How Iowa wrestling discovered Olympian Daniel Dennis

Andy Hamilton

The following story written by The Register's Andy Hamilton ran in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Dec. 8, 2005, when Olympian Daniel Dennis was a true freshman at Iowa. 

Ask Daniel Dennis to flip the calendar back to February and recall how his recruiting process unfolded.

Tell him to think back to when the Iowa wrestling program called for the first time and he still laughs a little because it seemed so improbable that the Hawkeyes would even be interested.

Tell him in February that he would be Iowa's starting 133-pounder in 10 months and he rolls his eyes.

"Yeah, right," Dennis said. "That's when you laugh."

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That's when Iowa coach Jim Zalesky goes to the computer in his office and Google's Daniel Dennis just to find out who this kid is, where's he's from and what he's done in the past. That's when Zalesky finds out Dennis is from Ingleside, Ill., he placed three times at the Illinois state tournament, but never won a title and went virtually undetected by the recruiting radar of college coaches, Zalesky's included.

Truth is, Zalesky hadn't heard of Dennis until late-February when Iowa assistant Tim Hartung provided a scouting report from the Illinois state tournament and thought Dennis' style and attitude would fit the Hawkeye mold.

In the 10 months since, Dennis has gone from anonymous recruit to fabulous freshman status, impressing those inside the Iowa wrestling room with his strength, relentless attacking and go-for-broke style.

The 133-pound dynamo makes his debut in Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 7 p.m. when the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes wrestle Northern Iowa.

"If it's there, and even if it's not there, he goes for it," said Iowa All-American Mark Perry. "I like watching him more than anybody on the team."

It's not hard to figure out why. Throw in his five victories at Spartan Open, which don't count on Iowa's official records, and Dennis is 11-2 with four falls, averaging nearly 12 points in his other seven wins.

Iowa's Daniel Dennis holds onto ISU's Jesse Sundell as he tries to escape during the 133 lb match, Friday December 2,2005 at Hilton Coliseum, in Ames, Iowa. Dennis won the match 10-7.

Dennis is coming off a 10-7 victory Friday against Iowa State senior Jesse Sundell, who finished two victories from earning All-America status last year. Dennis said he was embarrassed by his performance and told Perry as he left the mat that he was "done after the first period," despite scoring six points in the final four minutes.

"Trust me, that wasn't even close to his best performance," Perry said. "You can always make excuses, but he was under the weather. That's probably the worst conditions he's going to face as far as physical health, and he was still pretty entertaining to watch that night. So watch out when he's got some energy and fire underneath him."

Dennis threw caution to the wind in the final minute Friday. Leading 10-5, he launched Sundell with a throw that nearly put him in danger. But it was a risk-taking chance to score points that Zalesky liked to see.

"He's not afraid to throw things out there," Zalesky said. "He's going to lay it on the line. It doesn't matter if he's down or who he's wrestling, he's going to go out there and try some things. Sometimes he might get beat because of it, but I'd rather get beat that way than by just standing around and not doing anything."

It seems that's how Dennis has arrived at this point. He couldn't win the 103-pound starting job as a high school freshman, so he wrestled at 112 and finished 14-12. The same year, he failed to reach his goal of bench pressing 115 pounds.

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"There was one time I remember when he was a freshman and couldn't even do 11 pull-ups," said Ryan Geist, who coached Dennis at Grant High School. "Daniel, right now, could probably do 70, 75, maybe even more."

In fact, when the Hawkeyes work out in the weight room, Perry said Dennis is as strong as anybody on the team up to 184 pounds. That power was perhaps best illustrated when Dennis scored on a pair of double-leg shots before capturing a fall against Arizona State's Adam Hickey.

"The kid was fully sprawled back all the way and (Dennis) just lifts the guy up in the air," Perry said in amazement. "The second time, same thing, but this time he threw the guy up in the air and caught him and WWF power-slammed him. It was sweet. I don't know how he does it - shooting in and lifting guys like that.

"He's pretty strong. You look at his hands, they're like bear claws. He's got hands like a 300-pound man."

Dennis said his strength comes from religiously lifting weights four days a week for four years with Geist and assistant coach Jeff Walls. Combining the work in the weight room with summers wrestling in tournaments, Dennis made rapid improvement in high school.

Less than a year after failing to place in the Illinois freshman/sophomore state tournament, Dennis compiled a 42-5 record at the varsity level and finished fourth at the all-class state meet.

"One thing we knew when we walked in the tunnel (at the state tournament) was that we'd know he outworked everybody in that building," Geist said. "Knowing that gives you a lot of confidence."

Dennis lost to Mount Carmel's Kenny Jordan in the state finals as a junior and entered the state meet as a senior still looking for a state title and some recruiting attention. Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and a couple Division II schools expressed interest.

Jordan, now a freshman at Nebraska, defeated Dennis again in the state finals in February.

"We were destroyed he didn't win state; that was his goal," Geist said. "Two days later, I got a call from Hartung telling me he had seen Daniel wrestle, he loved the way he wrestled and they were interested in him. We were worried (about Dennis possibly getting overlooked), but then getting a call from Iowa after the biggest loss of your career, things started looking up almost immediately."

Dennis signed with Iowa in April, long after many of the top programs had completed filled out their recruiting class. Initially, the Hawkeyes viewed Dennis as someone who would bolster their depth behind starter Mario Galanakis. The situation changed when Galanakis did not enroll in classes.

Perry said he was skeptical about Dennis' skills when the freshman entered the Iowa room this fall. Dennis had some of the same doubts.

"First week of practice when we were going three times a day, I was like, `Am I going to be able to make it here?'" Dennis said. "Even when you go out and get the better of your opponent in the practice room, you still get beat up, you'll still be leaving with a fat lip or a black eye or something."

One thing Zalesky noticed early was that Dennis wouldn't shy away from a challenge. Often, the freshman looked for the best training partners in the Iowa room. Still, Dennis needs some polish in some areas, but the Hawkeyes are confident he can hone those rough edges before March.

"Once he learns to get under control, he's going to be a factor at that weight," Perry said. "A lot of guys are going to have trouble wrestling that hard the whole match, getting in that many scrambles. He's going to make you wrestle the whole time. And the thing that helps him a lot is his power.

"There's nobody at that weight that's going to overpower him. He's a true freshman, he's going to make mistakes, but he's also going to open a lot of people's eyes at that weight this year."

Dennis knows as well as anybody how things can change in a few months. That's why he is looking at his season from a more narrow scope.

"You work for March, but you don't focus on it," he said. "That's your goal - to do well in March, but you don't focus on it.

"I think I can do some damage. Right now I think I'm dangerous. I'm just trying to take it one match at a time and not look too far down the road."