Dennis Koslowski used to brag that he hit the athletic trifecta. “I was slow, small and weak,’’ he said.
Koslowski grew up in Doland, S.D. He became a non-scholarship Division III wrestler at Minnesota-Morris. He won an Olympic bronze medal in Greco-Roman wrestling as a heavyweight in 1988 and a silver in 1992. “I used to hate the phrase ‘God-given talent,’ ” he said. “Like you dropped from the womb an Olympic wrestler. I never even won a high school championship. I was a creeper.’’
Today Koslowski is a highly regarded chiropractor in Minneapolis who often works with local teams. As the Rio Olympics begin, he offered a reminder that many of the athletes we’ll watch over the coming days are bound for quiet, workaday lives, and may remember small moments from these Olympics as much as stepping on a podium.
“Olympic success is positive reinforcement that you worked hard, you trained hard, you prepared hard and you got results,’’ Koslowski said. “You apply that to everything else in life and expect the same thing and get great results. I’ve had great results the rest of my life. You do carry that air of accomplishment.’’
Koslowski read John Irving, a former wrestler who incorporated the sport into his novels. “Irving said you have to enjoy the process,’’ Koslowski said. “You have to do a move 1,000 times to make it your own, but you may find out after 1,000 tries that it will never be your move.
“Most authors say they’ll proofread a book once or twice. Irving said he had no time limit. He might proofread a book 15 times because he enjoyed the process. That was what wrestling was for me. I transferred that attitude to the rest of my life.’’
Koslowski also read Studs Terkel’s “Working,’’ a compilation of interviews, and found a way to direct his version of rugged individualism. “About 90 percent of the people in that book hated their jobs,’’ Koslowski said. “It was because someone was overseeing them. I just made the decision that I was going to be independent. I thought, ‘I’ll be my own boss and help people and help athletes get well.’ ”
He still follows wrestling closely. He attended the U.S.Olympic trials in Iowa this spring. And when Olympic wrestling begins, he remembers two matches in particular.
In 1988 he needed to beat Yugoslavian Jozef Tertei to win bronze. “You never wanted to wrestle a Yugoslavian,’’ Koslowski said. “The guy was exceptionally good — and at that time the president of the international governing body was Yugoslavian, and he oversaw the referees. That was the cruel reality.
“It was the most relaxed I ever felt before a match. I felt like I was going to the gallows. I thought there was no way I’d win.’’
Koslowski knew that if he forced Tertei out of bounds, the referee would incorrectly call him for stalling. So when he forced Tertei to the edge, he would then turn him back to the middle. “You should have seen the ref’s face,’’ Koslowski said. “He didn’t know what to do.’’
Koslowski “pummeled’’ Tertei around the ring, then won the bronze match. “I felt like I beat not only him but the whole apparatus,’’ Koslowski said.
In 1992, he faced the defending gold medalist, Andrzej Wronski, in the first round because the wrestlers were not seeded. He had never beaten Wronski, but he developed a new grip and used it to win 2-0. Koslowski went on to win the silver, and Wronski went on to win gold again in 1996.
“The big question that always hung over me was, how long should you do it and how much of yourself should you invest when there’s no money in it?’’ Koslowski said. “You’re doing it for fame within the sport, for your own achievement. In the end, you ride the horse as long as you can. It’s such a great experience. You’ll never be more alive than you are in that environment. You’ve just got to do it.’’