U recruit makes U.S. Olympic history

Karlee Weinmann

Few people expected recent Anoka High School graduate Jake Deitchler , a Gopher wrestler-to-be, to make history.

Heading into the Greco-Roman wrestling Olympic trials, Deitchler was anything but a favorite.

“One of the guys to beat was one of the best in the world, still in his prime,” said 1996 silver medalist Brandon Paulson, a former Gopher and one of Deitchler’s coaches. “But (Deitchler) ended up beating him. He wrestled phenomenal.”

The attention on the young wrestler, who became the first high-schooler in 32 years to earn an Olympic berth in the sport, has matched his immense skill, and the Gopher wrestling program looks to play on its prized recruit’s notoriety in the seasons to come.

Joe Russell’s been an assistant wrestling coach since the 1996-97 season and said he’s eager to officially welcome Deitchler, who’s been on the radar for awhile.

“He’s definitely a guy we saw, a blue-chip recruit,” he said. “As a kid coming into high school, you thought he could be a superstar, and he’s put himself in very rare space making it as an Olympian just out of high school.”

Russell said a well-publicized Olympian on the roster is a sure selling point for future recruits.

“We have a long line of Olympians coming out of the program,” Russell said. “To have Jake make the (Olympic) team is a big shot in the arm.

And the well-established program, which has garnered three NCAA titles since 2001 and has sent wrestlers to every Olympic games since 1976, sold itself to Deitchler.

“I didn’t look too many other places,” said Deitchler, who began training with the team as an eighth-grader, getting to know team members and coaches.

“Eventually, you have to do what’s best for you and I’m excited; it just fits. It’s the best place for me.”

But the transition to collegiate wrestling means a shift in style, too. In worldwide competition, like the Olympics, upper body-centric Greco-Roman is the method of choice. But for U.S. high school and college athletes, the practice is folk style.

Deitchler admits his strong style is what took him to the Olympics, but he and his coaches remain confident he’ll do well on the mat with any style.

“Greco just flows with me, I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “But in time, I’ll be right there with anybody in the mix.”

Coaches are optimistic for Deitchler’s chances on the collegiate circuit, and though he’s an Olympian, there’s still much to prove.

“It’s not like he’s reached the pinnacle yet in college (folk) wrestling,” Russell said. “For Greco, he’s there. I think expectations will be high, but there will be a big learning curve to collegiate style.”

Despite the transition, Deitchler and his coaches agree the Olympics will provide an undeniable competitive edge.

Deitchler will borrow from his expert repertoire of Greco-Roman tactics against his collegiate opponents, he said, but Paulson – who’s returned to collegiate competition after medaling in the Olympics – said confidence and reputation will also be valuable pieces of Deitchler’s arsenal.

He’s going to have experience wrestling the world’s best men, Paulson said, and that makes college wrestlers less daunting.

“He’s coming in as a young punk, but he’s a young punk that’s an Olympian,” Paulson said.

With expectations high, pressure can rise steadily too. Deitchler said he’s heard from enough naysayers and can tune them out.

“I’ve been told before I can’t wrestle at the U of M, I can’t wrestle college style, and if I do I’ll never make an Olympic team,” he said. “Obviously, I just did it.”

But Russell and other coaches are keeping ears and eyes open for mounting attention and expectations.

“He’s probably going to have more pressure than he expects, maybe even than we expect,” Russell said. “There will be a target on his back from Day One.”

But the incoming freshman wrestling class was built around Deitchler, Russell said, and is said to be the best in the nation ñ which could alleviate some of the weight on the young Olympian’s shoulders.

For now though, all eyes in the wrestling community are on Deitchler, awaiting his Aug. 13 debut in Beijing.

“For him as an 18-year-old to make the team is unbelievable,” Paulson said. “I don’t think he realizes how tough it is yet. Maybe 10 years from now, maybe not even then.”