Iowa State's Willie Miklus recaps his performance at the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships. The Des Moines Register
PITTSBURGH, Penn. — As it turns out, putting college wrestling’s crown jewel in the heart of a state that's passionate for the sport led to some record-breaking crowds inside PPG Paints Arena last past week.
The announced crowd for Saturday night’s finals — where Iowa’s Spencer Lee won his second-straight national title and Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster won the program’s first since 2000 — was 18,950, the fifth-highest final session attendance in tournament history. That brought the three-day total to 109,405, the sixth-highest all-time mark.
At times during the tournament, it seemed like almost every single fan was cheering for Willie Miklus.
Miklus, a sixth-year senior for the Iowa State wrestling team, capped his stellar college career as a four-time All-American this weekend. He went 5-3 to finish sixth at 197 pounds. He scored 12 team points to lead the Cyclones to 32 and 16th place in the team race.
“Right now, I’m happy about it,” Miklus said. “It’s frustrating that I got sixth. I’ll be more proud later on.
“Not a shabby week, but not the week I wanted.”
The Altoona native’s performance was a masterclass in strength and perseverance.
Like all the 330 competitors that qualified for the national tournament, Miklus entered the week with national championship aspirations. That dream ended Thursday night, when he fell to Purdue’s Christian Brunner, 6-2, in the second round.
“Stung pretty bad,” he said. “The walk back was pretty frustrating. My initial thought was, 'I should quit. I obviously suck.' But I calmed down — you know, it’s not that bad. Just needed to take it one match at a time.”
On Friday, Miklus stormed through the wrestlebacks, winning four matches to reach the top six. In his bloodround match against Stanford’s Nathan Traxler, he recorded a 28-second pin to reserve his spot in the top eight. Traxler was in deep on a shot when Miklus whipped him to his back on the edge. It was the fastest fall of the tournament.
Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser recaps the Cyclones' performance at the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships. The Des Moines Register
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Afterward, he pumped his arms in celebration, then embraced assistant coach Brent Metcalf. He pointed to the sky, a nod to his late father, Garry, then motioned toward the Iowa State and Missouri fans in the stands. He slapped his “FAM1LY” tattoo on his right bicep.
Miklus, of course, transferred to Iowa State from Missouri last summer. He did it to be closer to Garry, who had battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — for years before passing on March 4.
“The transfer had nothing to do with wrestling,” Miklus said. “When he got sick, he asked me, ‘Would you ever think about moving closer?’ He wasn’t asking because he wanted me away from Missouri. He was asking selfishly, as a father who wanted his kids close.
“I was able to grant him that last wish — the last big thing that I could do for him. He loved having me close. But it was emotional. I didn’t know how to prepare for something like that. I don’t know how you prepare anybody else for something like that.”
Five days after Garry’s passing, the Cyclones went to the Big 12 Championships in Tulsa, where Miklus took second. The following Tuesday, the family held a celebration of life in Indianola. A week later, Iowa State was in Pittsburgh, and his teammates marveled at Miklus’ fortitude.
“He’s had some peaks and valleys this year, but especially the last two weeks,” Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser said. “There were times when I thought, 'Man, he’s not going to be able to do this.' But then there’s times where it’s like, 'Wow, he’s doing this.'”
It was not easy, of course. The NCAA Championships can be a tilt-a-whirl of emotions. Confidence can balloon and wane from day-to-day, session-to-session. Following his loss on Thursday, Miklus talked with Metcalf back at the team hotel to help him recalibrate for Friday.
“It’s exhausting,” Miklus said. “It’s been exhausting every day. It’s been tiring, but then at night, you can’t sleep. There’s just so much going on in your head. You just wouldn’t understand unless you go through it.
“He looked at me and was like, ‘Dude, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You’ve got a lot of (stuff) going on outside the room, outside of wrestling that’s making this hard. You just have to decide what’s important to you, and what you want to do and how you want to do it.’
“So I gritted my teeth and did it.”
Miklus navigated the wrestlebacks by outscoring his four opponents by a combined 29-11. It was the third time in four All-American finishes that Miklus needed to win in the bloodround to reach the podium.
With each win, fans from Iowa State, Missouri and even Iowa and Northern Iowa cheered for him from the stands. He hugged a member of the Tiger fanbase after pinning Traxler, then slapped hands with Foster underneath PPG in celebration.
Come Saturday night, Miklus stepped onto the podium for the fourth time in his illustrious career, during which he'd won 105 matches and a Mid-American Conference crown. He was also an invaluable piece for this season’s Cyclone team.
The sold-out crowd cheered as all eight wrestlers’ names were read aloud — for national champion Bo Nickal of Penn State; for 7th-place Jacob Warner for Iowa; and for Miklus, who smiled as the applause washed over him.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.