During his senior year at Fairfax High School, John Curtis never slept on his back, because that is the position a wrestler is in when he gets pinned. If for some reason he had to sleep on his back, he kept at least a hand underneath one of his shoulders, so he would not be in a pinned position.
"Positive thinking is a must in athletics, but I went overboard," said Curtis.
Curtis's wrestling career was filled with taking the love of his sport to the extreme. He not only spent time as a stud in high school, he went on to become an Olympic hopeful, a 3-time NCAA title contender, a missionary, and even wrestled prisoners in Kazakhstan — all things he did to keep learning his sport.
"When you stop learning, things tend to get boring," said Curtis, who didn't start wrestling until his freshman year of high school.
AS A SENIOR at Fairfax, Curtis, a 176-pounder, was one of the favorites to win the 1988 Virginia High School League AAA state wrestling title. Curtis had made a necklace which said he was the 1988 state champion, and put a big sign on the wall of his room stating the same thing. However, two days before the Potomac District tournament began, Curtis tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee.
Coach Mitch Sutterfield had brought three wrestlers to practice who were bigger than Curtis to prepare him for the postseason. After the practice was done, the undefeated senior wanted some more time with the more experienced wrestlers. "Okay, just don't get hurt," was Sutterfield's answer. Even after the extra session was done, Curtis wanted one more 30-second round. That 30 seconds changed his life.
"I HEARD MY knee go pop, pop, pop," said Curtis.
After one doctor told him he would not wrestle again, Curtis found a doctor who fit him for a knee brace. That doctor then came to the district matches, where he drained Curtis's knee between matches. The Fairfax senior made it to the Potomac District final, but forfeited because he had already qualified for the regional tournament. He won his way to the regional tournament final and then in the first round of the state tournament. Chris Maynor of Langley — a wrestler that Curtis had already defeated in a preseason scrimmage — went on to win the 176-pound title that year. Curtis's high school career was finished.
"When I first saw [Curtis], I had no idea about his brilliant future as a wrestler," said Sutterfield, who is in his 29th year as Fairfax High's wrestling coach. "But, I said, 'What a tough kid.'" Sutterfield added that Curtis, who had no wrestling experience prior to high school, constantly improved. Despite not winning the title, Sutterfield said he still considered Curtis 1988's 176-pound state champion because he had already defeated Maynor earlier in the season.
"[The knee injury] was a great life lesson for me," said Curtis. He said he learned to be at his best at each moment, because he was never sure there would be a next moment. As a wrestler, he no longer thought years ahead of him, but only as far as the next goal. He added that the lesson was also applied to the rest of his life, family, personal and business.
AFTER UNDERGOING SURGERY on his knee, Curtis went through an intense physical therapy treatment. As a freshman at the University of Virginia, Curtis red-shirted his first year in order to concentrate on getting the strength back in his knee. He said he learned to push himself to the limit and beyond. "I always tried a little harder, and I busted my tail on the rehab," he said. "It wasn't pretty, I often pushed myself to the point where I was throwing-up in the trash cans." Curtis transferred to George Mason University, and joined his brother Howard on the Patriot's wrestling team. During his time at GMU, John Curtis was a two-time All-American wrestler. He won the Colonial Athletic Association wrestling tournament twice (197-pound weight class), earning the CAA Wrestler of the Year honors in 1992 and 1993 — the first two years wrestling was added to the CAA as a conference sport. He posted a 114-30 record in his four years at GMU. Curtis qualified for the NCAA National Championship three times, and won three Virginia Division I state titles. He became a member of the United States Wrestling National Team from 1996 to 2000. "It was an honor to be an All-American in college, but being on the national team was the real highlight for me," said Curtis.
He wrestled for a club in Pennsylvania, where he developed a mentality of being a student of the game through hard work in the mat-room, while at the same time laboring for a tree-service.
In particular, Curtis learned from Dave Schultz, a seven-time World and Olympic medalist. Curtis said Schultz never stopped learning. Schultz was later killed prior to the 1996 Olympics, when John DuPont, an heir to the DuPont chemical industry, shot him multiple times.
DURING HIS YEARS on the national team, Curtis came close to making the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. He also went on to represent the country in multiple international tournaments in places such as Brazil, Ecuador, Poland, Germany and Ukraine among others.
In 1998, Curtis and his wife Karen moved to Moscow, where he was a representative of a Christian athletic group, Athletes in Action. He did missionary work while representing the group in tournaments in places where most missionaries do not go to. For example, he took part in a tournament just outside of Chechnya, a former Soviet Republic troubled by war, at a time when many westerners were kidnapped for ransom. He also participated in challenge matches in a prison in Kazakhstan.
Every summer, Curtis takes a team of wrestlers from the United States to Russia where they compete in tournaments and put on clinics and camps for the local population.
CURTIS CURRENTLY lives in Manassas, Va., with his wife Karen and they are expecting their fourth child. He owns and operates Freedom Tree Service. He hopes to build an addition to his house, which could serve as an indoor wrestling gym to train his children. The training of his children has already begun. "I love to wrestle," said Curtis's six year-old son River, wearing his wrestling singlet.
John Curtis is 86 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.