The Free Spirit of Freestyle Wrestling

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Some Olympians are easy to root for. Some are difficult, others impossible. Then there is Daniel Dennis, a vagabond ripped from a Jack Kerouac novel that is impossible to root against.
Dennis, after years of doing almost anything other than wrestling — including some activities likely detrimental to the cause — hits the scale Thursday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to weigh in for the 2016 Summer Olympics. On Friday he will continue his quest for gold, and who better to represent the United States of America than Daniel Dennis, the American freestyle lightweight?
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.”
Kerouac wrote that. Dennis lived it. His tale has often been told — sometimes evolving into fictional folklore. What is true about his story is this: He suffered a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds of the 2010 NCAA finals, walked away from the sport, wandered west, lost his father, Tim, to a brain tumor, returned to Iowa under the radar, and eventually earned a position on the Olympic team.
One day he was climbing the Colorado National Monument. Many moons later, he was climbing USA Wrestling’s national rankings.
“I got talked into competing and one thing led to another,” Dennis said. “It was gradual, but looking back, it was a big transformation. A lot had happened.”
A big wake-up call came in 2015 after Dennis was runner-up at the U.S. World Team Trials. He felt strong, fresh, and committed to attaining a different result in 2016. He focused every day on improving and eventually convinced himself he could defeat anybody in his weight class.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Kerouac wrote that. Dennis embodies it. A habitual runner-up — twice at the Illinois high school state finals, once on the NCAA’s top stage, and then again in 2015 — Dennis moves forward with a clear mind and spirit. He doesn’t seek attention; he doesn’t get fired up; his focus is enjoying life “right now.”
“He’s one of these guys that will be like, ‘Hey let’s climb a mountain,'” said University of Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands. “That works for him because that’s who he is. That’s how he found himself — getting down to that and letting go of the past and bitterness that was holding him back the past couple years.”
On April 10, 2016, nothing held Dennis back. He tore through the challenge bracket at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Iowa, and swept the best-of-three finals against former Hawkeye Tony Ramos, 2-1, 10-0. He made the U.S. Olympic Team. He went out and celebrated. And he began preparing for Rio.
He says time has moved quickly since April. He has spent his time on the mat competing at the World Cup, training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, and winning a gold medal at the German Grand Prix. He watches video on the side, listening to his coaches analyze his opponents and make any necessary adjustments to what might be perceived as a “chink in the armor.”
He spends a lot of time at the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But he also enjoys time off the mat. “I don’t try and do too much besides riding my bike and playing with my dog,” he said.
He owns five bikes and has a sidecar set to be delivered to his home in Iowa City. In it, you might find Otis, his German Shepard rescue dog. One of them may even being wearing Olympic jewelry, though it won’t affect their mood one way or the other.
“There is no (gold or) bust,” Dennis said about Rio. “That is the goal obviously, but it’s not all or nothing. You just continue to do your best.”
Champion or not, how can you root against that perspective? And why would you?
As Terry Brands put it, “I think he’s a really fun guy to hang out with.”
The 57 kg qualifying and elimination rounds begin Friday at 8 a.m. (CT). Repechage and the medal matches begin Friday at 2 p.m. A live stream is available at