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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 3½ 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 5½ 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 4×
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.