Mike Zadick: More than a beard
Destined to wrestle
AMES — Mike Zadick’s beard is jet-black and goes down to his chest. A few silver threads are starting to weave their way through the blackness down to the buttons of his red and black plaid shirt.
The Great Falls, Mont., native has a large, gold belt buckle holding up his jeans. His jeans cover a pair of alligator-skin boots. He jokes he killed the gator with a knife. He didn’t. It’d be hard to tell by his appearance that he’s a businessman who developed a Starbucks and negotiated contracts with national food chains.
He looks more like an outdoorsman, hunting guide or a ranch-hand. He’s been all of those things, too.
His eyes are nearly as jet-black as his beard. They’re intense and piercing.
Zadick is keenly observant.
You can see him study the words as they depart your mouth. His face doesn’t move and he has no reactions. It’s stoic. The closest he’ll get to a reaction is a furled brow. He’s careful when you first talk to him. His sister, MaryAnn Jackson, said he was shy as a child. Very timid. That still comes across. That is, until he warms up to you. Then you get to hear tales from a master storyteller whose skills were whetted from years around a bonfire.
The final piece of Zadick’s ensemble is the gatekeeper to the secrets of his past. The bottom of his Iowa State beanie covers the permanently-deformed ears that solely accompany a lifetime of wrestling.
Only when he takes the beanie off, does he allow his ears to tell the story.
He’s an Olympian, a world silver medalist and a three-time NCAA All-American at the University of Iowa. He’s traveled the earth to compete in tournaments.
Now, the 39-year-old former Hawkeye wrestler sits in the Iowa State wrestling offices on the second floor of the Jacobson building as the Cyclones’ associate head wrestling coach. He’s a minimalist. His desk is free of clutter and his walls are barren sans one life-size newspaper clipping from the Des Moines Register with a picture of former Iowa State wrestler Cael Sanderson. The headline dubs Sanderson the greatest to ever do it. The metal shelves that came with the office are mostly empty, too. They house only a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference trophies Zadick got from his Virginia Tech coaching days. They’re tucked away on the bottom shelf in the corner, nearly out of sight.
He has two things he added to the layout of the office. A scale and a tea station, each in their respective corners. His coffee mug reads “Respect the Beard” with a black iconographic beard that has a striking resemblance to his own. It was a gift from assistant coach Brent Metcalf’s mom.
The beard is a part of Zadick, but it is only a small part of who he is. It’s how he’s recognized, but it’s not what he’s recognized for.
“We both grew up watching Grizzly Adams and Dave Schultz — our dad always had a beard,” Bill Zadick, Mike’s brother, said. Bill also has a beard, but it’s tamer than Mike’s. “Three of our favorite people growing up had beards. It’s just kind of in our roots.
“You see something and people want to refine it and simplify it and get an understandable entity. Mike — he’s an interesting guy.”
Zadick is passionate person. He’s passionate about wrestling, hunting, his beard — anything Mike does, he’s passionate about. Iowa State wrestling coach Kevin Dresser said if Zadick was booking a plane ticket, he would be passionate about booking the plane ticket. Nothing would get in the way of Zadick and his plane ticket.
People have told Zadick if he’s going to get a girlfriend, he’s going to have to shave his beard.
“I ain’t shaving this for any girl,” he said bluntly. “If you’re in love, and a woman really loves you, whether you have facial hair or not, that’s not what she’s falling in love with.
“There’s a lot deeper roots in your body and in your soul than what you see on the surface.”
Zadick’s beard is the least interesting part about Mike Zadick.
Flipping the switch
Zadick was a wrestler from the day he was born — whether he knew it or not. His dad, Bob, wrestled in high school when wrestling first came to the state of Montana. He continued to wrestle in intramural leagues in college. He was the club wrestling coach when his kids were growing up.
Bob was in love with the sport. He wanted his family to be in love with the sport.
Mike has two sisters, Terri Steinlage and MaryAnn, along with brother Bill. Mike is the youngest of the four.
“Bob had me exercising those kids from the day they were born,” Mike’s mom, Toni Zadick, said. “Exercising their arms and their legs. The girls as well as the boys.”
When Bill was a young child, he’d wrestle with his dad on the living room floor. It was a camaraderie thing. He wanted to be interested in what his dad was.
“I just kind of adopted his intensity and passion and excitement,” Bill said.
Bill is five years older than Mike, so by the time Mike was old enough to start wrestling, Bill already had been competing for a number of years — and finding a lot of success. The Zadicks described Bill as a superstar kid. Mike described him as a holy terror.
“My brother was hell on wheels and I think that’s what my dad was used to,” Mike said. “My brother was really intense and he went out there and he was that kid at tournaments. He’d be bouncing all over the place. Me? I’d be hiding somewhere eating candy or something. I was kind of a little fat kid.”
Toni confirmed that Mike was a little pudgy as a child, which is hard to believe given the broad shoulders and muscular frame he sports now.
“They used to tease him a lot because he had little teeny legs and they used to call him doughboy,” she said.
Mike didn’t respond to his dad’s intensity like Bill did. It gave him anxiety. MaryAnn said Mike was a “huge momma’s boy — in a good way.”
Mike took wrestling seriously, but he wasn’t as passionate about the sport as his brother or his dad in the beginning. He learned the moves, and was technically proficient, but he didn’t necessarily care whether he won or lost at a young age.
Bob, the most intense man Mike has ever met, wasn’t a big fan of that.
“Sometimes I’d come off the mat and my dad would be going berserk and I’m thinking, ‘Man, this guy’s crazy,’” Mike said. “He just had all this energy because he was so competitive and he wanted to win.”
Looking back on it and being a coach these days, Mike understands why his dad was like that.
He saw the potential in Mike, but Mike wasn’t getting after it like he needed to.
Mike connected more with Toni. Mike described his mother as a quiet, strong-willed woman.
“When my dad came screaming and hollering at me like that, I didn’t quite feed off of that energy,” Mike said. “My mom just made it OK. It was a calm. Her demeanor around me was confident — it was strong — but it was calm.
“That’s how I needed it back then until I got older. I was very sensitive to my mind-set and emotional well-being when I stepped on the mat. I didn’t like being very hyper, I wanted to go out calmer because I was more focused.”
The switch flipped when Bill went off to wrestle in college at Iowa.
Mike was still in middle school. Mike spent more time training with his dad and he began adopting that same intensity.
Mike also realized Bill had set a pretty good example of how to be successful in the sport.
“Bill was Mike’s hero,” Bob said.
Mike’s body started changing, too. He developed muscles and he could start to feel his own strength.
Bob didn’t take credit for instilling intensity into Mike. He said it was something the whole family had.
“I don’t know if it was me so much as it was them,” Bob said. “Everything they did, they went balls to the walls. I encouraged them. If you’re going to do something, do it good.”
Strangely enough, as Mike became more fervent, Bill developed more of a level head. Bill still was intense but he became the calmer of the two and Mike became more outwardly intense and passionate.
“I had heard it and heard it and seen it and there were examples (of the intensity I needed) that I started opening my eyes to it,” Mike said.
“It’s a thing my brother and I still talk about. He was the wild and crazy child and I was really calm and reserved and at midlife we changed roles. He’s more reserved and quiet and calm and I’m considered the one that’s considered a little more ...” Mike paused, half smiling through his beard “... out there.”
Sacrifices were worth it
Mike Zadick sat in his fourth-grade classroom and it was another student’s birthday. They brought in cupcakes and Sunny D to celebrate.
Zadick couldn’t have any. He had weigh-ins the next day.
A lot of the sacrifices Zadick made were small, but everyone has their own story of the little sacrifices that stand out in their mind.
“I remember these things, you remember them because I really wanted one of those cupcakes and some Sunny D — I remember them drinking Sunny D,” Zadick said with his voice straining, trying not to yell as he recalls the memory. “But it’s just those little things, and it’s for a reason, and you knew it, but you had to stay focused and stay strong.”
Inevitably, and unfortunately, the sacrifices got bigger as he got older. If a person wants to be successful in anything, sacrifices have to be made.
Zadick graduated from Iowa and competed at the senior level. He missed five of his best friends’ weddings. In three of them, he was the best man.
One of them actually had a cardboard cutout of Zadick made. The bridesmaid walked down the aisle with the cardboard figure, making the best out of an unavoidable situation.
“It’s simple things that you don’t think of,” Zadick said. “You have to watch your weight, you’re on a strict diet, on a strict training schedule. And when I say that, it’s not like you just do that anywhere.”
His pace quickens and his voice starts straining. “When your best friend is getting married, you aren’t going to the wedding because you have workouts, or you’re overseas in a tournament.”
His thoughts are racing now. He’s essentially yelling.
“Your family has a family get-together and you ...”
He stopped himself mid-sentence. He paused and composed himself.
He never did finish that thought out loud.
“It’s those types of things,” Zadick, 39, said slowly and calmly. “When you talk about sacrifices — especially when they’re family oriented, like I was raised — that’s the sacrifices I’m talking about. Not, ‘Wow, I can’t eat pie today because I have to eat oatmeal.’ That’s a given. That’s a simple everyday — if you want to even call it a sacrifice. That’s a need.
“All those other sacrifices, the emotional events in your life that you miss out on. That was the kind of commitment that you have to have daily. Whether it was the Olympics or the world championships or any other tournament, that’s how you lived it.”
And unfortunately, it wasn’t just Zadick making the sacrifices. It really was the whole family.
His sister, MaryAnn, had to change her wedding date three times because she had to schedule around the U.S. World Team Trials and, potentially, the World Championships. Mike and his brother, Bill, both were competing in the World Team Trials.
It seemed normal for MaryAnn Jackson. This was essentially her and her sister’s whole life. They didn’t wrestle, so they got the back seat a lot of the time.
For her husband and his family, it was weird to schedule a wedding around wrestling.
To them, this marriage was the most important thing. It was a life commitment.
MaryAnn explained why it was best for all parties involved.
“This is everything that they worked for,” MaryAnn said. “And the other thing is, we know it’s not going to be pretty if it doesn’t turn out well. I wasn’t about to put my wedding — the day I’m supposed to remember forever — in a really crappy situation where nobody can have fun.”
Luckily, it did turn out well for both Mike and Bill — and MaryAnn, too. Mike and Bill both made the World Team.
“It means a lot. It means a whole lot,” Bill, who coaches the U.S. men’s freestyle team, said of MaryAnn moving her wedding date multiple times. “Our sister got married in 2006 and Mike and I made the World Team, and because of our age difference, that was the only official, formal team that we were ever on together. That’s just one of the thousands of examples of sacrifices our family has made for us over the years.”
MaryAnn also was an exceptional figure skater. When she was young, she was being trained by a World silver medalist. When she was a freshman in high school, her coach suggested she move to Seattle, Portland or Spokane to get the training necessary to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
But that would mean the family would have to split up for months at a time.
“It honestly wasn’t — it was a big deal, yeah — I just didn’t want to be away from my family,” MaryAnn said. “I knew my mom didn’t want to and I knew it’d be a huge lifestyle change, and I was perfectly happy with what I had going on. I just wanted to stay here. It was my decision and honestly it didn’t take me that long to think about it.”
She still competed competitively — and found a lot of success. She just wasn’t going to be a world-class skater or an Olympian.
“I would never send any of my kids away,” mother Toni Zadick said. “We debated with MaryAnn, but I would’ve had to move and Bob would’ve been left with the other kids. We just weren’t willing to split our family up.
“There is no gold medal worth that in my life in my way of thinking. Family comes first.”
The sacrifice felt like a no-brainer to MaryAnn.
“I know my brothers look back on it and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh MaryAnn,’” she said. “I just didn’t feel like it was a huge sacrifice at the time. I almost felt like it was more of a sacrifice to go do that. Look at the commitment that would’ve been. So here I am, living apart from my family.
“I just didn’t have that level commitment to skating over my family. I don’t regret it, so I guess it was the right decision.”
Mike and Bill are immensely grateful for both of their sisters’ sacrifices. They gave up their weekends to go to wrestling tournaments all across the nation.
“We were intensely focused on wrestling, but they were very, very — and still are — very supportive of (our) careers,” Bill said. “They loved wrestling as much as anyone could.”
Terri Steinlage, the oldest of the Zadick children, went to the 1996 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. She watched some other sports, too, but she went to watch wrestling.
“My whole family just invested in the sport of wrestling from day one,” Mike said. “My brother and I — and my dad being the club coach — it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have wrestling today.’ This was like, ‘Clean out the garage, we don’t need a garage anymore. Wrestling mats are going in the garage. We don’t need this anymore, we need wrestling, wrestling, wrestling.’
“Everything else in the world revolved around wrestling. My sisters got second fiddle. They love my brother and me. They’ve supported us more than anybody ever will — without hesitation. Even though they had to move their wedding around or change their plans because of wrestling. And they were there and there happily. It’s not like, ‘We did this for you, now what are you going to do for me?’ type of thing. It just never was. It was an accepted, supportive, loving thing that happened. And that’s pretty powerful when you have that.”
It wasn’t just their immediate family supporting the two. Their uncle George and aunt Helen were there, too.
Bob and Toni took George and Helen to a couple of Mike’s dual meets while he wrestled at Iowa. George had a cabin in the mountains of Montana that the whole family went to, where they hunted and fished. George was the one who showed Bob the outdoorsman lifestyle that eventually trickled down to all four of Zadick children. Mike said he saw George and Helen multiple times a week growing up. Mike said they were as close to a second set of parents or grandparents as a person could get.
“Toughest woman and prettiest thing you ever saw,” Mike said of Helen. “She used to put tacks in her heels upside down because she liked to click when she hit a hard surface. People would see her and she was a cute little thing. It was just, ‘click, click, click, click, click.’ Cute old lady. She’d tell everyone in the world, ‘You know, I took second in the beauty pageant when I was in high school.’”
She was a California girl who moved to Montana. She married George, who she thought was a true Montana cowboy — and he was, to an extent.
“His family moved from eastern Montana on horse and carriage, pulling one cow,” Mike said, laughing. “He rode behind the cow and he always talked about how he had a cattle drive from eastern Montana to Great Falls. But it was just one cow.”
In 2004, Mike and Bill were overseas competing in Kiev, Ukraine, for 21 days.
During that time, Helen was sick and in the hospital. She was in the hospital before they left, but they were confident she would get better and pull through. She ended up taking a turn for the worst.
Aunt Helen died at 88 years old.
“It was tough,” Mike said. “People in the world and pets in the world, they come and they go. That’s the way it is, but you also have to take the time to mourn. You want to be around family during tough times because it helps you move forward and that was just one of those occasions that my brother and I sat in a dorm room over in Kiev, Ukraine, and found out the news. It was a tough situation.”
Mike and Bill were stuck halfway around the world. And only half done competing.
They weren’t able to get a flight back home for the funeral.
“That was by far more important than any of the wrestling or anything else,” Bill said. “Even though you take wrestling very seriously and you’ve committed your life and all of your energy to it, when you miss out on ... (Bill paused, audibly emotional recalling the event) when you miss out on recognizing a family member you’ve lost, that’s a tough thing to deal with. We had to go on and wrestle in two more competitions after that. It’s a hard thing.”
Mike and Bill comforted each other the best they could. Bill was grateful for Mike.
“Mike’s always been a really good people person and he was very affectionate and caring and sensitive,” Bill said. “Our family is tremendously close.”
The Zadicks are a devout Catholic family. Bill and Mike credited their faith to helping get them through the tough time.
Mike keeps a leather-bound Bible in the right pocket of his backpack to this day. He always has it with him.
“That’s power. That’s powerful to me,” he said, holding up the Bible in his hand.
“That’s really where you start to identify with those beliefs of faith,” Bill said. “Being on the other side of the planet, there is absolutely nothing that you can do and you begin to realize that had I been there, there was nothing I could’ve done and it was really in God’s control. But we can be there for each other.
“Mike’s my best friend. Always has been and will always be.”
Wrestling didn’t matter the rest of the trip. For maybe the first time in their lives, wrestling took a back seat.
Uncle George lived with Bob and Toni until he died five years later at 98 years old.
Were all the sacrifices worth it? All the weddings missed, all the sacrifices the family made, missing aunt Helen’s funeral.
Mike found a lot of success in wrestling. He was an Olympian, but he didn’t achieve his dream of winning a gold medal. He was a world medalist, but it was silver. He was a three-time all-American, but he was never a national champion.
He found success, but he never found ultimate success.
Were all the sacrifices worth it?
“Yeah,” Mike paused, reflecting back on it.
“For sure,” he said, quietly the first time, as if he needed to convince himself. “For sure,” he said more confidently the second time.
Then Mike put it all in perspective.
“There are times in my career where I committed everything and just invested everything I had,” he said. “Mentally, you see yourself accomplishing — and knowing you’re going to accomplish — what you set out for. You know you’re going to succeed. And you live it for years. And then it comes. And you don’t. You seriously just — it just — I don’t even know where ...”
He stopped and paused, trying to collect and organize his thoughts.
“... it’s just a completely draining, exhausting feeling. It’s beyond words. You’re like, ‘Why the heck did I commit all of this? Why did I do this? Why did I do this?’ Well, you wouldn’t ever change it. At the time, you’re so frustrated because you didn’t win. You’re just like, ‘Ohh!!’ Because the pain hurts so bad. It hurts so bad because it’s on you, and you know it. It’s on you and you wonder, ‘What could I have done different?’
“Do I regret some things? No, I don’t. I realized a few years later that — it’s funny, I just read a Jesse Owens quote the other day and it was about how the medals and the plaques get old and tarnished — and it’s really so true. I have so many friends I made from wrestling — I’m so lucky. Why I met these people and get to be around them my entire life is because of the sport of wrestling and where it took me. It’s who impacted me and who taught me things — just about life — who I’ve created a family with, not necessarily my blood family but they’re considered like family. There’s no amount of money you can put on that – the relationships and the experiences you had. Not necessarily look at how many gold medals do I have or how many championships or how many belts and all this stuff.
“When you’re in the competitive world, yeah, you want to win everything and you hold yourself to that every time. But when I look back, I’m thankful for everything that came my way. It helps shape you and helps teach you about the world.”
In 2012, Mike had his pickup, his border collie Smoke Dog and hunting gear. He left everything else in Iowa.
He went to work at a few wrestling camps, and when those were done, he picked up a few more things, then left for good to Montana.
“My whole life was in Iowa — pots, pans, dishes, furniture, you name it,” Mike said. “I just grabbed another truck load of stuff that I needed for hunting and literally, I left everything in the house. I didn’t rent it out or anything.”
A month earlier, Mike, who was working as an assistant coach at Iowa, was let go by Iowa Coach Tom Brands.
Mike doesn’t like talking about his departure from Iowa, but did offer this: “I had been there for 15 years and had a pretty strong connection to the community to the point of a family. I moved there when I was 18 years old and you acquire a family away from your blood family. I had that there. When I left there, it wasn’t really on my terms to leave. I didn’t foresee myself leaving.
“Treason is the word that comes to mind.”
“He left in a manner that probably wasn’t motivating for him,” legendary wrestler and coach Dan Gable said. “When he left the university here, he had some bitterness there and maybe he didn’t communicate enough with coach Brands and vice versa. That maybe left some unknowns out there. He had to get away. He had to get away to see what he really wanted. Was he going to go back to Montana to be a wild animal? Was he going to back into nature and hunt and live off the land?”
Yup. He was.
He budgeted himself $400 a month — he owned a rental in Iowa City, which covered the mortgage for his house.
Mike had no timetable to return to civilization.
Before he went almost completely off the grid, Mike stayed at a family friend’s ranch in Montana for 30 days.
He was chasing a particular elk — Mike’s favorite animal to hunt are elk.
It was in the fall, and it was bow season. Because of the wrestling schedule, Mike could never make it back to Montana to hunt in the fall.
Now, he had a month straight to hunt.
(Also, just as a note, don’t ask Mike if he uses tree stands to bow hunt.)
“I don’t do tree stands,” Mike said. He sounded offended anyone would ever ask him such a ridiculous question. “I hunt on the ground, so I spot and stalk. I don’t sit in stands.”
Which makes a lot of sense (looking back on it). Mike isn’t very good at sitting.
Mike said spotting and stalking is pretty fun, very rewarding and, of course, frustrating.
“It gets difficult when you’re after bigger animals because they’re pretty smart and they have a herd of cows with them,” Mike said. “So, one bull would be running with 40, to 70, to 80 cows. You have a lot of eyes on you. It always helps to have somebody calling behind you to bring them in. I called them into me a bunch, or snuck into him within 70 yards multiple times, but you just can’t make the right move because there are so many eyes on you. If you had somebody else calling behind you, he’d come into 30 yards of me and I’d be in a good spot.
“That was the fun of it. I wasn’t out just to go kill — granted, I wanted to — but the adventure and the fun of it was, how close could I get? I followed him so much that I put him to bed every night and I woke him up every morning. I knew where he was at for 30 days straight.”
It got to the point where he named the two he wanted to get.
Wally and Hank were their names.
He really wanted Wally.
“He was just really wide and I was sitting in the woods, by myself, and you start talking to yourself and I ended up naming him Wally,” Mike said. “I don’t even know why. He would’ve looked good on the wall too,” he said laughing.
The problem Mike had, besides not having anyone calling behind him, was that this area of Montana didn’t have a lot of timber. It was hard for him to have enough cover.
“When you spend two hours belly crawling across an open hillside to sneak up into him and the minute you get there the wind shifts and blows him out of there, and you just spent half the day getting to him, you’re like, ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me!’” Mike said recalling his frustration. “Then you back off and give it a day and they calm down and you get after it again because you don’t want to keep pushing. That’s what I did for 30 days and it was fun as heck.”
While the adventure was fun for him, Mike never did get Wally or Hank. He never even got a clean shot.
To make matters worse, rifle season started a week after bow season, and another friend of the ranch owner got Wally on the second day from 700 yards out. Mike had a hard time getting within 70.
“That stung,” Mike said, laughing at his misfortune. “I’m not going to lie to you. Things weren’t going good for me at that time.”
Right after Wally was shot, Mike left the 5,500-acre Montana ranch, which is now up for sale if anyone is on the market. It has all the modern amenities that one would need (Mike said he’d give me commission if I plugged it in the story. I’m pretty sure he was joking, but you can never be too careful).
He went to the family cabin, the one Uncle George bought in 1944, and lived there. The cabin was an old forest service cabin. George bought it and had it moved to its current location for $600 back in 1944.
It’s been renovated since then, but Mike loved going there growing up, and there wasn’t a better place for him in the world. The cabin is 80 miles outside of his hometown Great Falls, and the nearest conglomeration of people — you could call it a town but that might be generous — was 20 miles away down a gravel road. The cabin is in the Montana mountains next to a river and doesn’t have cell reception.
“It’s back in there. It’s pretty secluded,” Mike said. He was still going after elk at this time. “The very, very last day of the season, about 9:30 in the morning I shot an elk. I could’ve gotten a lot more, but I kept putting it off and putting it off because I wanted to make sure I got a good one and if I shot one, then I’d be done. I got one on the last day of the season, so it just worked out good.”
Mike loved being back in Montana and his family loved it, too.
“We were super happy to have him come home. Selfishly, I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. You can come home and we can hang out then I’m not the only one here with Mom and Dad,’” said MaryAnn, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., with her husband and kids. “I knew he was hurt and I knew he was going to come back. This was probably the best place for him, just come do the things that you love.
“That part of his life is just as important as wrestling — the hunting and being in the outdoors and being alone sometimes. Even when he comes home now, he still spends a day or two by himself in the mountains somewhere where we don’t know when we’re actually going to see him.”
Bill could tell almost instantly that Mike was happier in the mountains than he had been in years.
“I think it became very cathartic for him to be back at our family’s place in the mountains and doing the things he loved to do and not have any agenda or time constraints or responsibilities,” Bill said. “It’s really a rare opportunity that one gets to do that in your adult life. I think within a short amount of time, within a week or so you could just see the catharsis, the process, taking place. “
Toni said Bill was definitely jealous of Mike. Bill loved to hunt and fish just as much as Mike.
“Bill would do the same thing if he could but Bill doesn’t fly quite as free as Mike,” MaryAnn said. “Mike is always able to pull these miraculous leaves off, meanwhile everybody else is living the real world.”
Because of his schedule, Bill was only able to get to the cabin two or three times a year while Mike was there.
“It’s beautiful country,” Bill said. “It’s real wilderness. It’s as wild as it gets in the lower 48.”
They have deer, elk, mountain sheep, mountain goats, cougars, bears — grizzly and black bears. They have pretty much everything up there.
It was Mike and Smoke Dog surrounded by a lot of wild animals.
“Mike didn’t have too many people around him and he had a lot of animals,” Gable said. “And they were wild and they were big. I’m not so sure which one was more of the wild animal. Was it Mike or was it the grizzly bear that was out there?”
To keep busy outside of hunting season, Mike gave himself various projects. He built a woodshed, a sauna, some furniture and a fire pit. The fire pit required boulders, and that’s how he’d stay in shape. Collecting and moving large rocks.
But eventually, the projects weren’t enough exercise for the former world-class athlete.
He found an old agricultural wagon almost three miles from his cabin. He took the roughly 100-pound axel off of it, drug the axel back to his cabin and used it for fat-bar curls and military presses. Mike also had a 50-pound dumbbell – just one, it wasn’t a set – a branch of a tree he used for pull-ups and some extra boulders he used for squats.
He did it to burn off energy, which Mike has in spades.
“In the woods, you can only hike over so many mountains before you really have to exert yourself and those were the things I’d do,” Mike said, as if hiking over mountains isn’t exerting yourself.
“I enjoyed the solitude, though. I really did,” Mike continued. “I had internet connection, I didn’t have phone connection.”
The reason Mike had internet connection was because there was a dam three miles up the river from the Cabin, and a government agency ran fiber-optic line down the river from the dam.
“I literally had faster internet at my cabin than people in downtown New York. I stayed up on the sport of wrestling and read and followed things on the internet. I wasn’t sitting under a cardboard box trying to stay warm, I was in a pretty good spot.”
Bill described it as living off of the land in a glorified way. Mike caught fish, hunted and gardened, but every now and then, he’d head into town and grab some groceries if he needed to.
“It probably wasn’t as spartan as the settlers did when the country was pioneered,” Bill said.
The outdoors provide a balance for Mike. One part of his life — the wrestling part — is very structured, very rigid and very intense. It takes place in a confined, hot, windowless cinderblock box.
The other part — the outdoors — is the complete opposite. Mike has the ultimate freedom. Just describing riding on a horse with the wind blowing through the pine needles, the birds chirping and the water flowing down the river brings a gentle, relaxed smile across Mike’s face.
“That kind of stuff to me was awesome, wild and relaxing time,” Mike said. “You’re so amped up on the wrestling end of it. Whether it’s hunting, riding a horse, fencing. Some people love to just garden. I love to garden, too. It’s therapeutic, a good calm balance for the mind that helps the body. The outdoors has been my balance my whole life.”
Every now and then, Mike would emerge from the mountains and venture back to Great Falls to visit his family. His dad had just retired from years of being a car salesmen. Bob and his brother, Dick Zadick, owned five properties next to each other in Great Falls.
Mike described them as hoarders. They filled up Bob’s old car dealership that he owned since 1979, where he sold everything from cars to horse trailers. It was 7,200 square feet full of stuff.
MaryAnn and Mike both said it looked like something out of a “Hoarders” episode. When Mike went to Great Falls, he started cleaning out the building.
“You name it, they had it,” Mike said. “Not just car stuff, refrigerators, screen door, meat slicer, tools, movable stairs. It was just things they picked up at estate sales for pennies on the dollar. I kept telling him that he had to do something with the property. It’s really good property that you just pay taxes on every year and don’t make any income off of it. I went into town and I spent a month and a half from 6 in the morning until midnight. I was kind of possessed.”
Toni said Mike undersold himself. The hours were more like 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Remember, Mike is bad at sitting and is a minimalist, so to him, everything they had was unnecessary and he wanted it gone yesterday.
“It was more of a therapy for me,” he said. “I had to work, I had to have projects. Here I’ve been training and coaching my whole life and all of the sudden I’m done with both at the exact same moment. So, I had to fill that void. I literally spent a month and a half organizing that. I spray painted a big plywood sign saying that I was going to sell everything.”
Mike thought it’d take a week to sell it all. It took him a month.
“Mike’s in there trying to do us all a huge favor because nobody really wants to deal with it, nobody has time,” MaryAnn said. “My sister lives in Kansas, I have a family, Bill lives in Colorado but luckily Mike’s Mike. He was constantly trying to get rid of stuff while my dad wasn’t around — stuff that he hopefully wouldn’t remember was in there. In my dad’s mind, when he bought this stuff, or traded for this stuff, he had an idea in his head for its use. It wasn’t like he was just collecting stuff. Those things he wanted to do just never happened, mostly because we were wrestling.”
Bob wasn’t thrilled about Mike selling his stuff.
“It was best for me to stay away,” Bob said dryly and bluntly. He still had some pain in his voice nearly a decade later.
But Bob and Dick couldn’t always help themselves.
Wait a second, what are you doing? That’s my (fill in the blank), they’d say when they showed up to the property.
You didn’t even know it was here. It’s been here for six years, Mike would respond.
To their credit, they did know some of the things they had.
“You should’ve seen it, they were backing trucks up and loading their own things in,” Mike said.
You’re crazy, they’d tell Mike as they hauled away the things they didn’t want him to sell.
Well what are you ever going to do with it? You guys haven’t used these in six years, you forgot they were even here. You probably already have one. What are you going to do with it right now? Why do you think you need it? he’d say.
One of the things Mike got rid of was an old pickup truck. That didn’t go over particularly well.
I was going to fix that, Bob said to Mike
Well, you were always going to fix it. You’ve had it 15 years and it hasn’t moved. Why not get $2,500 for it and let somebody else fix it? You’re 77 years old, are you really going to do that? Mike said as he tried to reason with his dad.
“Heck, he wouldn’t even spend the money to get hearing aids, let alone spend the money to fix a truck,” Mike said now.
When it was all said and done, Mike sold about $75,000 worth of stuff. The biggest ticket item he sold was a 1956 pickup for $15,000. Besides that, and a couple other cars that he sold for $1,000-2,500, almost everything else was $5-10 items. Mike didn’t take a nickel of it, all the money went to his dad and uncle.
Bob was appreciative when Mike was finished.
“It was a job that he took on and it needed to be done,” Bob said. “He did a fantastic job of it. There were a lot of items in there that I liked and would’ve liked to retain, but where do you stop? He just took it over and I let him do it.”
But now Mike was left with five properties he needed to do something with.
So, he made some real estate signs.
“I didn’t put my name, I just put my number on it and said, ‘Property for sale or lease,’” Mike said.
And because Mike is terrible at sitting, he started calling people and businesses immediately.
“I had a plan of what I was going to do, but I figured if I could get a national tenant on our land, we could build a little village of good businesses,” Mike said. “I had called Starbucks and that’s where everything kind of took off. I called them and told them we had an old service station that was attached to this land and we demo’d the building. I lined up a lease agreement with Starbucks and they came in and built a location on our property and that took me about nine months to a year to finalize the whole project.
“I literally worked religiously around the clock about it, which is fun.”
People didn’t understand how Mike did it.
“What do you mean you picked up the phone and called Starbucks?” they’d ask.
“I literally just picked up the phone and started calling and learned as I went,” he said. “I had a couple cousins that were attorneys that helped me read the fine print documents that these big companies throw at you. I had that kind of support, but I just learned how to develop properties. That’s what I was doing outside of hunting season, which was really fun for me.”
Another building on one of the properties was 20,000-square feet. Mike put a 30,000-square foot addition on it and a national grocery store went in that location.
“With my signs out there, I had gotten contacted by the grocery store and we did another agreement. It was another year-long process,” Mike said.
Mike didn’t have any skin in the game. He did it for his family.
“It was my family’s property and I thought I could do it,” He said. “It was a challenge and I like challenges. I went after it and if I did it, it looks pretty good, if I don’t, whoops, I tried. I just didn’t think I’d fail.”
When it was all said and done, his family came together and gave him a sort of commission as thanks.
Another thing Mike did as a source of income was become a hunting guide for Sun Canyon Lodge, an outfitter near the family cabin.
“It was three miles up from (the cabin) and hunters came and you put them on a horse and you ride them in 20 miles into the wilderness,” Mike said. Keep in mind, they were already in the wilderness, he just took them 20 miles further in the mountains. “We’d have a bunch of tents and all of that set up back in there, we’d have a cook that’s in the camp and packers that would haul all the stuff in and I would be the guide. I’d ride in with the guys and take them hunting for five or six days.”
Mike picked up all sorts of odds-and-ends jobs. He didn’t need a lot of money, just enough to cover his $400 budget.
One of his jobs was branding cows at a local ranch. One day, the mom of the ranch asked Mike if he’d ever help coach her son who was wrestling at Choteau High School, a town 45 miles away from the cabin.
That’s how Mike got back into wrestling. By chance and a simple question.
Mike went into Choteau, Mont., a few times a week in the beginning. When he first started, he didn’t want to step on Coach Steve French’s toes.
“Two weeks in into the 2013-14 school year, he called me and asked, ‘Would you mind if I helped you out?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ We were very excited about it,” French said. “We knew each other prior to that. I wrestled in college and we would sometimes stay in his father’s house in Great Falls and then we’d fly out from Great Falls. At that time — Mike’s 10 years younger than me — and he was kind of a rolly-polly kid when I first met him. ...” He said this unsolicited, again confirming my disbelief that Mike was pudgy as a child. “... I was surprised to know that he got tough later on.”
French continued, “I’d have to be the stupidest guy in the world if I don’t bring this guy on to help with my program.”
French told Mike the same thing he tells everyone who comes into his wrestling room.
“I’m the head coach, it’s my program, but if you have a better way of doing things, let me know,” He said.
Mike was very respectful and it was a tremendous working relationship. Mike respected French’s position as head coach and French respected the fact Mike had “way more knowledge in his head.”
Mike didn’t miss a beat and his intensity and passion hadn’t faded a bit.
“He had a lot of little improvements, on our technique that he brought to us, but it was the intensity and bringing your best to every practice that really made a difference.” French said. “I have to admit, when Mike first started coming, I would look at my practice schedule and think, ‘OK, is this a good practice? Because I know Mike’s coming’ I wanted it to be good so he really kept me on point too.
“Mike just requires your best. If he sees you’re not doing your best, he’s going to tell you. He’s such a likable guy, that you want to do it for him. He had such a great relationship with our kids. He’d praise them, but he’d also chew them out if they weren’t giving their best. That intensity — nobody wanted to disappoint him, not even me.”
One of the wrestlers Mike impacted the most was J.J. Werdal.
“Usually when you’re working your butt off in practice, you’re just trying to get through it,” Werdal said. “He made it so you wanted to be there. You wanted to work your ass off for him. He made it fun. He made it a great time.”
The first year Mike was there, he was only able to make it a few times a week, but Choteau placed second at the Montana state tournament.
The next year, he was able to make it more often. Choteau won its first Class B-C state title in 25 years. Class B schools are 125-300 students and Class B and Class C are combined in wrestling. Choteau only had 12 kids on the team — it’s uncommon for a B-C school to cover all 13 weights.
“Mike started coming in when I was a junior,” Werdal said. “He worked with us and worked with us and we still took second my junior year. Senior year, as a team, it was how he brought everybody’s true selves out into wrestling. Everybody worked really hard because he brought all of the intensity out of the kids. It was crazy how he could bring us to win that state title.”
Mike doesn’t take credit for winning the title. He said French had already established an excellent culture and foundation, he just added a few tweaks.
“I’ve said it before in interviews when I was asked, ‘Do you think you could’ve won it without Mike?’ It’s possible we would’ve,” French said. “But with Mike, we blew the competition away that year. It wasn’t close. We only had 12 kids and we only brought 10 to state. We placed nine. There was something about him. The intensity. We have a good relationship with our kids, but then you have Mike and they didn’t want to disappoint him. The intensity factor was incredible.”
In the state-title run, Choteau had two state champions, three runner-ups, two wrestlers got third, one got fourth and one got sixth. The only wrestler who didn’t place got beat by another Choteau wrestler.
Unfortunately for Mike, he wasn’t there the whole state tournament.
“Some Cracker-Jack-box ref decided he was going to be a big man and kick Mike Zadick out of the tournament,” Mike said begrudgingly.
Against all odds, the wrestling team and the basketball team both won the state tournament that year, the first time it happened at the Class B level in Montana.
“It was really exciting, the kids got to ride around town on a fire truck and have a pep assembly at the local high school,” Mike said. “It was a town of like 1,200 people, so little moments like that, they’re going have those for the rest of their life. That’s pretty cool.”
Werdal will have another moment for the rest of his life, too. While Mike can be intense, he does genuinely care about his wrestlers.
“The summer before my senior year, he took me to a couple of wrestling camps,” Werdal said. “He took me all the way down to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I didn’t have to pay for anything. That was probably the funnest time I’ve ever had. We went white-water rafting. I just got to hang out with the guy. That was fun.
“For an Olympian to take some kid to his wrestling camp down in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that’s pretty great, I think. He’s a great guy.”
A few months later, in 2015, Mike got a Facebook message from then-Virginia Tech head coach Kevin Dresser.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Mike’s wrestling flame had just been reignited.
“‘Mike, you have to go to your job? What, you’re not going to do it for a couple of years?’ And boom, poof there he is, back in it, just randomly at Virginia Tech,” MaryAnn said. “The whole thing is hilarious, but it’s just his luck.”
If the world ended ...
Mike is singularly focused. Whatever he’s doing, that thing has his full, undivided attention. He’s going to give his all to that thing.
That’s why people want to be great for Mike Zadick. He’s willing to sacrifice everything else in his life in that moment to focus on that one thing and one person.
There’s a prime example of that regarding this story that you’re reading right now.
I had interviewed Mike once already for the story, and like any feature story, follow-up interviews are always necessary, whether it’s to clear things up, ask follow-up questions or ask questions you forgot to the first time. So, I texted him and set up a 20-30 minute interview. In my experience, that’s usually how long follow-up interviews take.
It was over two hours.
Mike was so focused on my questions and answering them in detail, he ignored at least two phone calls — he didn’t even check to see who called before he ignored them — and a number of other messages went unread for those 120-plus minutes.
His full attention was on me and the interview. He genuinely cared about that interview, which is a pretty rare thing.
It’s that kind of dedication to something that makes a person want to be great. It adds a sort of pressure. A good pressure. Even as I wrote this story, I felt it. I needed this story to be the best it could be because I know the kind of attention, energy and focus Mike gave to it.
I felt a responsibility to be great for him.
That translates to the wrestling room and to matches. Wrestling magnifies his singular focus, if that’s even possible. In the wrestling room, he doesn’t even know his phone rings.
“He could be watching one young man wrestle and the world could end in that particular moment and I’m not certain Mike would even know it ended,” Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard said.
Mike hadn’t heard Pollard say that before I relayed the quote to him. He loved it and he said it’s really very true.
Mike has a reason for his singular focus.
It’s his family.
“My parents have been married 54 years,” Mike said. “I have a brother and two sisters that I talk to quite a bit on the phone — every week, all of them. Uncles, aunts, cousins — we are a very, very close family. To me, that’s power. It was power when I wrestled in a meet. I had all this family there, all these Zadicks. It was power, it is power.
“People can talk about, ‘I’m the wealthiest person in the world, financially.’ I’ll fight them to the death about who’s wealthy and who isn’t because of what I have, the family, the love, the support. There is no price you can put on that. You can have all the money in the world, I’ll take this any day.
“I say that because that’s just what I do. I know how I felt when I didn’t have that support, so I’m probably very sensitive to it as a coach now knowing that I want what’s best for the kids, and I know — not just my philosophy and my way — but my philosophy was taught to me by multiple champions, you name them.”
OK, how about Dan Gable?
“It doesn’t surprise me that he has the beard, it doesn’t surprise me that he moved away, it doesn’t surprise me that he came back,” Gable said. “The love inside you for something that’s been built is powerful and just the fact that he’s got an unbelievable family that cares for him. He’s done a very good job of helping our sport, and now I think he’s going to be able to help it more in Ames. And I have personal interest because I’m an Iowa State Cyclone, even though most people associate me with the Hawkeyes because I was there a lot longer than I was a Cyclone, but growing up and having the most impression on me when you’re a kid, that’s who I was. I feel pretty good about what’s happening.”
“I think Coach Dresser will give him the direction to maybe make him a little more civil or keep him out of that log cabin in the woods. I’m glad to see him back in civilization, though.”
Mike is willing to do whatever he needs to in order to help his wrestlers get an edge. If they need to train at 4 a.m., Mike will be up at 4 a.m. to train.
“That’s what I do know, so I try to implement that recipe and preach it 100 percent to our individuals,” Mike said. “I’m very committed and passionate about the ones that buy in and invest themselves that much more because they want it that much more. That’s what you want as a coach. That’s what you want from your coach and that’s what you want from your athlete. That’s why I’m so passionate because I do know when you invest in somebody — and I really mean wholeheartedly, everything in — when you do that to your individuals, they feel it. They feel it and they know it and they want to invest the exact same and perform that much more to make you happy and proud.
“I have some wrestlers that will walk by me and shake their head and are like, ‘You’re really passionate about this, aren’t you?’ Well no shit, of course I am, what’d you think? And I could just hit them upside the head. When they were really starting to get to know me, they were like, ‘You just love it.’ Everything we’re trying to cultivate and change and make better and make themselves better, they’re not used to it.
“Family is where it comes from but it’s very true, I wouldn’t know the world ended if I was coaching.”
Wrestling is different than all other sports. It requires a different level of commitment. In football or basketball, you don’t have to live it. You have to eat healthy, but your weight can fluctuate a little bit without any ramifications.
That’s not the case in wrestling. Athletes have to eat right, sleep right and train right 24/7.
“If you want to do it, it’s not a sport where you just sign up and go through motions,” Mike said. “It’s too abusive and cruel. If you want to be a part of something, go play ping pong or something. It’ll probably be more fun. With this, there’s a lot of sacrifice. There’s a lot of sacrifice beyond just the cliché word ‘sacrifice.’ There’s a lot of hard, testing moments in it. Everybody has a different variation of what hard is in this world. It continues and will always catch you and hold you accountable and that’s what’s so great about it. But if you don’t do it that way, then you’re kind of one foot in, one foot out. That’s the difference of why some guys can embrace that and be like, ‘This is just what I do, I love it. I love the level I live at.’ And the success follows it too. You see it.”
One of the prime examples of that is Iowa State 197-pound wrestler Sam Colbray.
Colbray is supremely talented, but he didn’t always connect to the mental side of wrestling. He started off the 2017-18 season slow, but after a year working with Zadick, that’s changing. Colbray has started to unlock his potential.
“Mike has kind of turned me into a crazy person, too,” Colbray said.
Mike asked Colbray that if his leg was worth $1 million, what would he do to protect it? If his grandma was getting mugged, what would he do to take the mugger down?
“When I’m thinking like that, and everyone else is thinking like a normal person, it gives me a huge edge,” Colbray said.
Last season, Iowa State went 1-12 in dual meets. This season, Iowa State improved to 8-10.
Was Bob Zadick impressed by the marked improvement?
“That remains to be seen,” Bob said. “Just because you won a couple of matches doesn’t mean a thing. Win them all, then I’ll tell you what I think it means.”
Mike has the beard, and it’s really an excellent beard, but he’s much, much more than that.
Bill likened him to an iceberg.
“You see him from a distance and you see an image,” Bill said. “But he’s an awesome guy, he’s my brother, he’s my best friend. He’s really happy-go-lucky, he’s funny. He’s really pretty wild. He’s not crazy, he’s just outrageous. He lives life in a big way.”
MaryAnn added, “You could talk about him forever. He’s as unique as you think.”
Mike doesn’t want people judging him based on his looks.
“Society puts a stigma on beards,” Mike said. “Everyone says you have to have your hair combed to a certain way, you have to wear certain kinds of clothes and you have to have a certain kind of grooming because that’s what’s going to ... well it’s going to what?” – Mike interrupted himself, as if he was arguing with someone. “If you have a product and it’s not different whether you wear goofy pants or not — I think these people that wear suits and coats,I think they’re goofy looking. Can I wear one once in a while? Yeah, but I feel goofy in them though. That kind of stuff, it doesn’t change who the person is.
“Go back to when you were a little kid and they said, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Well if that’s true, then stick with it. Don’t teach me that in kindergarten because I didn’t forget it. It’s the only thing I learned!” Mike was essentially yelling at this point. “You can do that to people, in general. I’ve seen guys and thought, ‘Geez, this guy looks like he’s a hotshot.’ Talk to the guy, break down some barriers and balance that playing field on coming together in a conversation. It’s like, ‘Oh, that guy, he’s a nice guy, really nice guy.’”
Both Pollard and Dresser were guilty of what Mike was talking about when they first met him and interviewed him (in all fairness and full disclosure, I was, too.)
When Pollard first met Zadick, his initial thought was, “Oh my gosh, who is this crazy mountain man?”
But then he sat down and got to meet him.
“I think inside that different exterior is actually a really very kind and gentle man,” Pollard said. “You don’t always get to see it on the outside, but I think the wrestlers feel it on the inside. You can’t be that focused and into others’ pursuit of excellence if you don’t have a heart that’s opened to being a good, caring person because you end up being stuck in yourself. Mike is not that at all.”
When Dresser interviewed Mike for the Virginia Tech job, Dresser’s wife, Penny, knew instantly that he was the right fit.
“When you first meet someone, you have that visual and this impression of them,” Dresser said. “I think people’s impression of Mike is 180 degrees of what they see. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy’s a barbarian, crazy mountain guy.’ He’s got those intense piercing eyes. But then you get to meet the guy and he’s like a teddy bear. When he walked out the door after the dinner at my house, my wife said, ‘That’s my favorite guy I’ve ever been around.’ That’s pretty amazing for a person to say after just one dinner.
“He’s genuinely nice, he communicated with my kids, he hugged my kids. Still, every time he sees my kids, he hugs them. There’s a side to him that’s different than what the curb appeal is.”
So yeah, there’s a part of Mike that is a crazy mountain guy, who’ll spend 30 days trying to get an elk he named Wally. But there’s also the guy who will drop everything at a moment's notice and pour himself into you so you can be great.
And that’s barely scratching the surface.
“God broke a few molds when he made Mike Zadick, that’s for sure,” Bill said.
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