
“I felt like it was a pat on the back more so than anything,” Thomas said. “In wrestling, it’s not really acceptable for a pat on the back. Nobody likes to be like, ‘Good job man.’ Either you won or you lost, and what are you gonna do about it to get better?”
With the season over, and the entire sports world on pause, Thomas temporarily moved out to Los Angeles with his girlfriend for the rest of his final academic semester. The two-and-a-half-month “vacation” gave him a chance to relax, but also caused changes to his fitness routine.
“It was rough because even being [in Pittsburgh], I didn’t have a gym,” Thomas said. “I did get a little heavy. I think that was the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Thomas began to adopt new training methods, needing extra creativity to replicate his typical regimen. He started to lift anything he could find, including bags of mulch, and began using the Nike Training Club app for home workouts. He eventually returned to Pittsburgh to take on the next phase of his wrestling career — the Pittsburgh Wrestling Club.
The Pittsburgh Wrestling Club Regional Training Center is a private, nonprofit organization established in 2016 that aims to push wrestlers to their Olympic and world goals. Pitt head coach Keith Gavin leads the training team, and it utilizes Pitt wrestling facilities. With only three athletes on its current roster, the organization looks for certain qualities in its athletes — qualities that have fueled Thomas to success since he transferred to Pitt from William Baptist University in Arkansas.
“I think it was pretty mutual,” Gavin said. “His work ethic and character, he was a guy we wanted to keep around in any fashion. He just really likes to compete. He felt like he had more wrestling to do.”
Thomas signed with the organization in the summer, which pays him to train to further his own career, as well as help the collegiate wrestlers in the facility improve their craft. RTC doesn’t provide his food and housing, but his status as a college graduate allows him increased access to the wrestling facilities within the training center’s rules.
Since he began training with the Pittsburgh Wrestling Club, Thomas has quickly acclimated himself with his new environment. PWC athlete Nico Megaludis, a three-time All-American at Penn State from 2011-14, already knew Thomas from the PWC’s involvement with the Pitt program.
“Demetrius is a very humble dude who really cares about himself and others,” Megaludis said. “I remember at a match last year, afterwards he was playing violin with a kid in the stands.”
The Pittsburgh Wrestling Club has scheduled multiple matches since Thomas joined, primarily as fundraising exhibitions and opportunities for the wrestlers to stay tuned with elite competition. Thomas’ record has struggled in those matches, but Gavin attributes that mostly to an unfamiliarity with the rules and techniques of professional wrestling.
“He wrestles freestyle now,” Gavin said. “When you get taken down, on the bottom, in freestyle it’s much different. That’s the biggest difference. He gives up points from that position. That’s probably the main focus right now, but that’s pretty common for somebody that’s new to that style.”
On top of learning new habits on the playing surface, Thomas has started to familiarize himself with some of the differences between a collegiate and professional lifestyle. Thomas said his current situation requires much more self-motivation and independence — creating his own schedules, reaching out to his coaches for help when needed and wrestling for individual success instead of a team goal. Still, he knows that his position demands success.
“Don’t get me wrong, my spot is now, even on the Regional Training Center team, is in jeopardy,” Thomas said. “If I don’t perform, they will fire me and I won’t have a job. But at the same time, I’m performing for, I guess you could say, my advantage or my personal goals now.”
Outside of his wrestling ambitions, Thomas draws motivation from his faith. He said his connection to the Christian church has existed since his childhood, but started out more externally motivated with his parents making the decision for him to attend services. He began to find more interest internally in high school when he chose himself to go to church.
His journey took a significant leap at Pitt, participating in the Panther Fellowship, a bible study group of athletes that meets once a week. He experienced a defining moment in his religious perspective during his sophomore year while working for Kids Across America, a Christian sports camp in Thomas’ home state of Missouri.
“I was preaching the gospel to them, and it was one day in the middle of the day, and I really began to question my faith because I didn’t really see God in my life,” Thomas said. “Just through some prayer and encouragement and really seeking him more, he revealed himself to me in a different way that I’d never seen before and really convinced me and sold me out on it.”
As he takes this next step in his wrestling career, Thomas doesn’t see himself as a wrestler, but as a “Christian who wrestles.” He said that using his platform to spread the gospel has become his driving force.
With the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials rapidly approaching in April, Thomas said he can see his window for qualification closing fast. Although he’s doing what he can to get into the 2021 Olympic trials, he also has his sights on making the U.S. roster for the 2024 Olympics, which will take place in Paris, France.
Gavin showed confidence in Thomas’ capability to make the team, but acknowledges the road will have many obstacles. According to College Wrestling Recruiting, roughly 2,460 wrestlers sit on an NCAA Division I roster, about a 1% rate for the high school wrestling population. Of that large pool, only 150 wrestlers have qualified for the Olympic trials so far, and the final roster will have about 15 athletes.
“It’s really a race against time I think,” Gavin said. “He’s going to definitely continue to get better, but it’s gonna be up to him of how long he wants to commit himself to this. But if he’s fully committed, and he’s in it for the long haul, then I think the sky’s the limit for him.”