In his first event after a four-year career with UNC wrestling, A.C. Headlee competed in the 2020 U.S. Senior Nationals as part of his path to a bid to the Olympic or World Championship team.
Headlee graduated last year after an impressive college career with UNC wrestling, where he was a three-time NCAA Championship qualifier. He continued his wrestling career with the Tar Heel Wrestling Club — an organization for wrestlers to continue their training for a World or Olympic championship.
Headlee said continuing to wrestle after college was an easy decision for him and something he always wanted to do.
“I realized really early on in my life that I wanted to be involved in wrestling for as long as my body will let me,” he said.
Headlee said his decision to join the Tar Heel Wrestling Club was an obvious choice because of his relationship with Kenny Monday, the U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center head coach at the club. UNC alumni also helped set Headlee up with a job at Milwaukee Tool as a sales representative to support himself outside of wrestling.
Senior Nationals is the biggest open tournament for wrestlers in the United States who are competing on a senior level. It was also the first major senior-level event USA Wrestling has hosted since the cancellations brought on by COVID-19.
“I think being off for that long was probably longer than a lot of us have ever gone between competition," Headlee said. "But it was just good to get back and just feel that adrenaline that you get during a match. I think a lot of people needed it."
Headlee prepared for the event with Monday, who had a training regiment for him to follow.
“It’s a transition from college-style wrestling to Olympic-style wrestling, so it takes a little longer to make that change, and that's what he's in the process of doing now,” Monday said.
Gary Wayne Harding was Headlee’s teammate who then became an assistant coach for UNC after he graduated, coaching Headlee in his final season. Harding said Headlee is an explosive and powerful wrestler with a high wrestling IQ.
“He wrestles a smart match, and as soon as you let your guard down, he's going to capitalize on it," Harding said. "As soon as you make a mistake, he's on it, and he’s going to light you up."
Right now, Headlee's focus is on developing into a "world-class athlete" and getting used to freestyle wrestling in hopes of eventually making an Olympic or World Championship team.
“Every single time I step on the mat, I'm learning," Headlee said. "I'm trying to be a sponge and just soak all the knowledge and information in."
Headlee went 2-2 at Senior Nationals and did not place. He said he needs to focus on getting bigger and will go over film and work on technique with Monday in order to help him improve.
“Obviously, I wish I would have done a little better, but it's my first senior-level competition," Headlee said. "So like Kenny said to me, it's a learning experience, and we're just going to keep building off of it."
Harding said Senior Nationals are a tough tournament and Headlee will learn and grow from his performance as he fills into his weight and gets a better idea of the other wrestlers competing at this level.
“Hopefully he's making a World Team and eventually winning the U.S. Open — that's what I see for him," Harding said. "He ain't done yet. He ain't done writing his story."
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