After falling to Kamal Bey 11-2 in the first of the best-of-three matchup on June 8, former Gophers wrestling standout Pat Smith was on the brink.
Smith, who graduated from Minnesota in 2015, needed to win his next two matches at the U.S. Open against Bey to qualify for the World Championships. Smith rose to the occasion, taking the second bout 2-1 and the decisive third match 6-3.
The win secured Smith a spot on Team USA for the World Championships for the second time in his career. The first came in 2017.
“It was really good, especially after not making it last year,'' said Smith, who Greco-Roman wrestles at 77kg. “I moved up a weight this year so there were a lot of question marks with that. It felt good because a lot of the hard work and uncertainty ended up being for good.”
For Smith, his first experience at the World Championships in 2017 was all about making it over the hump. While he was excited, he felt he didn’t have a great gauge on the process, or how quick the experience would go.
“You lose in a tournament like that, and then you’re out, and it’s like 'oh wow, I just trained for all this time, and now it’s over,'" he said.
There are only 16 wrestlers per weight class at the Olympics, and the World Championships is the first qualifier to make it there.
“I’m in the driver’s seat," he said. "It’s more pressure, obviously, but I’d rather have it in my hand than someone else's.”
Dating back to the 1968, at least one Minnesotan has been on every Greco-Roman Olympic team. Smith hopes to carry on that legacy.
"Oh, we know," Smith said when asked about continuing the streak.
Between now and the World Championships in September, Smith will be splitting his time between being home in Minnesota, training in Michigan with former U.S Olympic team member Andy Bisek, and spending time at the Pan-American games in Peru.
Smith’s wrestling coach Brandon Paulsen, who won the silver medal for Greco-Roman at the 1996 Olympics, knows that this is a big deal for the young wrestler, and notes that he’s worked hard and traveled a great deal to get to this point in his career.
Smith is already a three-time Pan-American Champion and was a silver medalist at the University Worlds competition in 2014.
“At his level, that’s what you go for every year,'' Paulsen said. “In between the Olympics you want to make that world team, and try to win a world medal. The Greco team has had a rough trend the last few years, and hopefully it’s time for them to step up and win some medals for Team USA.”
Paulsen has had a chance to coach Smith for the past few years, and has seen him transition from just a wrestler to a true student of the sport.
“He has a chance to beat anyone with his style. He's hard to score on, and can go on a high pace. Technique-wise he’s always been a brawler and wrestled really hard, but his technical part of the game and his understanding of the sport has reached a point where he can coach himself,” Paulsen said. “He’s willing to put the work in ... and do whatever he can to be the best he can.”