IOWA CITY, IA - APRIL 21:  Jake Varner (red) w...

Jake Varner (red) will represent the United States in the 96 kg freestyle class.

Why Iowa City?

This year’s US Olympic Wrestling Trials were held in Iowa City, where I live. For those unfamiliar with the sport of wrestling, this may seem like an odd choice. To those who are familiar with wrestling, it probably seems very logical. The University of Iowa – located in Iowa City – has been a dominant force in collegiate wrestling since the mid 1970s. Since 1975, they have won 23 national titles, fifteen of them by wrestling icon Dan Gable.

And the University of Iowa isn’t the only program in the state. Intrastate rival Iowa State (my alma mater) has won eight national titles. Additionally, two of the greatest collegiate wrestlers in history – Gable and current Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson – wrestled for the Cyclones. Suffice it to say that wrestling is far more popular in Iowa than in most other states.

Oddly, Iowa City had never hosted the Olympic Trials before. When the location was announced, many expected the 2012 Trials to break the attendance record. The record was 9434 set in Dallas at the final session in 2000. Session 3 set the all-time record with 13,784 fans. The other three sessions all drew at least 13,500 fans. The record wasn’t simply broken, it was obliterated.

Kosmo is in the house!

I’m a casual fan, but I love the Olympics, and this seemed like a chance to attend a very cool event. My wife agreed to watch the kids on Saturday while I attended session 1. The kids were already up when I left the house at 7:15. I got to Carver Hawkeye Arena, scored a good parking spot, and bought a single session ticket for $20. Fifteen minutes later, the doors open and the crowd entered. I bought a t-shirt and found my way to my seat. it wasn’t a great seat, but the view wasn’t too bad, considering that I bought a ticket at the last moment.

I also bought a program so that I could figured out what was going one. The weight classes had been split into two days. In the first session each day, there would be a “challenge tournament”, with the top two wrestlers at each weight advancing to the night session. In the night sessions, the top two wrestlers would face off in a best-of-3-matches contest, with matches at least a half hour apart. Wrestlers who had done particularly well in international competition were given automatic berths in the championship round.

Atmosphere

The atmosphere was very cool – lots of excitement in the air. It was also cool to see wrestlers who weren’t part of the first session milling around the arena. 2008 Olympian Dremiel Byers (who would end up as the Trials champion in the 120 kg Greco-Roman class this year as well) showed a woman to a seat in my row (more about her later).

When the matches started, it was pretty crazy. There were 148 matches scheduled for the session, which was slated to run between 9 AM and 3 PM. There were four mats being used, and the action was fast and furious, with one match beginning quickly after another ended. To add to the craziness, there were men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle, and men’s Greco-Roman matches all occurring at the same time. Although I’ve watched wrestling on TV before (yeah, college wrestling and the high school state tournament is televised here), I had never actually been to a live event before. So it took some time to get my bearings.

December 8, 2005 Army World Class Athlete Prog...

Iris Smith (red) in 2005 photo.

About a half hour into the event, the woman next to me casually mentioned that her daughter had wrestled earlier. The woman had been cheering someone in nearly every match (or so it seemed) and I had no idea one of them was her daughter (Iris Smith, 2005 World Champion at 72 kg). from that point on, our little section cheered for Iris (who, sadly, finished third in her weight class, much to our disappointment). We saw a former world champion and member of the US Army who had a rooting section of one person – and we felt that she deserved more fans. Smith’s mom was very classy in her rooting style – not a bad word about any of the other wrestlers.

I spent some time getting to know Iris’s mom. She was very impressed by the turnout, and she discussed some of the events she had been to over the years. Also, she told me to avoid the New York New York casino in Vegas, because the slots didn’t pay very well. In turn, I shared my knowledge of Iowa with her. At one point, she turned to me and asked “what year are you in college?”. I turn 37 next month, so I took this as a compliment.

The action

My favorite bout of the session was former Iowa State wrestler Trent Paulson facing Kyle Dake at 74 kg freestyle. Dake had won the second period in overtime by carrying Paulson out of bounds for the one point. It was a quick move and Paulson couldn’t reaction. It would have seemed that Dake had all the momentum – but then Paulson came out and dominated in the third session to win the match. The crowd’s response was one of the loudest of the session … for a guy who had wrestled collegiately for a big rival.

The guy who impressed me the most in session one, though, was Tommy Rowlands in the 96 kg class. Rowlands had been a two time national champion for Ohio State at heavyweight, but had since dropped down to the 96 kg freestyle class. Rowlands absolutely steamrolled is way through the early session on Saturday, allowing just two points to be scored against him in three matches (while scoring 22 points himself). I’m definitely a novice fan, but Rowlands caught my eye time and time again.

When the first session ended, it was time for me to go – but the Trials continued. My favorite moment of the Trials was one that I didn’t see – when the previously dominant Rowlands fell to former Iowa State wrestler (and 2011 world bronze medalist) Jake Varner in the finals at 96 kg. We had a chance to have two Cyclone wrestlers on the team, but Travis Paulson (twin brother of the aforementioned Trent) lost in the finals at 84 kg.

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Kosmo is the founder of The Soap Boxers and writes on a variety of topics. Many of his short stories have been collected into Kindle books.

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