Kyle Dake sets sights on Olympics

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Kyle Dake did it again. Returning from an unspecified injury that required surgery earlier this year, the Lansing native traveled to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and took home the 79kg gold medal at the World Wrestling Championships on Sept. 22.

It was Dake’s second consecutive world championship and another significant notch on his belt as he looks to make the Olympic roster for the first time.

Dake displayed dominance on the mats, outscoring opponents 27-6 in the tournament. While he added to his already decorated trophy case, the struggles he went through this year have made him as humble as ever.

“It’s been a pretty crazy ride. I couldn’t have done it without my team. I’m just super thankful that I was able to get back in time for this event,” Dake said. “There was a chance it wasn’t going to happen. That was something we really pushed for and tried to make sure that I’d have the opportunity to come back and defend my title. Thanks to the good doctors and the team I have behind me building me back up, I was able to do that.”

Dake has dealt with his fair share of major injuries in his career, but he’s still performing at the highest level. In 2016, he underwent surgery to repair his labrum as well as his bicep tendon following that year’s Olympic Trials. He gave full credit to his medical team for saving his career, which has allowed him to win the past two world championships.

“There was definitely a time when I hurt my shoulder that I thought, ‘Man, I might not be able to do this anymore.’ I was able to push through it,” Dake said. “Like I said, I have an incredible medical team behind me. Without them, I definitely would have stopped wrestling sooner and I wouldn’t be a two-time world champion.”

Fortunately, he has continued wrestling at an international level. But even against the best wrestlers in the world, he still has to deal with dirty tactics on the mat. In the semifinals of this year’s tournament, Dake faced Uzbekistan’s Rashid Kurbanov, who ripped Dake’s mouthpiece out of his mouth. It didn’t phase the Cornell alum, who went on to win the match by a score of 6-1.

“[Kurbanov] is really talented, but he took his frustrations out on me. He ripped my mouthguard out in the middle of the match, and that thing never comes out,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been wearing it in college, I’ve never had my mouthpiece pulled out. Those are some hurdles you just deal with. You just roll with those punches and just keep moving forward.”

He moved forward to the finals, where he defeated Jabrayil Hasanov for the second year in a row. Unlike last year, Dake did allow Hasanov to score a point this year. However, small improvements in Dake’s game led to a stronger performance in the finals in his mind.

“Last year, he wasn’t trying to do much, he just tried to steal it at the end. But this year, I forced the action, got to my underhooks and was able to move my feet enough to catch him stepping and being off-balance so I could get to his ankles and legs and score some points that way,” Dake said. “I’m a lot happier with my performance this year in the finals than last year in the finals. Just from a technical standpoint, I think I did a much better job.”

During last year’s world championships, Dake shut out all four of his opponents, signifying how important defensive wrestling is to him. His maturation process as an athlete has led to making that aspect of his game even more effective.

He explained that in the finals, he decided to not try to muscle his way out of his opponent’s takedown attempt, which is something a younger Dake would have done. This helped prevent him from allowing his opponents to score more points in exchanges. Along with his improving skill-sets, Dake has figured out his weight situation, which has made an already great wrestler even better.

“When they made these new weight classes, it was a more natural fit for me. I had been going 74 kilos [163 lbs.], and 79 [174 lbs.] was a much easier weight cut,” Dake said. “I felt more comfortable. I was just stuck between a rock and a hard place. But with these new classes, it really benefited me.”

With the 79 kg weight class now in play for the world championships, he no longer has to cut weight, as he’s just six pounds over the weight limit on a given day. This has allowed him to focus on building his skills rather than focusing on conditioning and his physical shape.

However, that weight class is not available for the Olympic Games, forcing Dake to cut down to 74 kg to attempt to make the U.S. team for the first time.

To do so, he’ll have to get past Jordan Burroughs, who is one of the greatest wrestlers in American history. His preparation for their probable meeting has already begun, and Dake is focused on being the best wrestler he could possibly be heading into April’s trials.

“My training, although it’s been tailored towards winning a world championship this year, it’s really been tailored towards becoming a better wrestler and preparing myself to win an Olympic gold medal. That’s been my focus,” Dake said. “There are a lot of things I can improve on, I just didn’t have time before the world championships. I’m really excited for those next few months to try and get better and get ready for the first weekend in April.”

With his trophy closet containing four NCAA titles and two world championships, Dake has his sights set on adding Olympic gold to his resume. His next step will be winning at the U.S. Olympic Trials on April 4 and 5.

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