As the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club nears the this weekend’s Olympic Trials in Iowa City, CKWC coach and 2008 Olympian Andy Hrovat reflects on his own Olympic experience in this three-part My Road to the Olympics blog. In part one, Andy writes about transitioning out of college into full-time freestyle training and competition, settling on the best-suited weight class and the disappointment of the 2004 Olympic Trials.
TUESDAY, APRIL 17
With the Olympic Trials coming up this weekend, I wanted to sit down and reflect on my own wrestling journey, before I get too old and before I forget all the little moments — both good and bad — that occurred along my road to the Olympics.
When I graduated from college in 2002, I was never an NCAA champion. The best I ever did at the NCAA tournament was my junior year when I was pinned in the semifinals by Daniel Cormier and ended up taking fourth place. While I never achieved my goals as a college wrestler, those disappointments never stopped me from wanting to pursue a career in freestyle. I had always loved freestyle a little bit more than folkstyle, and I had had some success that gave me confidence in my abilities.
After my junior season at the University of Michigan, where I wrestled at 184 pounds, I won the University Nationals at 85kg (187lbs) and was selected to wrestle in the Pan American Championships in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I lost to Cuba’s Yoel Romero in the finals. Romero was, at that point, the best wrestler I had ever faced, and I was right there with him, taking him down and gut wrenching him. My Pan-Am performance qualified me to wrestle in the World Team Trials in Cincinnati. I was really a little 184-pounder in college, so I dropped to 76kg for the trials and placed fourth, losing my true third-place bout to Joe Heskett. This was my first real taste at what it was going to take to become an Olympian and Olympic champion.
Wrestling and training took over my life from the time I graduated from college until I retired last summer. Every decision I made revolved around my wrestling career. My family, friends and finances took a back seat to wrestling. I always knew I was a good wrestler, and I always knew the time I put into the sport was not going to be wasted. I never second-guessed my decision to wrestle internationally or in my training and ability when I was on the mat in front of my opponent. I love the sport of wrestling so much that I just looked at every day as a new challenge for me to get better.
I lived wrestling from 2002-11, and it’s impossible to count the hours I put in to the sport during this time. I was in Colorado Springs for every training camp, I wrestled in 15 different countries, and I learned from the best in the U.S. as well as the best in the world. I had some very good highs and experienced some deep lows, but my attitude never changed and my love for wrestling only grew. I tasted greatness, I saw greatness, and I felt like it was within my reach. This is what motivated me every day to put my body through hell and to travel to places that nobody has heard of.
While I had wrestled at 184 pounds throughout college, I had not even matured yet. I probably only shaved about once a month for those four years, and after hard practices my senior year, I would often be 4-5 pounds underweight. So, after FILA went from eight weights to seven the summer between my junior and senior years, I had a tough decision to make as to which weight I was going to go. I initially choose the lower weight of 74kg (163lbs). This was a pretty good cut for me. I ran a lot, worked out a lot and watched everything I ate. At first it wasn’t too bad, but as the 2004 Olympic Trials got closer and realizing that I wasn’t going to make weight for the 2003 NYAC tournament, I decided to move up. That turned out to be the right decision. I was 23 years old and was finally starting to mature, so I filled into the weight class quickly.
My second tournament at 84kg was a month later at the Manitoba Open, where I lost to Cael Sanderson in the finals. I had been winning the whole match, and if I remember correctly, I was up by two points with about 10 seconds left in the match. I was not great at holding leads, and as he shot in on me late, instead of just giving up an easy takedown, I tried to front chest lock him again, and I went to my back where he pinned me.
A couple weeks later, in my third tournament at 84kg, I was at the Ivan Yariguin in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. At the time FILA had the three-person pool system, where the winner of the round robin went into a bracket with the other pool champions. At weigh-ins, I drew Cael and Russia’s Sajid Sajidov in my pool. Not only was this the toughest tournament in the world, I drew the two returning world finalists in my pool. Sanderson ended up getting moved out of the pool, because the Russians didn’t want them to meet that early in the tournament. But I was still left with Sajidov, who I wrestled in my first match. I didn’t care that he was the world champ; I was there to wrestle him. We battled and again I lost in the last second. I was winning with less than 15 seconds to go. So, in my first month up at the weight, I was 15 seconds away from beating the returning world finalists. I won a tournament in Ulan Ude, Russia, the next weekend and had high hopes entering the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. But it wasn’t to be. Cael was a new person on a mission, and he teched me in the championship round.
I had put everything I had into making that team, but in the end, it hadn’t been even close to being enough. The only thing I really remember from the 2004 trials was sitting in the stands of the RCA Dome next to my mom holding back the tears. When you sacrifice so much, it hurts when you don’t achieve your goals. I dreamed of going to the Olympics for such a long time, and in my mind I was right there. As I was there sitting next to my mom, Lou Rosselli came up to talk to me. Lou is a great guy and was good friends with Tony Robie, who was my coach at the time. Lou sat next to me and comforted me, and still to this day, I appreciate him doing that. He just looked at me and told me I was going to make the team in 2008. I was emotional, barely holding in the tears, and he said that was the very reason why I was going to make the team. He knew how much all of this meant to me, and he knew I was going to go back to work with a completely different outlook.
Tune in tomorrow for Part II of Andy’s My Road to the Olympics blog.