By Mike Finn
When Corey Jantzen arrived on the Harvard campus in 2007, the native of Shoreham, N.Y., had already made a name for himself — as a two-time New York state champ, the nation’s top-ranked wrestler at 135 pounds and even competed in the Midlands as a high school senior.
Corey Jantzen also had plenty of wrestling pedigree since his father, Don, wrestled in college at C.W. Post and even more notably his older brother Jesse Jantzen captured the NCAA championship in 2004; becoming just the second national champ for Harvard.
With such credentials, much was expected of the younger Jantzen … until the word “injury” became a major part of his college resume.
Five years later, Corey Jantzen is still wrestling for the Crimson, but it is a career that has been spotty at times; primarily because injuries have stymied his career three different times:
• In 2008, he missed seven weeks because of a torn ACL, but still returned for the NCAAs where he went 0-2 at 141 pounds;
• In 2009, he was ranked No. 1 nationally at 141 after winning the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, but then missed five weeks because of an ankle injury. He returned late to qualify for the NCAAs but re-injured the ankle in his first match and forfeited his consolation bout.
• In 2011 — after taking a redshirt season in 2010 — he finished second at the Las Vegas Invite at 149 pounds but then was lost for the season because of an elbow injury.
But Corey Jantzen did return this season, not until the second semester, and defeated two ranked wrestlers at 149 —Rutgers’ Mario Mason and Oklahoma’s Nick Lester — in his first seven bouts. His only loss was to Air Force’s No. 3-ranked Cole Von Ohlen. He is currently ranked No. 7 by WIN.
Corey recently spoke to WIN about his career, which includes a 46-19 record, and how he hopes to still win an NCAA title in St. Louis, the same place his brother Jesse won a national title.
WIN: In looking at your story, it’s almost shocking that you are still competing. You have dealt with injuries every year. How would you describe your career at Havard?
JANTZEN: It has been frustrating to say the least. Throughout high school, I was blessed to not have any injuries and was able to compete season after season. I was pretty confident because I was always on the mat injury free.
It seemed like at Harvard every year I was doing well, then would deal with an injury. My freshman year, it was a torn ACL, which took me out for half a season and I only had about a week to get ready for our conference (EIWA) tournament. My sophomore year, I was ranked No. 1 in the country and then tore a ligament in my ankle, which kept me out again for half a year. Last year, it was a similar thing when I started off well before I needed surgery on my elbow.
I have not been blessed with a great college career as far as injuries go, but every year I went from getting ready to being on a mat and getting time in to recovering with therapy and trying to get back on the mat. I just want one healthy season and I think this is going to be it.
WIN: Why are you still competing? What is it about wrestling and your life that makes you want to continue?
JANTZEN: It’s about finishing business. It sounds crazy but I’ve always wanted to win a national title. I watched my brother in 2004 do it for Harvard. That was probably the most amazing moment in my life; watching my brother grow as a wrestler and a person and watching his hard work pay off. That’s what keeps me going.
WIN: In looking at your three serious injuries, did they happen in the wrestling room or did they happen in competition?
JANTZEN: The first injury happened in competition at the Midlands during the wrestlebacks. The other two happened in practice. Wrestling is a brutal sport and extremely tough on your body. Not only are you on the mat battling every day but you are also cutting weight. They were just accidents. None of my teammates did anything wrong or caused the injuries.
WIN: You mentioned your brother Jesse. Are the two of you very close? Has he helped you during this process?
JANTZEN: Absolutely. I am in contact with him every single day. My family is extremely tight. Originally when I got hurt, I’d start feeling bad for myself and he’d bring me back and helped me realize that my leg wasn’t that bad. I’m still going to Harvard. I am healthy. My family loves me. He taught me to look at the bright spots in my life.
I watched (former Arizona State 125-pound) Anthony Robles win an NCAA title last year with one leg. To watch him win a national title without any excuses was pretty motivating. I am healthy now and have to take advantage of that.
WIN: Did you ever feel like you had been forgotten on a national level?
JANTZEN: That thought never really crossed my mind. That was not important to me, whether people forgot me or not. It’s about me reaching my goals. The limelight does not mean that much to me.
WIN: In the 2009-10 season, you basically redshirted and did not compete. Did you stay off the mat entirely? What was that year like?
JANTZEN: That year was an interesting one. I took that year off because I also had a concussion in addition to the ankle injury. My focus was to get healthy. And I had an opportunity to work an internship in Colorado and get some training time from the U.S. coaches at the Olympic Training Center. While I was getting healthy, I was doing things off the mat that were beneficial.
WIN: In returning this season, was the game plan to return for the second semester?
JANTZEN: My elbow was not healthy until now and my doctor had not given me the OK until the second semester. I am still trying to get a year of eligibility back from the NCAA.
WIN: Regarding the elbow, how bad was it injured?
JANTZEN: I tore my UCL ligament, the ulner collatoral ligament. The doctor told me when he went in to fix the ligament, there was a lot of scarring and the ligament was almost completely torn before it happened and just hanging on by a little bit. That’s why it completely tore, randomly, when I was in practice. It was from all the years of wrestling, the abuse I put on my body that led to the ligament tearing.
WIN: Your first match was against Mario Mason — the All-American from Rutgers who was ranked fifth nationally at the start of the year. What were your thoughts going into the match?
JANTZEN: I had not competed in over a year at that point. The nerves started to creep in from about a week out. I had not felt that feeling in a long time. The focus was to just go out and wrestle, score points and not really worry about winning or losing. I was actually blessed being able to wrestle someone who was ranked high nationally. If I lost, it would not be that big of a deal or would not hurt my ranking or (potential postseason) seeding because Mason had done so well this year. It gave me an opportunity to wrestle free and not worry about the outcome.
WIN: The NCAA has changed the rules that wrestlers must wrestle a certain number of matches this year. Were you concerned that you might not get enough matches in before the NCAAs?
JANTZEN: It was a concern a little bit in the beginning. But we went over the number of matches that I needed. I came back at just the right time. I should have over 20 matches this season before our conference tournament. Once we went over the schedule, I knew that I would be fine in terms of having enough matches.
WIN: Before the Mason match, you had not wrestled a varsity match since the 2010 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in early December that year. Considering that is a long time, are you wrestling like the old Corey Jantzen or is there something different about your wrestling style?
JANTZEN: I am quite a bit different as a wrestler. Because of the injury, I have not been able to wrestle a lot from the top and bottom position or mat wrestling. I’ve had to focus on my feet and have become more of a technician on my feet. I watched a lot of film while I was injured. It changed my style a bit and I have become more solid in every position. Offensively, I was pretty explosive before I got injured but my defense was not that great. At this point, I feel confident winning every match on my feet, where before I was not in that position.
WIN: In learning from videotape, was there anyone specific you tried to watch?
JANTZEN: Cael Sanderson (the current Penn State coach and former NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist) is a wrestler that many try to emulate. I like the way he moves on his feet with constant motion and really being aggressive. There are some Russian wrestlers who have an aggressive style with a lot of big moves and know how to counter-attack. I focused on that quite a bit.
WIN: Becoming a takedown technician is beneficial in freestyle as well. What are your thoughts about freestyle after this college season?
JANTZEN: My game plan is to get back into freestyle, God-willing I stay healthy. I want to keep competing after this season and go to the Olympic Trials this year, but a more realistic goal would be 2016. If I did not try it, I would have regrets later in life. The plan is to keep training after college until 2016.
WIN: You mentioned that you dealt with nerves when you wrestled your first match this season. Even though you were cleared physically to wrestle, were there mental roadblocks that you had to overcome; to be able to wrestle freely without worrying about getting injured again?
JANTZEN: Yes. Even earlier in my college career when I was trying to return from injuries and had to make a run at our conference tournament, I wasn’t there mentally as far as being confident. I would have been off for three months. I hadn’t had my training and my conditioning was bad. This year, it’s been very different because this may be my last shot. I don’t want to look back and think that I wasn’t confident and that’s why I couldn’t achieve my goals. Some people get one shot to achieve their goals. That’s how I’m looking at it this season.