Lansing’s Kyle Dake took a big, albeit delayed, step in defending his world title this past Saturday, winning a wrestle-off to earn a spot on the United States team at the upcoming World Wrestling Championships.
Dake, a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell (and the only person to win titles at four different weights), won the U.S. spot at 79 kilograms (174 pounds) by beating former Oklahoma State wrestler Alex Dieringer 3-2 and 4-2 in the two-out of-three event at Round Rock High School in Texas.
“I had to be on my game for this one,” Dake said. “Alex is a great competitor, and any little mistake could have cost me this match. He’s ranked second in the world [behind Dake]. I trained as if I was going to world championships this past weekend. If he was from any other country, we would only see each other in the world finals.”
The match was originally slated for June with the rest of the U.S. team wrestle-offs, but Dake was still recovering from surgery required by an earlier training injury. Dake won the 2018 world title in Budapest, Hungary, and U.S. team selection rules allow a defending world champion to request a delay of the final wrestle-off due to injury or illness, provided one is submitted at least 48 hours before the event.
The delay increased the hype for the match, which was the sixth between the two wrestlers. Dake has won all six, but the last four have been decided by two points or fewer, including both in Texas. Saturday’s first match was scoreless until both simultaneously collected a point.
Dake was under a 30-second “shot clock” when he forced a step out just after the shot clock had expired, giving him a point for the step out and Dieringer a point for Dake’s shot clock violation. Dake followed shortly with another step out to take a 2-1 lead and then collected a point on a Dieringer shot clock violation. A late caution point awarded to Dieringer made the final 3-2.
After a 30-minute break between the matches, Dake took an early lead in match two with a pair of step outs and widened the lead to 4-0 going into the closing moments. Dieringer added a pair of step outs but could get no closer than the final score of 4-2.
Dake said he felt completely healed following the injury, which occurred when two other wrestlers rolled onto his leg while he was working with a third wrestler during a training session at Cornell.
“The recovery was kind of long,” Dake said. “I was on crutches for almost two months. But I know it’s perfect now. There’s nothing I can do to re-injure it. If something happens now, it’s a new injury. I’m just hoping I can stay well and not worry about any more injures.”
According to Dake, the recovery process helped him become a better wrestler.
“We had to rebuild some of the things I had worked so hard on such as conditioning and the way I moved in my stance,” he said. “Because I had to focus so much on that, I developed more as a wrestler.” Dake said he needed to enhance a few things he was lacking, including footwork.
“I had tried to work on it a bit before, but it was never a priority, and this recovery process forced it to be a priority,” he said. “I spent a lot of time watching film of guys who move their feet and can move in open space. I also spent a lot of time with my trainers working on specific movements I needed to enhance to become a more well-rounded wrestler.”
After a few days off following the Texas match, Dake is spending the next 10 days or so in Colorado training with the rest of the U.S. team. He’ll return home for a little while before heading to Germany in September to finish preparations for the world championships, which will be held Sept. 14-23 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
Although Dake outscored his opponents 37-0 in four matches at last year’s World Championships, he feels he still has room to improve.
“I’m a perfectionist, and I always want to wrestle a perfect match,” he said. “I didn’t give up any points last year, but I also didn’t wrestle any perfect matches. I made some little mistakes that kept me from scoring points. In the final, I won 2-0, and that was great. I was so happy to win and become a world champion. But the perfectionist in me said, ‘This isn’t good enough. You have to make some adjustments.’”
Dake said his approach has always been to focus on getting better.
“It’s not about wins and losses,” Dake said. “It’s about reaching my potential, and I think I can still continue to improve.”
Once Dake returns from Kazakhstan, his full thoughts will shift to the 2020 Olympics Games, which will be held next summer in Tokyo.
“Everybody in this sport wants to be part of the Olympics,” he said. “Of course, I want to win a world championship, and that’s where my focus is now. But I know after this, it’s all hands on deck for the Olympics.”
In 2016, Dake lost by a point in the third bout of a two-out-of-three match in the finals of the U.S. Team Trials at 86 kg (190 pounds).
“I felt I was prepared last time around, and I was a half second from being on the Olympic team,” he said. “Looking back, it eats at you a little bit. Every day since I lost at the Trials, I’ve been getting better and doing things right to set myself up for winning an Olympic gold medal. There’s no stone left unturned. I’ve done everything I can to put myself in the best position possible to succeed.”
At the same time Dake chases world championships and gold medals, he’s also adjusting to being a new father. He and his wife Megan (née Palladino), also a Lansing native, welcomed their first child, a daughter named EllaJo, in January.
“EllaJo is seven months now, and I lean heavily on my wife, Megan.” Dake said. “We’ve been together 12 years and married three. She played soccer at Ithaca College, so she understands what I’m going through and dealing with as an athlete. We have a tremendous partnership, and we work extremely well as a team.”
The couple also gets a lot of help from their parents, who live in Lansing, Dake said
“But having a daughter has only enhanced my training,” Dake said. “It’s given me a little something extra to look forward to when I get home. Spending time away from home is really hard. But I just have to remind myself that I’m doing this for her and to provide for my family while living out some of my dreams.”
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