After a devastating loss in the 2010 NCAA Championships and living out west, Daniel Dennis has returned to wrestling and has a shot at Rio. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen
(Editor's Note: Daniel Dennis defeated Tony Ramos in the best-of-three championship series Sunday night at the Olympic Trials to punch his ticket to Rio at 125.5 pounds (57 kilograms). Dennis claimed a 2-0 victory (2-1, 10-0) over his former Iowa teammate.)
Daniel Dennis was nearly broke three years ago, physically and financially, when he loaded everything he owned into a rickety old pickup and left competitive wrestling behind.
His back ached. His shriveled-up left arm looked like it belonged on someone else. A neck injury sapped his strength on one side and occasionally triggered spells that would leave his left arm numb and unresponsive.
A sport that crumpled his dreams seemingly each time they appeared within reach left the former University of Iowa two-time NCAA all-American with emotional scar tissue, as well.
“I was done,” he said. “Absolutely and completely, I was certain I was not coming back to the sport of wrestling to compete.”
With a few hundred dollars in his pocket, Dennis left Iowa City in the spring of 2013, unsure exactly where he was headed but certain his path wouldn’t lead to where he stands now.
The Olympic Trials begin Saturday inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and Dennis – after living in his pickup for five months and residing another two years in an old fifth-wheel trailer with no television, no internet and occasionally no heat – is a legitimate contender to take his comeback story all the way to Rio. The 29-year-old is ranked third at 125.5 pounds.
“If I compete to my ability at the Trials, I’m winning the Trials,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind. And if I compete to my ability in Rio, I’m going to win that, too.”
This is the type of unwavering confidence Dennis had always admired in others but hadn’t fully developed in himself earlier in his career. He trained with a pedal-to-the-floor approach in a quest to reach the NCAA pinnacle, but deep down he wondered whether he was good enough to beat everyone standing in his path to a national title, and anxiety would sometimes handcuff his skills.
But Dennis found a different outlook on the sport while bouncing around the country making just enough money at wrestling camps to stock his beer cooler and keep gas in the tank of the Ford truck that served as his transportation, storage unit and home.
It was a black 1986 F-150 with a rattle-can paint job. It needed new brakes and front-end suspension work. Dennis bought it online for $500 and poured hours into fixing it up at a Coralville repair shop where he worked part-time helping with brake jobs, tire changes and tune-ups before he left Iowa City.
He didn’t have a career road map at the time. He thought he might eventually make his way to California to take a high school coaching position, but he put everything on hold for the summer as he roamed through Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho working at wrestling camps, rock climbing and living rent free.
The old truck had flaws, but the bench fit Dennis perfectly. He could stretch out his 5-foot-5 frame with the top of his head resting against the door on one side and his toes touching the door on the other. He had a solar shower and cooked most of his meals around the truck.
Dennis spent his days climbing and his nights reading books. There were times when he’d go days without cell phone service.
He left Indian Creek after a week at the popular Utah climbing area and had a flood of more than 100 text and voicemail messages when his phone picked up a signal again. Three were from Iowa coach Tom Brands, who called to inform Dennis of the rule changes adopted by international wrestling’s governing body in an attempt to preserve the sport’s Olympic future.
“He was like, ‘These rules favor you. Go climb, run around, do whatever you need to and then come back,’” Dennis said. “It wasn’t in my mind to come back.”
A CHANGE OF PLANS
Dennis knew he could make enough money in wrestling to get by. He’d go to camps and clinics and sometimes earn up to $2,000 for an appearance. He thought he might eventually get into coaching and the father of a former Iowa wrestler offered him an opportunity.
Nate DuCharme had a roofing business and a son on the team at Windsor High School in a California community located 65 miles north of San Francisco. He knew Dennis through his son, Joe, whose career at Iowa was beginning when Dennis’ time with the Hawkeyes was coming to a close.
Dennis packed up the truck again and headed further west. He worked as a high school assistant, helped DuCharme with roofing projects and landed a job at a gas station.
A few friends told him about an upstart wrestling league that was hosting its inaugural event in Pittsburgh. He wasn’t interested – until they told him it paid $2,500 to win.
Dennis traveled across the country, blitzed through his bracket and left with a giant cardboard check.
“I bought my first house from that tournament,” he said.
It was a 26-foot trailer. The fridge didn’t work and he didn’t have television or internet, but his only expense was propane. Sometimes the tank would go empty in the middle of winter and the temperature inside would plummeted into the 20s. There were times when the pilot light would go out on his water heater and showers would take on a polar plunge feel.
But there were no distractions, either.
“That’s what I liked about living there and living dirt poor,” he said. “You develop as a person. I think that’s a very important thing that we overlook because we have so many distractions with what we have these days.”
Dennis read books about war and climbing and exploring. He read the Bible.
He reflected on his wrestling career.
UPS AND DOWNS AT IOWA
There were 20 seconds left in the 2010 133-pound NCAA title bout and Dennis led 4-2 against Minnesota’s Jayson Ness.
He was on the verge of becoming one of the best national title stories in Iowa history.
Dennis never won a state high school title in Illinois, twice falling one point short in the finals. He compiled a 15-18 record in his first season with the Hawkeyes.
He redshirted in 2007 and missed most of 2008 with a broken jaw, but he edged out two NCAA finalists the next year to earn a starting job for the Hawkeyes. He won 30 matches in 2009 and became an all-American and had an even better senior season.
He shoved Ness to edge of the mat with 20 seconds left and backpedaled to the center with the clock still ticking.
“I tried stalling,” Dennis said. “In theory, I know how to control, but I don’t know how to blatantly stall. I was never good at stalling and I tried stalling for the last 20 seconds of that match. I should’ve been in control mode. I tried blatantly stalling one time in my life and that’s the worst moment I have in the sport of wrestling.”
A quick misdirection change enabled Ness to duck under Dennis’ arms and lock around his chest. He tossed Dennis to his back with seven seconds remaining to win 6-4.
The post-match events still remain a blur of Dennis. He described himself as a “weeping, sobbing puddle of flesh” after the tournament. He remembers an embrace from teammate Brent Metcalf the next morning after the Hawkeyes filed off the bus, an unspoken acknowledgement of his investment and heartache. It was comforting.
"It's a life-changing moment,” Dennis said. “And it’s pathetic that’s a life-changing moment. But you have so much invested into something. It’s a game. We’re in a game. But it’s when you take the game so seriously and it’s so meaningful and it’s so valuable, that’s when it’ll ruin your life. Or it’ll be awesome.
Dennis replayed the match over and over late at night for weeks.
“Before I would just pout and whine and bitch about it and probably kept myself up doing things I shouldn’t have been doing, dwelling on it,” he said. “Now I can analyze it and use it as a positive.”
THE NEW COACH
Windsor High School had one state wrestling medalist in its history prior to Dennis’ arrival in the fall of 2013.
The former Iowa star brought college-level intensity and a fresh set of training methods. The Jaguars have collected seven state medals in the past three years.
“He has the right kind of mindset for a young athlete to attach to,” said Brett Colombini, whose son, Beau, was a state medalist for Windsor. “I think he resonated with the kids because he just came out of college wrestling a few years ago. The kids saw something fresh, somebody they could look up to.”
The high school athletes would watch in amazement as Dennis more than held his own against DuCharme and Brett Colombini, despite giving up more than 75 pounds.
“He’d pester us and make us wrestle him,” DuCharme said. “The guy is a freak of nature. I’ve never seen anyone as strong as that guy.”
Colombini won 111 matches during his career at Minnesota and placed fourth in the 1995 NCAA Champioships at 177 pounds.
“I’ve never got ahold of somebody at a lower weight class like that who felt like a guy I wrestled in my weight class,” he said. “He’s incredibly strong.”
One question seemed to surface each time Dennis stepped on the mat inside the Windsor practice room: Why isn’t this guy still competing?
Dennis would tell people he was too old and broken down. Truth be told, though, the time away from competitive wrestling had been good for his body. The strength in his left arm returned and he felt better than he had in years.
He might not have known it then, but his mental game was stronger than ever, too.
Dennis returned last March to Iowa City to spend a couple weeks around the program prior to the NCAA Championships. It soon became apparent his skills, strength and stamina hadn’t diminished during the time off.
And it wasn’t long before those inside the Iowa room started asking the same question: Why isn’t he competing?
“I had a conversation with him in the sauna and I told him, ‘Selfishly, I want you here, but unselfishly, it’s got to be up to you and what you want out of it,’” said Metcalf, the No. 1 seed for the Olympic Trials at 143 pounds. “But even if he (wasn’t sure about competing again), I wanted him here because of how good of a training partner he is. The areas that he’s very good in … there’s really no one else in this room that can replicate that.”
Others were more persistent and persuasive.
Former Iowa great Royce Alger came to appreciate Dennis for his disheveled beard and whimsical personality, along with his wrestling acumen. Alger launched a relentless recruiting pitch to add Dennis to the Titan Mercury Wrestling Club roster. He called one night last March when Dennis was back in the Chicago suburbs visiting his mother.
They were playing cribbage after dinner when Dennis told his mom about the campaign taking place back in Iowa City to get him back on the mat again. Her response was all he needed to hear.
“Your dad would’ve loved to have seen you wrestle again,” Jane Dennis told her son.
Tim Dennis introduced his son to wrestling when Daniel was 8 and experienced all the breathtaking highs and gut-punching lows by his side for nearly two decades.
“Daniel wrestling was the best times of my dad’s life,” Dennis’ older brother, Charlie, said.
Hours after the devastating defeat in the 2010 NCAA finals, Tim went up to Dan Gable at the team’s post-tournament party, put his arm around the former Iowa coach and proudly said: “Well, you didn’t teach him to stall.”
Tim was diagnosed with a brain tumor three years later. He passed away in 2014 after a 14-month battle.
“He’d have been on top of the world right now,” Jane said. “He’d be so proud of his son.”
TESTING HIS THEORY
It was supposed to be a short-term comeback. That’s what Dennis had in mind when Ryan Morningstar called last March to see if his former college teammate was closer to a decision.
“I’m going to put an end to it right now,” Dennis told Morningstar. “I’m going to come back to wrestle at the U.S. Open. I’m only wrestling one tournament, and then you guys can all shut the hell up and that’ll be the end of it.”
The impetus for competing again was pretty simple for Dennis. He wanted answers. He kept an eye on international results and national rankings during his quasi-retirement and saw former college rivals having success.
“I’d see the rankings and I’d bet my life I’d destroy a lot of the guys in there and they’re in the top five,” he said. “Am I delusional? Am I crazy for thinking that I can mess with these guys? Or did they get that much better and I’m living a false dream?”
There was only one way to find out.
Dennis had roughly a month of consistent training when he stepped onto the mat last May at the U.S. Open. He won his first three matches before losing in the semifinals. He finished fourth in the 26-man bracket.
He viewed his performance through the lens of his two defeats, technical fall blowouts against three-time World Team member Reece Humphrey and Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott. Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands looked at his performance in a different light. He saw Dennis competing with an unbridled approach.
“He always had something that held him back,” Brands said. “And that wasn’t present when he was competing at the U.S. Open. From my end, you have this really expensive commodity on the wrestling mat and all of a sudden he just breaks through.”
Dennis listened to enthusiastic messages from Brands and his twin brother, Tom, after the tournament and came to one conclusion: They’re Hollywood-caliber actors or they sincerely believe he could compete with anybody on the planet.
He was determined to find the answer either way.
Dennis went to last June’s World Team Trials. He beat Scott in the Challenge Tournament before losing to Humphrey in the best-of-three final series.
The Olympic Trials suddenly became a topic of conversation.
“It was kind of like (Donald) Trump at first,” Metcalf said of the GOP presidential hopeful. “He kind of entered the race and you’re like, ‘Is the guy really doing this?’ And now he’s the front-runner. That’s Dennis. You’re like, ‘Is he going to live in a tent down in city park and just hang out?’ Now he’s the front-runner, along with our other guy (two-time World Team member Tony Ramos).”
Dennis wasn’t sure he’d compete in 2016 even after his runner-up finish at the World Team Trials.
He felt like he owed it to Colombini and DuCharme to return to California and coach their sons.
Though nobody in the Windsor room wanted to see Dennis leave, nobody wanted to see him stay, either.
“He had some unfinished business,” Colombini said. “It was something he needed to go fulfill.”
They encouraged Dennis to move back to Iowa City. His full-time job now is training to compete.
“I’m living in a very nice house now,” Dennis said.
There’s one question that follows him these days: What’s his plan after 2016?
“I’m not a planner,” Dennis said. “I’m not a planner at all.”
When: Saturday and Sunday
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Saturday schedule: 9 a.m. – Challenge Tournament for men’s freestyle (143 pounds and 275.5), women’s freestyle (128, 139 and 152) and Greco-Roman (130, 145.5, 187 and 216); 6 p.m. – Best-of-three championship series.
Sunday schedule: 9 a.m. – Challenge Tournament for men’s freestyle (125.5 pounds, 163, 189.5 and 214), women’s freestyle (106, 117 and 165) and Greco-Roman (165 and 286.5); 6 p.m. – Best-of-three championship series.
Tickets: All-session tickets are still available at $75 for adults and $50 for ages 18 and under. Single-day tickets are available at $45 for adults and $35 for ages 18 and under. Single-session tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for ages 18 and under.