Everyone is welcome to reach the Top Of the Podium. That’s the message founder and president Tom Houck brings as his five-year-old non-profit opens an amenity-filled five-mat wrestling facility in Sterling.
“Wrestling had such a huge impact on my life,” said Houck, a former Division I college wrestler. “It’s just different than a lot of youth sports in so many ways. One of them is, anyone can succeed in wrestling.”
Top of the Podium (TOP) opened November of 2014 in a two-mat room off Davis Drive, less than a mile from the new place on Glenn Drive.
“At the time, and this still is the case, there was no other independent wrestling center in our region, certainly,” said Houck, meaning the facility is not owned or operated by a high school, college or club. “We view ourselves as more of a community resource, more a wrestling center than a club, per se.”
The facility is open to rental by local school teams and private wrestling clubs, while hosting its own youth league which Houck claims is among the nation’s best. Camps, clinics and even adult wrestling grace the facility’s orangish-red mats, taught by a multitude of prominent grapplers at the collegiate, Olympic and world levels.
“We’re always trying to come up with innovative programs,” he said, noting TOP’s middle school clinics and free introductions to the sport to kids as young as age four. “Youth have so many choices today, we want to make sure kids have fun. We want to make it positive, but we also want them to succeed on the mat.”
More than mats
Top Of the Podium’s new facility takes up two levels and 20,000 square feet, all dedicated to the sport of wrestling. An array of amenities surround the main stage, five regulation mats arranged in an L.
Grandstands overlook the mats, as does a VIP lounge on the second floor. “Takedowns,” the in-house retail store, sells items geared toward a wrestler’s needs, while snacks and meals are available at “Two Pound Allowance.”
There’s also a 37-seat theater - the Crossface Cinema - for video study, parties, or to entertain younger siblings while big brother or big sister are wrestling over on the mats.
Wrestler introductions featuring a modern sound system and a smoke machine create a big-event atmosphere for leagues and tournaments.
“That’s kind of old-school stuff, like we did when I was a kid, but you don’t see much anymore,” Houck said. “Being innovative like that has really helped the word-of-mouth.”
Bringing wrestling back
Houck hails from State College, Pennsylvania, where “wrestling is even bigger than basketball,” he recalled. In high school he wrestled to district and county championships, then joined the team at Pennsylvania State University.
An illness in his sophomore season derailed his progress, so Houck moved on from the sport and largely forgot about it for a couple decades. When he relocated to Ashburn in 1998, he noticed wrestling again - because it wasn’t there as much.
“I felt like wrestling was treated like a second- or third-class sport around here,” Houck said. “Not a lot of people were wrestling, and the facilities weren’t ideal. Youth clubs had to use high school rooms, and that’s not fun.”
Houck and his wife Rhonda’s two sons, Matthew and Andrew, played several youth sports, including wrestling. Houck saw facilities dedicated to baseball and volleyball, but none to wrestling.
He changed that by founding Top Of the Podium as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, opening with two mats in one room. The Eastern Loudoun Wrestling Club became the first tenant.
“When we began they had about 60. Now they’re expecting around 300,” Houck said. “It’s really been about grassroots growth.”
TOP draws youth teams and clubs from around Sterling, Herndon and Ashburn, with some Maryland and Pennsylvania wrestlers making the drive for major tournaments.
“Our financial viability for the future is in doing bigger tournaments and growing our league,” Houck said. “Someone told us a few weeks ago that our place looks like the Olympic training center.”
Houck believes wrestling teaches useful life lessons to its devotees, including dedication, perseverance and sacrifice. He said athletes can increase strength, agility and stamina.
“It’s just a great foundational sport, even if you play another sport,” Houck said. “You get tougher mentally and physically. There is nothing else like it.”
Top of the Podium’s new digs
Space: 20,000 sq. ft.
Amenities: Grandstand, VIP box, party room, weight room, private wrestling room, locker rooms, theater, concession stand, retail store, sound system, smoke machine
Uses: Tournaments, in-house league, club rental, classes, camps, free clinics
Ages served: 4 to Adult
Founder: Tom Houck
Grand opening: Oct 26-27