In the summer of 2020, the Finger Lakes Regional Training Center (RTC) was rebranded as the Spartan Combat RTC, a non-profit, world class center for athletes looking to succeed in the international styles. Led by CEO Joe DeSena, a Cornell alum, the Spartan brand represents toughness, grit, mental fortitude and a relentless pursuit of victory -- traits that are embodied in the Ithaca, NY Regional Training Center.
The Spartan Combat RTC is home to some of the top wrestlers in the world, including 2021 Olympian Kyle Dake and senior level stars Yianni Diakomihalis and Vito Arujau, who both won two age group world medals. Chayse LaJoie and Jonathan Fagen made the 2021 Greco Roman Junior World team while representing Spartan, while Andrew Berreyesa earned a Junior Greco Roman World silver. In addition, World bronze winners Gabe Dean (Junior Freestyle) and Jon Jay Chavez (Cadet Greco), trained here, as did Olympic Trials champion Jordan Oliver and U23 Freestyle Team USA wrestlers Max Dean and Chas Tucker.
The Friedman Center on the campus of Cornell University, which houses the Spartan RTC, is one of the finest wrestling facilities in the world. Boasting a dedicated international styles wrestling room, a world class strength and cardio room, a top of the line hydrotherapy room, a team lounge, a video area, dedicated space for relaxation and more, athletes have everything they need to reach their goals. Spartan representatives have become World Champions, NCAA Champions and All-Americans. Who will be next?
Those words are ubiquitous with the Spartan brand and its founder and CEO, Joe Desena. And of course, they are a mantra for top level wrestlers everywhere.
The SpartanCombat Regional Training Center (RTC) brings these together in a natural fit. The organization formerly known as the Finger Lakes Regional Training Center, located on the campus of Cornell University, is a non-profit, world class regional training center for athletes to train and compete on a world-platform in the international styles under the guidance of top notch coaches.
“I’m thrilled and honored to be associated with Joe Desena and the Spartan brand,” said Big Red head coach Rob Koll. “Spartan is the physical manifestation of mental and physical toughness and that’s one of the things we want our RTC to be known for.”
Desena, a 1990 Cornell graduate, is an entrepreneur, a best selling author, an influential podcaster, an ultra endurance addict who completed more than 50 elite races by age 40 and the leader of a company that spans more than 40 countries and millions of consumers. In addition to all of these achievements, his journey to Cornell illustrates the toughness Koll describes.
Growing up in Queens, Desena said he didn’t really have a desire to go to college. He moved to Ithaca, but planned to return to New York City after high school graduation to continue running his successful pool cleaning business. However a friend, whose father was a professor at Cornell, suggested that they both apply. Neither was accepted.
“I was even more interested after not getting in,” Desena said. He went to St. John’s over the summer to “tune up and learn how to study”, saying he “hadn’t really been a student until then.”
The next fall, he took classes as a non-matriculated student at Cornell, including introductory psychology and economics classes that he said changed his life.
He reapplied to Cornell and was turned down again. Undeterred, he followed the same strategy as the previous year -- with the same results. Desena said all he did was study, while juggling his growing business back in the city. After facing rejection four times, he finally earned admission to Cornell.
Interestingly, Desena had no involvement with wrestling while in Ithaca, or at all, until later in his life when he was in the midst of a successful career as a trader on Wall Street.
Inspired by the movie “Kill Bill”, Desena brought a kung fu master into his house to work with his children. Twice a day, seven days per week, the Desena kids learned the martial art and the discipline and hard work that comes with it. While talking about this with a work colleague, he was told about a wrestling father, which made him contemplate different training for his children.
“I got rid of the kung fu master and decided I wanted a wrestler,” Desena said. The Big Red alum was introduced by a mutual friend to Koll, who helped Desena locate a wrestling trainer for him.
And so, wrestling entered the picture. Desena’s two sons have embraced the sport, with his oldest even winning a national title in Singapore when the family moved overseas. All of his kids have adopted the Spartan attitude, as three of his four children ran either a marathon or half marathon before the age of 8. (The fourth hasn’t reached that age yet).
They certainly have numerous role models to follow at the SpartanCombat RTC. Under the guidance of head freestyle coach Mike Grey and Koll, the RTC features highly accomplished athletes such as two-time World Champion Kyle Dake, two-time Cadet World Champion Yianni Diakomihalis, 2018 Final X winner Nahshon Garrett, Junior and Cadet World Silver medalist Vito Arujau, multi-time NCAA champ/Junior World bronze medalist Gabe Dean, U23 World Team member Max Dean and Scottie Boykin.
On the Greco side, multi-time World Team member Pat Martinez, Junior World Silver medalist/U23 World Team member Andrew Berreyesa, Jessy Williams and Burke Paddock compete under championship Iranian coach Ahad Javansalehi.
“We could all learn a lot from the sport of wrestling,” Desena said. “Starting with resilience and grit. I have a tremendous affinity for wrestling and for combat sports in general. I’d love to produce content that we can share with the world. That’s what Spartan does, we inspire.”
Over 3.9 million people were inspired to sign up for Project Unbreakable: The World’s Largest Virtual Race, powered by Rakuten, on May 30-31, which includes running and obstacles. Events range from the “Sprint” (a 5K plus 20 challenges, such as push-ups, burpees, mountain climbers, iso-squats, etc) to the “Ultra” (a 50K along with 60 obstacles).
“Coming out of Covid, it’s awesome to fire everyone up and give people a platform to sweat,” Desena said. He also is looking forward to the first in-person event since the pandemic hit, which is scheduled for June 13 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Desena has also given Cornell alumni a platform to sweat, providing three free months of SpartanEdge, which covers topics such as injury prevention, endurance training, plant-based nutrition and more.
“At Spartan, our goal is to change 100 million lives,” Desena said. “This is an additional way to reach out and sprinkle some ‘spartan’ in people’s lives.”
Another way to impact millions globally is through the Olympics. Desena said he is “working feverishly” to add Spartan races to the world competition by 2028 in Los Angeles.
The Spartan name may be represented in the Olympics much earlier, however.
With the elite talent, passionate and committed coaches, newly renovated facilities, and support, look out for members of the SpartanCombat RTC in Tokyo in 2021 - another place to ‘Be Unbreakable’.