Minnesota Storm

Christian DuLaney & The Joy That Emboldens A Career

christian dulaney, minnesota storm
Christian DuLaney -- Photo: Sam Janicki

It is always a winding path in America. There is not a straight route to international Greco-Roman competition, or the eventual pursuit of World and Olympic dreams. It cannot be that way, mainly because this country is beholden to a system and sporting culture that makes such an endeavor exceedingly difficult. The wrestlers who do find themselves inside of the USA Greco-Roman pipeline are akin to scavengers. They collect attributes during their younger days, hone other skills for the much-more accepted style in between, and continue scavenging with widened eyes fixated on uncertain futures.

Good thing we have a place like Minnesota, and a wrestler like Christian DuLaney (97 kg, Minnesota Storm) who has understood how to approach the delicate task of keeping one foot in both worlds until it becomes time to jump to the sport’s top level.

not all roads lead to gold, jim gruenwald

Not an easy adventure upon which to embark, especially these days, but it was doable for DuLaney based in large part on his upbringing. His youth career was similar to the majority of Greco Seniors insofar as he began by competing in all three disciplines. The differentiating factor was the environment. When springtime arrives in the US, plenty of state federations do their best to shepherd age-groupers towards freestyle and Greco, at least until teams are selected for the Cadet and Junior Nationals (as well as the duals series). In Minnesota, there is a heightened degree of focus on these skill-sets, and particularly when it comes to Greco-Roman. Wrestlers from the past and present tutor youngsters on the finer points and effort to avail real-time technique as well as long-term resources. It was this way for DuLaney, too, for he was exposed to several of the country’s best coaches before he had reached high school age.

The goal was still collegiate folkstyle, this following a pair of state runner-up performances for Benilde-St. Margaret’s. DuLaney attended Iowa Lakes Community College before moving on to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, from which he graduated in 2019. Oh, the timing. What else can you say? DuLaney was all set to kickstart his Senior career and shoehorn himself into the Olympic Trials when everyone, the world over, was forced to take a trip to shutdown city. A fresh crop of athletes, be them rising Juniors or the motivated sort matriculating from college, were put on standstill as wrestling attempted to figure itself out in the wake of unprecedented circumstances. Some fell by the wayside as their shifters remained in neutral. Not DuLaney. Minnesota, remember? He had Olympian and coach Dave Zuniga providing one-on-one’s, he had Patrick Smith‘s (77 kg) garage, he filled in gaps by trekking up to Jake Clark’s Wrestle-Jitsu facility… Was it ideal? No. But DuLaney had an advantageous support network in place in conjunction with the wrestling ability to make the most of it.

By the spring of ’21, DuLaney had qualified for the Olympic Trials, despite the lack of usual events one might leverage to pile on Senior experience. There was trial-and-error in the beginning stages, but he bit down through the pain and kept improving. One foot in front of the other, one tournament at a time. And when last season’s domestic season reached its end, DuLaney was a US National Team member. Quite the achievement considering that it wasn’t so long ago when he was hastily jamming together practices into a staggered, confusing schedule.

But now the arrangement has changed. DuLaney is no longer a Senior newbie, and he has climbed from 87 kilograms to 97. He has already tested it out (not counting his previous escapades at age group) with the early results showing promise. In November, DuLaney emerged with bronze at the Bill Farrell Memorial in New York. Word is that the heavier weight category is a great fit for him, that his strength has gone through the roof.

It matters. Strength does matter in this sport, and it is a verifiable necessity in the upper weights. A nice arrow it is for DuLaney to have in his quiver as he looks to formulate a take-over at 97 with the US Open and World Team selection just around the corner. What he brings to the table, aside from belonging to a legacy team, is power, poise, and — most importantly — joy. DuLaney loves what he’s doing and, if you watch him close enough, it shows.

Make no mistake, that matters, too.

5PM Interview with Christian DuLaney

5PM: If you could go back to your collegiate wrestling career and there was one thing you could do differently, what would it be?

Christian DuLaney: The way I went about things my senior year, I wish I would have been more dialed-in and made better decisions.

5PM: Didn’t you graduate with two degrees?

CD: I went to JUCO (junior college) and got my associates degree and then earned my bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois.

5PM: Does ” more dialed-in” refer to academics, personally, athletically? How do you mean that?

CD: I would say making better decisions off the mat. That’s the best way I can put it.

5PM: Was there anything about college wrestling that came off as a major adjustment following high school?

CD: For me, it wasn’t that much different. I was very well-trained in high school. I went to PINnacle Wrestling School, and my dad brought me to all sorts of different practices. When I got to college, there really wasn’t anything surprising. What I would say about college wrestling is that you need to be efficient on bottom and get away; top wrestling, you need to be able to ride or turn people. And you obviously have to score on your feet. I’d probably say there are more details. You have to tighten everything up technique-wise.

What I noticed too is that when I got to Southern Illinois, a lot of the guys liked to do one thing that they were really good at. I wrestled guys who loved to do two-on-one’s, I wrestled guys who liked to scramble, ride on top for leg lifts… That is something that was a little bit different and noticed once I got Southern Illinois.

5PM: Coming from Minnesota and having trained and competed in Greco-Roman at the age-group levels, did any of that influence how you saw your future in folkstyle?

CD: I always knew that while in junior high — because I wrestled varsity in junior high — that I wanted to wrestle collegiately and try to do that at the highest level. As for Greco, when I was in high school my dad used to bring me to the Storm practices that I attend now. I always enjoyed going to those practices and I enjoyed working with Coach (Dan) Chandler. After I placed at Fargo following my senior year of high school, I knew that I was going to wrestle Greco once I was done wrestling collegiately. It was something that I wanted to do for a while.

5PM: Given your talent and ability, do you have any regrets about wrestling in college instead of going full-time Greco? Or do you look back and think that it was pretty important to wrestle in college in order to become the athlete you are now?

Christian DuLaney: I have no regrets about going to wrestle folkstyle collegiately. Obviously, maybe if I had focused on specifically Greco during college then I would have had a better understanding of certain positions earlier on. But now that I’ve been going full-time since I graduated in 2019, I don’t feel like not having done that has necessarily withheld me from developing. I feel like now I am really starting to see stuff compared to when I first started.

A lot of that has come from going to the OTC (US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center) camps; plus, we have a really good room with Pat Smith, Rich (Carlson), Fritz (Schierl)… We also have really good coaches and people who are in the Greco community in Minnesota. I forgot to mention that Dave Zuniga was one of my high school coaches when I went to Benilde St. Margaret’s. He still works with me and helps me out, as well. When COVID hit, he worked with me one-on-one in his basement. Working with him opened my eyes.

5PM: It was during that COVID block when you really started to emerge. It was a strange time. Some look at that space when the pandemic broke out as a negative for the sport, but it did allow younger wrestlers and those like yourself from college the time to catch up a little bit in order to potentially qualify for the Olympic Trials. How did you use that time to prepare for that opportunity?

CD: Originally when COVID hit, they had the announcement that Last Chance (Olympic Trials Qualifier) had been postponed. To be honest with you, if it had not been postponed at that time, I don’t think that I would have qualified. So, having that extra year was very beneficial. Obviously, we could not wrestle for a little bit, so I would go to Pat Smith’s garage. I’d wrestle with Christian Rouleau, Eric Twohey, and others. Other than that, I was just outside running a lot and doing cardio so that I would be prepared for when the time came to be able to wrestle again.

At this point, I was 1-5 on the Senior level, so it wasn’t looking to promising. There was still hope for me, but I was 1-5. Plus, they had changed the practice schedule and I was unable to make it because I had a day job. Jake Clark has a gym up in St. Cloud (Wrestle-Jitsu) and I would practice with them. I would roll around with him and John Wechter maybe once a week or twice a week. Then I was able to make Storm practice once or twice a week leading up to the Coralville Nationals that year. I think that was when stuff started to really click for me, and it was after that when I began working with Zuniga one-on-one. To get to Jake Clark’s gym, it was like a three-hour round trip and I was making that once or twice a week.

christian dulaney, 2020 us nationals

DuLaney (red) working against Joe Rau in the semifinal round of the 2020 US Nationals in Coralville, Iowa. Prior to that tournament, DuLaney’s most recent Senior competition had been the 2019 US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier, which transpired seven months after he had graduated from Southern Illinois University. (Photo: Sam Janicki)

5PM: It feels like this was a long time ago but it really wasn’t. Does it feel like that for you, that it was all a blur?

CD: I’d say that my wrestling career as a whole goes by fast. Even though it’s a process with practices and training, it goes by quicker than you think. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was a third-grader lacing up wrestling shoes.

5PM: Given the work you had to put in, and that you did actually have a Greco background, did you look at the Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier as a pressure situation once it finally arrived?

CD: No, I wouldn’t say that. This is something that I love to do. The reason that started wrestling was because it’s fun, so there isn’t pressure on me. Once I got to the Last Chance Qualifier, it was, At this point, I did everything I could do, so there was not much I could worry about. I just planned on getting after it.

5PM: The Olympic Trials carries prestige. It’s a big deal to make it into the tournament. It’s an accomplishment, and a marker. Having  gotten into the tournament, did you realize the significance of it in terms of your career?

CD: I was happy that I qualified for the Olympic Trials. I mean, it’s The Olympic Trials. I’m not sure if a lot of people know this, but during the last :02 of my match against Andrew Berreyesa (at Last Chance), he went for an arm spin and my ankle got caught in the mat. It tore up my ankle, actually. If you watch the match, I wound up limping afterwards.

Going home, my mind was focused on rehabbing my ankle as quickly as I could; but unfortunately, with all the COVID stuff going on, as soon as I got back home I had to get ready to catch a fight back down to Fort Worth a few days later. I couldn’t practice at all, because I couldn’t walk. I was in a walking boot, actually. Once I got to the Olympic Trials, I could warm-up, couldn’t really walk. When I came back home after the Trials, my leg was swollen up to my knee. Even though I was in pain at the Olympic Trials, it was, I’ll still go out there, wrestle my matches, and see what happens. But I was kind of done-for at that point. My attitude was, I’ll give it my all, but… I wrestled Barrett (Stanghill) in my first match. I remember trying to jog up the stage and I couldn’t because it was so painful. That’s why I ended up missing the Coralville Nationals two weeks later, as well.

5PM: You have now gone up to 97 kilograms. Your teammate Carlson has said that you are “scary strong” at this weight, what with not having to do the same-day cut for 87 and whatever else. There are usually multiple facets for a decision like this. What were they for you?

CD: There were a lot of factors. After I made National Team this year, I got a call from Matt Lindland at the time that there was a camp coming up. I really wanted to go to the Olympic Training Center because I had never been there before. Once I got there, they have all that food and so I was just eating all the time. I got up to like, 213 or 214 (pounds). I was around that range, and plus I knew that after the Trials that I wanted to get as big as I could. When I was at 87, I didn’t feel strong or as explosive. I kind of felt weak. That, on top of eating the OTC food, I was around 213. Then I was wrestling with Carlson one day at practice and he was like, Maybe you should go up to 97. You’re kind of big right now. I said, Yeah, I’ll try it for the Bill Farrell. At that point, I was 215 and then the heaviest I got to was 224. I had wrestled 97 in the past at Universities. During my wrestling career, I had never really cut weight. I didn’t cut weight at all until I was wrestling 87. As a kid, my dad did not want me to cut weight.

With this decision to go up to 97, I feel more explosive, faster, and I like that feeling. I didn’t have that feeling the last time I made 87 kilograms. So that was another reason, as well.

5PM: There are stylistic differences among weight classes, different body mechanics, and so on. At 97, you said you feel stronger and more explosive. But do you have the same arsenal and skill-set at 97 that you had at 87? Or have you had to make adjustments?

Christian DuLaney: Obviously, I’ve been in the weight room. But a difference would be that I have a strong lift and did have one for 87. At 87, I could reverse-lift someone with minimal technique. Now at 97, I feel that I need to set up any type of lift or a gut before I go about doing it. I feel like the main thing is the lifts. I have to make sure that I have the proper technique and footwork instead of just muscling them up right away. Which, I could still do that if I need to; but it’s a lot easier to get them up if I have the proper technique and footwork against a 97-kilogram man as opposed to an 87-kilogram man.

5PM: If you had to broadbrush it, what are you looking forward to the most about your upcoming trip to Denmark for Thor Masters and the massive camp?

CD: I have actually never left the country before. I just received my passport recently, and that was for the Bill Farrell Memorial to get my UWW (United World Wrestling) license. I’m excited to go to the other side of the planet. There is obviously the competition, going against the foreigners. I’m looking forward to that, but the main thing I’m looking forward to is the camp. Even though I’m only going to be at the camp for four days, there is a lot I’ll be able to take away from that. I’m looking to brush up my technique, learn some new things to get ready for the US Open. For me, it’s a big deal to go to this tournament and compete, and to get my hands on these foreigners. But the most important upcoming thing is the US Open — because, if you win the US Open, then you’re in Final X. Plus, you’re on the Pan-Am Team shortly after that.

I am looking forward to the camp and the tournament but we have had foreigners come train with us at the OTC camp. We had athletes from Cuba and Chile, I was wrestling around a bit with Yasmany Acosta Fernandez. I was taking away small stuff. The first time I wrestled a foreigner in a match was this year at the Bill Farrell. He was from Kyrgyzstan (Atabek Azisbekov) and wrestling him I noticed that they wrestle a little bit differently. I’m trying take away more from the foreign style because, clearly, it works. It makes them super-successful, so I am trying to adapt and change my style to win consistently at the highest level.

5PM: Yeah, over there they have a keen understanding of pressure release.

CD: Yep, yep. I’m not even sure of who all the big names are and, honestly, I don’t even care. But after I lost that match at the Bill Farrell, I looked at it and he didn’t really do too much. It was his pressure release. I’d lean into him and he wouldn’t even grab at me, he would just lift his wrist and I’d go forward. Another thing that I noticed is that he tried to control the center, he had his good pressure release, and he turned guys from top.

5PM: The US Open one way or the other is a crossroads to World Team selection. The Minnesota Storm is good at preparing athletes for this multi-tier process. Thinking about that, did that make the timing for the Denmark trip even better? Did it help determine you going or not?

CD: I could have went on the Croatian trip but I was unable to go. Then Coach Chandler brought the opportunity for me to go to Thor Masters. Everything kind of lined up perfectly to get a competition in prior to the Open. There is the ten-day camp, although I’m only there for about half of it, but it’s still beneficial depending on how you spend that time. Then I’m going to the National Team camp at the OTC where I will work on some things and clean some things up. After that, I’m going to Arizona because my buddy Tommy Helton is getting married. And then after that, I’m going to the US Open, so everything kind of lined up perfectly. I’m able to just focus on wrestling in the weeks leading up to the Open. I’m training with different partners and coaches overseas, getting different looks, and then I’m back with US coaches to tune things up. Everything kind of lined up perfectly.

5PM: Pat Smith, I’m just going to assume that he’s a leader in the room, right?

CD: Yeah (laughs).

5PM: Pat has traveled so, so much throughout his career. Did he provide any tips about what to expect going overseas?

CD: To sum it up, he was basically like, Go get after it. That is really what he said. He told me that it’s in a nice area. I’m just going to wrestle them. It’s all I can do. I don’t really care who the top countries are. Thankfully, at the Minnesota Storm, we’ve had a lot of great wrestlers from other countries come in and work with us. I’m not really worried about the foreign style. I’m just going to do what Pat said to do, which is to get after it and not hold anything back.

5PM: You’ve got a lot of time left in this sport and many believe that you have the potential to do big things competitively. You have also only been a full-time Greco athlete for a couple of years. What have you learned about yourself during this process thus far that has made an impact on you both personally and competitively?

Christian DuLaney: Regardless of what is going on, I’m able to find a way to get stuff done — even if it’s not the way people say it should be done. There is more than one way to get stuff done and I’m able to do that so long as I put my mind to it, stay focused, and give my best effort.

Regardless of past results, you can change. Things can be changed. Through months, weeks, and years, things will change if you just stay consistent. It doesn’t have to be just wrestling. It could be the piano, or trying to improve a relationship. If you stay consistent and put effort into it, good things can happen. If I put my mind to it and approach it in a proper manner, I can do anything in this world.

Also, some people think they need a coach to accomplish something. You don’t need a coach to always be there for you. You can get stuff done on your own. There have been numerous times in a wrestling room when it has been me and another dude figuring stuff out on our own. I like social media and am on Instagram a lot. I look at these pages with foreign wrestlers and wrestling techniques pop up from places like Russia and Kyrgyzstan. I learn from just watching these videos sometimes. You can always learn. Everyone is on their phone nowadays. It can be a great tool to learn more about wrestling.

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