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 three, Andy writes about his uphill battle to claim a wild best-of-three championship series against Mo Lawal at the 2008 Olympic Team Trials and his experiences as a new freestyle coach with the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club.

• My Road to the Olympics: Part I | Part II

THURSDAY, APRIL 19

I went into the 2007 World Championships in Azerbaijan as an alternate. I was the only one there that was not a training partner, so I really had nothing to do. I enjoyed my time there and used that as a little break before the season started. I worked out a little, but I did not kill myself doing it.

After the worlds ended, I flew home to Ann Arbor for less than a week, just long enough time to unpack my bags, do laundry and then pack again for a tournament in Belarus. I was excited to get back to competition. I was hungry to prove to myself I was the indeed man at 84kg in the U.S. At the tournament, I lost in the finals. It was the third tournament in a row where I had lost in the finals, and I was not happy to start out the season that way. I had a quick turnaround before heading to Arizona for the Sunkist Kids tournament, but after a flight mix-up, I went first to Ann Arbor then to New York for a banquet at the NYAC before landing in Phoenix. I arrived in Arizona a couple of days before for the tournament. My brother was living in Scottsdale at the time, and it was nice to see him and get the trip out of my system. With all the travel, my body didn’t know what time zone it was in, but still I was looking forward to competing.

The day of the tournament, I was called up to the head table, where Pete Isais told me there was a mistake and that I would have a first-round match. The tournament was held in an outdoor arena. The roof was metal and the walls were canvas; what that meant was it was HOT. I lost to Jake Herbert in the semifinals, in my fifth match of the day. We were both drained, and it came down to a third-period clinch. I won two more matches on the day and finished in third place. I stayed at my brother’s house after the tournament and relaxed a little. I had been on the road for such a long time, but I was not going home just yet. Instead I flew to Vancouver for the Hargobind tournament. I was trying very hard to not look ahead to any one tournament and was just taking it week by week. What I didn’t realize was that I flew into Vancouver the day of weigh-ins. Not good. I just decided to wrestle up a weight class and took third place at 96kg. Mo Lawal won my weight that weekend, but I heard the rumors and knew he was planning to drop back down for the Open. I knew I was prepared for the challenge.

I flew home to Ann Arbor after Hargobind, but I was not finished with my world tour. A week later I headed back to New York to wrestle in a dual meet against Russia, where I won my match and our team beat the Russian team that year. I choose not to wrestle in the NYAC tournament; I felt like I had gotten in several good matches, and I was just worn out. But I stayed in New York and watched the tournament then along with Ryan Churella, Damion Hahn, Clint Wattenburg flew to France for the Henri Deglane Challenge. This was my last tournament in my long, extended road trip. I was tired; I hadn’t yet won a tournament, and I was wrestling in a very tough weight class. I beat Clint Wattenburg in the semifinals before facing a tough, up-and-coming Russian named Soslan Ktsoev. I was nervous going into the match, but I used that nervous energy to get off to a strong start and beat him, 6-1, 6-0. It was such a relief to finally get a win and the chance to go home and relax. 2007 was finally over for me.

The last push for the Olympic Trials stared with the international season picking up in January 2008. I went back to Krasnoyarsk in January, but I did not do well. I was picked for the World Cup team again and I competed in Vladikavkaz, Russia, but I didn’t win a match and was bummed. I wrestled Adam Satiev in my first match and lost, 1-7, 1-0, 1-0. I came out with guns blazing and scored a lot of points, but he was able to make the small adjustments to come back and beat me the last two periods. I had an Olympic champion on the ropes and couldn’t capitalize. The same thing happened in my second match, starting off strong with a 4-0 win in the first period before losing, 1-0, 1-0.

Going into the 2008 U.S. Open, I was not doing so well, but I knew I had experience on my side. I had put myself through hell from 2004-08, traveling the world many times over and wrestling against the best in the world every chance I could. I knew what worked and what didn’t work. I knew of my own weaknesses more than any of my opponents did. I knew I was the smartest wrestler in my weight class, and I was put through the fire for four years. Going into the Open, I had a lot to prove to myself and to all the U.S. coaches.

I was surprised when I was given the No. 4 seed for the tournament and felt a little disrespected. I had wrestled all year and really put it on the line. I could have dodged competition and protected myself, but in doing so, I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror. Yes, I had some losses, but at least I wrestled and earned some good, quality wins. Joe Williams was given the No. 1 seed. Mo Lawal, who I had pinned the last time we wrestler, got the No. 2 seed, and Jake Herbert was the No. 3 seed. I made it to the finals on my side, while Mo came through on the other side. I remember this match like it happened yesterday. I scored early on a nice shot, but Mo came right back and answered with his own takedown. As we were going out of bounds, I countered a gut wrench but didn’t score. He won the second period to take first place and earn the right to advance to the Olympic Trials championship series. It also meant that I would have to win the mini tournament to even get my opportunity at a rematch.

Two months later at the trials, that’s exactly what I did. I came into that tournament on a mission, but when I arrived at the trials in the morning, I didn’t feel good and was really sick to my stomach. My nerves were like I had never felt before. Everything I had ever done was coming down to this one tournament. I threw up several times before my first match while I was warming up. I decided to use it to my advantage. I was backed into a corner and had to fight my way out; it was do or die. There was nobody that put the time in like I did. There was nobody that sacrificed like I did, and I was not going to slip up and give my dream away.

In my first match at the 2008 Olympic Trials, I won handily, 6-0, 6-0, against Chris Pendleton after he hurt his ribs early. I wrestled Joe Williams second and won, 3-0, 3-0. In the finals of the mini tournament I had to wrestle Jake Varner and ended up beating him, 2-0, 5-1. I was scoring a lot of points in the mini tournament, and I knew going into the finals I had to pull out the big guns and go out blazing. I knew I was not going to shut Mo down completely and win with just one takedown in a period. I also knew going into the match that I could not give up any three-point doubles if I wanted to win. I immediately found myself in a hole, however, when Mo won the first match easily, 3-1, 1-0. The walk back to the warm-up area was a long one, and I had a lot of time to think. But as soon as I got back there, I picked my head up, changed singlets and dialed in.

Sean Bormet was there coaching me, and since I first met him in 1999, he was an incredible mentor to me and guided me along the way. I had also become very close with Terry Brands after spending many long training camps in Colorado Springs over the years. Terry was also in the warm-up area, and without saying anything, he just looked into my eyes from across the gym. He was pacing back and forth as I looked at him, and he pointed to his heart then to his head. This was all I needed to see. I knew then I wasn’t going to lose. Terry knew the work I put in, and when you sacrifice your life to achieve your goal, you can do the impossible. I couldn’t come back to the warm-up area again a loser; it meant far too much to me and to Terry and Sean. They invested so much of their time and effort in me that I wouldn’t have been able to look at them in the eyes if I lost.

But then the second match started off pretty bad. I lost the first period, 1-0, and I just couldn’t find a way to score. The second period was not better. It ended 0-0, and I lost the ball pull, Mo would be starting the clinch with my leg. The ball pull is meant to encourage the wrestlers to score during regulation, because with nothing more than a 50-50 tossup, it puts the defensive wrestler is at a huge disadvantage. I dug down deep and countered his clinch for a two-point chest lock to force the third period, which I won, 3-0. After that, I was reenergized going into my sixth match of the day. It was to my advantage that the time between matches was only 15 minutes, because I was not able to sit down and realize how tired I should have been. Again I picked up my head, changed singlets and dialed back in. I was called on deck as soon as I walked back into the warm-up area. Terry Brands again looked at me pointed to his chest and then to his heart. We had a connection, and it was rooted in sacrifice and hard work. I walked out with Sean by my side, and it was do or die now.

I had really dodged a bullet in that second match after losing the first period and then the ball grab in the second, but now I had all the momentum. As I walked up the stairs to mat, I gave Sean my normal handshake and just gave him a nod. I was calm and I was ready. Mo won the first period, 1-0, and I won the second, 1-0, so everything came down to the third period. I was exhausted, but I was prepared to be exhausted. I lived to compete. My last four years has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, but I never doubted myself or my commitment. I wrestled the most matches of any American during that time, and I was battle ready. I left no stone unturned in my preparation for this day.

Mo scored first in the third period, and fighting through my exhaustion, I was slowly looking for my opening to strike. Time was running out on my dream, and I couldn’t find an opening. I separated myself from him to regroup and backed up to the center of the mat. I looked over at the clock. There was 18 seconds left in the match. I had one chance to shoot and score. I had to dig deep down from inside. With less than 15 seconds left, I circled to my left and passed Mo’s right arm by just pushing it by. I was standing pretty high in my stance at this point, and I reached in for a snatch high crotch and was able to convert it not just for a takedown but to a two-point exposure as we went out of bounds with seven seconds remaining. As I stumbled back to the center of the mat, I knew the only way I was going to lose was by giving up a three-point takedown, which was not out of the realm of possibility because Mo was such a great athlete. When the ref blew the whistle, I went to my belly to give up the takedown and tied the period at 2-2. I remember the crowd going crazy when Mo scored that takedown, and to this day, I think I was the only one in the building who knew, in that moment, that I had actually won. I remember going over to my corner to give Sean a hug, and he pushed me away. I had to tell him I won. He was looking around and trying to see what the officials were signaling before he would celebrate with me. It was a wild ending to a wild four-year journey, but I had achieved my goal of becoming an Olympian.

I had sacrificed so much to get there. After 2008, I sacrificed even more in an attempt to make the team in 2012 and become an Olympic champion. But it was not in the cards for me. In the summer of 2011, my body told me to hang up my shoes and move on with my life. I will be in Iowa City as a coach for the NYAC/Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, and I can tell you that nothing has changed. I put a career on hold and choose to come to Ann Arbor to help the guys train for the trials. I thought about applying for a college job last summer, but it didn’t drive me. I was invested in the Olympic movement, and I knew there was something very special happening in Ann Arbor, my second home.

It has been a busy several months. I started my current coaching stint out in Vancouver with Andrew Howe at the Hargobind Tournament while I was finishing up at Overtime. Three days later, I moved back to Ann Arbor before immediately leaving for New York to coach at the NYAC. When the tournament ended we had a national team camp at the Edge in Hoboken, N.J. Then I went to France for eight days to coach the U.S. team with Bobby Douglas, flew from France to watch my girlfriend at the final LPGA qualifier for two days then was off to Vegas for the first Olympic Trials Qualifier. From December on, I have done everything with the guys here. We trained in January, competed in Guelph and had four champions. I was picked to coach the U.S. team in Ukraine for 17 days, where I had four out of the six CKWC guys there training and competing. We drove to St. Louis to attend the national team camp before I drove Jake Herbert, Tyrel Todd, and Mike Poeta to Iowa for the Last Chance Qualifier, where we crowned two champions. We have put in many hours together as a team. I am blessed to be able to coach these guys every day and work with the other coaches here. Sean Bormet continues to be my mentor as I begin my coaching career. We have all sacrificed a lot to get here, and we have all pushed each other to new heights that we could not have reached alone.

The atmosphere at this weekend’s Olympic Team Trials will be insane. The best wrestlers in the country will be crowned Olympians. It doesn’t get any better. Let the fun begin and the battles take place. I will see you all in Iowa City.

Andy Hrovat