Cornell's Dake etches his name in wrestling history
On Saturday night, Cornell's Kyle Dake wrote his name into the history books.
He became just the third four-time NCAA wrestling champion, and the first to win titles at four different weight classes.
While he is now a wrestling star, one of the faces of the sport, he can still remember the days when he was watching Cornell matches, running around trying to meet all the sports greats.
"I came to Cornell matches before I can remember," Dake said in a phone interview on Monday. "My dad was a coach before I was born, I remember coming to all the Cornell matches when I was home. I would run around and get autographs just like the little kids are now."
And, Dake still remembers the first wrestler he really idolized on the Cornell wrestling team.
"When Travis Lee won it in 2003, I remember that I was like 12 when he won it. He was kind of the guy I looked up to. He was the man in my eyes. He was the face of Cornell wrestling, the face of wrestling. He was the best. And there were a lot of others. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be better than them."
Now, Dake is the face of Cornell wrestling. He is the man who was in the spotlight on Saturday night.
His match with David Taylor at 165 pounds was the final match of the night, in a nationally televised finals. And, it's exactly the way Dake wanted it.
"It's amazing, David is a great competitor," Dake said. "It was the featured match of the tournament with everything building up to it. It was cool. People knew we were going to be the last one. There was a huge build up, the build up really made it.
"In years past after I won my national title my sophomore year, I distinctly remember looking up in the stands after each match and seeing people dribbling out. This year I looked up in the crowd and there were basically no empty seats."
Dake knows that just as Lee was the person he saw as the face of the sport as a kid, there are plenty that see him as the face of wrestling now.
"My goal is to grow wrestling as a sport," he said. "If I can be ambassador of the sport by making history, doing great things and having the media coverage, that's pretty impressive. I want to grow wrestling and make it one of the biggest sports and make it a priority for ESPN."
Cornell coach Rob Koll knows that Dake has become one of the main attractions in the sport.
"When you lead off an ESPN show on national television and 17,000 people are watching and half of them are screaming his name, you know it's pretty special," Koll said. "In the room, you certainly look for someone who leads by example. When you are in the room and he gives up a takedown he throws a fit, that's how you have to approach practice. It's not how he competes that makes him a champion, it's how he trains so when he competes, he competes with greatness. By the time the whistle blows, he is ready to compete at that level."
Wrestling just down the road from Cornell at Lansing High School, Dake knows that he has brought some attention to his hometown and to the IAC.
"I make the connection to the movie 'The Fighter' and Mikey put Lowell on the map. I had people text me that I put Lansing on the map, that people knew where Lansing was because of me. It's great when people tell you that you did something special and put Lansing on the map."
In high school, Dake was a star wrestler, a two-time state champion, a three-time state finalist, but he wanted more in college.
When he arrived at Cornell he joined a team that included Troy Nickerson. Nickerson was another Section IV wrestler, one of the greatest wrestlers in New York State high school history, a five-time state champion and six time finalist for Chenango Forks.
When Dake saw the greatness of Nickerson he wanted to match it, in fact he wanted to eclipse it at Cornell.
"Coming in my goal was to be a national champion as a freshman," Dake said. "I wanted to do it as soon as I stepped in as a freshman. Troy came in here and he was in the national finals as a freshman, the next year he took third, the next year he was a champion. What he did was amazing. My goal was to top Troy. Troy was a N.Y. kid and he was a guy I always saw his success and tried to work for that. I always tried to outdo him, I couldn't quite do it in high school, but I think I got him in college."
Growing up just miles from Cornell with a dad who coaches (Dake's father Doug is the Lansing coach), Koll always saw talent in Dake and just before college he saw the greatness that has made him a four-time national champion.
"I have known him since he was born, this was a long-time in the making," Koll said. "I think he started to separate himself from the pack after his senior year of high school. I saw him wrestle free-style tournaments and that's when he started to display the competitiveness."
It's that competitiveness that has helped make Dake into one of the sports all-time greats.
A former star wrestler himself, Koll knows how hard it is to win a national title, and he knows how amazing four titles is.
"I can tell you what it takes not to win," Koll said. "I let distractions get the best of me, I let nerves get the better of me. I didn't personally compete at the top of the game. When others get nervous, Kyle gets excited. You can let the adrenaline make you stronger and faster, or you can react and get nervous.
"Everybody wants to wrestle to compete in the finals, it's what you do up to the finals that makes you a champion. Kyle is someone I have never seen anyone have a singular focus not over a month, or a year, but over four years like he has. He focuses on academics and he focuses on his wrestling goals. Every day he comes to practice and is extremely upset if he doesn't get better."
When Dake came to Cornell, he thought he would be a 141-pound wrestler throughout his career, but things changed. The baby-faced freshman that was nicknamed "The Kid" moved from 141 his freshman year, to 149, to 157 and finished his career as a strong 165-pound senior.
"I thought I was going to be a 141-pounder my entire life, that was the culture that was around," Dake said. "When I came in I was still physically immature and each year I kind of grew. If you saw the transformation from each year, you can definitely tell." For Dake, there were some advantages and some added challenges to wrestling at a different weight each season.
"There were definitely new challenges every year," he said. "One of the things I saw going up was that I wasn't seeing the same guys every year and when you see the same guys every year matches get closer and closer and closer with familiarity and I wasn't seeing that going up. But each weight class presents new challenges. Each class you go up, the guys get a lot taller. The biggest guy I wrestled was like 6-3. When I was a freshman the guys were a lot faster, when I was a senior the guys were a lot stronger."
Being at 165 this year meant a showdown with Taylor for the national title.
The Penn State junior is a three-time national finalist, he was the returning 165-pound champion and Koll believes it takes a lot of guts to move into a weight class with a wrestler like that.
"Oh golly, it's remarkable, because every weight class is like another sport almost," Koll said of what Dake accomplished. "At 141, they wrestle completely different from 149 which is different from 157 and 165. He has had to make adjustments that no one else has to do. Then, he goes up and wrestles one of the greatest wrestlers in the last 20 or 30 years and knocks him off. It takes a lot to go up and wrestle him. I'm not sure I would have done it, but he likes it, he likes the challenge. My stomach is doing cartwheels and he just eats it up."
Two days after winning his fourth title it is now starting to sink in what he has accomplished.
"It's getting there, I don't think it's all the way sunk in," he said. "There are definitely moments I feel it."
While his college career has ended, don't be surprised to see Dake around the Cornell campus next year.
"I am going to stay around Cornell and try and help Cornell win a national championship," he said. "My main focus is going to be on freestyle and winning a world championship this year and working toward an Olympic gold medal in 2016."
With the future of Olympic wrestling in doubt after 2016, Dake knows how crucial it is to fight for the sport and try and get it reinstated for 2020.
"That's really important, I want to be one of the ambassadors for the sport," he said. "I want to be one of the faces people recognize in wrestling. My dream is to be an Olympic champion in 2020 as well as 2016. Olympic wrestling is huge. I remember each year where I was watching Olympic wrestling. In 2008 I was in Ohio with David Taylor. In 2012 I was at home. I am sure there are kids the same way I remember, they remember where they were. Olympic wrestling is important." Along with Dake the other two four-time national champions are Pat Smith and Cael Sanderson.
After Dake won his title Saturday one of the first people he was shaking hands with was Sanderson, Taylor's coach at Penn State.
Like Sanderson, Dake can see himself coaching one day after he finishes wrestling.
"I can definitely see myself becoming a head wrestling coach," Dake said. "That's probably going to be near, or at the top of the list of what I want to do."
Koll is even more certain that Dake will coach one day, in fact he has a good idea of where Dake will be the coach.
"He is very loyal and I will be shocked if in 20 years he is not coaching here," Koll said. "Kyle Dake is the face of Cornell wrestling and he will be the face of Cornell wrestling until he dies."