Ingleside native takes long, winding path back to Olympic wrestling mat
Just three years ago, Team USA Olympic wrestler Daniel Dennis had made a decision to step away from the sport he loved.
Back, arm and neck injuries sapped his strength and his willpower, and the former two-time NCAA All-American out of the University of Iowa was so certain he was finished with wrestling that he made a surprising decision.
Dennis hopped in his old, worn-out pickup truck, and with nothing more than a couple of hundred bucks to his name, left Iowa and made his way west. His goal of soul searching led the Ingleside, Illinois, native to living out of that beat-up Ford F-150 as he toured through Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, where he read, reminisced and planned his next move, all the while sleeping under the stars.
In between rock-climbing adventures, he managed to teach at enough wrestling camps to fund his next jaunt, sometimes making as much as a grand or two to get him to his next stop. His ultimate goal, he thought, was to make it all the way to California, where he was considering taking a high school wrestling coach position.
Dennis finally made it to San Francisco, where he took a gig as an assistant coach while also working odd jobs at a gas station and as a roofer before a wrestling tournament back east caught his attention. Dennis decided to make his way to Pittsburgh, where he won $2,500 for cleaning up his bracket. Dennis used the money to buy himself a home -- a 26-foot trailer with no TV, Internet or heat. He was still roughing it.
That tournament did another thing too. It gave him confidence, and it got him thinking. So much so that at the urging of an old friend and teammate, he decided to enter the U.S. Open in 2015. He knew many of the guys topping off the rankings, and despite so much time away from the sport, he was convinced he could beat them.
Dennis finished fourth in the open, making it all the way to the semifinals before losing to former Olympic medalist Coleman Scott. The success (and the failure) motivated Dennis to continue competing, and at the urging of Iowa Associate Head Coach Terry Brands, Dennis entered the World Team Trials in 2015.
There, he managed to avenge his defeat to Scott before ultimately losing in the Finals, but his strong performance, despite not training consistently, led to talk of the Olympic trials. Dennis decided to move back to Iowa, where he would train full time for the trials, which took place in April. To no one's surprise, not only did Dennis qualify, he was the Trial Tournament champion. He topped that off by also winning the 2016 U.S. Open as well.
Now Dennis heads into the Summer Games in Rio as the top-rated grappler at 125.5 pounds. If this journey of self-discovery and a successful comeback are any indication, it would be a mistake to bet against him on the world stage. The $250,000 in bonus money that goes to the gold medal winner would buy one heck of a new truck.