The beauty lies in the challenge. At least that’s how it is supposed to be. Part of advancement in any career comes with understanding that things won’t always be as easy as they once were. For every stepping-stone is a pitfall; for every moment in the sun, the darkness of disappointment taunts your hurried steps. It happens often. Those on the outside cannot be there to witness the inner struggle, the pain and anguish it took to make something right. But they sure can testify to the theater of drama, and watch it unfold like a dusty old curtain hanging from the rafters atop a Broadway stage.
Dalton Roberts wasn’t the underdog at the 2016 University Greco Nationals. He wasn’t the favorite, either. What Roberts brought with him was an air of curiosity. The Junior World Team member’s participation in the event was widely seen as a litmus test of sorts. Has he progressed enough? How will he handle the dynamics at play in this “in-between” age group? He placed fifth last year. It’s not last year.
Here came Alan Waters, a four-time state champion during his time at Park Hill High School in Kansas City who also went on to become a two-time All American for the Missouri Tigers. The talented, angular grappler finished up his career with a third-place finish at the NCAA Division I Championships, the second-most wins in his college’s history (Ben Askren), and duly recognized as a looming obstacle standing in Roberts’s way in this event – despite not being touted as a “Greco guy.” Greco guy or not, Waters surged into the semifinals where the blonde, fresh-faced 19-year old from Northern Michigan was waiting with open arms.
Setting: The 2016 University Greco Nationals, Louis & Freda Stile Athletic Field House in Akron, Ohio
Opponent: Alan Waters
Weight and round: 59 kg semifinals
“During warm-ups before the tournament I was told it would be Senior rules. I had been used to the Junior rules, where you don’t get put down for passivity. It’s just ‘Passive, caution one, passive, caution one’, you know? One of my teammates told me, “No, passivity, you go down in this tournament.” And I was like, Oh man. I’m really comfortable on my feet and I’m still working on my top game. It kind of showed in this tournament. I actually just started working that gut a couple of weeks ago in Colorado. But I thought, I really have to push the pace here. I have pretty good gutwrench defense but guys in our room score on me more when I’m down in par terre than on my feet. So I felt I really had to push the pace in this tournament, I couldn’t be put down. My usual strategy is to push the pace, wear the guy out and score. Even more so this tournament, it was to bring passives. If I can’t score on you on my feet, you’re gonna go down because there’s no way the ref is going to call me passive. If I can’t out-wrestle you on your feet necessarily, I’m just going to push you until we go down.
“I wasn’t anticipating anything. I didn’t see Waters wrestle his first two matches and so I really had no idea what he did, what he was known for in those first two matches. I went out there and tried to wrestle my style. I believe he got the first takedown, and that was off one of my duck attempts I think, or maybe a go-behind attempt. At the break in between the periods, my coach was telling me not to try and duck him because he is very ‘scrambly’, he could scramble well and he could defend a duck. I could usually duck a lot of people, so that kind of took me for a loop. I had to change it up a little bit. At the end of the first, he had two takedowns and got cautioned for head-butting.
“Going into the second I had to change up my game plan. I knew I couldn’t duck him. I had to stay aggressive because I knew I was frustrating him when I would attack and get in his face every time. I finally got that passivity and went on top. I tried my gut, which worked in my first two matches, I gutted my first guy out. I was like, I think I could gut him. But he jumped in par terre and got his second caution, so it was now 4-4. Waters then got a bodylock, actually a really nice bodylock for four and put me on my back.
“I knew I was down at that point. It was either my dad or Coach Hermann, I heard one of them saying, “Pressure, pressure, pressure.” The ref had already told Waters one more caution and the match would be over. It’s five seconds left and I get an over-under. And I had been doing this the whole match, I’d get an over-under. I felt confident there. I tried to hip toss him a couple of times, I couldn’t get it. So we get towards the edge of the mat. We’re at that point where it’s like, it could have have easily been a one (point) if he didn’t back away. In his mind, I am sure he was thinking, Well, if I give up this one it’s no big deal, I still win the match. So he backs away and one of the refs goes, “One.” Another ref ‘white paddles’ it and the other goes, “Caution two.”
“And right away, Rob Hermann goes to throw the brick and he’s like, ‘Caution and two.’ Before he can even throw it, the ref walks over to him and says, ‘I know what you’re challenging, coach.’ At that challenge, it goes to a jury. None of the refs who were involved in the match actually get to decide the call. It goes to a jury of two or three other officials who aren’t even watching the match. They just see the clip at the end that is being challenged and then they decide. And of the refs, they all decided it would be ‘Caution two.’ It was probably five minutes, the challenges were taking a little bit of time. They came back, ‘Caution two’, and the match was over.”I was pretty pumped, finally making the finals after last year when I dropped the semis to Trey Andrews. I was excited to wrestle in another National final and also get my revenge on Andrews. But it was exciting to get over that hump at the Universities. I had a feeling there would be some controversy. I felt like Waters should be more disciplined. He was actually very respectful after the match, he told me ‘Good luck’ and what not. It was great.
“In this and the last Juniors tournament, I’ve learned that my harder matches come in the semifinals. At the Juniors, I came back from a 7-0 deficit to win that match. This time, I had to just wrestle through it. Coming out of it, I felt like I had already wrestled the best guy in the semis. Nothing against Andrews, he’s a great wrestler, but I felt like my harder match was in the semifinal and that if I just wrestle my style the whole day, my finals match shouldn’t be as hard. So I was going into that finals match confident, knowing I had my toughest match behind me, and if I just go in and wrestle my style, I’ll come out ahead. That’s what has been happening recently. Going into my warm-ups, they’ve been getting a little tougher so I can get those first matches out of the way and then I just go in and cruise through the tournaments.
“I know that I can come back from anything. I’ve had incredible comebacks before. I wouldn’t call the match against Waters a comeback because I was pushing him the whole time. But it gives me the confidence to know if I’m behind on points on the board I can still win matches and progress through tournaments. And that is definitely going to help in France and Turkey, and big tournaments like that.”