IOWA CITY, Ia. — The biggest prizes of Daniel Dennis’ competitive life slipped through his hands time and again and left him with shattered wrestling dreams.
Twice a state finalist but never a titlist. An NCAA runner-up who suffered one of the most heart-wrenching defeats in Iowa program history. A World Team Trials second-place finisher a year ago.
His career had been defined by coming so close to gold, only to watch it transform into silver.
Until Sunday night.
Dennis locked his arms around former Iowa teammate Tony Ramos and squeezed as hard as he could.
“I was going to try to break his ribs,” Dennis said. “I love Tony, but we’re competitors on the mat.”
In 64 seconds, Dennis exchanged silver for a ticket to Rio, following up an early takedown with four gut-wrench turns and punctuating an Olympic Trials 125.5-pound championship series sweep with a 10-0 technical fall in the second match.
It was a bizarre scene inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena with two of the program’s favorite sons standing toe-to-toe. It was a situation those within the Iowa camp hoped would occur, a guaranteed Olympian, an in-house wrestle-off for Rio staged in front of 11,162 fans with divided loyalties
“They were both in position to make the team and to put themselves in position to win a gold medal in Rio — and let the best man win at that point,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “Both guys had an opportunity. Go decide it for yourselves.”
But it was awkward, too. One of their own celebrated the biggest moment of his career at the expense of another Hawkeye family member, and a potentially combustible situation exploded afterward.
Ramos said he “felt stabbed in the back” by how the coaching situation was handled in-house by the Iowa staff and felt the coaches shouldn’t have welcomed Dennis back to the program last spring.
“The first thing I’m thinking is I need to move on and I need to get out of this program,” he said. “I don’t think there was one person inside this program, other than Terry Brands, who wanted to see me win.”
Ramos said he was told both Brands brothers would be in his corner for the finals. Terry stood on his side with Mike Duroe in the Dennis corner and Tom Brands and Iowa assistant Ryan Morningstar seated behind the officials bench.
"When you corner a guy, you're not in his corner for his matches, you're in his corner for his life,” Tom Brands said. “I’ve been in that guy’s corner since the day he walked on campus. Have been and always will be.”
Tom Brands said the happiness he felt for Dennis equaled the heartache he felt for Ramos. He said it would’ve been the other way around if the outcome had been reversed.
“I see two guys after the same thing,” he said. “They’re both Hawkeyes, they’re both vital to our program. Because of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, they’ve had opportunities to pursue something that’s the pinnacle of the sport, and when you’re talking about things that maybe unravel a little bit, maybe it’s easy to go the sour-grape route.
“When you’re accusing someone of lying and things that are not true, I have a hard time believing that’s true when the bottom line is since Day 1 when that guy walked on campus, he’s been my guy. Just like every other guy upstairs in that wrestling room — eligibility or members of that Hawkeye Wrestling Club. We give our soul to those guys equally.
“And you know what, there’s a lot to be said for you get what you earn. That’s been thrown around a lot with the Terry video (Flo Wrestling’s documentary about the Iowa associate head coach). And you know what, you do get what you earn.”
Dennis is the 18th wrestler in Hawkeye history to earn Olympian status. And perhaps the most unlikely.
He finished with a 15-18 record as a true freshman in 2006. He left Iowa City in 2013, nearly broke physically and financially and thinking his competitive days were done when he loaded everything he owned into a rattle-can painted 1986 Ford pickup that he lived in for five months as he roamed the country rock climbing and working at wrestling camps.
“That’s crazy,” said four-time World and Olympic champ Jordan Burroughs, who joined Dennis on the USA Wrestling freestyle team. “I’ve got an extra bedroom in my place. He’s more than welcome to join. He’s going to have to sleep with my son, Beacon, though.”
Dennis never truly walked away from wrestling, however, and it turned out his competitive fire never extinguished, either. He came back to Iowa City last March, an annual return to his college stomping grounds and rolled around on the mat with the current and former members of the Iowa program.
A few people in and around the team watched him workout and began urging him to come back and take another swing at international glory.
“This is what it’s all about,” Burroughs said. “It’s all about the dream. That’s why we’re here. Everyone sold this dream from the time you’re a kid. If you become an Olympian and win a gold medal, your life will be significantly changed forever and you’re forever an Olympic gold medalist.”
Jake Varner will forever be part of Iowa State’s fraternity of Olympic champions, but his bid for a second gold came to an end in Sunday night’s finals at 214 pounds when he dropped a 6-1 decision against 20-year-old reigning World champion Kyle Snyder.
Varner won the first bout 4-4 on criteria, but Snyder rallied with 4-0 and 6-1 wins to defeat the former Cyclone, who now bases his training at Penn State.
“He put a lot of pressure on me, and now I know why if you win the first match it’s like 80 percent of the time you win the second one,” Snyder said. “Now I know why that is and it’s pretty scary.”
Dennis tipped the all-Hawkeye series in his favor by handing Ramos his first career domestic defeat at the Senior level and first loss inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the opener when he won a 2-1 decision.
“He’s a competitor beyond belief,” said Dennis, who outscored his opponents in four tournament matches by a combined 27-5 count. “He’s a tough son of a gun, there’s no doubt about that. He clubbed the hell out of me the first match and it rattled me a little bit.”
It didn’t shake him enough, though, to have the biggest opportunity of his wrestling life slide through his hands.
“Tom said something once about exorcising some demons,” Dennis said. “But I think the consistency of finishing strong has become more a part of my wrestling, not having something in the palm of your hands and watching it slip through and it devastating you. Being able to stay strong through the match and stay consistent is where I think I’ve probably developed a little bit.”