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Taylor-Made Smile: Penn State sophomore embraces sport and winning expectations
By Mike Finn
When a college sophomore wins 98 percent of his career matches, there is no doubt that wrestler is going to be happy.
But when it comes to Penn State’s David Taylor, who has won 61 of 62 career matches in his two years at Happy Valley, there is truly something more authentic to his winning smile than winning matches.
“My whole life, I’ve really just enjoyed what I’m doing and getting better,” said Taylor, who is credited as much for his positive style of practice and competing as he does for winning at Penn State, which appears to be a natural fit for his personality.
“Last year, one of the things that separated our team from the rest of the teams was that we just have fun,” said Taylor, who was one of five All-Americans for the 2011 NCAA champions from State College, Pa. “We don’t look at it as a job, that we ‘have to win.’ We look at it as if you are having fun with your goals, you will get better every match and find the result that you wanted.”
Taylor was introduced to the sport as a five-year-old growing up in Wyoming —where he said, “I was pretty bad when I started.” — before his father moved that family to Ohio, where he won the prestigious Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award after winning 180 of 182 career matches and four state championships for St. Paris Graham High School.
But when it comes to Taylor, smiles are more common than his wins at 165 pounds this winter.
“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m enjoying going out and shaking hands and taking seven minutes or whatever time it takes. That’s the fun part. That’s what you train for. You prepare to go out and get your hand raised and smile before over 6,000 people in (Penn State’s) Rec Hall.
“That’s what you live for and what you’ve dreamed of since you’re a little kid.
People, who take it a little too serious, have the overall expectation that you have to act like you are tougher than the other guy. Sure you want to be tougher than your opponent, but there is no reason why you can’t smile and show that you are having fun. That’s what I try to do: enjoy myself and enjoy the moment. You have to embrace those moments.”
But not every match has been enjoyable for Taylor, who saw his freshman season at 157 pounds tainted in the NCAA finals when he found himself cradled and pinned by Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins. It was Taylor’s only loss wearing the blue and white singlet other than compiling a 21-2 mark while redshirting in 2010.
“People say (losing) makes you better. I’m not sure how you get better from losing,” said Taylor. “It was pretty tough and I still don’t like talking about it.”
But Taylor, who is ranked No. 1 and 23-0 this season, has apparently fought off that pain and is looking forward to the 2012 NCAAs.
“I didn’t compete last spring (in freestyle) because I had to make sure I was ready to compete again and had my head on,” said Taylor, who has three Cadet and two Junior National titles in freestyle and Greco on his resume. “It took a little bit longer than I had hoped it would. I had to put (that loss) behind me. I still have a lot of goals that I’ve wanted to accomplish since I was a little kid. I wanted to win four national titles and now I have to try and win three.”
While Taylor calls himself a “pretty self-motivated person,” he admits he has learned to deal with both the mental and physical challenges that come with college wrestling.
“With the physical wear and tear, there are things that happen and you can get injured,” he said. “But if you are in control, you can prevent the physical wear and tear.
“Mentally, you have to be thinking throughout the match. When you step on the mat, the other guy will take you on like it’s his national championship match while it’s hard for you to get up for every match.
“You have to make sure you take everybody serious and prepare for it like it is a national championship. That’s tough to do all the time. That’s when you realize it is fun and think, ‘I’ve prepared for this match and it’s all preparation for March.’ ”
Taylor likes to think that “goofy” side helps teammates put the expectation pressures in the right perspective.
“I’m always smiling and making sure people are laughing,” he said.
But he added that the Penn State coaches also find ways to alleviate the pressures that come from fans and media.
“Yesterday at practice, coach Cael (Sanderson) and coach (Casey) Cunningham were “sword-fighting” in practice,” recalled Taylor on Feb. 17. “People don’t expect that but we have the time when we warm up playing games. We’re always keeping it fresh. It’s not the same monotonous grind or three-minute “gos” for an hour and a half.
“There are times that Coach wants us to be serious and prepare for what we need to, but otherwise it is a pretty fun atmosphere.”
Taylor said that happened last year when Penn State lost at home to Iowa, but came back to beat the Hawkeyes in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments last March.
“When we lost to Iowa last year, we had to go back to the drawing board a little bit and work on some little things,” he said. “You can’t make big adjustments. When you lose a match, you train a little harder but you don’t change what you’ve been doing. You have to correct the small things and focus on the big things, the thing you focus on all year.”
One other element about wrestling that Taylor learned to adjust to was simply growing up physically. Between his junior and senior seasons in school, he grew from 112 to 135 pounds. One year later during his rookie campaign at Penn State he was competing at 157 pounds. He expects to end up at 174 pounds before his Nittany\ Lion career ends.
“I think I’m done growing,” he said. “I don’t expect to go through any more crazy weight jumps.”
But no matter how much Taylor grows up, he will always keep wrestling fun.