- Doug Williams
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If Kyle Dake were playing basketball for Kentucky or football for Alabama, his name would be known from Hartford to Honolulu.
In his sport, Dake is excellence personified, a three-time national champion who would achieve legendary status with a fourth title in March.
But Dake's sport is wrestling, so even though he's undefeated over two seasons, has a 127-4 career record and has been compared to the best collegians of all time, Dake is mostly in the dark.
The media spotlight shines on sky-walking dunks and breakaway touchdown runs, not on sweaty guys in skimpy singlets wearing little hubcaps over their ears.
"It would be really cool to get a ton of national media and get a segmented time on ESPN and stuff like that, but it's never been like that," says Dake, a senior at Cornell. "Right now it's not the way the cards fell, and I'm not too worried about it. I'll shine in March."
That's when Dake will attempt to win a fourth straight title, something that's been done only twice in Division I wrestling, which dates to 1928. And Dake would be the first to do it without a redshirt year.
Already, Dake has gone where no other grappler has gone before, winning three championships in three weight classes -- 141 pounds as a freshman, 149 as a sophomore and 157 as a junior -- and is ranked No. 1 at 165 pounds this season.
But those are all just the numbers.
It's how he's achieved them that is much more interesting.
• • •
First, don't call them superstitions. They're routines.
Every morning since he came to Cornell, Dake has picked up his notebook and written a goal: to be the NCAA champion. He's done it during the season, in the offseason and in the summer. He never takes a day off. And under the goal, he outlines what he'll do that day to achieve it. The only thing that's changed in four years has been the weight class.
For every match, he wears the same clothes. The same singlet, warm-ups, socks, underwear and shoes.
Before every match, he goes through the same warm-up routine, in the same order, for the same amount of time with the same partner.
During each match before his own, Dake gets up and begins to pace, getting himself ready. That's when Cornell head coach Rob Koll says he's "just manic," "like a caged tiger." Koll knows not to talk with Dake at that point. He's too locked in.
Then, when it's time for Dake to take the mat, he has to slap hands with Koll and assistant coach Jeremy Spates. The slaps have to be as hard as they possibly can be.
"He's going to take the skin off your hand every time he gets ready to go out," says Koll. "[He's going to] slap the coaches' hands in a certain routine, and if he doesn't do that, God help the coach who's not there on time. And he smacks as hard as I've ever been smacked. It breaks blood vessels."
Says Dake: "I give a pretty hard smack before a match just to see if I can hurt their hand before the match, just to see their faces and put a smile on my face."
Do they wince?
"Definitely," says Dake. "Every time."
Koll says the ritual might be a painful one, but by this time it's reassuring, too. He knows Dake is ready.
"It's like a whip to your hand, but if I didn't have it, I'd get nervous because that's kind of my ritual after four years, too," he says.
To Koll, who's built a very successful program at Cornell and was an NCAA champion and four-time All-American himself at North Carolina, Dake's routines are simply a manifestation of his attention to detail and focus.
"You do things a certain way because you've been very successful doing it that way," says Koll. "It's comforting. It's very, very comforting."
Adds Mike Grey, an assistant coach who was on the team during Dake's first two seasons: "Kyle was so successful early on in his career that it makes it easier for him, because if you follow the same plan that you did the previous year and you tweak a couple things here and there but stay in that routine, you know what to expect and you can train the same way and expect the same outcomes. It's pivotal to his success."
Dake says routines keep his mind clean. He can think about the match rather than being distracted by other things.
"Going through the same routine every time kind of lets your body know that you're getting ready for battle," he says. "Having a routine makes sure that you know you're warmed up and you're ready to go. If you do something different every time, you could have a different match result."
Really, only one thing has changed: no more blueberry bagels.
For his first seasons at Cornell, Dake had the same post weigh-in, postmatch snack, a blueberry bagel with cream cheese. These days, he's junked the bagels in favor of a couple of Clif Bars and a Gatorade, or perhaps a turkey sandwich.
"I just kinda got sick of them," he says, laughing.
• • •
Dake, the son and grandson of wrestlers who also coached -- his dad was an All-American at Kent State who later worked with Koll at Cornell -- began wrestling at age 4.
At first he loved it for the fun, but then he was captivated by the one-on-one combat. Whatever happens in a match, positive or negative, it's all on him.
There was no question he wanted to wrestle at Cornell, for its success, facilities, coaches and the Ivy League education.
"It was a pretty clear-cut choice," says Dake, who's an Academic All-American and a member of Cornell's exclusive Quill and Dagger Society.
Koll thought Dake might be something special when he saw how quickly he progressed. In the summer before Dake entered Cornell, Koll saw him lose badly to one of the Big Red wrestlers. When he showed up as a freshman, he could hold his own with the same guy. By the team the season started, Dake was winning.
"I thought, ‘Boy, if that learning curve continues, he's certainly capable of not only placing in the national championship but winning a national championship.'"
Or, more accurately, three championships at three different levels. Koll calls it "a remarkable accomplishment" because the wrestling at each weight is different -- much more physical at 165 than 141, he says -- and he exposes himself to many more styles. Also, each season he faces established stars, including national champions.
This season, for instance, if Dake wants to win the 165-pound class, he's going to have to beat David Taylor of Penn State, the 2012 champion and Dan Hodge Trophy winner (wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy).
But Koll says Dake is like nobody he's ever had in 24 years of coaching -- and he's had 10 national champions and 45 All-Americans.
Koll ticks off Dake's wrestling abilities -- quickness, balance, strength, explosiveness -- but says what may be even more important is the brawn of his brain.
"He has an unbelievable disdain for losing, probably greater than anyone I've ever seen," says Koll. "And his desire to win is about 10 percent of his hatred of losing. He's hypercompetitive and he lives the perfect life. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he goes to bed at the right time, he studies hard, he gets his two workouts in a day, he's incredibly focused and goal-oriented."
And, when he shows up for practice, "He's not the nicest kid in the room."
"He's really quite nasty and mean," says Koll. "He takes every point personally and that's what makes him better. ... Some guys go to practice and they go through the motions, whereas he wants to get .5 percent better every day."
When Dake loses or makes a mistake in practice, he sometimes throws what Koll calls "a hissy fit."
Grey, who's wrestled him many times, says Dake is a student who soaks up everything.
"The thing about Kyle is, if you beat him on one move, you'll never do it again. He recognizes it."
In fact, Dake believes his ability to adapt is his strength.
"If something's not working, I can adjust what I do, adjust my style to score those points. If a specific move isn't working, I have a pretty deep arsenal that I can use ... and I have a belief in all those options."
In matches, Dake is relentless. A highlight video of his three NCAA championship seasons on the Flo Wrestling site (to DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win") shows his nonstop attacking mode.
"I want to go out and take what's mine," says Dake. "I've worked so hard to do these things, and I've put so much time and effort that, if you're not tenacious and you kind of just let it flow, then you might slip to the wayside and not accomplish your goals."
• • •
Inside Dake's tidy room in a large house he shares with 34 other wrestlers, three NCAA championship trophies sit on his dresser.
There's a place for everything in his room, and everything's in its place, he says. Definitely there is a place for a fourth trophy.
Only Cael Sanderson of Iowa State and Pat Smith of Oklahoma State have won four NCAA titles, and both used a redshirt year -- something Dake didn't do.
"That's unbelievable," says Grey. "People don't understand how hard it is to win a national championship as a freshman. You were in high school last year and now you're on top of NCAA Division I? It's so hard."
Around Cornell, however, there will be surprise if he doesn't win in March.
Dake believes he's wrestling better than he ever has, and Koll says he's never seen an athlete who gets excited for a new challenge more than Dake.
Koll recalls how during his own career, he'd get so nervous before a match that he'd throw up. He sees the same type of nervousness in most athletes. Dake, on the other hand, gets an "exuberance and joy."
Even jumping up to the 165-pound class and going against Taylor is an exciting prospect for Dake, says Koll.
Dake, who counts Taylor as a friend -- and who beat Taylor in a highly anticipated matchup at the Southern Scuffle in January -- was eager for this season's test.
"David's a great wrestler, a returning Hodge Trophy winner, returning national champion who just absolutely dominated everyone last year," says Dake. "I knew it would be a great challenge for me to go up another weight class, but I was willing to take on that challenge and prove what I've got."
Yet even a fourth title will put him short of his goal four years ago, when he took aim at Sanderson's 159-0 record.
"Yeah, I wanted to go undefeated and win four national titles in four years," Dake says. "But you know I'm going to have to settle for four national titles, I guess."