Leistikow: Michael Kemerer's 20-month road back to the Iowa wrestling lineup

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was in the spring of 2018 that Michael Kemerer, one of the top 157-pound college wrestlers in the country, made an extremely bold decision.

He was going to move up weight classes.


All the way up to 174.

So, at Iowa’s wrestling media day recently at Kroul Farms in Mount Vernon, Kemerer was asked a simple question: What’s it like wrestling at 174?

Michael Kemerer discusses his long-anticipated Iowa wrestling return during the team's media day at Kroul Farms in Mount Vernon on Oct. 30. He'll be in the lineup at 174 pounds when the Hawkeyes wrestle Chattanooga on Sunday.

“Well,” he politely responded, “I haven’t wrestled a match at 74 yet.”

Touché, Michael.

It’s easy to forget that Kemerer, because of bad injury luck and long recoveries, has yet to wrestle a competitive match at his new, bulked-up weight.

At last, that’s about to change.

Kemerer is in the lineup and ready to roll as the Hawkeye wrestling team opens its highly anticipated 2019-20 season against Tennessee-Chattanooga at 2 p.m. Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

This has been a long-time coming.

“I just love the sport,” Kemerer said, “and I’m excited to get back out there and compete and score points.”

The native of Murrysville, Pennsylvania, is good at both of those things. With a high-tempo style and highly trained skill, Kemerer compiled a 60-6 record in his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons at Iowa. Three of those losses came by decision to three-time NCAA champ Jason Nolf of Penn State, hardly anything to be ashamed about.

Another loss came by medical forfeit to Nebraska’s Tyler Berger in the third-place match at the 2018 NCAA Championships, when Kemerer dislocated his left shoulder. He hasn’t wrestled in a match that counts since.

Iowa's Michael Kemerer clutches his arm while wrestling Nebraska's Tyler Berger for third place at 157 pounds at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

Not long after that fourth-place finish in Cleveland, Kemerer started bulking up. He was having trouble cutting to 157, and there was no point stopping at 165 with Iowa all-American Alex Marinelli locking down that lineup spot.

Then … the plan went off the rails. First, a torn ACL in his right knee after getting in a “funky situation” in practice, just before the start of last season. (He thought about trying to wrestle through it anyway.) Then, he re-injured the shoulder; worse than the first time.

Knee surgery just after Thanksgiving. Shoulder surgery just before Christmas.

His wrestling season was over. These were hardly the happiest of holidays.

Michael Kemerer returns to the competitive collegiate mat Sunday for the first time since the 2018 NCAA Championships in Cleveland, when he was a 157-pounder. Now he's bulked up and feeling good at 174 pounds for the Hawkeyes.

He was off the mat from November to June — an eternity for someone who craves and lives year-round wrestling.

But today, he chuckles at the memory of awkwardly riding a stationary bike with one helpless arm in a sling.

During his rehab, Kemerer found perspective.

“A lot of people wrestle their whole life, then they’re done wrestling, and they look back and miss it,” Kemerer said. “And I kind of got to experience that a little bit — what it’s like to not have the sport and realize how much it means to me. Now I still get two years, hopefully, to do it at the college level.”

Funny how being ripped away from something you love can make you appreciate it so much more.

Iowa assistant coach Ryan Morningstar said he’s seen Kemerer, who will turn 23 in December, grow in maturity during this 20-month hiatus from competition. On media day, head coach Tom Brands singled out Kemerer as a pleasant surprise — only because of how quickly Kemerer has progressed since June to get into wrestling shape.

“It’s amazing how you can go from two of your limbs being not usable back to full strength wrestling,” Kemerer said. “It’s actually incredible. It’s awesome.”

Kemerer earlier mentioned two years.

He has valid confidence that he’ll be awarded a sixth year of eligibility, in 2020-21, after he applies for a medical waiver for his missed season. The NCAA’s relaxation of hardship rules should make that a formality.

So now, it’s time to focus on wrestling.

For those that forgot, Kemerer is a relentless, high-octane attacker. That style led him to a third-place NCAA finish in St. Louis as a freshman. With second-ranked Iowa trying to upend top-ranked Penn State’s title reign, Kemerer’s performance this season becomes a significant swing factor.

If he returns to form (or better), he could be a national finalist. Trackwrestling’s preseason rankings are a believer. That website put Kemerer at No. 2 nationally, and Penn State national champ Mark Hall at No. 1.

It’ll be fun to see where Kemerer’s story goes next. He’s a do-it-right, dedicated Hawkeye who has patiently worked for (and waited for) Sunday’s season debut.

Morningstar sees daily reminders that the old Kemerer is back … maybe better than ever, at his new, 20-month-old weight.

That’s an exciting prospect for Hawkeye wrestling over the next two winters.

“In my opinion, he won’t miss a beat. The kid can flat-out wrestle,” Morningstar said. “He feels like a horse (in practice). And with Kemerer, it’s always the case: His best wrestling is in competition. That, to me, is really exciting.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.