Windsor assistant wrestling coach Daniel Dennis competing for Olympic spot

Rio de Janeiro is the picture of exotic glamour. The road that leads there can be the opposite of glamorous.

A year ago, Daniel Dennis was living in a fifth-wheel trailer parked at a friend’s construction yard outside of Windsor. True, at least he wasn’t sleeping in his truck anymore. But Dennis had no huge aspirations, and no real job other than working as an assistant coach with the Windsor High wrestling team.

Things have changed in a hurry. When Dennis, 29, takes the mat at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in Iowa City, Iowa, this weekend, he will be gunning for a spot on Team USA and a trip to Rio in August. Even crazier, he is among the favorites to get there.

“Right now, I’m going back to the Olympic trials expecting to buy Dan dinner Sunday night after he wins it and makes the Olympic team,” said Rich Carnation, Windsor’s head wrestling coach. “Even though he’s going into the tournament seeded third, I fully believe he’s gonna do it. And I’m not one of those hip-hip-hooray type guys. I’m very pragmatic. We’re flying all the way back to Iowa to watch, and I expect him to win it. He’s that good.”

Dennis, who grew up in Ingleside, Ill., has always been very good. He was Illinois state runner-up in high school and a two-time college All-American at the University of Iowa, going 53-10 over his final two seasons while wrestling at 133 pounds.

And then he sort of fell off the map. Mentally battered after heartbreaking losses in the NCAA championships, Dennis failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials.

“I think at the time I had probably already checked out,” Dennis said by phone from Iowa City. “I was wanting to move on. Obviously I was disappointed, but mentally it probably didn’t hurt me as much as it should have. I could tell you it broke my heart, but at the time I was sort of numb to it.”

Worn down

After years of intense practice and competition, Dennis’ body was as worn down as his psyche. He had nerve damage in his left arm.

“I actually did kind of write off competing,” he said. “When I moved out of Iowa City, I probably had 50-percent strength in my arm. I was just beat up. The only matches I win are because it looks like there was a bar fight and someone comes out on top. My body was beat up by drilling.”

So Dennis packed up and left Iowa, almost entirely without a plan. An avid rock climber since he’d entered high school, he drifted west and hooked up with climbing buddies. He worked some wrestling camps.

He had bought a black Ford F150 for $500 on?craigslist, and it wound up as his primary place of residence for several months.

“I slept right in the cab of the truck,” Dennis said. “An inch taller, and my head would have hit the door. It was some of the most comfortable sleep I’ve had.”

It helped that Dennis is 5-foot-4.

healing in windsor

Improbably, he wound up in Sonoma County. One of Dennis’ teammates at Iowa was Joe DuCharme. He was from Colorado, but his kid brother, Dominic, was wrestling at Windsor High; their father, Nate DuCharme, helps out Carnation’s program there. Dennis had participated in a Windsor wrestling camp since his senior year of college. He decided to take up Carnation’s offer to coach the Jaguars more regularly.

Carnation has long surrounded himself with high-level assistants - guys like DuCharme, Kevin Guinn and former California champion and Ukiah High grad Brett Colombini - but Dennis was a huge addition to the program. He found he really liked coaching, too. Or at least assisting.

“I feel confident in my coaching ability, but I can’t deal with the paperwork,” Dennis said. “I just don’t have the capacity to deal with those tedious things. Rich is phenomenal at it. Him allowing me to be the voice at practice worked out really well. I would probably lose my mind if I had to deal with everything.”

Dennis’ two years in Windsor allowed his body to heal. He kept in shape, largely at the NorCal Fighting Alliance MMA gym, but removed himself from the intensity of daily competition. Carnation thinks Dennis’ wrestling technique might even have improved during his downtime.

“Sometimes when you coach, you actually learn things you’re trying to do even better,” Carnation said. “A lot of times athletes can do what comes natural to them. When you have to break it down to someone else who is maybe not as athletic as you, it helps you become even better.”

nagged by friends

Dennis was a little restless, but generally content. He never would have entertained the notion of a comeback if so many people hadn’t nagged him about it. Fellow Hawkeyes Ryan Morningstar and Royce Alger nipped away at him, as did Dennis’ former college coach at Iowa, Tom Brands. Dennis quietly began asking others to weigh in.

“There were people - I didn’t need anyone’s?permission, but I wanted their opinion,” Dennis said.

Two of those people were Nate DuCharme and Brett Colombini. Dennis asked what they thought about a comeback, and they pounced on the idea so vigorously that it was clear they had been thinking the same thing.

Largely to quiet the chorus, Dennis agreed to wrestle one event: the U.S. Open Championships in Las Vegas last May. He finished fourth and figured that was probably the end of it. But no, his coaches insisted he was a hair’s breadth away from beating everybody at 61 kilograms, or about 134 pounds.

“Just the look on their face and their belief in me, it became a very real thing,” Dennis said. “So now I’ve gotta wrestle at the trials.”

That would be the World Team Trials in Madison, Wis., where Dennis finished as runner-up in June. That result encouraged him to move back to Iowa City in late September, to work with Tom Brands and his twin brother, Terry, full time. In December, Dennis wrestled at the U.S. Senior Nationals, a major Olympic Trials qualifier in Vegas. He won, giving up just two points over four matches.

down to 125 pounds

Dennis’ surprise victory at the Nationals was at 57 kilos (about 125.5 pounds). That’s because there are only six weight classes in the Olympic Games, rather than the 10 divisions standard in NCAA competition. Dennis had to go up or down.

He was already a little undersized in the 134 division, so he went down.

Dennis is seeded third at 57 kilos heading into the Olympic Trials, behind Tony Ramos and Tyler Graff. Only one man will represent the United States at each weight, with one alternate.

And there is intrigue, or at least the potential for awkwardness. Ramos succeeded Dennis as Iowa’s top 133-pounder. The two both train under the excitable Brands, sometimes side by side in the same gym. If they should meet in the final, Tom Brands is expected to coach Dennis while Terry coaches Ramos.

But that’s getting a little too far out in front. The competition will be fierce in Iowa City, and a lot could go wrong on the way to the final.

Carnation, who follows the sport closely at the national level, emphasizes how rare it is for a guy to take three years off, then return to elite competition - and not only compete, but win.

“For him to come back after coaching for three years, man, we’re so pumped and excited for him,” Carnation said. “He has this whole other family in California. Win or lose, I’m glad he got back on the horse and went for it.”

Carnation has even extracted a promise from Dennis to attend the Windsor wrestling camp again in June, though the plan is in flux.

It’s possible Dan Dennis will have a pressing engagement in August that demands his full attention.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette