Three tales: The changing face and thoughtful Olympic pursuit of Minnesota wrestling

With no Greco-Roman competition for women in Beijing, Ali Bernard, of New Ulm, is trying to land a U.S. spot in freestyle.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
With no Greco-Roman competition for women in Beijing, Ali Bernard, of New Ulm, is trying to land a U.S. spot in freestyle.

For the past half-century, Minnesota has owned a special and somewhat esoteric Olympic niche: wrestling. And, to be numbingly specific, Greco-Roman wrestling.

St. Paul native and Gophers grappler Alan Rice, after a diversion to exotic New York City in the 1950s, introduced the classical Greco style — all upper body strength, lots of throws, no attacks below the waist — to Minnesota. Rice then made the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, and a seed was planted. Since 1968, at least one Minnesota-linked wrestler has been named to every U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team.

But this year, with the Beijing Olympics two months away, that streak is in jeopardy. And this year, the face of Minnesota wrestling is changing. Dramatically.

With the Olympic trials set to begin Friday in Las Vegas, the top-ranked wrestler from Minnesota doesn’t have cauliflower ears or a crewcut. She’s a woman, with a tongue stud and bleached blond hair.

There’s no Greco competition for women in Beijing, but Ali Bernard, of New Ulm, will attempt to win the U.S. spot in freestyle at the 72-kg, or 158.5-pounds weight class. She won the national title in April.

This year, the highest-ranked Minnesota man trying out for the Olympic Greco team is a computer geek named R.C. Johnson, who grew up in Robbinsdale. He’s a wrestler who’s also pursuing his Ph.D. As we say in Minnesota, “That’s different.”

And this year, two-time NCAA heavyweight champ and four-time Gophers’ All-America Cole Konrad is heading to the Olympic trials, but as an uncharacteristic underdog. He made headlines for winning a record 76 consecutive matches in college, but Konrad is near the bottom of the rankings as he heads towards Vegas.

A visit to New Ulm

It’s dark and quiet in the metal-sided warehouse/martial arts studio on the outskirts of New Ulm. The decor consists of a few black mats on the floor. A woman holds a man’s leg and drags him slowly to the mat. Over and over and over again.

He pushes back. Takes her down. She gets up, tussles with him. Pulls him down, wraps him up.

It’s all legal. It’s all training. Ali Bernard’s sweating as she and workout partner/boyfriend Roger Alves hone her skills for the Olympic trials. She’s been wrestling against males and stereotypes since she was 11.

It wasn’t easy to break through. While most folks in New Ulm were kind about it, some weren’t, with web bulletin boards and whispering suggesting this wasn’t a sport for girls.

But Bernard prevailed, mostly because she doesn’t seem to let much bother her. Or so it seems.

She’s sitting now, 10 miles from the workout warehouse, in the kitchen of her split-level home, just east of New Ulm. It’s tucked off of Highway 68, behind the elm trees, and it’s here where she first started to wrestle against brother Andy, who is two years older, when she was a little girl.

“He had all the medals, and I wanted some,” she says.

She went on to wrestle for New Ulm High with and against boys. But before that, she pondered football. That’s when Andy put his foot down.

“No, you need to be a girl,” he told her. “You’re already wrestling.”

After a couple of years of high school, Bernard learned that girls were wrestling against each other.

“I remember going to the first women’s tournament, and I was in awe of how many were there,” she said.

Suddenly, she was a champion, taking the world junior title in 2003.

In 2004, when women’s wrestling was introduced to the Olympics, she made it to the historic first U.S. Olympic trials. But she was overmatched. She would have to wait another four years. Until now.

Since then, she’s been mixing school and sports while dominating women’s collegiate wrestling in Canada at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. There, the casual acceptance of women’s wrestling is “refreshing,” she said. There, she’s grown up, gotten stronger and, dare we say, more stylish — nostril stud, tongue stud, a red-and-blue star tattoo.

“A little patriotic,” she said.

For a while in 2007, with the Olympics dawning, she took a few months off the mat. “Burned out,” she said. She bleached her hair. She ate what she wanted.

But she found she missed the sport. She fought back to emerge in a very cushy place. Six weeks ago, Bernard won the U.S. national title, defeating 28-year-old Katie Downing, who was once a counselor of Bernard’s at a wrestling camp. She had never defeated Downing.

“I was tired of losing,” Bernard said. “Wrestling is like a chess match. People think it’s all brute. But you have to use your brain.”

Because she won the U.S. crown, she earned top spot in this week’s trials. She will wait all day Friday as women ranked below her will wrestle-off, get tired, beat up and dehydrated. Whoever emerges — sweaty, bloody and exhausted — from that mini-tournament will then face Bernard, fresh and confident, Friday night in Vegas.

“I won’t have to worry as much as the others will,” she said, her ticket to Beijing within reach.

The smart guy
On the phone from Colorado Springs, R.C. Johnson is talking about algorithms. Then he’s talking about the relationship between wrestling and computer science. Then you just sit back and resign yourself to a world gone topsy-turvy with a Ph.D.-seeking wrestler.

“There’s definitely similarities,” Johnson, 25, was saying about software and hard mats. “When you’re working on a new [wrestling] move, it helps to break it down to its essentials. And when you’re writing [software] code, you have to look at the big picture. If I want to write a piece of software, there are small pieces you need to write first to get to that big picture.”

R.C. Johnson
Courtesy of USA Wrestling
R.C. Johnson

Meet the Greco Geek. He grew up in Robbinsdale, the son of a high school principal dad and a teacher mom. He was an average wrestler at Armstrong High. But he was recruited to attend Northern Michigan University, where there’s a special training program for potential Greco-Roman wrestlers. He graduated magna cum laude in computer science and, merging Olympic and academic aspirations, he moved to Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Olympic Training Center and of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, which is known for its computer science focus.

Johnson is pursuing his Ph.D. in computer vision technology, designing software that will further develop such products as security cameras, retinal scans and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Also, he’s the chief technical officer for a firm, operated by another Olympic wrestler, that performs background checks on, among others, coaches, teachers and prospective employees in the medical industry.

“I could know everything about you, if I wanted to,” he said, with a laugh.

He’s ranked second in the 96-kg weight class and will have to upset a four-time U.S. World Championship team member, Justin Ruiz, at the Olympic trials.

But Johnson is used to working hard. Here’s his typical day: wake up at 7 a.m., workout at 8:30, go to work from 11 until 4 p.m., workout again at 4:30 or go to a class, eat, return to one of his offices to work or conduct research on his Ph.D. dissertation. Go to sleep at midnight, with digital images dancing in his head.

“I’m working on basic tracking algorithms,” he said. “Recognition algorithms.”

Oh, OK.

Or, as his official bio with USA Wrestling federation states, here is one of his hobbies: “Solving complex equations.”

This week’s: R.C. Johnson plus X = 2008 Olympian.

A college vet adjusting to defeat

The dingy maroon-and-gold wrestling room in the bowels of the University of Minnesota Bierman Building has been Cole Konrad’s home-away-from-home for the past five years. A native of the sweetly named Freedom, Wis., he was as dominant a college wrestler as this state or nation has ever seen.

He won two NCAA titles. At one point, he won 76 matches in a row. He was a four-time All-American. His college record was 155-13, and 10 of those losses came when he was a freshman. Winning wasn’t simply a habit. It was an organic reality.

But last week, up the steps and down the hall from that padded room that echoes with decades of Gophers grappling success, Konrad — 6-3, 280-plus pounds — sat in a Bierman lounge and talked about dealing with defeat.

National championship ball cap on head, flip-flops on feet, Konrad enters the Olympic trials ranked seventh among Greco heavyweights after April’s nationals.

“He’s struggling,” said Dan Chandler, the Minneapolis-based Greco coach, who has trained dozens of Olympic candidates over the past 20 years.

Konrad, a bit bored with Olympic freestyle — which is similar to college wrestling — decided to switch to Greco about eight months ago. He did so amid a series of Greco rules changes that require the honing of some lifting and throwing skills that aren’t common in the college game. Greco, remember, prohibits any holds or moves below the waist. No tripping. No attacks to the legs. It’s an upper-body-and-throws game.

Cole Konrad
Courtesy of Gophers Dept. of Athletics
Cole Konrad

“It’s the difference between being a hurdler and a shot putter,” Chandler said of Konrad’s transition from college to international Greco.

But sit with Konrad and listen to him, and there’s none of the desperation that Olympic-bound athletes sometimes communicate. Could be it’s because he’s finishing up his masters degree in applied kinesiology and sports management and thinking about law school. Could be because, despite being king of the college wrestling hill, he’s a realist.

“I knew it was going to take a while to adjust,” he said softly. “Because I was good in one style of wrestling didn’t mean I was going to automatically be good at another style.”

Still, what about defeat? It’s a stranger to him.

“I haven’t been dwelling on it,” he said. “It’s definitely different. It’s frustrating, to be sure … But I’m a person who wrestles, it’s not what I am. It’s something I do … I love wrestling. I enjoy being around it. I like to go to practices. I love competing and seeing what I can get out of myself each time I get on the mat.”

The big guy thought some more.

“A lot of people think that Cole Konrad is a wrestler,” he said. “But that’s part of what I do. It’s not who I am.”

For now, he’s another Olympic candidate at the bottom of the qualifying ladder chasing a very difficult dream.

Postscript: Passing the baton

There’s one more tale. It’s yet to develop a full plot. It’s about a kid name Jake Deitchler, 18, who just graduated from Anoka after winning three state high school wrestling titles.

He finished second at the Greco nationals in April. He’s a phenom.

He’s coached by Brandon Paulson, also an Anoka grad, who went on to the University of Minnesota and to win a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“He’s the best high school Greco-Roman wrestler I’ve ever seen,” said Paulson, who was 22 when he took that silver. “He’s much better than I was.”

Hmmmm.  Stay tuned for the Minnesota Olympic wrestling tradition to continue this weekend.

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