IOWA CITY, Ia. — The last time many Iowa wrestling fans saw Cory Clark, he stood on the staged mat inside the Scottrade Center in St. Louis with both hands in the air. His left wrist was taped up and he had a brace on his left shoulder.
And — oh yeah, he promptly threw Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands to celebrate a long-awaited national title.
“I grabbed him and he said, ‘Throw me,’ so I grabbed him and threw him,” Clark said and laughed afterward. “I didn’t want to throw him, but he was fired up.”
The last time many Iowa wrestling fans saw Cory Clark, he had just won the 2017 NCAA Championship to cap his illustrious Hawkeye career.
That was more than a year ago now, and standing inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex on a recent afternoon, not much has changed — except, well, he’s fully healthy now, and more than ready to wrestle again.
This weekend, Clark will make his competitive return to the mat on American soil. He is one of a handful of Hawkeye Wrestling Club members competing at the 2018 U.S. Open in Las Vegas. He is slated to wrestle at 61 kilograms (roughly 134 pounds) in men’s freestyle.
The U.S. Open runs Thursday through Saturday, and men’s freestyle will be contested on Friday and Saturday. It is the United States’ premier competition (think "national championship") for Senior-level wrestlers in the three Olympic disciplines — men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman.
“It’s a really big tournament,” said Clark, who was a four-time state champion at Southeast Polk. “I just tried to prepare right and train hard and now, I’m just trying to stay relaxed and focused at the same time. I just want to go out and let it fly a little bit.”
Results at the U.S. Open also help determine part of the field for the World Team Trials next month in Rochester, Minnesota. Clark, pre-seeded ninth, must finish at least seventh to punch his ticket to the Trials, where he would give himself the opportunity to earn a spot on the 2018 Freestyle World Team.
But at this time a year ago, even the thought of wrestling was far from Clark’s mind.
Shortly after his run to an NCAA title in St. Louis, he had surgery to fix a litany of injuries — chief among them were torn ligaments in his left wrist and a busted left shoulder. He wore a cast for a while, and his arm was in a sling for a while longer, which kept him off the mat.
The four-time All-American eased his way back, and has found mixed results since returning to the mat in early October. A month after, Clark took second at the Simon Fraser University International in Canada.
Then, in January, he wrestled at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, routinely considered the toughest freestyle tournament in the world, in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Against Mongolia’s Tuvshintulga Tumenbileg, Clark led 6-6 on criteria, but gave up a late takedown to lose, 8-6.
“Really, on both occasions, I don’t think he felt like his preparation leading up was ideal,” said Mark Perry, head coach of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. “But he’s a competitor. He didn’t feel good about it, but I know leaving (Russia) — I mean, he saw the best guys in the world.
“He wrestled one of the best guys in the world, and he let that match get away from him right at the end. Probably a lot of valuable lessons for him. Ever since he came back from Russia, he’s been extremely dialed in.”
Since making his return, Clark has had to relearn the intricacies of freestyle wrestling, something he said he hadn't done extensively since his redshirt freshman year. Freestyle is the Olympic discipline that closely resembles folkstyle, which is wrestled collegiately. Clark and thousands more got to watch some of the best freestylers in the world at the UWW World Cup earlier this month at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
There, Tumenbileg was Mongolia’s starter at 61 kilos for all four duals, going 3-1. He also competed at the 2017 World Championships in Paris. Clark watched closely as he and others wrestled both days, and later mined their film for more knowledge to help bolster his own technique.
“At first, it’s like a fun process because you’re doing things you normally don’t do,” Clark said, “but once you get into it, wrestling is wrestling, really. There are so many areas that you have to focus on a little more, but a lot of things in folkstyle can translate to freestyle.
“The thing about freestyle, if you do get into a hole, you can get right back in the match with solid, smart wrestling. Say you’re down by eight, then you get a takedown, gut, gut, it’s 8-6 in just 10 seconds. Stinginess is going to be big.”
Especially at 61 kilos, where the bracket will resemble something of an all-star competition. Among the 12 pre-seeded wrestlers, there are five NCAA title winners (Nahshon Garrett, Cody Brewer, Seth Gross, Nico Megaludis and Clark) and dozens of All-American finishes.
Clark is among those contributing to the depth, of course, and if he puts forth a performance that resembles anything like the last time many Iowa fans saw him wrestle, they’ll watch him to do some damage out in Vegas this weekend.
“He’s been at his best the last two months, training-wise,” Perry said. “He’s looked awesome. I think people are excited about him and excited to see him compete. He’s excited. We’re excited. Now it’s time to get the job done.
“Everybody knows what Cory Clark is about, and he’s ready to rock and roll.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2018 U.S. Open and UWW Junior National Championships
WHEN: April 26-28, Thursday-Saturday
WHERE: South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada
Many wrestlers either from Iowa or with an Iowa connection will compete at the U.S. Open and UWW Junior Nationals in both Freestyle and Greco-Roman:
- 57kg: Tony Ramos (former Iowa)
- 61kg: Cory Clark (HWC), Earl Hall (former ISU), Joe Colon (former UNI), Brandon Wright (former Grand View), Chris Dardanes (HWC)
- 65kg: Joey Lazor (former UNI), Nick Dardanes (HWC)
- 79kg: Mike Evans (former Iowa)
- 86kg: Evan Hanson (Grand View), Pat Downey (former ISU)
- 97kg: Blaize Cabell (UNI), Kyven Gadson (ISU), Nathan Burak (Iowa), Ross Larson (former Ankeny HS)
- 57kg: Megan Black (former Eddyville-Balcksburg-Fremont HS)
- 59kg: Lauren Louive (HWC)
- 62kg: Anna Poyner (New Hartford, IA)
- 68kg: Jasmine Bailey (former Iowa City West HS)
- 72kg: Rachel Watters (former Ballard HS)
UWW Juniors Freestyle
- 57kg: Alex Thomsen (Underwood HS), Justin Portillo (Grand View), Joshua Portillo (UN-K)
- 61kg: Austin Gomez (ISU), Gable Fox (Don Bosco HS), Jack Skudlarczyk (UNI), McGwire Midkiff (former CB Thomas Jefferson HS)
- 65kg: Ian Parker (ISU), Michael Blockhus (New Hampton HS), Ryan Leisure (ISU), Triston Lara (UNI), Max Murin (Iowa)
- 70kg: Derek Holschlag (UNI), Zach Axmear (Iowa), David Carr (future ISU)
- 74kg: Cayd Lara (Fort Dodge HS), Jeremiah Moody (Iowa)
- 79kg: Marcus Coleman (ISU), Tucker Morrison (ISU)
- 86kg: Alec McDowell (ISU), Austin Yant (UNI), Myles Wilson (Iowa)
- 92kg: Connor Corbin (Iowa), Kaden Sauer (ISU), Jacob Warner (Iowa)
- 97kg: Hunter DeJong (Sibley-Ocheyedan HS)
- 125kg: Aaron Costello (Iowa), Gannon Gremmel (ISU)
UWW Juniors Greco-Roman
- 97kg: Hunter DeJong (Sibley-Ocheyedan HS)
- 130kg: Spencer Trenary (Clarion-Goldfield-Dows HS)