Champion wrestler Aaron Brooks returns to Hagerstown, talks about his journey

Interacting with kids, 23-year-old Aaron Brooks knows how to have fun, blending in as a big kid himself. He even can catch a scolding from his dad.

Brooks was the lead instructor at a youth wrestling camp Saturday at the Hagerstown Area Police Athletic League complex at Fairgrounds Park, where he grew up wrestling and where his father, John Brooks, is now the head coach.

Aaron Brooks ran the show for roughly 35 kids, who all seemed to have a good time.

"I got in trouble for playing dodgeball too much," he said with a laugh. "We played dodgeball for like 40 minutes, and my dad came in and was like, 'All right, we've got to start wrestling.'"

Aaron Brooks was the lead instructor at a Hagerstown Area Police Athletic League youth wrestling camp on Saturday, May 11, 2024.
Aaron Brooks was the lead instructor at a Hagerstown Area Police Athletic League youth wrestling camp on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

It's hard to blame Brooks for cutting it a bit loose after everything he's recently achieved.

On March 23, he capped his remarkable college career at Penn State by becoming a four-time NCAA Division I champion.

On April 1, he was named the Hodge Trophy winner as the nation's top college wrestler.

On April 20, he won the 86-kilogram weight class in men's freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials, defeating David Taylor, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, in the finals to earn a trip to the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.

Olympian! Aaron Brooks is headed to the 2024 Paris Games

And on May 5, he officially received his college degree during Penn State's spring commencement.

Coach Greg Slick goes along for the ride

Brooks, a 2018 North Hagerstown High School graduate, was a four-time Maryland 4A-3A state champion for the Hubs under longtime coach Greg Slick.

Slick was at Saturday's camp, mostly as a spectator, as he and his former star athlete have maintained close ties. Slick also was present for Brooks' title runs at the last three NCAA tournaments and the Olympic Trials, among others. And he plans to be in Paris this summer.

"It's been really neat to be able to be on the bus ride to go along and watch this stuff," Slick said. "I feel so very proud of him. All of it has just been so amazing to be a witness to.

"The success that he had in high school, obviously, was sort of a prelude to how successful he could be in college. … In my opinion, the thing that separates Aaron from a lot of other people is his work ethic, and along with that work ethic is that dedication to the goals he set for himself years and years ago."

How did Aaron Brooks reach the next level?

Brooks has nearly reached the very top of the mountain in the sport of wrestling, a peak he first set his sights on as a young boy.

At the conclusion of Saturday's camp, Brooks said, during an interview, that all of his accomplishments have yet to sink in.

"That's good, though," he said. "If I think about it, who knows what will happen? I don't want to think about it because I know things can be gone in a heartbeat, in the blink of an eye. I'm just trying to be present.

"I always said I wanted to do what I've done. I always said I wanted to be a four-time NCAA champ and that I wanted to go to the Olympics. But the more I've grown, I've learned that I don't really care for those things."

Aaron Brooks reacts after defeating Alex Dieringer 8-4 at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on April 19, 2024.
Aaron Brooks reacts after defeating Alex Dieringer 8-4 at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on April 19, 2024.

Brooks cares about his relationship with God and is guided by his deep faith in Christianity.

Being a talented wrestler is a blessing, he said.

"It's the platform the Lord gives me to go out there and be bold and courageous," he said. "If I want the next generation to do what I'm doing, I've got to do it first. I have to lead by example.

"One thing I didn't know when I would say I wanted to do these things was that it would take even more than I thought. It took growing closer to the Lord, not just steps in wrestling but leaps in faith.

"The wrestling, the Lord has always blessed me with that. Wrestling has always come kind of natural. What took me to the next level was that peace that he gives me out there. That comes through not caring what the world thinks, being of him, being of the kingdom. I didn't know it would take that. The Lord showed me that, and once he showed me that's what it would take, I've done my best to remain in him and him in me."

Brooks said it was fully revealed to him in September of 2022 as he dealt with issues related to "childhood traumas."

"I already had won two NCAA titles, but I was still going through a lot," he said. "People don't know, but I was going through a lot of stuff.

"I remember I was in my old house in my room. I had roommates. I got on my knees and was crying and praying. I was like, 'I'm done living the way I'm living. I want to fully live for you, not just wrestling.' You know, wrestling is temporary. And what you've seen the past two years of my life, it's him. That's what it took."

He said he was set free.

"When you get to a point where you're achieving your goals, but you still feel no value, that's the Lord talking to you," he said. "Even when I win things now, people are like, 'How does it feel?' And I'm like, 'Cool. Win or lose, cool.' It doesn't matter. I'm free. He had to pull me from the world in order for me to be who I am now."

Olympics: 'It's just wrestling'

Brooks is set to compete Aug. 8-9 at the Olympic Games.

"These next three months, I'll just keep doing what I've been doing my whole life — wrestling, having fun, being creative, taking risks, being bold, wrestling hard," he said of the preparation.

It's not overly complicated.

"It's wrestling, you know. No matter where you are, it's wrestling," he said. "Why make it bigger than it is? It's like, 'Hey, I'm in the Olympics,' but it's still wrestling. I've been doing this my whole life.

"If you make the moment bigger than what it is, you're not going to be present. You're going to be wrestling in fear and tense. It's just wrestling."

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Champion wrestler Aaron Brooks returns to Hagerstown for youth camp