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Step by Step: Etlinger Takes Croatian Title, Now Looks Ahead to Zagreb GP

Photo: Marion Stein

Back in June, Dominik Etlinger (CRO, world #16 at 72 kg) was equal parts motivated, hopeful, and confused.

A few months prior, he had returned to 67 kilograms for the 2020 Thor Masters Invitational in Denmark, where he by and large wrecked the field. Two of those six wins came at the expense of Polish studs Mateusz Bernatek and Gevorg Sahakyan, respectively. Bernatek, he was a Senior World silver in ’17, while Sahakyan earned bronze a year later at 63 kilos. Both were in the 67 bracket that weekend in January, neither expected to be run over without mercy. The two-kilo allowance provided a nice little cushion for Etlinger’s first foray below 71 kg since ’16; and because his performance was so staggeringly dominant, the 28-year-old instantly took hold as a real live threat to nail down the Olympic category at the European Qualifier in March.

Instead, what really happened is this: Etlinger wrestled one more time in a United World Wrestling event after Thor, taking 5th in the 72-kg division at the European Championships (he has since participated in Bundesliga). But all of that qualifying business wound up being put on hold the moment Planet Earth was overrun by the coronavirus pandemic.

This was all worthy of discussion because for nearly a decade, Etlinger has been one of the most underrated and consistent brawlers in the sport. He owns wins against nearly every major “top guy” he has come across, but has also struggled with frustrating disappointment when stepping on the mat at a World-level event. That’s why the optics of one single tournament were a big deal. Etlinger’s jaunt back down to 67 wasn’t news because he planned on testing himself in the Olympic category; it was news because all of his opponents that weekend appeared physically overmatched. And since the Euro Continental Qualifier was the next marquee tournament on the docket that truly mattered, the timing for such a display couldn’t have been much better.

Then… whatever.

But that’s all in the past now. Etlinger’s season — along with all of his countrymen’s — is in full bloom. Over the weekend, Etlinger collected his 9th Croatian national title and another competition — better put, another competition in his home country — is right around the corner. Early next month, the Grand Prix Zagreb Open pops up on the calendar. The tournament actually coincides with two others: also that week, the Wladyslaw Pytlasinski Memorial in Poland (a United World Wrestling “Ranking Series” event) and the Moscow Grand Prix will both occur. The three competitions represent the first international opportunities for wrestlers in eight months, though the Moscow tournament isn’t expected to draw much interest outside of the region. Zagreb is different, so too is Pytlasinski.

For Etlinger, the Zagreb GP is important. He will once again dip down to 69 kilograms, a route he does not anticipate to present as grueling of a challenge as it was in January, mainly because he has limited his “walking around” weight to 73 kilos. After Zagreb, the blinders are on for Serbia in December should the Senior World Championships actually take place. The objective from there isn’t a secret. Etlinger not only wants to pound out his first World medal, he also wants to send a message leading up to the European Qualifier next March.

The morning after Etlinger picked up his latest National crown, we deconstructed all of the above, in addition to a couple of pandemic-related topics that are of particular concern in his neck of the woods at the moment.

This Q&A was conducted on Monday, October 19 — before USA Wrestling announced that they will not send a delegation to Belgrade, Serbia for the 2020 World Championships scheduled for December. 

Dominik Etlinger — 67 kg, CRO

5PM: You went 72 for the tournament (Croatian Nationals) but you’re going to go 67 for the Worlds in Serbia?

Dominik Etlinger: I spoke with my coach and I decided that. My coach told me if I wanted to go 72, it’s not a problem. But I want to go 67 because I think it’s a perfect test for me. I will be at 67 (scratch weight) for the first time after four or five years and I want to be sure that I can cut weight and beat everyone at that weight class. You understand? I don’t want to go to the qualification tournament and screw up or something. If I do, then I’ll screw up that World Championship — but I’m sure I won’t screw up. But it’s my decision. I want to try 67, and not like Thor Masters in Denmark. That was 67 plus two, 69. Those two kilograms are a very big job, you know that. It’s not just two kilograms. For me, it is like six or seven kilograms. Plus-two kilograms is a very bad thing.

5PM: I’m looking at your face and I can tell you’re lighter because I can see your cheekbones. 

DE: (Laughs) Really?

5PM: Yeah, when we recorded in the spring you were heavier in the face. 

DE: I was bigger.

5PM: You look kind of how you looked at Thor Masters. You can see your jaw, your cheekbones, your facial structure. That’s one way how we can tell people are cutting down, looking at the face. No carrying water in the face, etc.

DE: When I started cutting down, it was very hard. I told you, I am stable at 73, maximum 74 kilograms. But what does it mean? It means that I can eat normally, I can train normally at 74 kilograms. When I started, I was, I don’t know, 82. When I cut from 78 or 79, it was very hard because I wasn’t stable at that weight. But now, I feel very good at this weight. 73 kilograms I think is perfect for me. I feel good. I recover well, I am faster. I am still strong. Maybe I’m a little less stronger, of course. It’s a normal thing. But I still feel inside of my body there is power and explosiveness. I am faster.

I told you before, my stamina is better, my endurance is better. I believe I will cut to 67 perfectly, and I will feel perfectly and take a license (for Tokyo). And before I take a license, I hope to take gold in Belgrade.

5PM: You guys are in an area of the world where the virus hit first than it did here in the US. When we talked in late-May, you guys had just started practicing. Has practice become completely normal yet? Or are there only like, six guys on the mat at a time?

DE: In this moment, everything is normal in every sport. The only thing we have to do is check-in with contact information. Say I come into the hall. I write down my name, Dominik Etlinger; write my email; then it is, I came into the hall at 9:00am and left at 11:00am. That’s everything, and everything else is normal in ever sport. It is only difficult to organize competitions.

You saw that yesterday, two days ago, we had the nationals. It was very hard to organize with the protocols, masks and everything else. But that’s the only thing. For now, in this moment, everything is normal in every sport. Every sport can train — boxing, gymnastics, wrestling. Everyone can train.

But, I don’t know. For example, in France I have a very good friend in Paris who tells me it is a disaster. There is a curfew now, and halls can only have professionals. Gyms are closed and anyone who is not a professional athlete cannot train. I don’t know what to expect in the next days or weeks because the situation in Croatia, especially my town in Zagreb, is very hard now. Last week, there were five or six hundred cases in 24 hours. Two days before the nationals, there were 1,000 positive cases in 24 hours. For Croatia, that is a very big thing. Croatia has four million people and 1,000 is a very bad number.

For now, everything is okay, everything is normal. But we will see in the next few weeks what happens.

5PM: Has there been any talk about this increase in cases affecting the Zagreb Grand Prix?

Dominik Etlinger: For now, everything is okay. The Grand Prix is in a little bit less than three weeks. I spoke with my federation two days ago and they said that for now everything will be okay, so we will compete at the Grand Prix. But there will be no audience. That is 100% sure. And how many wrestlers will be there? Right now they say about 50 or 60 and I don’t know from which countries. They say Moldova and Serbia will come, but everything is up in the air. We don’t know what will happen in the next five days. Maybe they will put us in lockdown again. But if the Grand Prix takes place, there won’t be an audience. That is 100% sure.

5PM: The US might not go to the Worlds, but that isn’t a problem for you guys, is it? Croatia is definitely going if there is a Worlds, right?

DE: Of course. All of my teammates have an opinion like mine. They pray that the World Championships will happen and that everyone will go.

5PM: And you’re going to go 67 in Zagreb?

DE: In Zagreb I will go 67 plus two, 69. That is my decision, also. I want to adapt. I want to adapt my body to that weight. I say I want to compete at 67 for Belgrade because that is a perfect test tournament for me before qualification. That is my opinion. And 67 plus two for Zagreb will be a perfect kind of test for the World Championships. But I told you, I am now 73 kilograms. I competed yesterday at 72. Two weeks ago, I competed in Germany’s Bundesliga at 71 kilograms, so I believe everything will be fine. But yeah, at Zagreb I will go 67 plus two.

dominik etlinger, croatia national champ

Etlinger (second from left) earned his 9th Croatian National title this past weekend in Gospic. (Photo: Croatian Wrestling Federation)

5PM: You mentioned Bundesliga. You have to travel to Germany for that. 

DE: Yeah, I was there two weeks ago, but now Germany put Zagreb, my town, on the red list. They say it’s a “risk zone”. So for me to go back to Bundesliga, say for this week, 48 hours before the flight I have to take a coronavirus test, and then wrestle one or two days after. During that period, I would have to be in quarantine. But — that’s not the problem. The problem is, what if I do a test and they tell me I’m positive? I will be in trouble because then I’d have to go in quarantine, and all of my teammates will be in trouble, too. All 70 people who competed at the Croatia Nationals would have to go in quarantine.

So I don’t think I will go into Bundesliga anymore this year because I don’t want to do that to myself or my teammates. I was in contact with many people — my girlfriend, my mother, my club teammates, my national teammates — and everyone would have to go in quarantine because of me. You know what that means. That means for two weeks you can’t go out from your house. There is a Grand Prix, there is a World Championships, and that’s the problem. I won’t go to Bundesliga. I cannot do that.

5PM: That sucks. 

DE: Yeah, it sucks. And the money is good with Bundesliga. For me, it’s very good money, 700, 800 Euros for one fight. It’s very good money but I cannot risk that. I cannot risk quarantine for me, for my friends, or for my teammates. I can’t do it.

5PM: It is a long way off, but it’s difficult even discussing the wrestlers who will likely participate in the rest of the Continental Qualifiers, and then after, the Last Chance OG Qualifier in Bulgaria. I think Europe’s 67 bracket will be deeper than the Last Chance bracket, because in Bulgaria there will be two less Europeans. 

Dominik Etlinger: I don’t know. Europe is a disaster. There are a lot of good guys. But I don’t want to think about it. I believe in myself. I believe that I’m the best. If you want to be at the top, you have to beat everybody. You have to be better than everybody, and you have to believe that you are better than everybody. That’s my mindset, you understand?

When I go to the tournament, I will not look at who comes, or who took a license from Asians, Pan-Americans, or any other countries. I will believe in myself that I can beat everybody, and then I will beat everybody and take a license, I hope, at the first tournament.

The 2020 Grand Prix Zagreb Open is scheduled for November 7-8 and will stream live on YouTube

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