Wrestlers compete at the 2021 US Olympic Team trials

I recall writing a piece a while back detailing a reply I put forth when I was asked what makes for a perfect sports story. I said I loved a story that featured a local athlete that works hard enough in high school to be named — let’s say — All-Conference. The story gets better when that local athlete takes his or her talents to the next level and earns some recognition as a collegiate athlete. Imagine, I offered, if a local athlete steps onto ever-larger stages, and earns some national recognition.  

It was at that point that I thanked Kyle Dake for giving me a steady stream of material — from the time he started dominating as a high school wrestler to his thrilling second NCAA title. That was 10 years ago.

Since then, Dake has kept the material coming. He made history by winning two more NCAA titles (becoming the first-ever NCAA wrestler to win four titles at four different weight classes) and he long ago set his sights on a U.S. Olympic team spot. He won two world titles, pressed on after being eliminated at two previous Olympic Trials and coming back from injuries, dug deeper after being told that the 2020 Games would be postponed for a year, and kept up his legendary brutal training regimen while becoming a husband and a father of two. On Saturday, it all paid off. And national media outlets lied… 

They lied, because several headlines screamed absurdities like “Dake Prevails in Olympic Trials Shocker,” or some other proclamation that Dake’s sweep of former Olympic gold medalist (and King of the Hill) Jordan Burroughs was entirely unexpected. Someone was not paying attention. 

This paragraph from Cornell Athletics’ website illustrates why Dake’s ascension to the summit of Team USA’s 74 kg mountain was not “shocking”: “Wrestling at both 79 and 74kg, Dake hasn't dropped a freestyle match since January of 2018 with a 13-0 record against world and Olympic medalists. In total, Dake is 43-0 in that time frame and has outscored his opponents 331-41.” Those are not typos. Dake has been that dominant. Now he’ll represent the U.S. in Tokyo. 

Ironically, when a Cornellian last made an Olympic team — Dave Auble in 1964 — the games were held in… wait for it… Tokyo. I caught up with Dave, and we talked about the time we watched on the big screen from the edge of our seats when Dake won his historic fourth NCAA title, and we agreed that it was very impressive that he was still improving, eight years later.  

I asked Auble (who won the 1959 and 1960 NCAA titles) how things have changed over the past 57 years, and he said “First, I want to say that I’m really happy for Kyle, and I have been associated with the Dakes for generations. His grandfather was the scorekeeper for our high school matches in the 1950s, and his dad, Doug, helped us win a national championship as an assistant coach at Ithaca College.”  

Dave added, “Things are better now, in part because the increased visibility has made the sport more legitimate. When I was wrestling internationally, we didn’t even have a scoreboard. There were three judges, and if two of them were Soviets and you were an American, you were going to lose every time.” He added, “Now, coaches can throw in the towel on a questionable call, have a debate and maybe get the call overturned.”

I brought up the fact that Auble and Dake share another piece of common ground in that they both made the Olympic team while raising young children. Auble was very clear that he is pleased that today’s wrestlers are able to take advantage of better funding streams and get jobs as assistant coaches that enable them to keep training at a high level, and he added that back in his day, that was rarely the case. “I made the Olympic team four years after college,” Auble stated, “and I had to work a construction job during the day and tend bar at night to support my family.”   

Some things, however, have remained the same for centuries. “When you get to that level,” Auble said, “you can’t drop your guard for a split second.” Asked if the improved officiating and funding make it tempting to come out of retirement, Dave — now 83 — laughed and said, “Yes, it does, and in fact, I want a match with Dake.” He did not specify which Dake.

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