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U.S. wrestler Daniel Dennis’s unusual journey carries him to Rio Olympics

Daniel Dennis didn’t think he’d wrestle again following a crushing loss in the NCAA Championships. After soul-searching climbing trips and living out of his car, Dennis is now ready to medal at Rio.

RIO DE JANEIRO — We’re used to thinking of Olympians as the most single-minded of individuals, men and women whose focus from the instant they cross the finish line in one Games is squarely and unwaveringly on the starting line of the next. We believe we know their stories: determined from the earliest days in their sport to wear their country’s colors and march in the opening ceremonies, committed to competing for gold no matter the challenges or setbacks along the way.

But that’s just the prepackaged notion, a creation myth that, in a very real way, sells short the richness and variety of the Olympic experience. Athletes find their way to the pools and tracks and arenas of each Games along any number of different paths—some of which can veer far from the straight and clear.

Consider U.S. freestyle wrestler Daniel Dennis. When the 29-year-old Iowa native competes Friday in the 57kg class, a number of his family and friends will be in the stands at Carioca Arena 2 to root him on, many of them sporting T-shirts bearing the phrase “ALL WHO WANDER ARE NOT LOST.”

That Dennis is here in Rio and ready to wrestle in the Olympics is delightful proof of that assertion.

Three years ago, in the spring of 2013, Dennis, a two-time state runner-up for Grant High in wrestling-mad Iowa and twice an All-America at the University of Iowa, decided he’d had enough of his sport. Alone in a faded black 1986 Ford F-150 pick-up truck that he’d bought for $500 (a good portion of his bank balance) off Craigslist, Dennis pulled out of Iowa City and headed west.

“I was done,” Dennis says. “I was just leaving and going on a big long trip. I was sure I wasn’t coming back to wrestling. Not to compete.”

A compact and unmistakably solid 5' 4" (wrestling at just over 125 pounds) with an exuberantly untrimmed beard, Dennis projects a kind of mountain man-philosopher air—speaking at a press conference early in the Games, he told his story with a matter-of-factness that makes it all the more remarkable in the glare of the Olympic setting.

Dennis had been introduced to wrestling at the age of eight by his father, Tim, and quickly committed himself in the sport. After his near-misses in high school, Dennis, a relentless trainer who is harder on himself than any coach, arrived at Iowa determined to take his career to the next level. Wrestling at 133 pounds, he battled injuries early on before breaking through. In 2010, it finally seemed he would go all the way. In the NCAA championship bout that year, he took on Jayson Ness of Minnesota. With 20 seconds left in the match, Dennis led 4–1.

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“I tried stalling,” he says. “I should have been in control mode, but I tried stalling for the only time in my career. It was the worst moment if my career.” With seven seconds left, Ness caught Dennis, turned him to his back and that was the match: Ness won 6–4.

“We’re in a sport, a game essentially,” Dennis says. “But it’s more than that for people who really put a lot into it. That was my world crumbling. I had invested so much in it. I was so committed and so determined and having that in the palm of your hand and then have it slip away. It was terrible.”

It is clear how much, even now, that single moment on a wrestling mat has stayed with Dennis.

“Looking back,” he says, “I took it too negatively.” He pauses, then smiles ruefully behind the beard. “I might have gone off the beaten path a bit.”

And perhaps, to borrow from Frost, that divergence made all the difference.

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Though he continued training and competing for the next two years, finishing third in the final Olympic trials qualifier in 2012, Dennis knew that the sport was taking its toll, both physically and mentally. By the time he rolled out of Iowa City in that pickup, he couldn’t have taken to the mat even had he wanted to.

“My body was beat up, my mind was beat up,” he says. He was suffering from chronic back pain, and a neck injury had rendered his left arm periodically numb and unresponsive—in his words, “a fraction of what it was.”

And so he drove—windows down, no radio on, just the wind and his thoughts and time. He headed to Moab, Utah. He may have been too beaten up to wrestle, but he could climb. He called buddies in California, another in Illinois, and they came and met him in the sandstone canyons of Indian Creek. There, they camped and settled into a life utterly removed from the sweat-steeped gyms of Iowa.

“We’d get up in the morning and we’d hike to where we were going to climb,” Dennis says, “and we’d climb all day and then come back, eat dinner and have a beer. There might be a fire, maybe the group camping next to you would have a guitar and you’d get together and play till three in the morning.”

Day by day, the new regime worked like a kind of quiet therapy on Dennis. “It was exciting, “ he says. “My body was healing. And I had the sense of not being mentally beaten down. It was like fresh air.”

Most of the time, as he traveled from one climbing spot to another, he was completely out of touch with civilization, cut off from cell service and the internet, which was fine with him. “Today we get so many distractions and we don’t ever get a chance to reflect,” he says. “Everybody’s on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all that good stuff, and that’s not really my forte. I think we lose so much with all that.”

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Whenever Dennis did come into service range, however, he found himself besieged with messages from friends and coaches and former teammates asking when he was going to return to the wrestling world. Tom Brands, his coach at Iowa, called to tell him about a rules change that he felt would play to Dennis’s strengths as a wrestler.

“There were constant calls, but I just never took them seriously,” says Dennis, who earned money during his odyssey by coaching occasionally at wrestling camps and by working as a roofer—eventually graduating from living out of his truck to enjoying the spacious accommodations of a 26-foot fifth-wheel trailer he picked up for $2,500. “I never even considered it.”

And then he did. “I don’t really know what it was, “ he says. “A lot of friends were in support of the idea. It was kind of constant pestering—but it was also their support, that they were on my side.”

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And then there was the moment that Dennis’s mother, Jane, broached the idea. In 2014, Tim Dennis had died, 14 months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Recalls Dennis, “She said, ‘Oh, your dad sure would have loved it to see you come back.’ I was like, ‘Well, you’re not really helping me not want to do it.’”

In the end, says Dennis, he decided that, yes, he would come back—for one competition. “I committed to wrestling at the U.S. Open. And I had, like, six weeks to get ready, so I went back to Iowa City and started right in.”

Dennis finished fourth in the 2015 U.S. Open. Terry Brands, the twin brother of Tom and associate head coach at Iowa, called that moment a breakthrough. “He’d always had something that held him back,” Brands told at the time, “and that wasn’t present when he was competing at the U.S. Open.”

“One thing led to another,” is how Dennis describes the competitive journey that followed—international wins, the 2016 U.S. Open title and, finally, victory in the Olympic trials. And, while he knows the road that leads to the medal rounds won’t be an easy one, he’s eager to get started. “I feel like when I’m firing on all cylinders, there’s not anybody I can’t beat,” Dennis says.

And, so, he is asked, does he consider his story unique among all these other Olympians whose paths to the Games have seemingly never wavered? After a long pause—from a man used to reflection—he answers, “Well, it might be a little unusual, I’ll give you that. Yeah, I’ll give you unusual.”