Iowa, the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, and the quest for Gold

Former+Iowa+wrestler+Tony+Ramos+talks+to+the+media+in+the+Dan+Gable+Wrestling+Complex+on+Monday%2C+April+4%2C+2016.+The+Olympic+Trials+will+take+place+at+Carver-Hawkeye+Arena+April+9-10.+%28The+Daily+Iowan%2F+Jordan+Hansen%29

Former Iowa wrestler Tony Ramos talks to the media in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex on Monday, April 4, 2016. The Olympic Trials will take place at Carver-Hawkeye Arena April 9-10. (The Daily Iowan/ Jordan Hansen)

Gold.

For some, it’s just a shiny, gold metal that’s worth a lot of money.

But it also has a meaning in the sports world. Greatest. Unforgettable. Champion.

Wrestling is a sport without a recognizable professional league and a gold medal represents the pinnacle of achievement. Sure, there are NCAA titles, World Championship titles and dozens of other events with medals, mats, and award stands, but they do not compare.

As the Olympic Trials begin on Saturday in Iowa City, four former Hawkeye wrestlers will take the mat — Tony Ramos (57 kg), Dan Dennis (57 kg), Brent Metcalf (65 kg), and Bobby Telford (125 kg).

All four are members of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, a nonprofit organization founded in 1973 to give former grapplers — usually Iowa graduates — a chance to compete internationally. It’s overseen by an unpaid executive board whose main purpose is to raise money for wrestlers training at the highest level.

“It’s huge for a guy like me who has a family and wife,” Metcalf said. “I couldn’t support them myself and train and do the things and go after the goals I have in life without the support of it.”

In 2008, Iowa head coach Tom Brands knew he had something special.

The Hawkeyes won national titles during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, but Brands was thinking bigger than that. He saw international potential in several of his wrestlers.

There was, however, a problem — a big one.

Funding.

“You can talk about anything you want, but without the money to pay these guys, it’s no good,” Brands said. “We went from about a $45,000 a year budget to needing about $200,000 a year.”

The Hawkeye Wrestling Club required some fresh blood for fundraising and the entire board was scrapped, with new people brought in to run the show.

It was in dire straits and Brands worried that he would lose his wrestlers to other groups that could afford to pay more.

“This time of the year, we’d be sitting with $5,000 in the bank and we had to pay athletes to train,” Hawkeye Wrestling Club board President Tim Grissel Jr. said. “All of our athletes get a monthly stipend to train and in order to get, keep, and retain athletes in today’s market with all these clubs, you have to pay them.”

The process wasn’t easy. The board members brought in were described by Brands as business people who immediately got to work.

Since raising money was the focus, who would be better qualified than a group of people with a deep understanding of finance? Brands understood this and, going along with his intense and passionate nature, harnessed those things and got the organization moving in the right direction.

“Tom is maybe the most motivating person I’ve ever met,” Grissel said. “You talk to him for an hour, and you’re ready to run through a wall. He’s just that way with the board members on the club.”

The changing of the guard worked. Soon, the Hawkeye Wrestling Club was back on the map. What was once a pittance is now enough to support five athletes with an eye on a gold metal.

“Now we’re to the point where we’re not rich, but we’re sitting here with money in the bank, and we’re not worried we can’t afford our athlete payroll checks next month,” Grissel said.

Fundraising ideas such as the Polar Plunge, golf outings, and dinners have for the most part been successful. There’s lots of love among the Hawkeye faithful for their former college stars, and their supporters have stepped up.

“It’s really hard to even explain in a few words of how valuable it is to a guy like me, how valuable it is to our program,” Metcalf said.” I appreciate all the support we get, and we get it from a lot of different areas, a lot of different levels.”

Grissel said athletes supported by the Hawkeye Wrestling Club normally receive around $2,000 a month from the organization.

It’s not a ton, but when added with sponsorship deals and money from other clubs that members of the team participate in, it’s enough.

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without my sponsors,” Ramos said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without that extra money.”

More than the money, however, the wrestlers involved with the club also work regularly with the Iowa coaching staff and current student-athletes. There’s a saying around the program: “Iron sharpens Iron” that reverberates strongly with anyone who sets foot in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.

The idea behind the training is competing against the best brings out the greatest version of themselves. It’s not only important for the Olympic level athletes but also for the college students hoping for a shot at a NCAA title and the glory beyond.

The older wrestlers also serve as role models and something to aspire to, which is not a small thing.

“A lot of times you hear what makes a team a good, and it’s the mentorship. It’s not just coaches,” Brands said. “It’s training partners, it’s mentors, and then upperclassmen who go on to compete in your room.

“Now they’re becoming husbands and fathers, but they’re still rubbing elbows with guys like [Thomas] Gilman, and [Cory] Clark, and [Brandon} Sorensen, and all those guys.”

It has been 20 years since Brands won Iowa’s last Olympic gold medal and 16 since Terry Brands and Lincoln McIlravy both won bronze at the 2000 Sydney games.

Five other former Hawkeyes have competed at the Olympic games since then, though none of them have medaled. No Iowa wrestlers made the roster for the 2012 games, though there is a sense that could change this season.

Both Metcalf and Ramos were ranked No. 1 at their respective weights in the pre-Olympic Trials freestyle rankings. Anything could happen this weekend in Iowa City, however, and the window for many of these athletes to compete is painfully short.

“You got the chance to go out there and achieve goals and dreams that you set when you’re a little kid or you when you first realized this might be a possibility,” Ramos said. “I’m just trying to embrace the process and go back and think about things from where I came from and what I’ve been doing to keep me calm and focused.”

This weekend all of the time, money and effort invested in the wrestlers of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club will be put to the test.

At the end, however, whether or not Iowa has three grapplers headed to the Olympics or zero, nothing will be viewed as wasted.

“You’re around these kids, and they have these dreams, and they’re working their butts off for them and you want to see them succeed,” Grissel said. “You want to give them what they need to succeed, which is in this case just money to eat and money to pay their rent. We love it; otherwise, we wouldn’t do it.”

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