“This is the longest stretch I haven’t competed since I was like six years old, so I’m excited get back out there because this is what I love to do.”
Josef Rau (98 kg, Minnesota Storm) is, for the first time in a while, at peace.
The 2016 US Greco-Roman Olympic Trials Champion and 2014 World Team member had spent most of the second-half of last year on the shelf. A knee injury suffered as he was attempting to qualify for the Rio Olympics required repair, the subsequent recovery process lengthy and frustrating for the 25-year old. But over the last two months, Rau’s activity level started increasing. Light drilling and “play wrestling” in the Minnesota Storm practice room began to unveil a light at the end of tunnel. He even made it out to the US Olympic Training Center for winter camp in January, despite his limitations.
Rau is picking up momentum at the best possible time. The World TeamTrials are just over two months away and due to a fortuitous turn of events, the popular kid from Chicago is going to have a chance to get the kinks out beforehand. The Hungarian Grand Prix, the last stop on the US Greco Roman tour of Europe in March, is where finally, Rau will be able to get back to business. It all unfolded in a flash.
“I just got off the phone with Coach (Dan) Chandler yesterday and he said to call and see if I can get on a tour,” says Rau. “So I called Coach Lindland to set that up and it was literally just yesterday that I got the go-ahead.”
Attending one of the events on the tour schedule was weighing on Rau’s mind. It’s easy to see why. By the time he steps back on the mat in Hungary, it will have been nearly 11 months since Rau last competed. That’s a lengthy block of time to be strolling in the shadows. If Rau were to wait until the World Team Trials in late April, it would be almost an entire year away from the rigors of Greco Roman competition. And to him, returning in full at the Trials seemed like too big of a risk to take.
“In my head, I’ve been like, I need to go on a tour,” ruminates Rau. “I don’t want to go into the Trials without matches under my belt. Just in case you have a bad tournament, you want to knock the rust off. I had been meaning to ask him (Chandler) whenever we have been talking about everyone going on tours and it’s like, Damn, I’ve been meaning to ask Chandler. And then he called me and told me and I said, Thank God. I was relieved when he called and asked because it has been in my head for a little while.”
Well-known athletes re-emerging after prolonged layoffs has been a hot topic lately. The 2017 Dave Schultz alone featured two other Olympic Trials champs, RaVaughn Perkins (71 kg, NYAC) and Jesse Thielke (59 kg, NYAC), along with Trials runner-up Geordan Speiller (Florida Jets) entering the arena for the first time many months. Thielke performed well in his first match but lost his next two. Perkins and Speiller both won the tournament. So results may vary. However, for Rau, the main concern right now is more centered around performance capability than the outcome. Sort of.
“I want to see how I perform and how I feel,” explains Rau. “I should be ready to go and I think from here, there is still a little of, How do I feel going into a tournament? Sure, I can go to practice and all this stuff, but a tournament is a different animal, the grind, so there is that, Well, how’s it going to feel? I want to test it out but I think I should be fine and ready to go.”
Thus lies the primary obstacle. Returning from injury, depending on the severity, is almost always a marathon, not a sprint. There are mini-milestones to be reached, those small yet important confidence-building moments which take place in the wrestling room as an athlete learns things are starting to ebb in their favor. There are other times when the process is slow, methodical, and frustrating. Setbacks are like potholes on an otherwise seamlessly paved road — you know there are bound to be some, you’re just trying to avoid them as long as you can. One practice can be different than the next, and all of the positive “wrestle-speak” in the world isn’t enough to heal damaged scar tissue. That’s why for Rau, the key has been patience. Grueling, taunting, exasperating patience.
“There are good days and bad days,” Rau admits. “But right now, the guy working with me is saying it is fully-healed, but not all of the muscles around it have been strengthened to their normal levels yet. Timing is off and getting those muscles used to firing and used to all of the movements I need to do requires my pushing through that a little bit. Some days, it’s a little more sore than others but it has been responding well over the last week. Someone told me, “Look, it’s going to get better”, though it may seem at times like, Shit, this is never going to be the same. I’m finally getting over that and feel like, it’s getting better, it’s getting better. I finally broke through that to where I am starting to feel like myself again.”
It does bear mentioning that while it’s nice for Rau to get a tune-up in before the World Team Trials, the tournament he is coming back for isn’t exactly a cookie. The Hungarian Grand Prix, which takes place March 25th-26th in Szombathely, traditionally offers some of the stiffest international competition on the calendar. Each year, many of the world’s best Greco Roman wrestlers find their way to the event and fight it out to jump-start their own campaigns. Rau earned a bronze at the Hungarian Grand Prix two years ago and even though this time around he’s entering as a test drive, he can’t help but steer an eye towards wrapping up some unfinished business.
“I’m knocking the rust off but I really want to go in there and try to win that thing. I took bronze when I was at 80 (kilograms) and I lost a 4-4 match we all thought I was winning. I should have been in the finals. That’s a huge tournament, it’s one I want to win. I might not be at my best right now, but I believe you can win with whatever you’ve got, whatever the circumstances are. I’m hoping I just go out there and let it rip. I’m just excited to compete again, it’s my favorite part of the sport. It’s not that practice isn’t necessary, but I just really love to compete.”
Yep. Sounds like he’s back already.