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Hlas: Daniel Dennis will take some Iowa to Rio Olympics

"Unretired" wrestler beats fellow former Hawkeye Ramos in Olympic Trials final

IOWA CITY – Daniel Dennis and second-place went their separate ways Sunday night.

Most Olympic wrestlers experience little but championships and dominance from the cradle to the Summer Games. Dennis, the former Iowa Hawkeye who won his way onto the U.S. Olympic team Sunday, went almost all his 29 years without winning a championship that resonates loudly in the sport, be it in high school, college or in international competition.

He was a two-time state high school runner-up in Illinois. He didn’t have a four-year record of domination at Iowa. He was 15-18 in collegiate competition his freshman year, but he stayed with it. He was seventh at the NCAAs as a junior, second as a senior.

Dennis led Minnesota’s Jayson Ness 4-2 with 20 seconds left in the 133-pound title match in 2010. He lost, 6-4. Devastating doesn’t begin to describe how he felt afterward.

He hung around wrestling a while longer, but lost the taste for it after failing to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials.

“I had no intentions of coming back,” Dennis said.

He bought an old Ford F-150 pickup on Craigslist and drifted westward. He lived out of that truck for a while. But he wasn’t friendless or aimless.

He eventually wound his way to Windsor, Calif., in Sonoma County. He had worked wrestling camps there, had connections there, had people who wanted him there. He started helping a high school wrestling team.

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“He’s gonna win this thing,” Windsor High School Coach Rich Carnation insisted on the Carver concourse shortly before Dennis squared off against Hawkeye Wrestling Club teammate Tony Ramos.

Dennis had worked with Carnation’s wrestlers in wine country. But who helped the other the most?

“I think he spiritually and emotionally healed up,” Carnation said. “Being with kids with great drive is a rejuvenating power. I think it put him in a frame of mind to compete again.”

“It did, a lot,” Dennis said. “The emotional attachments, the lifelong friendships. It only adds to a person.”

Dennis had all sorts of people encouraging him to wrestle again, to pursue an Olympic berth. Former Hawkeye wrestlers. Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands. And the coach and kids at Windsor High.

“We said, ‘Dan, you’ve got to go for the Olympics.’ ” Carnation recalled. “This is your last chance.

“He didn’t want to leave the kids, but I told him they’ll be fine. You taught them great principles, let them govern themselves. This opportunity’s not coming up again.”

Dennis motored back to Iowa City, returned to the Hawkeyes’ wrestling room. He went to the U.S. World Team Trials last year. And finished second. Again.

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But he was getting better and feeling good. The siren call of chasing a spot on the Olympic team grew louder.

Sunday, Dennis won two matches decisively to get to the final, then had the awkward situation of battling fellow former Hawkeye Ramos for the 125.5-pound title.

Dennis swept the best-of-three final, 2-1 and 10-0.

“Tony, his track record has shown that he is a competitor beyond belief,” Dennis said. “He’s a tough son of a gun, and there is no doubt about that. He clubbed the hell out of me the first match, and I don’t know if I wasn’t in my groove, but in the second match the pace was a little bit higher.”

Ramos had never lost in Carver and had been on the U.S.’ last two World Championships teams. But using a gut-wrench after a takedown in the second match, Dennis turned Ramos over and over and over and over. The whirling dervish was the 29-year-old, bearded rock-climbing enthusiast who had once mentored Ramos when Dennis was a senior and Ramos a redshirting freshman.

At some point six years ago, Dennis probably lectured the teen-aged Ramos on the importance of resilience.

“Dan epitomizes what wrestling is all about,” Carnation said. “You’re getting banged up, thrown back. You’ve got to find courage and get up, and go at it again.

“Nothing Dan taught our kids in three years was as big as him actually getting back on the horse and risking it all again. Because it’s tough to risk losing. But until you give it up and quit, you’ve always got one good match left in you.”

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All those second-places. Until now. Daniel Dennis had a lot of good matches left in him as it turned out. Who knew a $500 truck could get you from here to Rio?

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