When someone as talented as Spencer Lee is your high school training partner, you have to be resilient, because you won’t see a lot of success against him. Few opponents succeeded against Lee – the reigning two-time 125-pound NCAA champion – when he was in high school.
“It was more of the toughness that really developed for me at that point,” Pitt redshirt freshman Colton Camacho recalled of his two seasons as Lee’s high school teammate. “I scored three points in two years of wrestling with him (at Franklin Regional High School). And I didn’t touch his legs that much. It’s funny that I know exactly how many points I scored on him, but in two years that’s not a lot.”
Wrestling is different than every other sport. While wrestling has a team element to it, the combat sport also encompasses a uniquely individualized component that other sports do not. The sport requires athletes to have a physical strength, complemented by an equally strong (if not stronger) mental and psychological strength.
“I think at the time, in the moment, I was like, ‘I’m just trying to not give up as many points (against Spencer),’” Camacho said with a laugh. “And from sophomore (and) junior year (on), I saw myself get a lot better. And really, after (Spencer) left (Franklin regional), that’s when I started to see growth. But him kicking my butt definitely made me tougher.”
Those that watched Camacho wrestle, even as early as his days as an elementary school competitor, knew he was a special talent, even if he wasn’t getting the results he craved just yet.
“One of the first experiences that I remember, we went down to Virginia Beach, they have a really big national tournament down there, and I think he went 0-8 that year,” Jody Strittmatter, of the world-renowned Young Guns Wrestling Club, said of his former club wrestler. “He was the smallest kid for the weight class. If it was like 50 pounds, he was probably three pounds under.”
“I think he got pinned every time (that event), but he came off the mat smiling,” Strittmatter continued. “You could tell he loved the sport. The following year, he makes the state finals. He just kept coming to practice and working to get better. That is one thing that really, really stands out about Colton, just how much he enjoys the challenge of the sport.”
For Camacho himself, he realized he had a future in the sport beyond high school when he was a freshman at Franklin Regional in 2015-16.
“I placed at Powerade my freshman year,” Camacho said. “I did take eighth, so I was at the bottom of the podium. But just getting a placing spot at Powerade was probably the start of getting my mind on the college wrestling track.”
During Camacho’s junior and senior seasons at Franklin Regional in 2017-18 and 2018-19 respectively, he all but cemented that he was destined to be a future NCAA Division I wrestler – he was a two-time PIAA state finalist as a junior and senior.
Around that same time, the Delmont, Pennsylvania, native started to fall in love with the sport all over again.
“My junior year, I didn’t cut that much weight,” Camacho recalled. “Every year since I was 10 years old, I cut weight and it really affected my training. Toward the end of the year, I was more worried about making weight then actually getting better at wrestling. But my junior year, I only had eight pounds to cut, six after Christmas, so I was able to focus on wrestling (again). That really changed everything. I started dominating people. I just had a lot of fun with it, just getting better.”
Colleges began noticing Camacho’s skillset once he learned to manage his weight better, and proved to be a title-contender in wrestling-rich Pennsylvania, as a Franklin Regional upperclassman.
He contemplated between some of the nation’s top wrestling programs when it was time to make his college decision: Iowa, Arizona State, Oklahoma and Pitt. He chose to wrestle for Keith Gavin and the hometown Pitt Panthers.
“A big underestimated factor is that (Pitt) is really close to home,” Camacho said. “I just connected with all the coaches immediately. They’re all great guys. (The coaches) are young, they’re from Pennsylvania, they trained here (at Pitt). There was just a connection.”
— Colton Camacho (@coltonfr3) November 3, 2018
“(The Pitt coaches), they’ve been there, they know what it takes to get to where I want to be,” Camacho said of his commitment to Pitt. “It’s as simple as that. They (the coaches) know where I want to get to, and they know how to get there, and they’re gonna help me get there.”
Pitt head coach Keith Gavin was the 2008 174-pound national champion and a two-time All-American. His 120 career wins rank eighth in program history. Gavin is a two-time EWL champion, two-time Eastern Wrestling League Wrestler of the Year, and is a member of the EWL Hall of Fame.
Additionally, Pitt assistant coach Drew Headlee, who works primarily with lightweights, was a three-time NCAA qualifier, two-time EWL champion, and a 2005 All-American at 133 pounds.
Since arriving on Pitt’s campus in the summer of 2019, Camacho has been a valuable asset to the Pitt wrestling program, especially for his effort and toughness in the practice room at Fitzgerald Field House.
“It’s huge (having Camacho in the room),” reigning two-time ACC champ, Micky Phillippi said. “I was excited when we recruited him because I knew he’d be a good partner for me.”
“Colton has a feel, unlike anyone else where he’s able to use his hips and put you in a bad position when you’re not expecting it,” Phillippi continued. “It keeps you on your toes and gets you prepared for guys like that. It’s not really a feel I’ve had in matches much. We’ll be wrestling, and all of a sudden, I’ll end up on my back because he just has some funky hips and he’s able to do well in weird positions. I’m very fortunate to have another guy in the room that can push me like that.”
As Phillippi’s direct training partner, Camacho got to travel to most road meets for the Panthers during his redshirt campaign in 2019-20, something that was mutually beneficial for both Phillippi and Camacho.
“It’s good to have someone to consistently rely on. Colton was that person for me last year,” Phillippi said. “I was able to warm up with him and wrestle with him the night before matches to get some weight off. It’s good to have someone who understands you (as a wrestler), who can drill with you, and just slow you down and keep you comfortable and ready.”
In Camacho’s case, training with Phillippi allowed Camacho to experience some hostile road environments and some exhilarating team duals.
“It was just an awesome experience to get to feel the atmosphere of every (road) match, being in hostile environments for those heated matches,” Camacho said. “When we beat Lehigh (last year), that one sticks out to me. We beat them on criteria, 18-18, and that was just electric. I was like, ‘I want to be that guy to win the match for my team. I can’t wait for next year.’”
Last year, competing at open tournaments as an unattached competitor, Camacho recorded a 13-5 overall record. In the process, he claimed the title at Mat Town II Open, scoring a fall in 0:52 against Matt Maloney of Lock Haven in the championship match. He also placed third at the Mat-Town Open and added a fourth-place finish at the Michigan State Open.
This season, his first as a starter for the Blue and Gold, Camacho is 5-4 on the year and holds an 18-9 record during his Pitt career.
While his record on this COVID-19-shortened season may not be exactly where he wants it to be, Camacho sees the upcoming 2021 ACC Championships, and possibly the 2021 NCAAs as the perfect chances to show the world what he can do.
“(ACCs and NCAAs are) more opportunities for me to compete and just prove myself (as a wrestler),” Camacho said. “And to show the fans that I know how to wrestle and that I can hang with the best guys. I’m ready for full Division I experience.”
As Phillippi sees it, his training partner isn’t far from achieving some of his collegiate wrestling goals.
“I feel like right now, wrestling with him in the room, he’s on the level where he could be an All-American right now,” Phillippi said. “It’s just, little tiny critiques and, and he’s there. I think he’s one big win away from getting over that hump, and realizing that he’s the guy.”