Three years ago Daniel Dennis was living out of a $500 pickup truck he bought off Craigslist. Next week, he competes as part of the U.S. Olympic team in Rio.
In his college days, the 29-year-old Fox Lake native shined as a wrestler at the University of Iowa, earning two All-American nods and nearly winning the 2010 NCAA 133-pound National Championship title. But a difficult defeat followed by a lackluster international career left Dennis’ body battered and his mind worn. So, he left, destined for California in that truck, where he lived for six months before buying a fifth wheel trailer. He had his dog (adopted from a shelter in California), he had his climbing friends, he had the outdoors, and he had no distractions.
Wrestling, however, was never far from his mind. To earn some fuel money, Dennis found work coaching at wrestling camps and eventually a California high school, and his former coach Tom Brands continued to remind Dennis of one more potential competition: the Olympics. After spending more than two years drifting around the west coast, Dennis returned to the Midwest to face off with opponents who had spent the past few years relentlessly training. And, at the Olympic Trials in April, he won, punching his ticket to Rio.
The wins have kept coming, too, most recently at the Grand Prix of Germany in July. Dennis enters the freestyle wrestling tournament August 19 as the top-ranked American in his weight class.
In a phone interview with Chicago, Dennis discussed his Olympic journey, from the Craigslist truck to Rio de Janiero.
After college and before you went out West, you were competing abroad. What happened there?
I went overseas quite a few times. I didn't do great. I was cutting way too much weight. I wasn't really motivated. I went to Mongolia, India, Germany a handful of times, Russia a handful of times. Quite a few places internationally. I just wasn't really having the success. Moving out of Iowa City, living in California—I caught a fifth wheel from a buddy and was living in that—it was a pretty simple lifestyle. There weren't many distractions. It was enjoyable for me, but I think that's my personality more than most people. I'm okay with living in a trailer.
What was the inspiration to enter that living situation?
I was kind of stagnant. I needed a change. I was in a situation where I was able to do that. I didn't have any college debt. I didn't have any money saved up, but it was an opportunity that I had where I could go and screw around for a little bit of time and not have to worry about supporting anybody else or, really, anything. Except getting some fuel money to make it to the next place. That was my only focus, and I didn't have the responsibilities that a lot of kids have. It made sense to me at the time.
It was a fully outdoorsman-type lifestyle?
Initially when I moved out of Iowa City I slept in my truck every day for a little over six months, right around a half year. I didn't even pitch a tent. It was a lot of traveling and a lot of rock climbing. I'm big into rock climbing. I spent time out in Utah. A lot of time in Indian Creek. Just kind of bounced around all over in that area depending on where my friends were at and where I could find climbing partners, then working the next camp to keep some beer money and some fuel money.
What was your first substantial memory after leaving Iowa and moving out west?
Oh man, that's… how much time we got? There's a lot of memories I have. I remember leaving Iowa City being extremely nervous about climbing with my friends. I had some pinched nerves in my neck, and my left arm was numb and shriveled up. After that — I made it through climbing with my friends OK — I kind of, there was a lot of reflection time. I like driving with the radio off. I would listen to music sometimes, but I spent a lot of time in my own thoughts, driving around a whole lot. I don't know how many miles I put on that summer, but it was a lot. Just the time away, reflecting on what you've done, what your regrets are, what you look forward to doing, what you would have done different. It can go on for days when you get tangled up in your own thoughts. It was a growing time.
It's a bit of a romantic story, the burnt-out athlete going back to nature and finding his way back to the sport.
I know people want to make it a big story like that. I don't really look at it that way. I look at it as, at the time it was the right thing to do. I moved out of Iowa City because I wasn't motivated in my wrestling. I wasn't there for a good reason, I was just there. Moving out made sense at the time. I don't really look at it as a romantic, Cinderella story or anything like that. I look at it as, it made sense to move out and it made sense to be done wrestling. Living on my own, moving to California, it all made sense. Coming back, it was like, I'll give this a shot for one tournament. Then one tournament led to another, led to another, and now I find myself where I'm at now.
You became a big reader during this time, correct?
I think it was by default. I don't like surfing the internet for hours on end. The Twitter, Facebook, that stuff—I don't like those distractions. I don't like social media. I don't like the Kardashians. I don't like them. I really can honestly say that. I think that kind of screws up our culture. You want to try to not be a robot staring at a screen, so what else are you going to do? You going to twiddle your thumbs? You going to do something active? Don't get me wrong, I'll go online when I get something sent to me, and look at it a little bit, then ten minutes later realize I haven't moved from it. I have to catch myself doing it. So yeah, I would often read.
Was it easier to come back to wrestling after the hiatus?
Being motivated in anything is a good thing, right? It’s not about just going through the motions and punching the time card. It's about improving and being motivated to do your job. Wrestling was my job at the time, and I wasn't motivated to do it. I wasn't getting better at it, I wasn't happy doing it, and taking the time off and letting my body heal—leaving Iowa City, I had a bunch of nerve damage and my body was beat up—but even more important than my body being beat up was that my mind was beat up. That was the ultimate deciding factor to not compete anymore. Taking that time off and letting my body feel good, being rejuvenated helps a lot. It helped me come back and want to be there.
Who nudged you to come back?
I think there were a lot of little key players in it. Teammate Ryan Morningstar is one. My family, my mom, my brother, my sister—all three were a very big one. My dad was a huge one. My coach, Tom Brands, when I moved out there was a rule change going on. He called me and left a voicemail. I called him back later because I didn't have cell phone service for a week, and I remember him talking about the rule change and how the rules would be good for my style of wrestling, and how I should go and wander around and climb and then get back to Iowa City and get to work. I remember him saying that, and just laughing it off. He said that three or four years before I came back. He planted that seed a month after I left. Not even, probably. A week after I left. It was on my mind, but not really on my mind.
Was it difficult to leave California?
It was. It was really hard. And being out there as long as I was, I met some amazing people that I continue to talk to and will have lifelong relationships with. When I was pondering the idea of coming back [to compete], I told one of the guys I was with, and he said, "You have to do it, you'll regret it forever if you don't." I was shocked. I told him I would be [out west] longer, but he was encouraging me to go. There were many people like that, that were overwhelmingly supportive. The MMA gym I was going to, helping some fighters and wrestling some of the bigger guys—when I told them I was thinking of going back to compete, they were ecstatic. They were so excited for me. It was really, really cool.
Were you surprised at how good you were immediately despite being away from the sport for so long?
I wrestled with the high school kids [I coached], and obviously it’s a whole different world, but by teaching you develop a lot. I would wrestle with the bigger guys instead of wrestling the high schoolers my weight. I was wrestling a guy 230 or 240 [pounds]. I would catch myself using different positions, weighing all of 140. I think some people are wired to push themselves. It would have been easy for me not to wrestle at all or to wrestle a little high school kid my weight, but instead I grabbed the bigger guys and the older guys. I knew if I could [succeed against] an amazing athlete who has me on 15 years and 100 pounds—if I can finish on him, I can finish on anybody that I'll ever wrestle in competition. I don't think I ever really took a break from wrestling, but mentally I wasn't putting myself under the stress I used to.
What’s your living situation currently?
Renting a house in Iowa City. It's pretty awesome. It's a big change. I have a fenced-in yard for my dog. I think he likes it more than living in the 26-foot fifth wheel. After Rio, I'm going to load up my truck and head to California to be around my friends for a couple of weeks and hang out with them. I'm excited for it.
How has training been, especially the travel?
It's been good. I'm older, so my training has changed a little bit from how it was in college. I'm a little older now, and my body doesn't hold up as well as it used to. Gotta stay healthy. I'm motivated mentally as much as I can be, and I'm really excited for Rio.
What are you looking forward to most?
Just wrestling. I keep it pretty simple. I'm not there as a tourist. I'm there to compete, and that what I'm looking forward to.
Are you confident that you can win?
Yes. I am confident.
How has the media attention been? It seems like a drastic shift from the lifestyle you pursued out in California.
It is. It's not something I like doing. Not my strong suit, but it comes with the territory. I'm trying to get through it as quickly and painlessly as I can. I don't really care to do interviews. No disrespect, it's not a thing I like. I don't like boastful people. I like the keep your mouth shut, work hard, keep your ears open-type of lifestyle and attitude, more than today, now, to be a hotshot all you have to do is go on Twitter and talk crap about somebody else, and you get attention. That's not something I value.
What's your typical day of preparation?
Today, I got up early, came in to our workout facility, shower, get the day going. Then I went and saw a chiropractor. I got some food, I went to the place where my motorcycle was getting worked on, got that thing taken care of, and now I'm talking with a bunch of interview people for a bit, then I have practice and a workout, then back home for dinner. Maybe get some climbing in. Ride my bike a little bit.
Do you have your love for wrestling back?
I always have loved the sport. I've never said anything bad about it. But now I'm more motivated, for my own reasons.