Of all the roads to Rio, wrestling’s Olympic trials may be fraught with the most peril.
Only the winners in each weight class qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games. The U.S. Olympic Trials are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday in wrestling hotbed Iowa City. Dake competes on Sunday.
U.S. wrestling trials are a spectacle, a pressure-cooker like no other because athletes have no second chances if they’re sick, injured or just have a bad day. Kyle Dake, four-time NCAA champion at Cornell (2010-13), will compete there for the second time. He placed third in the 2012 Olympic trials.
“It’s another tournament, a tournament that you’re peaking for,” he said.
But everyone involved knows it’s really more than that.
Wrestling’s trials format is rare. Most U.S. Olympic sports don’t even have true trials any more, instead using coaches’ selections or a series of qualifying events to pick their Olympic teams.
Even track & field and swimming, among the few single-competition trials left, have multiple Olympic slots up for grabs in each event. In track & field, the top three finishers (as long as they’ve reached minimum standards), go to Rio.
In swimming, it’s the top two, plus relay-only athletes.
Not wrestling trials. Its do-or-die nature has reduced tough, rugged athletes — men and women, both — to tears. The agony of defeat? Check out the faces of runners-up at wrestling trials, when four years of hopes and sweat have turned to dust.
Dake, a native of Ithaca, N.Y. who continues to train there, is taking unusual measures to up his chances for Rio. Last season, he made the switch to compete in a higher freestyle weight class — 86kg (189 lbs.) — instead of his usual 74kg (163 lbs.). The move seems to be paying off. Dake won the 86kg national championship in December, beating longtime rival David Taylor, who also moved up.
At the Olympic trials, Dake is ranked No. 2 behind 2012 Olympian Jake Herbert, the three-time World Team member at 86kg. Herbert won silver in the 2009 world championships.
The reason for Dake’s move? Jordan Burroughs, the 74kg defending 2012 Olympic champion and three-time world champion. Burroughs, 122-2 in senior competition since 2011, is regarded as one of the greatest wrestlers in U.S. history.
Dake, 0-4 against Burroughs in two world championship trial finals, has wrestled him tough, leading him at one point in last year’s final and taking him to overtime two years before.
Dake supporters believe the system unfairly benefits top-seeded wrestlers like Burroughs, who, as top seed and 2015 world championship medalist, can sit out same-day early rounds at trials. That allows Burroughs to wrestle only a best two-of-three finals match, usually against a depleted challenger who has already wrestled four matches earlier that day.
Cornell coach Rob Koll, Dake’s coach and 1992 Olympic alternate, credits Burroughs. But he’d love to see a fresh Dake vs. Burroughs. That would take a change in the system.
“One, it’s not safe, to have that many matches in one day,” said Koll. “Two, it’s kind of egregiously unfair…It’s impossible for (Dake) to get to that point without having one hand tied behind his back. “
Still, Dake’s competitive nature made him was one of the last in his camp to agree to make the switch. Moving up a weight class meant Dake, 25, would be wrestling in a class heavier by 25 pounds.
His competitors, because they’re naturally bigger, have more muscle. So Dake has had to change his weightlifting workouts to get stronger. Quickness and superb technique weigh in Dake’s favor. So does his intelligence — in addition to All-American wrestling honors, Dake was an academic All-American at Cornell.
“If he wrestles you once or twice, he figures out what you’re doing,” said Koll. “You can’t beat him the same way twice.”
“Giving up the kind of weight he’s giving up will factor in,” said U.S. freestyle wrestling coach Bruce Burnett. “But he’s a smart guy. He will adapt match by match to give himself the best chance to win. He wants that Olympic gold medal … and I believe he’s capable of doing that.”
Because he has to put on weight rather than cut it, Dake is the envy of most wrestlers. But it’s not as fun as it sounds. He drinks two or three protein shakes a day. He eats healthy, just more than he wants to.
“It’s kind of chore,” Dake said by phone from Ithaca. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it — eating at times I don’t really want to eat, having to sit down and eat five filets of fish. Ugh, I don’t want to eat all this but I have to.”
Dake’s had practice. He remembers chugging water and Gatorade and eating to reach the 88 pounds he needed to be to wrestle for his high school varsity team when he was a 78-pound seventh-grader.
Dake and his two siblings grew up five miles from Cornell, where his dad Doug once coached. Doug, an NCAA All-American at Kent State, was Kyle’s coach from elementary school through high school. Family trips consisted of all five Dakes piling in the car to either watch or compete at wrestling tournaments.
While Kyle’s wrestling lineage is strong, his secret weapon is his mom Jodi a former Kent State gymnast and Ithaca College gymnastics coach.
“Learning body control is a huge part of wrestling and I think it’s undervalued in a majority of people who wrestle,” said Dake.
Jodi taught her kids back handsprings, back tucks and walkovers in the back yard.
“All of my kids were doing back handsprings by the age of 5,” she said.
Her son has been talking about wrestling in the Olympics for as long as she can remember. Even as a youngster, all Kyle ever wanted to do was wrestle, Jodi said. Now about 20 family members are planning to cheer him on at trials this weekend.
“He has the mental (part) that you just can’t teach,” said Jodi. “He did everything. It paid off.”
Dake’s weight class has not qualified for Olympics — yet
Rules require each country to qualify each weight class for the Games in order to compete in it in Rio. Since the U.S. has yet to qualify at 84kg, the trials winner has only two chances to do so in Olympic qualifying tournaments — in Mongolia on April 24 or Turkey on May 8.
This final step has tripped up some U.S. Olympic efforts in past years, but officials believe it shouldn’t be a problem at 84 this year.
Besides Cornell’s Kyle Dake, other ASN athletes in the trials include former NCAA champions Zach Rey of Lehigh, ranked the U.S. No. 2 at 125 kg and Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore, ranked No. 3 nationally at 97 kg. Others with ties to ASN schools with solid chances to qualify for Rio are: Jon Anderson of the U.S. Military Academy, No. 2 in the Greco-Roman 85kg weight class; and U.S. Naval Academy’s Bryce Saddoris, No. 1 in Greco 66kg.
Polster, U.S. men’s soccer fail to qualify
Matt Polster, from SIU-Edwardsville who now plays for the Chicago Fire in MLS, started at midfield for the U.S. in a last-chance effort to qualify following a surprise tie — and more importantly in the two-game, aggregate scoring series, an away goal — at Colombia four days earlier. The U.S. fell behind, 1-0, but Colombia’s own goal gave the Americans brief hope at 1-1. But a few minutes later, in the 64th minute, Colombia’s Roger Martinez scored the game-winner.
It’s the second consecutive time the U.S. men have failed to qualify for the Olympics, the first such drought since the 1960s, when the team missed the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Games.