Jacob Clark had come so far. At 36 years young, he laughed off all of the supposed experts who were really just doubters in disguise. He’s too old… He’s been out of the game too long… This is different now. Only it wasn’t. Maybe some eyebrows, fixed in a furrow at the thought of a Clark resurgence, were raised back in November when the Minnesota native emerged from the shadows to compete at the Bill Farrell Invitational. But after winning the US Nationals a month later, no one could feign surprise anymore. How could they? Not only did Clark emerge victorious, he didn’t surrender a single point throughout the entire proceedings. Got that? No one scored on him. Not Mark Steinberg. Not Lucas Sheridan. And not Ben Provisor. Three athletes, all in the prime of their respective careers and each one came up with a goose egg. Even in Greco where points can be hard to come by at the highest levels, that is awfully tough to do.
But Jake Clark, good old Jake Clark, had found himself again. The memory of the 2012 Olympic Trials serving as a reminder that things have a habit of going wrong at the oddest times. Pete Hicks, Clark throwing him and breaking his shoulder, it was both misfortune and misery. This wasn’t the same guy. He might have been older but he was wiser, stronger, better. More aware. 2016’s Trials were supposed to demonstrate this. And although Minnesota Storm stablemate Jordan Holm was figured to be on the verge of his own rightful coronation towards Olympic glory, Clark was every bit the dead-serious contender heading into Iowa City. So much so in fact, that some in the media were predicting an all-Storm final at 85 kilograms. Jon Anderson (Army/WCAP), another superbly talented contender, maintained his status as the potential foil with Provisor’s presence seen more as an under-the-radar threat, but one Holm would likely effectively deal with once it got to that point.
Things have a habit of changing in a hurry during a big tournament. All it takes is one upset to disrupt wrestling’s cosmic balance of things. Or at least it appears that way. After all, upsets are subjective. To the victors these aren’t big surprises. They prepare with maniacal fury so as not to become a statistic, a stepping stone, a temporary obstacle for their opponents to hop over. You get that, right? You get that for all of the designated favorites heading into a major competition is a legion of would-be conquerors who go to bed the night before believing that they will slay the biggest dragon. These athletes, specifically Greco Roman wrestlers, operate that way. They have to. Hesitation is death and admitting the hill is steep sounds almost conciliatory. Just can’t happen. You’re either there to triumph by the sword or go out on your shield. There is little room for a grey area to coexist.
In the semifinals of the 85 kg class at the 2016 Olympic Wrestling Team Trials Ben Provisor was busy with two things: Defending the pummeling attacks of one Mr. Holm and also, rediscovering the simple fact that his zenith was still off in the horizon. You see, making an Olympic Team at 21 years of age, as Provisor did four years ago, would normally paint a picture of an athlete whose ceiling reaches the outer perimeter of the planet’s orbit. But that is only the case when there is a litany of easily surmountable fault lines to consider. Trajectories change once athletes become acquainted with the mortal vulnerabilities of their bodies. For Provisor, this introduction was tantamount to a master’s class in orthopedic horror stories. His back. His neck. His arm. They all had to be reassembled, re-calibrated, reattached, and rehabbed in the years since 2012. Unfortunately, there is no magic dust to heal these things. And even worse, there are no guarantees that once mended the machine will be able to express commands the same way it once did, back when you were younger and the sun always glowed with a brilliant amber.
Thankfully, the heart can become a suitable supplement to assist in the overcoming of such maladies. If it’s beating, it’s working. If it’s working, there is blood. Where there is blood, there is vitality. Wherever vitality reigns, so does opportunity. There was Provisor, tangling with Holm in the midst of a battle where going in, few outside of his circle felt was a 50/50 proposition. Holm, a thoroughbred of an athlete who oft displays the kind of physical tools found more commonly in NFL safeties, couldn’t seem to wrangle his more compact and relentless foe. Provisor, tilting his head down as he pushed into exchanges, seemed like this was all so fresh to him. Not the activity itself, but the platform. The chance. This was a gateway he had walked through already once in his career and yet there in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, it was almost as if the circumstances had finally coalesced to welcome him back to a place he really never left.
The virtue of pretending to be surprised
At around the same time Provisor was illustrating why the word “upset” sometimes lacks any discernible nuance, Clark was dealing with Anderson. It was a compelling start for the ageless one. Predictably, the action was as tight as a knot early on. A step-out brought the first point of the match but Anderson hadn’t even nailed it into gear just yet. Clouds started to circle. There’s a saying that goes, “You never want to remind the lion that he’s a lion.” The reasoning behind it is that once the lion realizes it has claws, strength and a desire to annihilate, it is going to “do lion things.” Clark locked on a front headlock and turned it over for a commanding 5-1 lead. Two points went back to Anderson after he reversed the position and lifted. That’s when the thunder hit. Clark soon found an opportunity when he turned around another Anderson attempt for four points. He then snagged another front-head for two more and that was it. Clark’s reemergence was now close to becoming legendary.
The odd part about all of this wasn’t the sequence: Anderson didn’t exactly appear to be a wounded duck out there. Rather, it was that Clark moved so seamlessly, so confidently. It was a relished poise, a feeling he must have been experiencing that told him his time was finally arriving. The premise was laid out before the masses. You came for a story? You got one. Jake Clark, back on the scene perhaps better than ever, a razor blade’s thickness away from greeting the one objective every wrestler stares down since childhood. And Provisor, arms and legs and flesh and blood re-imagined, desire dripping from his pores. He was part-reclamation project, part-Prodigal Son. He believed this still belonged him, the journey to another Olympiad. The world would find out soon enough that he was right.
In the first of their best-of-three series, a certain edginess found its way mat-side. Having knocked off the top-seeded Holm, no one would have blamed you for thinking that Provisor had something special going. However, Clark’s technical fall victory over Anderson was tough to forget about, despite the fact the deciding points came in a hurry towards the end of the bout. Still, you couldn’t ask for much more out of a performance, especially given the context. Both men took the mat and collided in earnest. Momentum in Greco Roman wrestling isn’t the same as it is in other sports. It often isn’t built on a gradual basis. If anything, it comes quickly and violently, which is why there is such a focus on attacking from suitable positions. One wrong move and the train can leave you wary and desperate waiting at the station.
Fittingly, neither wrestler scored in the opening period. That didn’t take away from any of the intensity. Provisor employed a rock-like stance and burrowed into Clark; Clark would return fire by trying to snatch a limb, a neck, anything he could control long enough to do something with. One item working in Provisor’s favor was his stature, or lack thereof. Wrestling at 85 kilograms and coming in listed at 5’8 tall, his is a body of immense density. He used it to his advantage by allowing his legs to behave as pistons, bending at the knees and coming up, each element of his footwork designed to light a pathway for scoring.
Clark didn’t wilt right away, though the consistent pounding inside appeared to take its toll. A passivity call against Clark in the second period yielded the match’s first points. From par terre, Provisor wrapped around Clark’s waist for a gutwrench, grinding down the hold before rotating it over. There was no escape for Clark as Provisor got the power he needed to finish the maneuver and turn it for two. There was still some fighting left. Once they returned to their feet Clark snapped for an arm-drag but couldn’t hold onto it. Time was running out in the second period and Clark picked up his pace accordingly. Provisor couldn’t rest, not for a second, lest he find his way on the defensive in par terre which would give Clark a terrific shot at stealing the win. So he instead turned up the heat, catching Clark off-balance near the edge causing him to step out. It meant one more point, only it couldn’t have been bigger for Provisor. Not then. The remaining seconds ticked away and whatever trepidation anyone had regarding the 25-year old’s chances begun to evaporate.
Caution and two
Interpretations of circumstances tend to carry more significance than the circumstances themselves. Resisting what has just happened is pointless. It takes away from being able to cogently zero in on what needs to be accomplished now. You don’t know what it going to happen next and while one call that doesn’t go your way in a match can turn the tide, dwelling on it can be just as hazardous. Perhaps that is one defining characteristic of wrestling itself. It forces athletes into worrying about the present. Someone is trying to beat on you, addressing that almost always becomes the priority. Let the coaches try and affect legislation. Wrestlers aren’t there to change peoples’ minds.
The second bout of the series was do or die for Jake Clark. He certainly came out of the gate wrestling like it. Then again, his opponent was working with a sense of urgency, as well. Clark leaned in lunging over his right foot and the two instantly began hand-fighting. Provisor had the benefit of leverage with his hips beneath Clark’s. This allowed him to push forward and up in effort to disrupt Clark in the ties. Posturing was out of the question. It was both athletes on the brink trying to see which one would create an opening first. Clark weaved in and dug an underhook with his right arm. Provisor did not reciprocate with an overhook, which is a common reaction to the position. Rather, he kept his left arm over Clark’s underhook and turned in, his left hand acting as a turnstile on Clark’s shoulder. The movement of Provisor’s arm and his hips following the motion caused Clark to lose his balance. Provisor seized on the action and spun around at the edge for two early points. But the dynamics of the match hadn’t changed just yet.
With a touch over a minute left in the first period, Provisor was hit for passivity a second time. If Clark was somehow get to a third and decisive match, this position offered one of his best chances at doing so. Clark circled around to the front at the whistle. Front-headlocks from par terre (and anywhere else, really) are one of his calling cards. He prodded in to nestle his arms around Provisor’s head but couldn’t quite cinch it up. There was a reason for that: Provisor kept his arms inside for protection. He didn’t present himself and as such, was penalized. It was a caution and two points for Clark. It also meant Provisor had to assume the position once more. His corner protested the call. Fire-spitting, as they say. Provisor didn’t flinch. He went back to the circle and got down on all four’s because there is just no use in swimming against the current.
It could have been different. Different in so many ways. But the script wasn’t altered. Not enough for Clark, anyway. Upon the whistle, Clark scampered around to find himself another one of his trusty front-headlocks. And why not? Despite Provisor having defended the move in the first bout, going with what has worked so well in the past is a viable strategy. You know, like a power pitcher saying “If I’m going to get beat, it’ll be with my fastball.” That sort of thing. Clark’s front-headlock isn’t merely a good one. No, it’s a great one. He knows how to roll his wrists in just the perfect way and adjust depending on the opponent’s width, the separation, the depth, the situation. It’s a major scoring hold for Clark. He could probably give an eight hour presentation on the move’s finer points complete with slides and a “Q & A” session to follow. The only problem was that as soon as he dropped to his left hip to roll, Provisor rose. In more ways than one.
One too many times
Provisor picked his head up as Clark dropped down. He then wrapped his left arm around Clark’s hip and slung his right arm over Clark’s shoulder. You wanted a story? Provisor proceeded to drive Clark to his back holding him there, holding on for dear life and the hope that everyone would now see that this was all part of his plan. That he hadn’t really left, he was just biding his time. Ben Provisor wasn’t the same wrestler he was in 2012. He wasn’t the same wrestler he was in 2015 for crying out loud. He had improved, but not just in technique or strength and stamina. Something else. He had grown. Provisor may have believed this was all inside of him the entire time and maybe that’s true. The outlying variable was that now he understood what this all meant to him in a way that made it easier for everyone else to understand it, too.
The referee signaled for the fall, prompting Provisor to stand up and flex in celebration. The Minnesota Storm side challenged the call because they thought maybe Provisor had interfered with Clark’s leg to stop the hold. Three-time Olympian and Minnesota Storm head coach Dan Chandler yelled towards the mat, “Caution and two more!” The replays didn’t provide the evidence Clark, Chandler, or the entire state of Minnesota was hoping for. The scene was one of divergent splendor. Jake Clark’s inspiring journey had come to an end in a flame, its embers radiating to highlight wounds old and new. There was an escape in his gracious nature. He accepted the moment, offered his counterpart congratulations and walked off of the platform, maybe for the last time.
If it felt like there was a curtain closing, it was only because Provisor was bowing following his encore. A lot can happen in a month, so imagine what can happen inside of four years. Adult things. Marriage. A daughter. Injuries. Tales not told. Tales that maybe don’t need to be. Scars from battle, scars from scalpels. It was all a blur. Pain is pain and when it’s gone there is often an emptiness born in its place. There has to be something to fill that void. Victory is a worthy substitute. So is the satisfaction of proving to skeptics that your level of self-belief far exceeds their lack of knowledge about you. A fully-filled well is only good if people know to drop a bucket down.
Summer is here and it is going to move fast. The United States Greco Roman Olympic Team is due to leave for Brazil during the second week of August which means that for them, the warm season is going to go even faster. Training camps, recovery, more training, more recovery. Then it’s time to organize passports and itineraries before kissing loved ones and saying, I’ll see you when you get there. That’s the best thing about this for Ben Provisor. He’s already been there before. Twisting turns along with devastating setbacks had marked his return. To complete the resurrection he was called upon to do battle with a man who has also navigated his own share of peaks and valleys. A man who wanted what Provisor now holds close but understood the road back well enough to respect the process. You really can’t ask for much more from an opponent. It’s enough that athletes have to struggle with life’s peripherals when they aren’t even competing. At the very least you want your partner in battle to deserve to be there when the lights are on. No one did more than Jake Clark.
Except Provisor. To him, this was always his to begin with. Believing you can do something and knowing that you can are mutually exclusive concepts. Should it prove difficult to defeat a man who believes, it is exceedingly more so when contending with one who knows. And that is what this has been about for Ben from Wisconsin. He knew it, he took it, and he is here to tell you there is unfinished business that requires his attention. If we’ve learned anything, it requires yours, too.