KEARNEY — Lee Herrington stood on the podium with a gold medal draped around his neck and the United States national anthem roaring throughout the Guatemala arena.
Guatemala City, Guatemala, hosted the Junior Pan American Championships in early June, and Herrington won all three of his matches, going unscored upon, to place first in the heavyweight bracket in Greco-Roman. It was his first international tournament he ever participated in.
"It was really breathtaking," he said. "I got to represent the United States in a foreign country and ultimately come home with a gold medal and a championship. It was really exciting."
The United States also won the three-day event with 190 points. Mexico (130) and Colombia (122) rounded out the top-three team finishers.
Herrington competed in the 130-kilogram division, which is equivalent to about 287 pounds. It was a unique experience for the University of Nebraska at Kearney redshirt freshman, as he only knew Isaiah Alford of Lincoln at the event.
The opportunity to compete internationally arose after Herrington finished as the runner-up in the heavyweight division at the UWW Junior Greco World Team Trials in late April in Las Vegas.
In the Pan American Championships, Herrington defeated Diego Almendras Rodriguez of Chile 6-0 in his first match. He continued to ease through his competition when he pinned Steeven Yepez Penafiel of Ecuador in 55 seconds. In the gold medal match, Herrington claimed an 8-0 victory over Samir Vargas Valor of Colombia.
"It was different because everyone is speaking different languages," Herrington said. "Wrestling is still wrestling, obviously, but everything else from the referee communicating to being in a foreign place and trying to train was kind of different."
Herrington redshirted his first season at UNK after a decorated career at Kearney High, which included two state championships at 285 pounds.
He credits his development throughout high school to his commitment in the offseason to wrestling in different tournaments to gain experience. He believes wrestling in the Pan American Championships could have a similar impact on his redshirt freshman season at UNK.
"Wrestling through the summer in high school is what made me come to the next level and become a state champion," Herrington said. "It made me a lot better wrestler. Summer wrestling is what sets people apart, especially here at the Division II level."
Herrington is lifting four times a week and wrestling twice a week, he said.
Earning a spot in the Lopers’ lineup next season will be difficult. Redshirt senior Jarrod Hinrichs, who placed second at the NCAA Division II Championships last season and is a two-time All-American, is ahead of him on the depth chart.
Herrington and Hinrichs wrestle each other in practice. Herrington knows beating out Hinrichs will be a difficult task, but he has confidence in his abilities to contend for the starting heavyweight spot.
"My goal is to make the coaches’ decision the hardest decision they have to make for when it comes to nationals on who they want to send," Herrington said. "I just want to compete and make myself the best wrestler I can be. Hopefully, I’ll be with the lineup a little bit and get in a few more matches this year."