Upon hearing the question, Jake Clark didn’t miss a beat. Asked why he continued to wrestle at age 36, the Minnesota native pointed to his gnarled ears, his broken front tooth and his balding cranium and said, “I don’t have any other options.’’
All kidding aside, another of Clark’s body parts—his outsized heart—got the credit Saturday for powering him into the finals at the Olympic wrestling trials. Clark scored a technical fall over Jon Anderson in the semifinals at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, leading three Greco-Roman wrestlers from the Minnesota Storm club to the best-of-three championship series Saturday night. Clark (85 kilograms), Pat Smith (66kg) and Joe Rau (98kg) will compete Saturday night, with the winners nominated to the U.S. Olympic team for the Rio Summer Games.
Clark earned his place right after the No. 1 wrestler at his weight—training partner Jordan Holm—was upset 3-0 by No. 4 Ben Provisor in the semifinals. Clark, ranked No. 3, rolled to an 11-3 lead over Anderson before the match was called with 28 seconds remaining. He will face Provisor in the final.
Smith, No. 4 at 66kg, defeated Michael Hooker 4-0 to earn a place in the Olympic trials finals for the first time. He will face No. 3 RaVaughn Perkins in the final. Top-ranked Rau did not surrender a point in his two preliminary matches, outscoring two opponents 15-0, and will wrestle No. 2 Caylor Williams for the Olympic berth.
The well-traveled Clark was born in Waconia, wrestled at South St. Paul High School and lived in Hawaii until December. He returned to Minnesota to train with the Storm and be closer to his family. Despite his age, the former Marine said he has never been so prepared to claim a place on the Olympic team.
“By far, this is the best I’ve ever felt,’’ said Clark, who was second at the Olympic trials in 2004 and fourth in 2000. “Anybody that makes this (Olympic) team, the stars have to align. I know I’ve done everything I possibly could to be in this moment right now.
“I feel so ready for this. I really believe this is meant to be for me.’’
At the last Olympic trials, at the same arena in 2012, Clark got overexcited in his first-round match against Pete Hicks. He went for a throw, scored three points and broke his shoulder.
That kept Clark out of wrestling for three years, putting a temporary halt to a career that included six years on the U.S. national team. “I thought I had done everything right, but it wasn’t meant to be,’’ he said. “It took me down another path, and I kept digging and pushing.’’
Digging and pushing helped Clark on Saturday, too. He defeated Hayden Zillmer, a North Dakota State senior from Crosby, by technical fall in the quarterfinals after running up an 8-0 advantage. Early in the semifinal, he had to close his eyes and catch his breath after Anderson knocked him off balance.
Clark scored on a pushout to take a 1-0 lead after one period. Knowing he needed to go on the offensive, he executed a four-point move—a front headlock—to go up 5-1. Anderson cut it to 5-3 with a reversal before Clark scored six consecutive points to end the match.
Smith defeated Christopher Gonzalez 5-2 in the quarterfinals. In the semis, he seized an early 4-0 lead on Hooker and held on.
“I felt really ready to go,’’ said Smith, who wrestled for the Gophers and at Chaska High School. “I’m jacked. I came here to win this thing.’’
Smith credited his Minnesota Storm coaches and training partners with preparing him for the trials. In 2012, he said, the club had only one other wrestler at his weight—former Gopher C.P. Schlatter—for him to train with.
His training pool was enlarged considerably as Holm recruited several new wrestlers to the club. Rau, a Chicago native, was among them. The jolly big man—who does standup comedy as a hobby—tore through the competition Saturday, reaching the finals with a 9-0 technical fall over Jarod Trice and a 6-0 decision over Orry Elor.
An NCAA Division III champion at Elmhurst College in 2013, Rau tried to make the 2012 Olympic trials in freestyle. He fell short, concentrated on Greco-Roman and moved to Minneapolis three years ago to train with the Storm.
“Going from wrestling Greco in the (college) offseason to full-time, it’s a different animal,’’ Rau said. “It’s been going great for me.’’