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Three-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake of Cornell ready to make run at more history
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling

Kyle Dake battles David Taylor at April’s Olympic Team Trials. Tony Rotundo photo.

Cornell coach Rob Koll looks back in amazement when he sees photos from when Kyle Dake first took the mat as a starter for the Big Red wrestling team.

Dake broke into the Cornell lineup as a skinny, baby-faced, 18-year-old true freshman.

Three years and three NCAA titles later – at 141, 149 and 157 pounds – the physical transformation Dake has made is startling.

“Kyle looks like a totally different person,” Koll said. “He’s so much bigger and stronger now.”

And better.

There has been one constant with Dake during his steady climb up the weight-class ladder. He keeps progressing and improving, and he keeps winning when the stakes are highest.

Now chiseled, mature and experienced, the 21-year-old Dake may be tackling his biggest challenge yet as a collegian.

He’s looking to become just the third wrestler in the 83-year history of the NCAA Championships to win four NCAA titles. He starts his senior season ranked No. 1 nationally at 165 pounds.

He’s also trying to do it in a loaded weight class that includes a returning Hodge Trophy winner and NCAA champion (Penn State’s David Taylor), and a NCAA runner-up (Oklahoma State’s Tyler Caldwell).

“It’s been a new path for me each year,” Dake said. “It’s another new weight class and another new challenge for me. David is the top dog after winning it at 165 last year. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

And unlike most college wrestlers, Dake’s never taken a redshirt season.

Dake did certify at 157 pounds, meaning he could drop back down to compete in that division this season.

“My plan is to stay at 165,” Dake said. “I can focus more on my technique and conditioning than watching my weight. That can really wear on you. It’s nice to have that little cushion at 165. I feel a lot stronger at this weight class.”

Koll said the move to 165 makes plenty of sense for Dake, a promising international prospect who placed fourth in freestyle wrestling at April’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials at 74 kg/163 lbs.

“It really speaks to his appreciation for food,” Koll said of Dake’s move to 165. “The bottom line is he likes to eat. He’s solid as a rock, and walks around at 170 pounds with about five percent body fat. It’s healthy for him to wrestle 165, and it is relevant to what weight class he wrestles in internationally.”

Dake is the first wrestler to win NCAA titles at three different weight classes. Now he may try to do it in four different divisions.

“Kyle looks so much better and so much more dominant in the room this year,” Koll said. “He’s not cutting as much weight as he has in the past, and he obviously feels a lot better.”

Dake edged Taylor 2-1 in overtime in the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic on Nov. 3. The match was wrestled before a sellout crowd of 3,000-plus fans at American University in Washington, D.C.

“It was a great moment for the sport,” Koll said. “It was great to see two great wrestlers competing in a match like that.”

Dake escaped in the tiebreaker period in overtime to pull out the win over Taylor.

“We are very familiar with each other and our coaches had us very prepared for each other,” Dake said. “We both realized we couldn’t get ourselves out of position. We both played it a little cautious, I think. I don’t think either one of us wanted to make a mistake where the other guy could capitalize.”

Dake is looking to join Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith and Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson as a four-time NCAA champion.

“It’s obviously an amazing accomplishment to win four national titles,” Koll said. “There is no doubt Kyle is in the toughest weight class in the country this year. It makes it much more exciting with the returning Hodge winner and a national runner-up in there.”

So how does Koll see Dake handling the pressure associated with his run at history?

“Kyle is very confident in his abilities,” Koll said. “He doesn’t get rattled and he doesn’t back away from a challenge. I thought he could be a national champion from Day 1. He is a complete wrestler. He’s very good offensively and defensively, and he’s great on top and great on bottom. And he’s very tough and very competitive.”

Dake remembers watching Sanderson win his fourth NCAA title in 2002 and become the only college wrestler to go unbeaten in a four-year career.

“It was pretty amazing,” Dake said. “I was only 11 years old, but I remember thinking it was pretty cool. As I got older, I started thinking I wanted to do what Cael did.”

Dake served as a training partner for the U.S. Olympic Freestyle Team this past summer. The Olympian at his weight class, Jordan Burroughs, won the gold medal in London.

“The Olympics was an awesome experience,” Dake said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. I had a chance to see what the best wrestlers in the World do and how they approach wrestling. It was one of the most motivating experiences I’ve ever had. It fueled the fire for me to get better.”

Dake pinned Taylor during a strong showing of his own at the Olympic Trials. He won four of five matches in that event.

“Kyle’s certainly very tough in freestyle,” Koll said. “He took a lot of confidence away from the Olympic Trials. He has a lot of explosive power in freestyle. I think Kyle can be an Olympic gold medalist, but he will have to go through an Olympic gold medalist just to make the (U.S.) team.”

Dake lost to past World Team member Trent Paulson in three periods in the semifinals of the Olympic Trials Challenge Tournament.

“I beat some good guys, but the match I lost was bitter for me,” Dake said. “I made some mental mistakes and I have to learn from that. I haven’t come close to my ability in freestyle. I have a lot of room to improve and I need to keep getting stronger.”

Dake enters this college season with a 100-4 career record, including a perfect 35-0 mark as a junior. He has scored bonus points in 55 matches.

Even with all of Dake’s accomplishments on the mat, Koll said what he does off the mat is equally as impressive.

Dake is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in developmental sociology and a minor in business.

“Kyle’s been an Academic All-American every year at Cornell,” Koll said. “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t get in trouble. If we are rolling up mats, he’s the first one rolling them up. He’s meant a lot to our program. If you know him, you love him.”

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