IOWA CITY, Iowa – Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) smiles a lot. It’s one of the first things you notice about the 25 year old. He is quick to laugh, too. But on Saturday night he was all business, defeating Caylor Williams (Army/WCAP) in the final two matches to claim his first Olympic Trials victory.
Obviously, that brought on more smiles.
Rau had to come back from being down 1-0 in the series after Williams launched a huge throw that led to a fall a minute and a half into the first bout. The second match would tell a different story, however. Whatever nerves haunted Rau in the first match seemed completely gone in the proceeding battle, as he kept a controlled pace early on in order to find his rhythm. That would lead to a passive call and then another, putting Williams on top in par terre, a dangerous place to be. He found a gut for two, but couldn’t do anything else with it, giving Rau new life going into the second frame.
It was a tense start in the second period for both men, and Williams would wind up getting a passivity knock of his own. This proved to be all Rau needed to re-assert himself. A gutwrench tallied two points but Williams’s team challenged immediately. The denial gave Rau another point and a 3-2 lead. Following the re-set, each wrestler began trying to create new openings but there was no discernible edge in urgency on either side. A late takedown by Joe Rau increased the lead to 5-2 in the latter stages of the match and snatched him the win, resulting in a third and conclusive match.
The last contest saw Rau coming in low to kick things off, perhaps to upset his taller opponent’s footing. A snap attempt by the Storm wrestler didn’t go anywhere and Williams began to increase his work rate, coming close on an arm-drag. In return, Rau re-established his stance, bullying directly into his foe and a moment later earning Williams another passivity call. From par terre Rau clamped on a gut and quickly tried to muscle it through. Caylor stayed as pasted as he could but it wouldn’t be enough. The force coming from Rau’s grip was too much to bear – he rolled once and then again at the edge for a four-point lead late in the first period.
Williams wasn’t going down without a fight. The 25 year old got busy right from the whistle trying to ignite some offense. It worked, as Rau got dinged for his second passivity a short time later to force him into par terre bottom. The chance the Army wrestler was waiting for had arrived. Williams did what he does maybe better than anyone, which is find a lock and create space for a lift. Rau got as heavy as it could but Williams adjusted for the defensive position by modifying his trajectory for a four-point reward.
Things began to not look so great for Rau when he did his best to charge Williams to the edge for a step-out, only to have Williams matador him the other way for his own point. Down 5-4 midway through the second, Rau needed to score. He would do precisely that. With time running down, Rau fought for a bodylock and tackled Williams at the boundary. It would net him two, but the argument could have been made for four since Williams appeared to expose on the way down. Either way, the tables were turned and as the seconds ticked away, a 360 deke into a high-dive attempt by Williams didn’t find its mark. Joe Rau kept his stance until the clock ran out, raising his arms before walking off the mat as the 2016 98 kg Greco Roman Olympic Trials champion.
“It feels good, it feels great”, Rau said afterwards. “But it’s not over yet. I still have to qualify this weight for the Olympics so I”m happy for tonight, but tomorrow it’s back to work.”
Winning the back two of a best-of-three series is no easy feat and considerably daunting when the opponent is someone as dynamic as Williams is. Despite his previous two victories over the WCAP representative, Rau was behind the eight ball after the first match. Something he tried to not let keep him down for too long.
“You know, I just shrug it off,” said Rau. “I was reading a part of Pursuit of Excellence last night, it’s a sports psyche book and it was perfect for today, perfect for what I’ve been going through recently. It’s just getting your best focus and when something bad happens not dwelling on it.”
Rau continued, “I got thrown to my back, it happens. He’s got to win two more and if I do my best he’s not gonna do it.”
It’s going to be a quick turnaround. Rau, along with Jesse Thielke (59 kg) and RaVaughn Perkins (66 kg) will be heading to Mongolia for the first of two last chance qualifiers. If all goes well there, a second trip to Turkey just under two weeks later won’t be necessary. But on Saturday night Joe Rau was still smiling. Maybe even a little wider than usual.