If he had a bigger ego, Pat Smith might have been insulted. Instead, the former Gophers wrestler from Chaska was simply amused by Kamal Bey’s boast.
Before their bout at last spring’s Final X tournament, Bey compared himself to a Ferrari — and said Smith reminded him of a Honda Civic. It didn’t bother Smith at all, partly because a Civic would have been a major upgrade for him. At the time, he was driving a decrepit 2001 PT Cruiser, one that was headed for the junkyard before he bought it from a co-worker with the $80 he had in his wallet.
“It’s not quite a Honda Civic,” Smith said, chuckling. “But I think it fits me well.”
Smith got the last laugh, beating Bey in a best-of-three series at Final X to win a place on the U.S. Greco-Roman team for wrestling’s world championships. He begins competition Monday in the 77-kilogram weight class (169.8 pounds) in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. The nine-day tournament, which starts Saturday, is the first chance for countries to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
At age 28, Smith is a little like his old car: he isn’t flashy, but he’s been around awhile and can get the job done. There is one significant difference. While the PT Cruiser stopped running a few weeks ago, Smith feels he is just coming into his prime, with less than seven months to go before the 2020 Olympic trials.
“Greco isn’t the most common or familiar style in the U.S., and there are a lot of intricacies,” Smith said. “Especially in the last year or two, I’m starting to feel like I understand the sport. That’s encouraging. And I don’t think I’ve maxed myself out yet.
“Every day, I write in my journal, ‘2020 Olympian.’ This is just one more step toward that.”
Smith, who lives in Maple Grove, trains with the Minnesota Storm club under coaches Dan Chandler and Brandon Paulson. In addition to workouts that run at least four hours per day, he works part-time in marketing for Graco and coaches at Paulson’s PINnacle Wrestling School.
He’s gotten plenty of seasoning over the past six years. After second-place finishes at the 2016 Olympic trials and the world team trials in 2014 and 2015, he made the world championships team for the first time in 2017.
This season has been perhaps his best. Smith won the gold medal at the Pan American Games last month in Lima, Peru, scoring a 3-2 decision over Colombia’s Wuilexis Rivas in the final. He also has captured championships this season at the Dave Schultz Memorial International and the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament.
His decision to move up a weight has paid off handsomely. Smith competed last year at 72 kg (158.7 pounds), a class not contested at the Olympics. Following a third-place finish at the world team trials, he had to determine which path gave him the best chance of making the 2020 Tokyo Games — moving up, or down a weight.
“If I was going to get where I wanted to go, on the podium at the 2020 Olympics, that was going to require me to get a lot better,” said Smith, who finished his Gophers career in 2015. “I wasn’t going to be able to do that if I was focused on cutting weight all the time. I’m training at a higher volume than in the past, and I’m able to recover quicker. I feel like I can keep getting better as I get older.”
At Final X, Smith relied on grit and conditioning to outlast Bey. He fell 11-2 in the opening match, then won the second match 2-1. In the third, with Bey exhausted, Smith felt certain he could score late; down 3-2, he executed a four-point throw with two minutes remaining in the match to win 6-3.
After the world championships, Smith hopes to find a car to replace the PT Cruiser. It won’t be a Ferrari. It might not even be a Civic.
No matter what he ends up with, he likes the road he’s traveling.
“I’m in the driver’s seat to qualify the weight for the Olympics,” Smith said. “That’s a good place to be.’’