The story of a 730-day quest cut one day short.
“It is better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit.” – Les Brown
As an eighth-grader, my son watched the Nebraska High School State Wrestling Championships with me. We paid particular attention to the Class B heavyweight title match, as that was the class that we anticipated him competing in. A sophomore from Syracuse named Matt Clark won the championship that year, and it wasn’t difficult to do the math and know that Matt would be a junior during Patrick’s freshman season and a senior when Patrick was a sophomore.
If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, so we decided that day to focus on beating the champ. Coincidentally, Patrick met Matt for the very first time the next day, when he traveled to Syracuse to compete in the youth district wrestling tournament. The day after that, Patrick clipped Matt’s picture from the newspaper’s gallery of champions and put it on his mirror, where it stayed for two years, as a reminder of the challenge ahead and the work that needed to be done.
During our weight-lifting sessions for two years, we dedicated extra sets and reps to the quest to beat the champ. “Do another for Matt,” I’d tell him in encouragement.” He’d respond after a particularly good set, “That was for Matt.” Meanwhile, his mother cleaned around the newspaper clipping on his bathroom mirror.
During his freshman year, Patrick narrowly lost his team’s wrestle-off to a talented senior, and spent the season competing on the junior varsity team, while we followed Matt’s undefeated and second state championship season. By now, Matt had developed into a 6’5” 305-pound offensive lineman with Division I interest. The quest wasn’t getting any easier, but Patrick was growing and developing too.
We saw Matt wrestle in person for the first time, one month into his senior season. In fact, we saw him set the state record for consecutive pins at 50. He was a massive athlete who moved like a wrestler half his size. I told my dad that he looked like a Kodiak bear taking down prey. Once he had an opponent on the mat, it was over. Meanwhile, Patrick, now a sophomore, came down with the flu, but managed to go 6-2 on the weekend. It was a large, multi-state dual team tournament, and since our teams didn’t compete against each other, the match-up would have to wait until the district tournament.
Two months later, on the first day of the district tournament, Patrick won both matches to qualify for a semi-final match against Matt Clark on day two. Two years of anticipation were about to burst. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, Matt entered the match needing one more pin to move into #2 nationally for consecutive pins at 68. Television cameras and radio stations were on hand to witness history. To Matt, Patrick was an obstacle to his record. To Patrick, Matt was the ultimate opponent and this match, the subject of dreams. No one but our family and a few close friends knew how big this was for Patrick.
Matt got his 68th pin, but not without a little excitement, as Patrick threw him to the mat early in the match. The excitement was brief, however, because Matt quickly recovered and got the pin. You can see the entire match here: http://bigappleradio.am/featured-news/video-syracuse-senior-pins-his-way-to-national-record/.
The loss stung, but Patrick didn’t have time to sulk, because a loss in his next match would eliminate him from the state tournament. Fortunately, he bounced back quickly to pin his next two opponents and earn third place and a chance to compete in the state tournament. While the loss to Matt frustrated him, by the time he accepted his third place medal, he was smiling and eager for a rematch. He was realistic enough to know that he would have to wrestle the perfect match and perhaps get lucky to win a state championship, but he was prepared, and as I told him: luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Opportunity happened later that night when the brackets for the state tournament were released. Matt was on one side, and Patrick was on the other, so if both won three consecutive matches, a rematch would happen in the championship match in front of 15,000 people in the arena and many others watching on live television. It was the setting we talked about during our work-outs for two years.
Both Patrick and Matt won their first two matches on Thursday, the first day of the tournament, in dominating fashion. That night, Patrick was full of confidence, although a rival who had already beaten him twice awaited him in Friday night’s semi-final. He thought that he had figured out how to beat his semi-final opponent, but he was wrong.
On Friday night, the goal that had motivated him for two years died on the mat in front of thousands of people, just one match short.
If we set our goals high enough, we expose ourselves to painful failures like this, when we realize that the goal that was so important to us for so long is now unattainable. Failure can crush us at this vulnerable time, if we lose perspective. However, it is also at these moments that the seeds of many of life’s greatest triumphs are planted, if we can retain the determination and motivation that brought us to striking distance of the goal.
Patrick woke up in a foul mood on Saturday, like someone had stolen something from him. I don’t particularly like these moods, but I’ve come to recognize them as a signal that a 16-year-old is highly motivated to perform at his highest level and can’t mask his emotion. Third place was now the target, and winning twice was the path. Two first-period pins, the second over the fifth-rated wrestler in 38 seconds, showed that the passion was strong.
Third best is not where he wanted to be – no one wants to be third best, but there were two wrestlers better than him this year, and by the end of the tournament, he knew that. As he accepted his third-place medal, happiness shined from his face. The two-year quest to beat Matt Clark was over, and he was going to have to take Matt’s picture down in defeat, but he had made huge strides toward becoming a championship wrestler.
When Patrick set that goal, he was a 14-year-old 220-pound eighth-grader who had wrestled maybe 20 matches over four months. He was as close to Matt in wrestling as I am to Ernest Hemingway in writing. What happened in those 730 days, however, was truly amazing. More importantly, we were back in the gym on day 731 – this time without Matt as motivation. Now that he’s stood on the championship platform, the goal is a better, higher view in 365 days.
- Matt Clark won his third state championship the next day, 3-1 over Justin Hennessey, a junior from Waverly. Matt won, but his consecutive pin streak was stopped at 72. He’ll play football at South Dakota State University next year.
- Hennessey, Patrick’s semi-final opponent, lost only to Clark and the undefeated Class C heavyweight champion this season.
- Patrick enjoyed getting to know Matt and Justin, as well as their families, and says both are great guys from great families.
- With two pins to close out the state tournament, and three in the state dual tournament the next weekend, Patrick’s consecutive pin streak is at five.