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Daniel Dennis locked in, excited for Olympic challenge

Former Iowa wrestler competes Friday

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Craig Sesker, correspondent

RIO DE JANEIRO — If it were up to Daniel Dennis, there would be no news conferences.

There wouldn’t be any interviews.

And definitely not any photo shoots.

If there was any way to avoid those types of Olympic Games obligations, Dennis would fully embrace it.

When the rugged, bearded Dennis walked in the Opening Ceremonies for the 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 5, he was decked out in a navy blue Team USA blazer, a red, white and blue striped shirt and white pants.

An athlete has never looked more out of place.

One place Dennis is comfortable is on the wrestling mat. He had never made a World or Olympic team before this year, but the hard-nosed Dennis is ready for the challenge.

The 29-year-old Dennis is scheduled to compete in the Olympic Games freestyle competition in the 125.5-pound weight class on Friday at Carioca Arena 2.

“The competition will be tough — it’s the Olympics,” the former University of Iowa standout said matter-of-factly. “You’re going to have the world’s best wrestlers. The only thing I focus on is getting ready to wrestle. As long as I get ready to compete with my mind and make sure my body is as healthy as it can be, I know I can beat anybody. That’s the only thing I focus on.”

The unlikely success story of Dennis has been well-documented, where he drove sometimes aimlessly across the country and oftentimes slept in his truck. He stopped competing and spent time hiking and exploring before helping coach at a high school program in California. He lived in a trailer during his time there.

He had no plans to ever come back to being an athlete again.

“I wasn’t almost out, I was done,” he said. “I was coaching and I was done competing.”

Dennis had not competed in more than two years when he entered the U.S. Open in May 2015. He finished second at the U.S. World Team Trials a month later to make his first National Team at 134 pounds.

“It was just little steps,” Dennis said. “I got talked into wrestling in one competition. One competition led to another and here you find yourself now. Looking back on it, there is a lot that was accomplished.”

Dennis dropped down to the Olympic freestyle weight class of 125.5 pounds this season. He placed third at the Bill Farrell International in November in New York City. A month later, he won the U.S. Open with wins over 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott and 2012 Olympian Sam Hazewinkel.

He followed by sweeping former Iowa teammate Tony Ramos in two straight matches in the Olympic Trials finals at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Ramos has made the last two U.S. World teams at 125.5.

Since winning the Olympic Trials, Dennis turned in a respectable showing at the World Cup before winning the German Grand Prix last month.

Dennis actually took a commanding lead over 2015 World champion Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Georgia in the World Cup before being caught and pinned. He also battled 2015 World silver medalist and past World champion Hassan Rahimi of Iran tough before dropping a 7-2 match. Dennis won his other two bouts in the event.

Dennis is big for his weight class, and is very adept at turning opponents with a gut wrench from the top position.

Dennis never won a state title in high school and fell just short of winning an NCAA crown in college. He was second at both levels.

The decision by Dennis to come back to wrestling was embraced by Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands.

“My coaches really believe in me and what I can do,” Dennis said. “I get down on myself sometimes, but Tom and Terry do a great job of coaching me, pushing me and pumping me up. They believe in me and that’s really important. They get me ready to compete at a high level.”

Terry Brands, who coached lightweight Henry Cejudo to an Olympic gold medal in 2008, said Dennis is equipped to handle the big stage at the Olympics. Brands won two World titles and an Olympic bronze medal during his career.

“Dennis has never been to the Olympics before and we’ve got to get him ready to deal with that,” Terry Brands said. “Ultimately, he’s going to step onto a mat the same size as the ones he’s competed on before. His opponents are going to be after the same thing he is and that’s a gold medal. Really, he has a very quiet mind and calm spirit right now. He’s the best I’ve ever seen him.”

Even though Dennis could do without interviews, he’s always very accommodating and well-spoken with the media. He’s a cerebral guy who can usually be spotted reading novels on road trips.

“I don’t care to do it. I just care to compete,” Dennis said of media obligations. “I don’t like the publicity outside of it. I just like wrestling. That’s it. I don’t really care for it. I will do it if it promotes the Iowa program here.”

After arriving in Rio, Dennis would have been fine if the tournament was held the next day. One thing is for certain, he’s a guy who will always compete to the best of his ability.

“I’m excited to see what I can do at the Olympics,” Dennis said. “It’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be tough, but nothing worthwhile ever comes easy in this sport.”

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