Cornell's Kyle Dake wins SI's male College Athlete of the Year award
The longest writing project of Kyle Dake's Cornell career spanned 144 pages and exhausted two ballpoint ink cartridges, but it earned him zero credits toward his status as an academic All-America. This was a voluntary thesis, on the subject of making wrestling history. It took 3 1/2 years to complete and consisted mostly of variations on one line, handwritten 2,978 times in a spiral notebook with the university logo embossed in gold on its red cover. Once in the morning and once at night as a freshman Dake wrote, 2010 141 lb DI NCAA National Champion. Twice in the morning and twice at night as a sophomore he wrote, 2011 149 lb DI National Champion. Thrice in the morning and thrice at night as a junior he wrote, 2012 157 lb DI National Champion. Four times in the morning and four times at night as a senior he wrote, 2013 165 lb DI National Champion. Early on March 23, the day Dake would become the first wrestler to have won an NCAA title in four weight classes, he sat in a Des Moines hotel room and filled four full pages of the notebook with his final affirmation. He didn't want to risk losing sight of his goal, and he had nothing better to do.
In a sport of tough-minded grinders, Dake became a legend -- and SI's inaugural male College Athlete of the Year -- in part because of his unwavering focus on an annual goal. All of Cornell's wrestlers think primarily of their sport, says senior 141-pounder Joe Stanzione, who shares a house with Dake and 32 other teammates, but "I feel like Kyle has a dream every night about wrestling." And in that dream? "He wins," Stanzione says. "Period."
Another teammate, freshman 149-pounder Joe Rendina, sees the dream in more detail: "He stands on top of the world, and everyone bows down to him." Rendina and Stanzione laugh, but they are not exaggerating. One line from the pep-talk letter Dake wrote to himself in the notebook at the outset of his senior season reads, Make everyone know you're the greatest and remember that you will always be the greatest.
One cannot merely write his way to wrestling titles, though. According to Cornell coach Rob Koll, Dake's success is due to a confluence of will and commitment to a strict schedule of workouts, recovery, studying and sleep -- plus good genes.
Dake's father and high school coach, Doug, was an All-America wrestler at Kent State and is so strong that Koll suspects he is "half bull." Kyle's mother, Jodi, was a gymnast for the Golden Flashes, so Kyle inherited bull strength with a tumbler's athleticism. That makes him the ideal mix in an evolving sport that, he says, "used to be two meatheads going at it but has now become more of a dance."
Kyle's mental toughness comes from only one side, however. When Kyle left to attend college just 5 1/2 miles from their Lansing, N.Y., home, Doug said, "You could never start for Cornell, and as long as you get a degree, it's fine." He had decided not to pressure the kid. But Jodi took a different tack. She bought the red notebook and left it on her son's desk the day he moved into the dorms. Atop the first page she wrote something she'd been telling him for years: If you believe it, you can achieve it. Jodi encouraged him to use the notebook to write down his goals, and she made a few suggestions:
NCAA national champion 4x
She had decided to pressure the kid. Her challenge did not cripple him with weighty expectations; rather, it was just what Kyle wanted. That note, he says, became like a voice in his head.
It's rare for a wrestler's fame to enter even a sliver of the consciousness of mainstream college sports fans. Dan Gable transcended wrestling at Iowa State in the 1960s and '70s by going 181-1 in three seasons. Pat Smith did it at Oklahoma State in the '90s by becoming the first four-time national champ. Cael Sanderson did it at Iowa State in the 2000s by going 159-0. Sanderson's quest for a perfect career resonated throughout sports, and he is widely considered the greatest college wrestler of all time.
Koll believes Dake should be part of the G.O.A.T. discussion. "What Kyle did is more remarkable than anybody who came before him," the coach says. "I'm not saying he was better than Cael or better than Pat Smith. I'm just saying I believe what he did was more remarkable, even though he lost some matches in his career."
Dake went 137-4 at Cornell but forced his way into the G.O.A.T. debate from different angles. For one, he did not redshirt, as Sanderson did and other elite recruits have. (Sanderson also lost a match while redshirting.) And while Sanderson spent his entire career in two weight classes, Dake set himself apart by dominating four.
Dake's first two jumps, from 141 to 149 to 157, were due to natural growth. The senior-year move to 165 was made for several reasons: It helped Cornell's team, which had more options at 157 than at 165. (The Big Red would finish fifth at nationals in 2013.) It let Dake prove that he could bulk up, rather than starve himself, and still succeed. ("The [weight-cutting] stigma has turned some people off wrestling," he says, "and I wanted to show that you didn't need to do it to win.") And it allowed him to chase history. While Dake served as a pre-Olympic training partner for Jordan Burroughs last summer, the eventual 74-kg gold medalist told him to make the jump in weight "for the fans." Burroughs believed the four-titles-in-four-classes feat was even more unlikely than going undefeated for an entire career, and he wanted to see it done.
Dake's move to 165 also created a wrestling mega-rivalry. For someone as competitive as Dake, going undefeated as a junior, winning his third straight national title and still not receiving the 2012 Hodge Trophy (wrestling's Heisman) had to sting. The award went to Penn State 165-pounder David Taylor, who had a history with Dake: Their families became friends at junior tournaments, and when the Dakes spent holidays with relatives in Ohio, they would drive Kyle up to train with David near Dayton. In a photo from the 2006 cadet nationals, Taylor, then a much bigger star, stands atop the awards podium while a miserable Dake is below him, holding a third-place plaque. Dake's memory of it remains vivid: "I was pissed, to say the least."
The three Dake-Taylor meetings in 2012-13 -- at the All-Star Classic in Washington, D.C., in November; at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga in January; and in the national finals in Des Moines -- were among the most anticipated college wrestling matches of the decade. Dake opened the season ranked No. 2, but he took over No. 1 and stayed there by beating Taylor the first two times. Dake and Cornell assistant coach Jeremy Spates worked all season on what Spates called "Taylor things" -- techniques -- that might keep the reigning Hodge winner off-guard. Otherwise, Dake stuck to his routine. On the morning of the final, he wrote 2013 165 lb DI National Champion in the notebook four times. Then he went out with his family for their customary pre-title-match breakfast of chocolate-chip pancakes. Finally, after Dake filled four more pages at the hotel, he went before a sold-out crowd of 16,131 and did his superstitious prematch hand slap with Spates, who said he could tell from its sting that Dake was good and ready.
In his letter before the season Dake had told himself, You are the best in the country, no one can touch you! You can take anyone down, defend all takedowns, escape at will and ride anyone! He rode Taylor relentlessly in the final match, earning a riding-time point (for being in control of the match at least a full minute more than Taylor) that was the difference in a tense 5-4 victory. All of Dake's 2,978 lines had come true, so he retired the notebook. He'll start another for the next three world championships and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Kyle Dake is done with college, but he has not finished writing.