IOWA CITY, Ia. — Seven days before the 2019 NCAA Championships, Austin DeSanto is sitting inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. He’s wearing wrestling shoes, workout shorts and a gray sweatshirt. He’s got a workout in an hour, he says, but first, a story.
Last year, DeSanto watched ESPN’s “The Season” documentary on the Iowa wrestling team. It provided an inside look at the highs and lows of the 2001-02 season. It was recommended to him by Josh Dziewa, a former Iowa wrestler who is now an assistant coach at Drexel.
“Dziewa was like, ‘This is how you do things,’” DeSanto says. “‘This is how you get things done. It’s a mindset.’ I watched all those videos and I was like, this is the freaking place.”
DeSanto joined the Iowa wrestling program not long after. He transferred after going 30-7 as a true freshman at Drexel, where he was one victory shy of becoming an All-American. The 20-year-old sought a tougher room, and found a home with the Hawkeyes.
This week, DeSanto returns to the NCAA Championships with his new team. At 18-4, he is the 7-seed at 133 pounds, arguably the deepest and most-talented weight in the country. A strong weekend in Pittsburgh would cap a mostly successful first year at Iowa.
DeSanto’s ascent this season — he was ranked as high as third in the country by Trackwrestling at one point — has come with some rocky moments. He cost Iowa three team points in three separate duals, resulting in a one-dual suspension in February. That had a profound impact on the Pennsylvania native, and he pointed to that as perhaps the biggest stride he’s made this season.
“He’s growing continually,” Iowa coach Tom Brands says. “The obvious thing — and the thing that our administration is most impressed with — is how he handled the suspension, how he’s handled the negative connotation that went with his name.”
This is exactly what DeSanto wanted when he decided on Iowa. He feels confident about his future, both this week and in the years ahead. Back inside the complex, he says he gave up other sports for wrestling in fourth grade because he loved that hard work usually leads to results.
“Nobody is ever guaranteed to be a winner,” DeSanto says. “I started to understand that the top guys are the hardest workers. I thought that was pretty cool. You can always improve.”
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‘I was just trying to keep up’
There is a route near Carver-Hawkeye Arena where the Iowa wrestling team will sometimes go run. It spans about three miles and includes hills and straightaways. It can be a challenge when the weather gets warm.
Last summer, shortly after his arrival, DeSanto went running for the first time with his new team. He hardly ever loses races, he says — he clocked a sub-5-minute mile last year — but on this day, he got “blown away” by Danny Murphy and Paul Glynn.
“I was just trying to keep up,” DeSanto continues. “I’m getting beat by a full minute, just blown out of the water. It’s not like they’re super fast, either. It was all heart and tenacity.
“That was pretty cool to see.”
This was perhaps the first time DeSanto truly realized how much tougher the Iowa room is compared to others around the country — and it made him excited.
Later that day and throughout the season, reinforcement of that lesson came in the form of practice partners. On any given week, he’ll work with Spencer Lee, Max Murin, Vince Turk, but also Thomas Gilman and Cory Clark, two former Hawkeye wrestlers.
Put another way, that’s two national champs, eight All-American finishes, another with NCAA experience and, oh yeah, a three-time age-level world champ and a Senior-level world silver medalist.
“When your off-day partner is someone really good, and then your on-day partner is a world silver medalist,” DeSanto says, “that says something about this room.”
‘That kicked me in the butt’
DeSanto’s suspension was announced in a 163-word release in early February. It came because of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that followed outbursts after wins over Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano and Nebraska’s Brian Peska.
Brands talked with DeSanto with an eye on the future. At last season's NCAA Championships, DeSanto received an unsportsmanlike penalty in a loss to Michigan’s Stevan Micic. He cartwheeled into an illegal bar arm. That created a bad reputation, and this season's antics did not help.
“We had to do something,” Brands says. “There was some intervention, and he’s owned it.”
DeSanto never had much interest for other spots. His coach at Exeter High School in Pennsylvania, Jon Rugg, called him “the king of the gutter ball.” His older brother, Tony, also wrestled, and was a two-time state place-winner for the Eagles. Wrestling is all DeSanto has ever wanted to know. He wants to coach someday.
In that way, the suspension was a serious wake-up call.
“He told me he wasn’t down on me, but it was a very serious deal,” DeSanto recalls. “He stressed that, ‘We’re not changing your wrestling. Do not change your pace. Do not change how you wrestle. It’s how you act after the match. You can’t do that stuff.’
“It’s important to get away from that stuff because I could get kicked out. I won’t be able to wrestle. I won’t be able to do what I love. That kicked me in the butt.”
DeSanto spent that night ensuring that Glynn, Iowa’s backup 133-pounder, was ready to go. They worked out together before the match. DeSanto watched from the edge of the tunnel in Carver’s northwest corner, and cheered as Glynn locked up a cradle for a first-period pin.
“That meant a lot to me,” Glynn said afterward. “That’s what people don’t see on the outside. They think DeSanto has a bad rep, but he was right there, cheering me on, getting me mentally ready.
“That’s a guy you want to fight for. We’re a team here. We’re a family.”
‘Hey man, we’re good. We’ve got this’
DeSanto has a routine before his workouts and matches. He stretches and shakes himself loose, then hits a forward roll into a high jump on the mat. It helps him lock in, he explains, “like a trigger or a switch, so I know it’s go-time.”
Recently, DeSanto added something new. He meditates for two minutes in the locker room. Brands suggested it after the suspension to help him relax and focus on wrestling.
“People might say I’m a mental case because I’m saying this stuff, but it’s whatever,” DeSanto says. “Any little thing to help me get that edge, anything that helps me wrestle better, I’m going to do it.”
There is little doubt that DeSanto is a better wrestler now than he was a year ago. Of his 18 victories, 12 have included bonus points — two pins, four technical falls, five major decisions and another victory by stalling disqualification. He wrestles better on top now than ever before. He’s beaten two wrestlers seeded ahead of him this week, and both are past NCAA finalists.
But since the suspension, DeSanto has not had a single hiccup with regards to unsportsmanlike penalties. He’s only wrestled seven matches since, including his 2-2 showing at the Big Ten Championships, where even before an aggressive Minnesota-heavy crowd, there were no antics.
“You saw that he’s grown a lot,” says Alex Marinelli, Iowa’s starting 165-pounder. “What he did to Micic last year, he could’ve done that at the Big Ten tournament, but he didn’t. He’s grown.”
Some credit belongs to his teammates. DeSanto went through a rough practice earlier this year, and Marinelli reached out afterward. DeSanto was curious what Marinelli turns to after rough days. He went over to Marinelli’s apartment and they talked for hours about Jesus and the Bible.
His teammates have seen growth in other ways. His first loss of the year came in December, against Iowa State’s Austin Gomez. Afterward, DeSanto hardly talked to anybody, running angry springs in the wrestling room.
Last month, DeSanto lost again, to Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix. The match before, Lee was pinned before a sold-out crowd inside Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater. Lee was still facing comprehension when DeSanto ran off the mat and grabbed him.
“He said, ‘Hey man, we’re good. We got this,’” says Lee, Iowa’s starting 125-pounder and defending national champion. “A lot of the things he did were because of the team. (Nebraska’s Tyler Berger) shushed us, and Austin saw that, beat his dude and looked right at Berger when he did what he did.
“But he’s worked hard on that. He listens really well. He doesn’t get frustrated as much as he used to. He’s a great listener and a great teammate. He’s still a team-oriented dude.”
‘They were bad dudes’
When DeSanto was in high school, Rugg showed him videos of old Iowa wrestlers. They watched Mark Ironside, a two-time national champ, beat Cary Kolat, 9-8, at the 1996 NWCA All-Star Classic. Ironside trailed 6-2 in the third period but won thanks to three late takedowns.
Rugg hoped to show DeSanto an example of what a high wrestling pace can do with good technique. In high school, Rugg often had to group him with three of Exeter’s middleweights to drill with during practices. He feared a single partner wouldn’t make it the whole two hours.
“He lost just seven matches in his career, and five were in the postseason,” Rugg says, “If you left one kid on him for two hours, who knows if that kid was coming back the next day.”
DeSanto rewrote the Exeter record books. He owns the top spot for career takedowns (910), wins (188) and technical falls (81). That high pace continues to be a major weapon. Brands said earlier this year that he’s never seen a wrestler with such high cardiovascular abilities.
DeSanto continues to watch old wrestling videos in his spare time. He’s watched many of both his coaches. His favorite is when Terry Brands, Iowa’s associate head coach, beat Penn State’s Jeff Prescott by a 20-5 technical fall. During the match, Terry raised his fist as if to call stalling. DeSanto did the same when wrestling Fix last month.
“They were bad dudes back then,” DeSanto says. “They’re still bad dudes now. These guys are awesome, but what really surprised me was how good of human brings they are, outside the wrestling room. That means a lot to me.”
DeSanto then stood up and walked toward the locker room. After some quick meditation, he’ll head to the practice room to stretch, then he’ll step on the mat, somersault into a high jump and run a couple of laps, and he’ll do it all with a smile.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships
When: March 21-23
Where: PPG Paints Arena, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Schedule (all times CST)
Session I — 11 a.m., pigtails, first round (ESPNU)
Session II — 6 p.m., pigtail wrestlebacks, second round, first-round wrestlebacks (ESPN)
Session III — 10 a.m., quarterfinals, second- and third-round wrestlebacks (ESPNU)
Session IV — 7 p.m., semifinals, bloodround, wrestleback quarterfinals (ESPN)
Session V — 10 a.m., wrestleback semifinals, 3rd, 5th, 7th place matches (ESPNU)
Session VI — 6 p.m., finals (ESPNU