Growing up, I was never the greatest wrestler around. I fell in love with the sport probably between seventh and eighth grade. I remember my brother being good and winning championships. I always was there to watch and support my big brother. Attending state championships and national championships the thought persisted that I could wrestle with these guys. I started to work. Planning and training was my favorite thing. I would always set my sights high. Such as after my freshman year at Fargo after going 2-2 and the next year I figured I could win it. I found the #1 guy at the weight class and planned and trained as best I could to beat him. I won’t tell you whom it was, but maybe I was getting a bit ahead of myself. I ended up taking 6th that year, beating the champ, but losing to another guy. We got in a three-way tie in our pool and I was on bottom with points. This continued to happen over and over. I would set a goal that was a little lofty and I would come up short. I never got upset. I wasn’t happy I lost, but I knew that I had done everything in my power. I couldn’t control my opponent or the outcome. I could control the way that I prepared and it had been thoroughly done.
During my redshirt year in college I knew I could beat anyone. I don’t say this to be cocky, but it was my belief. Would it have happened, maybe not, but I was convinced. I wanted to be the next 4x undefeated NCAA champion. My competitions began as a freshman. I remember getting on the bus when a team mate of mine told me how bad I was going to get beat in my first match. I was wrestling JD Bergman and one of the toughest guys I know. I couldn’t help but think that I was going to get the last laugh though. There wasn’t anyone getting in my way. After my first match I was on my way. I had beaten nearly everyone and was undefeated and about done with the dual season. Things started to change though. It wasn’t just me that thought I could do it. I was ranked number one and stories were being written about Ben and I being ranked number 1 together leading our team to a potential NCAA team title. Even ESPN U came in to do a story on us. I constantly saw the rankings and had people told me they were counting on me, expecting one thing or another. Preparation was being pushed to the wayside. Not a person said I hope you’re putting in the effort. It wasn’t about the day-by-day wrestling. It was about winning and it was something that I just hadn’t placed in the forefront of my priorities before. It changed from me being excited about my matches all the time to me getting nervous and everyone expecting a win. I can’t cite a certain point when things changed, but they definitely did.
I ended up getting defensive falled my last dual meet. I was starting to get numb. Even after the loss everyone still expected me to win. Our team was very close during that season and we would always go to a movie the night before a tournament. We went to see Wild Hogs the before the Big XII tournament. Coming out of the theatre I looked at my phone that was on silent and I had numerous calls and voicemails from close friends back home in Wisconsin. I had a weird feeling that something terrible had gone awry. I called them back I found out that one of our good friends had passed in an accident in Madison. I don’t remember telling anyone until the next day or two. I won the Big XII tournament and headed to the NCAA’s seeded number 1. I think I may be a statistic… I went two and out. The loss of my friend hadn’t been the reason I had lost, but it had me shaken. It was the first time I stopped and wondered if there was more to life than just wrestling. It was what I thought and dreamed about; I was satisfied wrestling everyday. It was just never something I questioned. I contemplated there being something more.
For two years or more I really didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t really have an answer to my question. Surrounded by a changing environment after my freshman year it seemed that winning was the only thing. It was still expected of me to win everything, but I wasn’t the same. One of the worst times was after losing the finals match at the Cliff Keen Tournament in Vegas, it was said that I could have my transfer papers and I could leave for all it mattered because I wasn’t competing like I could. I didn’t really like to wrestle anymore; it was only to win matches. It is a disheartening realization coming from a guy who never wanted to spend a day off the mat. I had loved wrestling more than anything.
It took a lot of time and some unfortunate luck to find myself again and answer my question. My junior year at the end of the season apparently I wasn’t strong enough. They put ridiculous weight on a bar and had me do rdl’s. It didn’t matter we hadn’t done that exercise in weeks if not longer. I hurt my back. I got no time off. I couldn’t put my own shoes on without lying on my back. My body didn’t matter. I needed to wrestle. At least this was the thought… Not mine, but the thought. I wanted to get healthy. It was said it was just muscular and I didn’t get anything to relieve the plain until I complained enough. After the tournament I asked for medicine to ease the pain and I was told it was just muscular and basically that I wasn’t tough enough.
The results came in for the MRI a bit later. I had no fluid left in one of my discs, another was herniated and another in the middle of the back the doctor suspected I had broke. I recovered until sometime mid-summer and I still had terrible pain. When I was sure I couldn’t wrestle I called my brother up and I had a talk with him. He had been dealing with some situations and wasn’t happy where he was at. He said if I wasn’t going to wrestle he was going to follow Shawn Charles to ASU. Late July my back started to feel a little better. I started to play around on the mat here and there. My back held up and grew stronger. It wasn’t the same as it had been, but it was manageable if I did things right.
I decided to go back, but had a meeting with my coach to make sure it would be on my terms. I had already decided I was done wrestling. If my back were to hurt again I would walk away and my career would be over all the same. We agreed I couldn’t do things the same. He let me do things how I thought they needed to be done for me to be healthy and succeed. I was free. I wrestled once or twice a day for an hour or less. I had cut the season in half. But most importantly I got the chance to plan out my journey. I got to focus on what I loved. It didn’t matter that I lost matches during the year I was satisfied I had been doing everything possible to prepare. I didn’t look at rankings or forums and didn’t spend much time around people that wanted to talk about wrestling and winning this and that. If you hadn’t known I was a wrestler, you wouldn’t have guessed it as mentioned it scantly. I regained my passion for wrestling and fell in love with it all over again. I still have not lost that and that’s the most important thing.
It took me almost losing my joy to find it again in it’s original and purest form for me. Winning the NCAA’s wasn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever done… I had been doing it all along and it was grander to live and train exerting full effort. That held the most value to me. Had I been a 4 timer and never lost a match maybe I would have been more recognized. The way others I don’t know view me doesn’t hold much weight with me. The truth is that I learned much more the hard way. I wouldn’t trade the life lessons gained for anything. It’s about the journey; it’s about what you learn along the way. It’s about becoming the person you wish to be. That’s all anyone can ask, do your utmost. Winning doesn’t matter, what matters is getting there. It’s a story less glorified especially because everyone can have a great journey and not end up on top. It’s impossible for everyone to win. It is possible for everyone to prepare their best.
Championship or no championship, try your hardest to become the person whom you wish to be.
The Desire to Win
Players fifty years ago wanted to win just as much as players today. Foot soldiers a thousand years ago wanted to win the battle as much as combat troops today. Athletes today have no greater desire to win than athletes at the first Olympic Games. The desire then and now is the same.
The difference is that everybody worries about it more today because the media and the attention they give to the question of who’s winning and who’s losing.
“Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort? That’s what matters. The rest just gets in the way.
In classical times, the courageous struggle for a noble cause was considered success in itself. Sadly, that ideal has been forgotten. But it is well worth remembering.”