IOWA CITY – The night before he wrestled at the Olympic trials, Joe Rau did a little reading while fighting with his nerves. “It was a sports psychology book,’’ said Rau, who trains with the Minnesota Storm. “It said when something bad happens, don’t dwell on it. Get your focus back.’’
That turned out to be the perfect lesson for Saturday’s championship series. Rau was thrown to his back and pinned by Caylor Williams to end the first match of their best-of-three series in the Greco-Roman 98-kilogram class. After winning the second, Rau trailed by a point as the clock ticked down in the final match.
A late two-point move gave Rau the victory, making him the first wrestler with Minnesota ties to win a provisional place on the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics. Three members of the Storm club made the finals on the first day of the trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But Chaska native and former Gopher Pat Smith fell 2-1 to RaVaughn Perkins in the Greco-Roman 66 kg class, and Greco veteran Jake Clark was swept by Ben Provisor at 85 kg.
Nine athletes were nominated to the Olympic team after winning Saturday, though only three of those are guaranteed to compete in Rio. The U.S. has qualified only three weight classes in Greco-Roman, four in men’s freestyle and two in women’s freestyle. Trials winners in the other nine classes must try to win their spots at the final two qualifiers, in Mongolia and Turkey.
Rau will take a couple of days off, then get back on the mat to train for a trip to the Mongolia qualifier April 22-24. Though his Olympic status has an asterisk for now, he was happy to have that much.
“I read about it, and I stuck to it,’’ Rau said of his pre-trials psychology lesson. “I got thrown on my back [in the first match]. It happens. I don’t care. He’s got to beat me two more times, and if I wrestle my best, he’s not going to do it.
“I just got back to what I do best and kept believing. I made a couple of mistakes, but I just kept chipping away.’’
The two-day trials opened with a savvy, spirited crowd in one of America’s most fervent wrestling cities. A total of 21,922 fans attended, with many Minnesotans driving down to see the 12 wrestlers with state ties who competed Saturday.
The day yielded some surprises and some heartache before Rau’s jubilation in the night’s final bout. Jordan Holm, ranked No. 1 in Greco-Roman’s 85 kg class, was upset by Provisor in the semifinals. Clark, a South St. Paul native ranked No. 3 in that class, advanced to the finals at age 36. Smith made the Olympic trials finals for the first time, as did Rau.
Rau is a Chicago native who won an NCAA Division III championship for Elmhust College as a senior in 2013. The day after he graduated, he packed up and drove to Minneapolis to train with the Storm, and he has made steady improvement.
He outscored his first two opponents 15-0 to earn a place in the finals against Williams, ranked No. 2. Williams pinned him at 1 minute, 37 seconds of the first period in the championship series opener. Rau rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win the second match 5-2, then rolled to a 4-0 lead in the deciding match.
Williams tied it with a four-point move, then pushed Rau out for a 5-4 lead. Rau’s final move, scored with about 40 seconds remaining, gave him the victory.
“I just kept wrestling,’’ Rau said. “I told myself, ‘Don’t be scared of getting tired. Keep trying, keep believing through and through.’ ’’
Clark also dominated in the preliminaries before meeting his match in Provisor. He dropped the first finals match 3-0 and was pinned in the second.
“It’s tough,’’ Clark said. “My goal was to get on this Olympic team. I know I did the right things leading up to this, and I’m confident I did what I needed to do. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.’’
Smith won his first match 2-0 and tied Perkins 2-2 in the second, with Perkins winning on a tiebreaker. Perkins prevailed 9-2 in the third.
Provisor, Elena Pirozhkova (women’s 63 kg) and Tervel Dlagnev (men’s freestyle 125 kg) earned berths in Rio by sweeping their championship series on Saturday. The other victors — Rau, Perkins, Kelsey Campbell (women’s 58 kg), Jesse Thielke (Greco-Roman 59 kg), Tamyra Mensah (women’s 69 kg) and Frank Molinaro (freestyle, 65 kg) — still must qualify their weight classes to reach the Olympics.