Respected wrestling camp was built on passion
When Rob Waller was a junior at Annandale High School in Virginia, he was on the basketball team.
But before his junior season, the basketball coach advised him that his hoops career was over.
“He told me that I might not make the team, but the wrestling coach wanted me to tryout,” the 63-year-old Waller said. “I was crushed.”
Instead of pouting, Waller joined the wrestling team, knowing nothing about the sport.
“I was an aggressive kid, and I worked hard,” Waller said. “I wrestled on the junior varsity squad and went undefeated. I think I pinned everyone. I placed third in the state as a senior.”
He went on to wrestle at the State University of New York in Delhi and won a Junior College national title in 1970. He then attended California University of Pa., where he met his wife Debbie of 42 years, and then transferred to Slippery Rock where Fred Powell, a former NCAA champion and coach of the year, taught him how to wrestle.
“Coach Powell was the first coach to teach me the proper way to wrestle,” Waller said. “I got by on my athletic ability before.
“I made it to the final day of the Olympic trials, where I lost to Dan Gable. I basically knew three moves, the bear hug, the double leg and the switch. I was even on Wide World of Sports wrestling against Gable.”
Those experiences gave him the passion to become a coach and a teacher of wrestling. He coached high school wrestling at Kane, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield and Mt. Pleasant.
Now he has one of the top wrestling camps in the country.
“If you asked me Nov. 1 during my junior year in high school that I would wrestle, coach and teach, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Waller said. “I didn’t like teachers, and I didn’t like school. I loved sports.”
Waller just held his 10th All-American wrestling camp of this year at his facility behind his home in Trauger. Waller purchased an old dance hall and converted into a home for his family (four daughters and a son). The back half of the hall was the original wrestling room.
The new wrestling room, which was completed in 2001, was filled with boys from as far away as Billings, Mont., and even wrestlers from a school (Frazier in Perryopolis) that is about to begin a program.
“Frazier’s got some good wrestlers coming up,” Waller said, watching his son, Robbie Waller, and other clinicians conduct drills.
Waller’s All-American Wrestling Champs is celebrating its 40th season. It started by chance in 1973, when Waller was coaching at Kane High School and the Johnsonburg football coach (Pat O’Neill), who also was the wrestling coach, asked him to train his wrestling team.
“He said we’ll make forms and call it the Pennsylvania All-American Wrestling Camp,” Waller said.
Waller has been conducting camps all over the country from as far west as Colorado and as far south as Florida.
He’s had an all-star group of clinicians along the way, including Oklahoma State wrestling coach and two-time Olympic champion John Smith, Gable, a former Iowa coach and Olympic champion, Sergei Beloglazov, a two-time Olympic champion and a six-time World Champion from Russia, and Clarion coach and former NCAA champion at Lehigh, Troy Letters.
He had numerous Olympic champions, NCAA champions and All-Americans serve as coaches over the years. Waller said he was in the corner to coach three state champions in high school, which included his son, Robbie. But he added that he’s trained hundreds of other state champions over the years at his camps or club, including 2013 champions Latrobe’s Luke Pletcher and Derry’s George Phillippi.
“I don’t have a lot of rules, but two are you must be cleaned shaven and no jewelry,” Waller said. “There are a couple common things I teach: takedowns and escapes.”
Robbie Waller, who was an NCAA champion at Oklahoma, said the camps teach the basics.
“We want the wrestlers to have a good foundation and build from that,” Robbie Waller said. “We want kids to continue to improve. Some of the moves we teach are the double leg, head snap, sweep single and stand up.
“He still teaches some things. He lets a lot of the younger guys to teach while he instructs.”