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IOWA CITY — Daniel Dennis is the opposite of reluctant when it comes to wrestling. Or rock-climbing.
“He would climb me right into a hole,” said Iowa assistant wrestling coach Terry Brands. That’s an oxymoron-and-a-half, but who’s to quibble with Brands? He’s known Dennis for a decade, and has worked hard with him since Dennis earned a U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling berth in April.
“I’ve felt his gut-wrench,” Brands said, “and if his gut-wrench is that tough I can imagine what he’s doing to the surface of a rock.”
Dennis was a rock during the Olympic Wrestling Trials in Iowa City almost four months ago. In the final 57-kilogram (125.5 pounds) freestyle match of the tourney, Dennis locked his gut-wrench on former Hawkeye teammate Tony Ramos, spun him four times in rapid-fire succession, and racked up enough points for a 10-0 technical fall just 1:06 into the match.
Ramos fled the mat and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. He now is an assistant coach at North Carolina. Dennis, meanwhile, will be on a plane Wednesday for Rio de Janeiro and its Summer Olympics.
But will he be with the U.S. delegation of athletes and coaches that march into Maracana Stadium Friday night for the opening ceremonies? Only if he feels he must.
That’s where this 29-year-old from suburban Chicago does have reluctance. He doesn’t like attention. He really doesn’t like promotion. He faced reporters in the Iowa wrestling room this week only because he felt it would benefit the Hawkeye program.
He just wants to win an Olympic gold medal and go home without any subsequent parade or victory lap.
“I’m not big into the pageantry of things,” Dennis said. “That’s just my personality. I’m not big into the (opening) ceremonies, but I’ve gotten a lot of people telling me it’s something I should do, so I’m going to consider it.
“I guess I never realized how much people make a big deal out of (the Olympics). The meetings and what I think are the silly things we have to go through emphasizes, I think, how big of a scale we’re at.”
“I just come to compete. I don’t like the publicity outside of it. I just like wrestling. Away from the mat, I don’t like doing much more than riding my bike nowadays, playing with my dog. There’s been a couple of things I’ve been dragged to.”
Maybe Dennis was born too late, personality-wise. Who makes an Olympic team in the 21st Century and doesn’t sell themselves? But he’s right on time as a competitor. His best wrestling has been this year.
He didn’t win a high school state title, and his best NCAA finish was second as a Hawkeye senior six years ago. Not long afterward, he left competition. He was burned out from disappointment. He had various ailments to his back, his neck, an arm.
“I wasn’t almost out,” he said. “I was done. I was coaching (helping a high school team in California), and I was done competing.”
Terry Brands and his brother, head Hawkeyes coach Tom Brands, thought otherwise. They felt Dennis still had a lot to offer as a wrestler. They and others, like former Iowa wrestler Royce Alger, kept telling Dennis to come back to the sport, to come back to Iowa.
Today, everyone agrees the two-plus years he was away from competition weren’t just good for Dennis, but vital.
“That’s really where he found himself,” Terry Brands said. “Letting go of the past, letting go of the bitterness or whatever it was holding him back over the couple years since he graduated.”
“I got talked into wrestling in one competition,” Dennis said. “One competition led to another, led to another, led to another, and here you find yourself now. It was so gradual that it seemed it was going to happen, if that makes any sense.”
Now, two-time NCAA champion/two-time World champion/Olympic bronze-medalist Terry Brands says “He’s a lot better than I was. … He’s calm. I keep saying ‘Quiet mind, calm spirit.’ He is. He’s very calm. … He’s in a very good spot.”
Dennis doesn’t wrestle in Rio until Aug. 19. That’s plenty of time to put the opening ceremonies behind. Plenty of time to get calm before the day when he tries to climb his opponents into holes.