While most of the sports world reveled in the magic of the Florida Gulf Coast University this weekend as part of March Madness, one of the heroes of “March Matness” went off to class Monday morning at 10 relatively unnoticed in his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y.
While it is true that the Eagles shocked the basketball world in Philadelphia, perhaps the greatest NCAA performance was pulled off by this wrestler in Des Moines, Iowa, who completed a feat just as rare as a 15 seed making it to the round of 16. Florida Gulf Coast: Meet Kyle Dake of Cornell.
Unlike Andy Enfield’s squad, Dake was an overnight sensation more than four years in the making. He had won an NCAA title each of his first three years for the Big Red, and went to last weekend’s event looking to become the the only wrestler ever to take four NCAA titles in four different weight classes. Saturday night he defeated Penn State’s David Taylor in the 165 pound final. Mission accomplished.
“It has been an amazing run for sure, and I’m hopeful it sets me up now to move ahead with the next goal out there, which is not just competing in the Olympics in Rio, but winning the gold medal,” he said by telephone Monday from Ithaca, where he was back in his regular virtually anonymous routine of going to class.
“I’m not someone who really focuses or thinks about the accomplishments for long—it’s usually on to what’s next," he added, "and my focus is right now on Olympic gold down the line.”
The win on Saturday before a packed house and a national TV audience on ESPN put a cap on a historic collegiate career for the Upstate New York native, one which will probably not be repeated any time soon. Dake led a Cornell team that continues to be a dominant factor in Division 1 wrestling, finishing a strong weekend that saw the Big Red finish fifth overall as a team.
Freshman Nahshon Garrett (125) and senior Steve Bosak (184), the 2012 national champ, each finished third, while junior Mike Nevinger (141) placed fifth. Each earned All-America honors alongside Dake, with Penn State again defending its national team title.
The efforts of Dake’s Cornell squad also reflected the rising tide of Ivy League athletics, coupled with Harvard’s first round win in men’s basketball last week over New Mexico, and the improved results in wrestling with schools like Columbia and Penn.
“I have seen the competitiveness and the skill level across the Ivy League rise for all of my time here at Cornell, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that athletics and academics can go hand in hand,” Dake explained. “In wrestling it’s great to see how many schools have seen what we have done and are taking a page out of our success—that’s good for our sport and it’s good for schools where academics and athletics work together positively.”
What is not good for wrestling is the looming problem of removal from the 2020 Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee. A group of senior political officials, elite wrestlers and international leadership in sport announced a coalition on Friday in Iowa to raise awareness for wrestling and to keep working on a global basis to overturn the IOC ban, one which Dake fears can seriously impact the growth of the sport in the years to come.
“Wrestling has given me everything to this point, its life skills and lessons have made me a better person and have helped open doors I would not have had” he added. “Without an Olympic dream to fulfill in 2020 there are many young people from around the world who may go into other sports, and those lessons I and so many others have learned may fall by the wayside. That would be tragic not just for the sport but for those kids, and we have to do whatever we can to work to change the decision.”
For Dake, that means finishing his degree at Cornell—his professor at his 10 am History of Western Science class Monday gave him a nice congratulatory shout-out before returning to the weekly assignments Monday, he added—and then looking on to the Nationals, the World Championships and then Rio 2016. In his way at the current time for global success is another bright name in the sport, reigning gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who will be looking to defend his title in the same weight class as Dake.
The challenge, he said, does not faze him in the least. “My goal is pretty clear, and it’s to be the best in the world, not just the best in the U.S., and that is where all my time will go between now and Rio. It’s a goal I know I can attain, and I think the lessons I have learned here at Cornell will be a big part of helping me get there.”
Florida Gulf Coast, you weren’t the only record-setting athletes last weekend, and if you need a role model on how to sustain excellence, look to central New York and a wrestler who again rearranged the furniture in his sport.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.