IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Sam Hazewinkel thought he was finished. Again. The 29-year-old, who had never won an NCAA championship and finished third and second at the past two U.S. Olympic wrestling trials, figured he was set to become wrestling's version of the Buffalo Bills.
"I thought it was over," he said. "The dream had died."
It was the second period of his second match in his best-of-three series against top-seeded Nick Simmons. Simmons had won the first match and the first two periods of the second match, as well. He was going to London. But that's when Hazewinkel's coaches successfully challenged a referee's scoring decision, turning a 3-0 Simmons win in the second period into a 1-0 victory for Hazewinkel. For at least another minute, Hazewinkel still was alive.
"I won't lie," he said. "That decision gave me the energy I really needed."
Minutes later, Hazewinkel won the third period in overtime to force a third and final match. He would again win in overtime on a dramatic leg clinch. And just like that, the man who had always finished second had finally finished first. He was the U.S. Olympic trials champion at 55kg.
"I don't even remember the last time I was No. 1," he joked after the match.
Hazewinkel joins his father, Dave, and uncle, Jim, as the third Olympic wrestler from the family. His father was in attendance Sunday, as the 1972 team was honored this weekend.
"I just can't put it into words right now," Sam said. "It's so amazing that he was able to be here. It's incredible. It's awesome."
After finishing third at trials in 2004 and second in 2008, Hazewinkel's disappointment prompted him to switch from Greco Roman to freestyle wrestling. He said Sunday the biggest challenge wasn't as much the change in style as it was overcoming the mental hurdles of always being a runner-up. Leading into this year's trials, he met regularly with a sports psychologist. He also talked to his pastor, and listened to his coaches about what he had to do to be mentally stronger.
"It's been a long battle, it really has," he said. "It says something about perseverance and keeping your head up and staying positive. The last few years it got hard, it really did. You get that many seconds and it becomes its own battle just thinking you can take first. We worked real hard on [my] mental game this year and just getting over that hump and it paid off."
A few feet away from where Hazewinkel spoke, Simmons could barely say a word. Earlier in the day, he defeated defending Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo to earn his spot in the evening's finals. And, for a few moments, it seemed he had done everything he needed to get to London. Then, everything changed. As he tried to explain his emotions, Simmons kept stopping to wipe away the tears on the sleeve of his black T-shirt that read "Nick Simmons, the East Lansing Strangler."
"It's disappointment, that's all I can say," he said. "I'm just disappointed. My heart's broken. Sam's a great wrestler. I hope he can get it done in August for us."