Mateusz Kudra (North Attleboro, Mass.), a redshirt freshman on the Virginia wrestling team and the son of immigrants, is a first-generation college student along with his two sisters. In this edition of Hoos Life he talks about his experience as a college freshman, the guidance his older sisters provided in the recruiting process and his first year at college and his life with his sister in Rhode Island during this period of social distancing while their mother recovers from COVID-19 back home in Massachusetts.
Q: You’re finishing up your first year of college and just completed your first year of competition. What was that experience like for you?
Kudra: It was the best year of my life – making connections with other first-year students, the team and the community. Your redshirt year is a good way to transition from high school to college wrestling. You don’t have the added stress of competing right away. You focus on building yourself rather than going straight into winning. The staff did a great job of stressing building myself and wrestling ability. Rather than focusing on results, it was about focusing on getting better and getting a year to improve and reflect. I really appreciated that and felt like it’s been a huge growing experience for me and a year of improvement.
Q: How was a redshirt season different for you as you went from competing regularly and what did that ask of you that you might not have been expecting?
Kudra: It’s humbling. You go from being one of the top dogs back home and then you get to college and it’s totally different – you start at the bottom of the pyramid again. You have teammates that force you to improve. You have coaches that want to see you improve and that’s all they ask of you is improvement. It’s a huge transition – the style of college wrestling compared to high school. It was a big gap to fill.
Q: You had a lot of guys in the class who also redshirted with you. Was that a benefit to have those guys in that situation with you?
Kudra: It was good to know everyone in my class was going through the same experience. We were all at the same level and there wasn’t a hierarchy of some sort. Everyone was developing at the same pace. We were learning together and developing together. We went through the whole year together. It built a sense of community. Being at the same level and on the same page really helped.
Q: You were injured for a period of the year and what was that like working through rehab while some of your fellow freshmen were competing in an unattached capacity and continuing to wrestle while you were sidelined?
Kudra: I had a few injuries over the season where I would be sidelined for a couple of weeks at a time. It sucked, but there were other guys who had it worse. Just being sidelined sucks because you’re watching your teammates improve and knowing all the time you’re spending recovering because you got yourself into a stupid position or over-exerted yourself with a small mistake that causes injuries. It hurts not being able to continue to improve and compete. At the same time, you know when you come back from the injury you will be stronger and faster. While sidelined, you spend a lot of time reflecting, watching film and doing everything you can to improve even though you can’t step on the mat.
Q: We’re in a very different situation now being at home and social distancing. As a heavyweight, you aren’t as worried about cutting weight but how are you working to maintain fitness and being able to go again when competitions can resume? And how is it possibly different than normal?
Kudra: Close to the end of the season before the pandemic hit, I was doing research on what Olympians do and how they train and set their diets. I was planning on mimicking that during the off-season. The situation that we’re in has made things a bit limiting. I’ve been lifting and conditioning, but it’s difficult without a partner and not having a wrestling facility to keep the muscle memory. I’m living with my sister (in Rhode Island) and she doesn’t have weight equipment. I sent texts to friends to see if anyone had spare weights and slowly started building a little gym in the garage. Now I have a whole gym, so there are no excuses at this point.
Q: You and your sisters are first-generation college students, how was the first year of college for you and did you rely on your older sisters for guidance?
Kudra: I couldn’t get a lot of help from my parents with the whole college situation because they just didn’t know. It’s not their fault, they just didn’t have the opportunity. My sisters helped me through the whole recruiting process and weighing pros and cons – even to the point of helping me pick classes. We sat down for a few hours one day to try to figure out what I wanted to major in and what I wanted to do. Even now we sit down and talk about what classes I should be signing up for next. My sisters made it a whole lot easier.
Q: Did you reach out to them (your sisters) throughout the year for help navigating the new experience?
Kudra: A lot of times during the season when I’d have a rough day or practice, maybe I didn’t feel good or missed home a little more than normal, I’d call and tell them it was getting difficult. They would motivate me and those little phone calls would just bring a piece of home back to me.
Q: What were the factors that drew you to Virginia?
Kudra: I loved the history of the school. I love the fact that it is a very historic and prestigious university. It’s one of the top-ranked public schools in the country. You can’t find a better education. It’s basically an Ivy League school and it’s amazing to have that opportunity.
I loved the coaches and the way I met the coaches was different. I didn’t get the traditional overnight visit. I was at a tournament in North Carolina and Coach (Steve) Garland reached out to me. On the drive back to Massachusetts, we worked out a plan for me to stop and check things out. I connected with the coaches and teammates I met there. I fell in love with the University.
Q: How did you navigate the experience of online classes and preparing for finals?
Kudra: I tried to set up a routine. I noticed I had been sleeping in too much and staying up too late. I started making myself get up and work out in the morning and make breakfast. I’d then check in on homework, my class schedule and see if I had any academic obligations. If I didn’t, then I would try to get outside and enjoy the day or run errands.
My mom has been sick (with COVID-19), so we have been doing grocery shopping for her and going to the pharmacy for her.
Q: How has your family handled that situation and how is your family doing?
Kudra: My mom is a healthcare worker, so it was a risk that comes with the job. She works in a nursing home. She’s almost 60, so she’s just before the at-risk age. She’s a strong woman – the tough Eastern European template of a woman. Her immune system is strong. She’s been keeping her head up and she’s gotten rid of the fever and doing all of the right things – quarantining, staying at home and taking her medications. Dad has been symptomless and taking care of her by doing the cooking and the cleaning and things like that to take good care of her.
Q: Do you have a moment that really stood out for you this past season – whether in competition or just as part of the team?
Kudra: I have never been at a dual meet more electrifying and intense than the dual against Virginia Tech at JPJ. It’s moments like that you hate being on the bench. You want to be starting in front of that crowd, having your name cheered and your hand raised. Those moments make you want to be a starter so bad. The other moment would have to be going to the ACC Championships with the team. It was a much smaller group, but I helped Quinn (Miller) and Michael (Battista) warm up and it was neat being part of that experience and seeing the team compete in the biggest tournament up to that point. It was nice cheering for the team and having that camaraderie. I’ve not had that before.
Q: What are your goals for next season and moving forward?
Kudra: I want to start. Even if that opportunity doesn’t come up, if I can’t be the number-one guy then I will be the number-two guy. I want to have my moment. I want to wear the singlet and represent the school very badly. I want to earn that opportunity.
Q: What’s it like having a nationally-ranked wrestler like Quinn Miller in the wrestling room at your weight class?
Kudra: It’s awesome. Knowing he’s ranked as one of the top 20 or top 15 guys in the country, every time I get a takedown, a reversal or an escape is me doing that against one of the top guys in the country. Knowing I’m capable of doing that, it makes me believe that I’m there. I can be that guy one day. He’s been a mentor and a really good friend. He’s definitely the closest friendship I have at UVA. We push each other and that’s a really good thing to have.