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All-Americans return to NCAAs after a two-year gap
Photo: National champs Nick Suriano (left) and Yianni Diakomihalis (center), and All-American Pat Glory (right), will be competing in their first NCAA tournament since 2019. Since then, Suriano (who transferred from Rutgers to Michigan) and Cornell’s Diakomihalis (who moved up to 149 after beating Ohio State’s Joey McKenna for the 141-pound title) fell short of making the 2020 U.S. Olympic team while missing the past two collegiate seasons.
By Mike Finn
Gap years have become popular for college students in recent years; giving them time off from the academic grind to experience other parts of life before returning to their studies.
But sometimes, a gap year is not voluntary; something that many college wrestlers — especially those from the Ivy League — were forced to experience after the NCAA cancelled the 2020 Nationals and the Ivy League cancelled all athletic seasons in 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That meant that wrestlers like Cornell’s two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis, Princeton All-American Pat Glory and wrestlers from the four other Ivy League programs — Brown, Columbia, Harvard and Penn — will return for their first national tournament since 2019 in Detroit later this month.
Fortunately, the NCAA announced all athletes from 2020-21 would be given another year of eligibility and the Ivy League schools offered students a “gap” year, which was especially good for its athletes who are not able to redshirt unless it’s an Olympic redshirt.
That was the case with Cornell’s two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis, who missed the entire 2019-20 wrestling season … and the cancelled national championships in Minneapolis … after he and a couple of his Big Red teammates (like All-American Vito Arujau) chose to spend that year preparing to make the 2020 Olympic team for the U.S.
But those dreams were postponed, which added some confusion for the sport’s most elite athletes, including Diakomihalis, whose two NCAA titles came in 2018 and ’19. These were the first two years after the native of Rochester, N.Y., won four straight state championships for Hilton High School.
“We found out everything was being shut down a month before the Trials,” said Diakomihalis, a former Cadet World champion who finished second in the 2019 World Team Trials at 65 kilograms. “After that, it was kind of a wait-and-see period. We weren’t exactly sure when was the next time I’d be wrestling or will I be returning to campus the next fall? How are we going to handle this? Will there be an Olympic Games?
“You had to have the ‘go-with-the-flow’ mentality by focusing on training and getting better and taking advantage of what opportunity became available.”
Many of those questions were eventually answered when the International Olympic Committee announced the Games would be pushed back until August of 2021. Diakomihalis continued to train to try qualify for the U.S. team, but that dream ended when he lost in the semifinals of the Challenge tournament to eventual Olympic Trials champ Jordan Oliver. (Arujau also lost his Olympic bid when he lost in the Best-of-3 Finals to Thomas Gilman at 57 kilograms.)
Diakomihalis knows that people are thinking he might join former Cornell great Kyle Dake as a four-time NCAA champion.
“I try not to acknowledge that is happening,” said Diakomihalis. “You can’t win four until you win three. My friends will make fun of me, when I say you can’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
Diakomihalis, whose younger brother Greg is a 125-pound freshman at Cornell, knew he’d come back, but said it was a bit confusing when his head coach Rob Koll announced he was leaving Cornell for Stanford. Fortunately, Mike Grey, the new Cornell coach was a long-time Koll assistant and served as Diakomihalis’ freestyle coach.
For the most part, many of the Big Red wrestlers stayed in Ithaca. One of the few exceptions was All-American Max Dean, who transferred to Penn State.
“The things that brought us here may have been different,” he said. “But in the end, we are here now and we are here for each other.”
Diakomihalis was concerned a little if he’d ever wrestle again for Cornell after the pandemic impacted college wrestling two years in a row.
“There’s an alternate reality that plays out in your mind,” said Diakomihalis, who moved up to 149 pounds this season and was ranked No. 1 heading into the 2022 EIWAs, another tournament he had not wrestled in since 2019. “I was afraid I lost my junior year and 2021 was cancelled and I would have been done and (the 2019 NCAA final) would have been my last college match ever. Ironically, it has played out in my favor by taking those two years off. I did not lose those two years.”
Unfortunately for Princeton All-American Pat Glory, the same could not be said. Once the Ivy League announced the 2020-21 season would be cancelled, the 125-pound wrestler lost his sophomore season and went nearly 18 months without wearing a Tiger singlet in an actual college match.
That also meant the native of Randolph, N.J., needed to miss a year of taking classes and could not actually practice on campus while many his college counter-parts wrestled in an abbreviated season that started in January of 2021 and ended in March at the Nationals in St. Louis.
Glory, who can now only compete in three NCAAs, said he could hardly watch the 2021 national tournament on TV back in Princeton.
“I had to call (Princeton assistant) Coach (Joe) Dubuque and he kind of talked me off the ledge because I was very frustrated,” he recalled. “I lived with six other guys in a three-bedroom apartment and they will tell you how frustrated I was watching that.”
Looking at the realities of these last two years through the eyes of a wrestler like Glory completes the picture of how the pandemic has affected nearly every area of life, including sports.
“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in my life,” said Glory, who was undefeated (24-0) and seeded No. 2 at 125 pounds in 2020, one year after he finished sixth at the 2019 Nationals. He has his teammates were also coming off an Ivy League championship in 2020.
“Taking it back to March of 2020 when COVID happened, we were in a little bit of a sweet spot,” said Glory. “We were wrestling really well as a team and our individuals were killing it, kind of firing on all cylinders. Abruptly, it felt like everything stopped out of nowhere.
“We were all just praying for the opportunity to compete and that didn’t wind up happening and was a very weird time,” said Glory, pointing out that he and his teammates were not allowed to train on campus until the start of the 2021-22 season. “I don’t know if anyone was really wrestling. After it was cancelled, it was about coming to terms with that. There was a bitterness in that. Some things were completely out of our control.”
Glory said the tough part was that there was not a lot of communication from the school about what would happen after the cancelled 2020 NCAAs.
“There was no word from Princeton, no word from the Ivy League, no word from anyone,” he recalled. “You can imagine how hard it is to plan your life out when you have no information.”
Glory admitted it was hard to determine which season lost left him more frustrated.
“It’s hard to say because both opportunities were taken away,” he said. “The (cancelled 2020 NCAAs) was more devastating because I cannot get that year back. At least I can take last year’s eligibility back. At the end of the day, no one really cares what happens in the regular season. It’s how you wrestle in that tournament.”
Glory hopes the 2022 Nationals makes up for some of his past frustration. Heading into the EIWAs, the Tiger was 13-0 and was coming off an 11-9 victory over Cornell’s Arujau, who started the season at 133 before dropping down to 125.