The Inside Trip by Bryan Van Kley: Wrestling stars like Taylor want it the most

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Updated: May 30, 2014

The most enjoyable interview and story I write ever year is the Dan Hodge Trophy award story each March after the NCAAs. Hodge winners are a breed of their own in regard to their perspective on competing and pursuing domination. It’s amazing to me to see what makes each of them tick and how their family situations shaped their confidence and style on the mat.

David Taylor, this year’s winner of the WIN Magazine/C.H. Dan Hodge Trophy presented by ASICS, is certainly no different. Taylor is a fierce competitor who looks to have a very promising career in freestyle (see U.S. Open story on page 60) ahead of him.

But how did he get to be such an elite level wrestler and from where did this “passion and drive to excel” come from? If you look closely at his family situation and wrestling career, I think there are three distinct ingredients, which helped him excel: his environment, his drive to excel and his passion or enjoyment of the sport.

Taylor is one of those rare wrestlers who just stands out from his peers. Every so often, there are competitors like Kyle Dake, Jordan Burroughs, Brent Metcalf, Ben Askren, Cael Sanderson and Taylor with have every eye in the arena on them when they’re wrestling. They’re constantly working to score points, build leads and put on an show for fans.

Taylor got into the sport at the very young age of five. He was a high-energy youngster born to Dave and Kathi Taylor, living in Evanston, Wyom., at the time. It was obvious early on that the sport was a good fit for him. He had a burning desire to practice and improve. When interviewing his dad Dave, a pilot who now flies for Delta, he remembered how eager David was when it came to practicing.

“When I got home from a trip, his bag would be sitting there by the door to go practice. I wasn’t going to be the one to stop him and I didn’t,” Dave said.

The Nittany Lion senior said his environment was a big part of who he has become as a wrestler and person.

“You become the people you’re around and I’ve been around very great people,” David said.

Here is where readers need to take note: Taylor wasn’t just lucky to be around some highly-motivated, passionate “wrestling people and coaches.” The Taylor family sought out those training situations. Dave said they frequently drove an hour a half one way to neighboring Utah to train with the Steve Sanderson at his club in Heber City, and then also with eventual U.S. Greco assistant coach Ivan Ivanov at his Tree House Athletic Club near Salt Lake City.

David’s drive to excel was extreme because he has the highest of wrestling goals. No amount of time and expense were spared in pursuing those goals. Taylor’s college coach Cael Sanderson said that David’s amount of effort didn’t come because Dave wanted it, but because David wanted it. This is where so many wrestling families and youngsters get steered off course.

“It’s real easy for a kid to lose that fire if parents don’t have that right perspective. It was for David and about David,” Sanderson said.

The Taylors wanted the very best “road-map” for success and they found it in the Sanderson family. As the Sanderson boys got into college, excelled, and eventually got into coaching like their dad, that bond grew stronger.

“We tried to emulate Cael because that was the best I could find,” Dave said.

At the age of 12, the Taylors made the move as a family to wrestling-rich Ohio so David could attend wrestling-powerhouse St. Paris Graham High School and wrestle for Jeff Jordan. David went on to win four Ohio state titles, starting at 103 and winning his fourth as a senior at 135. Growing up training with Jordan’s Team Jordan club put Taylor in more elite training situations with coaches and athletes who could help take him to the next level.

David’s focus and drive to both compete and constantly get better resulted in consistency. He only missed two competitions in his career: one was the World of Wrestling’s Tulsa Nationals when he was an eighth grader because of a torn MCL in his knee. And the other time came in fourth grade when he broke a big toe in working with a horse.

Taylor commonly wrestled up one to two weight classes in national- and regional-level youth events to get the toughest competition available. At times he also wrestled in two age divisions, for example 12-and-under and 15-and-under in the same tournament to get more matches. Dave doesn’t think his son would have done as well as he did in college without those high-level national tournament matches as a youth.

At the age of 12, the Taylors made the move as a family to wrestling-rich Ohio so David could attend wrestling-powerhouse St. Paris Graham High School and wrestle for Jeff Jordan. David went on to win four Ohio state titles, starting at 103 and winning his fourth as a senior at 135. Growing up training with Jordan’s Team Jordan club put Taylor in more elite training situations with coaches and athletes who could help take him to the next level.

David’s focus and drive to both compete and constantly get better resulted in consistency. He only missed two competitions in his career: one was the World of Wrestling’s Tulsa Nationals when he was an eighth grader because of a torn MCL in his knee. And the other time came in fourth grade when he broke a big toe in working with a horse.

Taylor commonly wrestled up one to two weight classes in national- and regional-level youth events

But Dave warned parents of their perspective.

“Parents and coaches have got to check their ego at the door. If parents recognize that he’s pretty good, you’ve got to let him go where he needs to go,” Dave said.

Lastly, the Taylors seem to have found a healthy perspective on success and improving. I’ve heard from numerous high-level coaches that there are strategic keys in helping kids learn to deal with the pressure in sports. One big one is to put them in as many high-pressure situations as possible when they’re young, but take the focus off winning and put on improving and keeping the kids wanting more and enjoying it.

Winning is obviously more fun for everybody, but a laser focus on improvement and long-term goals can change a wrestler’s perspective vs. the more common outlook where today winning overshadows everything else.

For Taylor, he found that balance.

“He’s always had a balance between enjoying success, but not being completely satisfied,” Sanderson said.

David wrote out all his wrestling goals at the age of eight: four-time state champ, four-time NCAA champ and Olympic champion.

“Whenever I was feeling tired or sick, or didn’t feel like doing something, those things kept me motivated,” he said. “You have to find something as a kid that gets you motivated, and you have to have fun at the same time. I’m a big goal setter and Coach Sanderson is a big goal setter and is big into visualizing it. You have to also continue to get better every single day. Since I’ve been little I’ve lived by those philosophies and it’s turned out pretty well for me.”

Taylor’s high school strength trainer was Scott Goodpaster of Cincinnati Functional Fitness. Goodpaster is a columnist for WIN and wrote an incredible article in WIN’s March 18th issue about how Taylor drove an hour and a half to train at CFF two times a week in addition to normal wrestling practices. Goodpaster said he’s never been around an athlete with the drive and passion for the sport that the younger Taylor has. After totally taking himself to the point of exhaustion with Goodpaster, Taylor would drive himself back home … and do the whole routine over again later in the week.

“I love wrestling, and I’ve always been a wrestling fan. I’d look at WIN Magazine (growing up) and knew the ranking of every high school and college guy, where they were ranked and where they were from,” he said.

A testament to his general love for the sport, “Magic Man” as his Twitter handle reads was seen the first part of every session at this year’s NCAAs sitting beside his dad and family until shortly before it was time to go down to the floor to warm up for his match.

“I’m not one of those types of guys who likes to sit in the locker room and wait,” the four-time finalist said. “For me, I wouldn’t get as nervous as sitting down there and watching on TV. At the same time, I’m a big wrestling fan and I want to sit up there and watch matches and spend time with my family.”

The two-time Hodge winner, who led his team to four NCAA team titles, said he’ll now shift gears and focus on his freestyle goals of becoming a World and Olympic champion. I asked him if he’s been able to put his two NCAA finals losses as a freshman and junior behind him. Taylor said he has and hopes wrestling fans will remember him for how he competed, not his overall record or number of titles.

“If I had to pick what people remembered of me, it’s that every time I stepped on the mat I tried to dominate the guys I wrestled. I think the era I competed in that we started to change the sport, to go out and score points. I think we were the start of that change in the guard of wrestling, Ed Ruth and myself. I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who won twice or lost twice, but as one of the most dominating wrestlers in the history of college wrestling,” he said.

Fans took note after Taylor won his fourth straight Big Ten title. He got a standing ovation. That meant a lot to Taylor, especially since a large number of those fans were from Penn State’s big rival in Iowa. Taylor thanked fans and the wrestling community for the support he’s received. Sanderson said Penn State will miss Taylor and the attitude he took to the mat.

“He wouldn’t be a two-time Hodge winner if he didn’t wrestle to dominate. And you wouldn’t have that amount of success unless you competed the way David did and that was fearlessly,” Sanderson said.

The overall lesson to wrestlers and wrestling families: don’t let an internal fear of falling short of your goals and losing keep you from wrestling all out and pursuing excellence on the mat. David Taylor showed that the alternative can result in something special.

David Taylor’s

Lifetime of Wrestling

The following is a listing of David Taylor’s win-loss records starting in his elementary school days all the way through to Penn State, where he was a four-time NCAA finalist, two-time champion and two-time Hodge Trophy winner. Yearly records do not include FS/GR matches starting in high school. Source: Dave Taylor

Years                       Record

1st grade                   57-4

2nd grade                  124-21

3rd grade                  166-2

4th grade                  115-4

5th grade                  87-0

6th grade                  64-2

7th grade                  91-0

8th grade                  58-2

High School               180-2

College                      134-3

Career:                1076-40

 

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