Even as Kyle Dake was being celebrated as the first wrestler in history to win four NCAA championships at four different weight classes, he was always thinking about his future as an Olympic champion.
The former Cornell University star has long been considered one of the best wrestlers in the sport as proven by his multiple gold medals at the coveted World Championships. But he still never had the chance to represented the United States at the Olympics.
Dake fell short in 2016 when competing at 86kg, losing in the finals to eventual bronze medalist J’Den Cox. When looking ahead at the 2020 games — which were eventually pushed back to 2021 due to the global pandemic — Dake decided to take a stab at a more natural weight for him at 74kg. But that also put him on a collision course with arguably the biggest obstacle of his entire career.
In order to make the Olympic team, Dake would have to go through 2012 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who held an impressive 7-0 record against him in freestyle competitions. Dake knew in order to fulfill his dreams to go to the Olympics he had to vanquish the boogeyman from his own division, which was no small task.
This time around, Dake was not only exuding confidence after winning a pair of World Championships but he had made some necessary changes to his training and preparation that allowed him to beat Burroughs in back-to-back matches in order to punch his ticket to the Olympics.
“I thought about that moment for a long time,” Dake said about his wins over Burroughs when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Pretty much everyday I was like you put yourself in this situation, how are you going to execute? How are you going to go through everything? How are you going to win this match? Obviously winning the match, there’s different situations all the time but I was like how’s it going to feel at the end?
“So I put myself in that situation so many times that once I got there, it was familiar to me. Obviously, I was really excited. I was ready for that next step, that’s been the roadblock for me is just getting through and making it to the World Championships. The past few years, I was able to make Worlds but then this year making the Olympic team is something pretty special. I’m really excited for that opportunity and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Despite past setbacks, Dake knew he had what it took to beat Burroughs but he just had to put that together during the matches, which is where he came up short in previous meetings.
As he approached the Olympic trials, Dake had a distinct feeling that his matches with Burroughs this time around were going to end differently.
“I think a lot of it was confidence in my training,” Dake explained. “Confidence in everything that I do day to day. I’m never second guessing myself. I’ve done that enough. I’ve put in the time, put in the work to get where I’m at. So I’ve figured out the best diet. Figured out the best training regimen. Figured out the best way handle practice, set up practice, how to peak, how to manage my weight.
“All of those things, I just have 100 percent confidence in and I just go out there with a clear mind and put it on the line. If I win, I win, if I lose, I lose, there’s nothing I would change about how I got here. I’m going to go do my best and that’s it.”
While the Olympics were the end goal, Dake couldn’t help but take a little bit of time to celebrate his wins over Burroughs, especially given the magnitude of those particular victories.
“It’s really important to stop and smell the roses with everything,” Dake said. “Being able to go out and accomplish what I did, I took a little time to relish that and be a part of that and feel it and try not to get too far ahead of myself.
“Obviously, the goal is the Olympic gold medal but he was a big roadblock. He’s one of my biggest competitors. There’s only a handful of guys that I feel that I really need to focus on in order to wrestle to the best of my ability and really just prepare for.”
Now, as he approaches the Olympic games in Tokyo, Dake is considered one of the favorites in the field but he definitely has a tough road ahead of him.
Two-time World Champion Zaurbek Sidakov will be looming large over the division after he took home gold at 74kg in both 2018 and 2019, which included a pair of wins over Burroughs. 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Frank Chamizo is also looking to make waves this year as one of the most consistent competitors in the field.
That said, Dake is once again more than ready for whatever challenges get thrown his way as he seeks to return home to his wife and two daughters with a gold medal around his neck.
“I’m very confident,” Dake said about his chance to win. “I take confidence in my training, confidence in my training partners and everything that I do. I believe that I have the best team, the best support behind me to push me to get to that goal.
“There’s going to be a lot of people that I’m going to have to go through. I think it’s going to be a 16 or 17 man bracket. I’m probably going to have three matches in one [day], one match on day two and that’s where I’m at. I’m ready to get it going. I’m confident with where I’m at right now.”
Like so many wrestlers with a dream of becoming an Olympic champion, it’s tough for Dake to put into words what it would mean for him to win a gold medal. It’s something he’s visualized for years.
Because he’s faced so many trials and tribulations to get here, Dake is taking nothing for granted. But he knows with absolute certainty that he’s got what it takes to get the job done.
“That’s been a lifelong goal for a long time to be an Olympic champion,” Dake said. “I’ve been a World Champion a couple of times, be an Olympic champion and go get it done. You have to have a whole season of nearly perfection so you can go out and achieve that goal. I’ve been on that path for a long time.
“In 2016, I was pretty disappointed with how everything ended. I was second on the Olympic team, I didn’t make it, didn’t punch the ticket but obviously this year I was able to do it. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to go out there. I’m going to make the most of it.”