By Jake Hart
When I was a child, there were two ways my brother and I were allowed to entertain ourselves: read or play outside. I was a big fan of the Magic Treehouse book series, and I fell in love with the idea of having one of my own. I used to sit by myself in one of the worn-down beanbag chairs in the reading section of our classroom, picturing myself alongside the main characters Jack and Annie as they went on their magical adventures. I asked my dad if we could build a treehouse, berating him with my excitement until he eventually said yes.
I have a habit of romanticizing things. I always get really excited about something, and then harp on all the possibilities that could come out of it. I began to imagine every nook and cranny of the structure: the bookshelf along the back wall, littered with hours of excuses to never come down, a specially crafted toy box that would house my extensive collection of race cars, a bunkbed tucked into the corner for when my brother and I would stay the night, and a mini-fridge to hide all the sodas my mom wouldn’t let us drink. I envisioned my friends from school coming over, pretending we lived in the medieval times and rescued a princess from a castle hoisted high in a tree. I saw my imaginary armor glimmer as I guided the princess down with one hand, while holding a stick for a sword in the other. My social standing would be defined by this treehouse, and I was going to be the coolest kid in the entire city of Fort Worth, Texas. Years went by, and I continuously pestered my father about the treehouse. My questions swarmed him like mosquitos in mid-July. My father seemed to be coated in a thick layer of citronella oil though, because every time one of my insectile questions buzzed in his direction, they could never land a bite. There was always a reason not to start the project. He was too busy
with work. We didn’t have the money. The house we were living in at the time didn’t have a tree big enough.
Around the age of 12, I took matters into my own hands. There was a patch of woods near my house where my friends and I used to spend countless summer days exploring, lighting each other up in airsoft wars, and avoiding the chores that were surely waiting for us at home – an oasis for a nature kid trapped in suburbia. I recruited those same buddies to assist me in the project, and we finally decided on the perfect tree right by the entrance of our hideout. Using a hammer and nails stolen from my father’s toolbox, along with wood and black tarp swiped from construction sites when the workers weren’t looking, we manufactured a house big enough to fit two kids uncomfortably.
The plywood flooring was nailed into two thick branches with the edges hanging over since we didn’t have a saw. The black tarp draped over the center branch with both ends nailed so it wouldn’t blow away. There was no bookshelf, no room for a bunk bed, and the idea of fitting a mini-fridge up there was laughable. Frankly, it was an eyesore – but it was my eyesore. My dream that had overtaken my early childhood had finally come to fruition. No matter how ugly it was, nobody could take that away from me.
When I think about my wrestling career, I can see how many parts of it had been romanticized in the same way as the treehouse. My father wrestled his entire life in the small town of North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He was a team captain for the Duke wrestling team in college. Because of my father’s background with the sport, I was practically exposed to it from the womb.
My mother loves to recount the story of when I was about four years old and we made
the trip to Stillwater, Oklahoma to watch the Oklahoma State Cowboys wrestle in a duel. There is a picture of my father and I leaning against the railing, intrigued by the mat on the floor of Gallagher-Iba Arena. Legend has it that while that picture was being taken, I told my dad, “I want to do that!”, thus kindling my love for wrestling.
Jake with his father in the Gallagher-Iba Arena
My parents waited until I was six years old before they took me to my first wrestling practice. To this day, I remember walking into the small wrestling room of Central High School where the Texas Grapplers youth program held practices. The burgundy and gold Resilite mats were littered with tiny holes from years of abuse, exposing the brown foam beneath the painted rubber top layer. The back wall was lined with pull-up bars that were far too high for my small body to reach. Above it read “CHARGER WRESTLING” in burgundy letters with two men wrestling in between the words. The musty smell of sweat stained the air from years of grueling practices that “shaped boys into men.”
I was greeted by Dave Lehman, the head coach of the Texas Grapplers. He was a stocky guy with shorts that stopped just above his knees. His shirt was too tight around his biceps and too loose around his torso. Blinding light reflected from his bald head, and when he raised his eyebrows, his forehead creased. He shook my hand and introduced me to the other coaches and kids on the team. The entire practice felt like I was watching a foreign film without subtitles – I was completely lost. They tried to show me how to get into a wrestling stance, take a shot, and sprawl. What I thought was wrestling looked more like a fish flopping around on dry land. Despite how bad I was, I was in love.
My dad and I began to watch college and Olympic wrestling matches, and those wrestlers quickly became my role models. While wrestling has gained some mainstream attention in recent years with the popularity of MMA, there isn’t a professional wrestling league. For the wrestling community, college wrestling is what the NFL is for football players. While kids at my school were praising Dallas Cowboys players like Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, I was looking up to NCAA champions like Brent Metcalf and Jordan Oliver. I watched the NCAA championships every year as they wrestled on giant stages in front of thousands of screaming fans. I heard the announcers bellow their names into the microphone as they threw their hands up in triumph. I wanted to be just like them.
I pictured myself on the big blue NCAA finals mat, raising my hands in victory as the arena erupted. I imagined running to the stands to give my mom a giant sweaty hug like all of my wrestling heroes had done. I thought about the speech I would give to the ESPN announcer as they waited for me to walk off the mat. I visualized the feeling of standing on top of the podium, my vision filled with camera flashes. From that point on, I had two goals for myself: I was going to be a state champion, and I was going to wrestle Division I.
I sacrificed everything in pursuit of those goals. The number of birthday parties missed because I had to make weight the next day, practices I left with black eyes and sweat-soaked clothes, nights spent crying because I had mentally broken myself at practice – they were all too many to count. Despite everything I did to reach my goals –– and I came close on multiple occasions –– it still wasn’t enough. I had always been above average compared to the majority of kids at my age level but failed to get the job done when it mattered the most. I always ended up one or two wins away from placing at national competitions, and the best I had finished at the state tournament was runner-up after being upset in the state finals as a junior. Heading into my senior year of high school, with twelve years of training and no state title or calls from college coaches to show for it, I realized that this was my last chance to achieve the goals I had set for myself as a kid.
In 2015, I went to a 28-day wrestling camp at the University of Minnesota run by their head coach, Jay Robinson. Coach Robinson was a former Olympian, world medalist, and Army Ranger who coached the Gophers to three NCAA team titles, sixty-three individual all Americans and fourteen national champions. His camp was known as one of the hardest wrestling camps in the country, home to the coveted “I DID IT” shirt. It was a basic black t-shirt that had the phrase printed on the chest in yellow lettering. The camp had a system where you started with 1,000 points. You either gained or lost points based on how hard you worked. The top two kids in the group would gain a positive, but if the coaches thought you were slacking, you received a negative. You needed at least 700 points at the end of the camp to receive your “I DID IT” shirt, but nobody knew how many points they had until the end. The goal was to make kids push themselves as hard as possible the entire time, because if they knew how many points they had, that could determine how much effort was necessary.
Jake, second from the left, showing off his "I DID IT" shirt with his fellow campers
Standing in the t-shirt line when I was checking out of the camp, I was anxious as I wondered if I had done enough to earn the shirt. It was like getting my height measured as a kid for a roller coaster, I messed up my hair so it would stick up and wore thick soled shoes to make me appear taller, slightly stand on my tippy toes. The only difference here is there was no cheating your way to the shirt. You either earned it or you didn't, which is why the feeling of relief washed over me when they handed me the shirt I’d worked so hard to obtain. Earning the shirt put you in this special class of wrestlers. It didn’t mean you were the best, but there was a mutual respect any time I wore my “I DID IT” shirt and saw another person wearing theirs.
While the goal of the camp was to earn the shirt, I left with so much more than that.
Coach Robinson designed the camp to resemble his time at Ranger School, making campers wake up before the sun was up, working out three times a day on minimal sleep and teaching us to adapt to our circumstances. No excuses were allowed. You either followed the rules or faced the consequences. While it was labeled as a wrestling camp, the experience taught you how to navigate life more than improve your wrestling ability. One of the greatest things I gained from that camp was a certain phrase: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” I’m not sure where it came from, but it was something coach Robinson repeated throughout the entire camp. Basically, if there is something wrong with your life, you have to figure out what it is and find a way to fix it. It seems simple, but that’s what made it so powerful to me.
I lived by that phrase my senior year. I had zero distractions. If I wasn’t at school or sleeping, I was training. I got up at 4:30 a.m. and lifted every morning before school because I knew my opponents were still sleeping. I would go to club practices every Sunday because I knew my opponents were taking the day off. I picked the toughest partners every practice, sometimes even wrestling with my coaches, because I knew that my opponents would pick out the easy guys. I looked for every opportunity I could to do more than my competition.
The work began to show for itself once the season came along. The biggest point of
evidence being when I earned third place at Beast of the East, one of the most prestigious high
school tournaments in the country. I came into the tournament relatively unknown but fell to the top-ranked wrestler in the country, David Carr, by decision in the semifinals – my lone loss of the season. (Carr won the 157-pound NCAA title for Iowa State in 2021.)
Jake stands in 3rd place on the podium at the Beast of the East tournament
After that tournament, I began to get noticed. I was boosted into the national rankings, making it as high as the No. 16 in the 152-pound weight class. I received calls from multiple high-level college programs and decided to commit to Virginia Tech. I had visited schools like Old Dominion, App State, and NC State, but the family dynamic the team had, the incredible
coaching staff stocked with NCAA finalists and Olympians, and the opportunity to go to school in a place as beautiful as Blacksburg was what solidified my decision.
In the state tournament, I dominated my way to the finals before winning a tight double overtime thriller to claim the title. After the season ended, I competed in the NHSCA Senior national tournament for fun, coming into the tournament as the No. 7 seed. I ended up placing second in the tournament, falling to Cadet world bronze-medalist Jacori Teemer, 3-1.
The feeling that comes with making a dream into a reality gives you a Thanos-esque confidence. I felt invincible after that season and began to plan for my future as a Hokie. Winning for me was an addiction – if I wasn’t experiencing the euphoric feeling coursing through my veins, I was chasing the next high. I wasn’t satisfied with just winning a state title or being a high school All-American. I wanted to be like the wrestlers I looked up to as a kid. I wanted to be an NCAA All-American. I wanted to have my name on the wall of the wrestling room. I wanted the name “Jake Hart'' to be in every wrestling household in the country. I believed I could do it too.
My untouchable mindset was quickly rattled when I got to Blacksburg. I soon realized that my accolades from high school meant absolutely nothing. Sure, I was a state champion. So was everyone else. Sure, I had placed at national tournaments. So had everyone else. Sure, I was ranked in the top twenty nationally. So was everyone else.
I went from being the big fish in a small pond to swimming with sharks.
I went from being frustrated if I gave up a single point at a high school practice to calling my parents ecstatic if I scored one measly takedown or managed to escape from the bottom position at a college practice. The older guys on the team acted as if the number of points they could score against me was a game within itself. Every day, I was pummeled by wrestlers whose sole interest was to break me – mentally or physically, it didn’t matter. They were going to make sure I knew that I was nothing compared to them.
On top of that, I had to deal with my own coaches coaching against me in the room – something I had never experienced before. If I got to one of my leg attacks, the coaches were on the wall telling my teammate how to defend it. If I was getting ridden out on bottom, my coaches were chirping in my teammate’s ear, telling him to stuff my face in the mat. It was a mixture of betrayal and demoralization. This coaching approach may sound harsh, but I realize now that once you’re at the college level, more is expected from you. There is not a professional wrestling league, so college wrestling is “pro” for most guys, and the coaches expect you to act like a pro. To quote Iowa Hawkeye wrestling legend Tom Brands, “We don’t have time to sugarcoat stuff.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that college wrestling – really college sports in general – is much more political than when I was wrestling as a kid or in high school. It’s not so much about the love of the sport as it is about the results. While the coaches are there to help you progress and make you as good as you can be, they are businessmen as well. They get paid to produce national champions and All-Americans. Especially in a sport like wrestling with only 9.9 scholarships for a 30-man roster, if you’re not producing results, coaches will focus on the guy who does. If my coaches don’t produce results, the school will find another coach who will.
Growing up, I always had coaches in my ear telling me how good I could be. They worked with me tirelessly to help me reach my goals, and I thrived off of their approval. If I knew my coach was confident in me, I was more confident in myself. In college, I didn’t have that.
I found myself constantly looking for endorsement from my coaches rather than focusing on improving as a wrestler.
Because I wasn’t getting the affirmation I longed for, I began to question my ability. I looked around and saw my teammates getting one-on-one sessions and constant praise from the staff. I wondered why I wasn’t getting the same treatment. Rather than just going up and asking for help, I made myself believe that they didn’t care about me because they were investing more time into other guys. I made myself believe I wasn’t worthy of the private lessons or the self esteem boosting speeches. I knew that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to seek out that treatment, but I was too scared to ask for help.
That’s not to say that my coaching staff didn’t care for me or my teammates as people. They didn’t view us like stocks, bailing as soon as the value plummets. I had very personal relationships with all of them. During quarantine in 2020, I had to care for my mother who was battling breast cancer. My head coach called me on a regular basis to check in on me as well as my mother’s condition. I goofed around with all of my assistant coaches like they were my older brothers. Any time someone asks me what it was like being on the wrestling team, I tell them it was like having thirty little brothers. We may have beaten the shit out of each other every day, and emotions got high at points, but that stayed on the mat. That’s the beautiful thing about wrestling; once it was over, we were still a family.
My sophomore year, I asked to wrestle-off for the starting spot at my weight class and was told no. I was told because of a past injury that I wasn’t reliable enough, a blow that effectively eradicated what little confidence I had left. As a consolation, I asked if I could be sent to the Southern Scuffle, a very tough tournament hosted by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. My coach agreed and a week later I made the trip west. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. The nerves about doing well at the tournament festered through my body. My thought process was that if I placed at the tournament, then it would prove that I could be reliable and was good enough for a shot at the starting line-up.
It would prove that I was worth the investment.
I slept three hours that night and was barely able to function when it came time to compete the next day.
My lack of sleep combined with the grueling weight cut to 149 pounds resulted in the worst performance I had put on since elementary school. I lost both of my matches, the second to a kid that I had beaten by a score of 12-4 a month before. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of embarrassment. I had stuck out my neck for this opportunity and I made a complete fool of myself. I began to believe my coaches were right for denying me the chance at the starting spot. If I wasn’t able to place at the Southern Scuffle, let alone win a match, how was I going to be the starter for a top-10 program? When I got back to Blacksburg, I apologized for my performance and kept my head down for the remainder of the season. Like a cog in a machine, I did what I was told and tried to cause as little problems as possible.
Being in the wrestling room as a kid was a safe place. Any stresses that I had outside of that room were left at the door. Lacing up my shoes was like being transported to another world; however, what had once eliminated my stress became the very source of it. I always felt like I wasn’t getting paid any mind, even if I was wrestling with a starter. I understood that being on the team meant helping the starters prepare for competition, but at the end of the day, wrestling is an individual sport. Why was I training this hard if I wasn’t the one wrestling in meets?
The monotony of being used as a training dummy every single day for years eventually caught up to me. My senior year, I was burnt out and found myself resenting the sport I used to love. I had concluded that there wasn’t a future in my wrestling career. My dreams of being an NCAA All-American and getting my hand raised on that big blue mat in March were becoming
just that – dreams. I called my parents to tell them that I was ready to leave it all behind, a conversation I was scared to have knowing how much my parents had sacrificed for me to be in the position that I was in. The countless miles driven across the country so I could compete against the best competition, the thousands of dollars spent on camps, tournaments, hotels and club practices, and the stress my father would endure when he would go straight from work to coaching at his wrestling club because he wanted the best opportunities for me. While I may have put in an immense amount of work to get to where I was, my parents put in just as much, if not more. I feared letting them down. I felt like I wasn’t only quitting on wrestling, but also quitting on them.
Since my dad wrestled in college, he understood what I was going through more than anyone else. He understood the feeling of eternally chasing a goal that you may never achieve. He understood the hellish hours spent slipping in puddles of other people’s sweat, just for someone else to steal the limelight. Most of all, he understood the pain that comes with admitting to yourself that your time is up.
The talk I had with my dad wasn’t scary at all. He didn’t get mad. He didn’t get upset with me. He didn’t try and convince me one way or the other. He was just honest. He reminded me how close I was to finishing my career. I had been running this race for sixteen years now, and I wanted to stop right before the finish line. Not finishing what I started was more of a waste of all of my hard work than not reaching my goals ever would be. He reminded me that even though my college career didn’t go the way I had planned, I still achieved something.
For starters, not many people can say they made it all four years in a college wrestling program, especially not a top-10 one at that.
When I got to Blacksburg, there were ten of us in our freshman class; now there are four.
Similar to the “I DID IT” shirt, there is a certain bond that is formed between guys from the same class. While some of us may go on to reach higher heights than others, we went through the same challenges together. While you still have love for the guys who didn’t make it, and you don’t judge them for calling it quits, they don’t hold the same place in your heart as the guys who were by your side the whole time.
My dad told me how he was in the same boat as me his senior year, how he hated wrestling and wanted it to be over. He did the bare minimum at practice, didn’t live the right lifestyle, and overall lost himself. As he decided to mail it in at the end of his career, he never qualified for the NCAA tournament. In the last match of his career, he lost in the last second to a guy that he had beaten in the past. He told me that he had given up. If he had won that match, he would have gone to the NCAA tournament. Twenty-five years later, it still keeps him up at night. Not finishing his career in the way that he should’ve filled him with more regret than anything else in life, and he didn’t want that same feeling to haunt me too.
Most importantly, he told me to remember why I started wrestling in the first place – because I loved it.
Other people’s validation meant nothing if I wasn’t proud of what I’d done. If I was so focused on proving myself to someone else, then why was I doing it in the first place?
When I decided I was going to be a state champion and wrestle Division I at six years old, I didn’t set those goals because anyone else told me to. I set those goals because I wanted to achieve those things. I wanted to be a state champion because I wanted to prove to myself that I was the best. I wanted to wrestle Division I because I knew that was where the best guys wrestled. I wanted to be blinded by flashing cameras on the top of the NCAA podium because I wanted to be like the guys that I saw on my living room TV as a kid. I decided not to quit that night, not because my dad told me he didn’t want me to quit, but because I didn’t want to quit.
I had never quit anything in my life, and I wasn’t going to start then. I thought back to the phrase that drove me through my entire senior year of high school: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” I started to forget about what the coaches thought of me and focused on what I thought of myself. Instead of waiting for a coach to tell me what I was doing wrong, I figured it out for myself. I wrote down everything I did right or wrong at practice in a journal, and I began honing in on my weaker points. Through self-critique, I found myself more focused on my wrestling, rather than if my coaches were watching me. Because I was improving, I received more attention from the coaches and more opportunities to compete.
I stopped focusing on what I couldn’t achieve, and instead looked at what I could.
I was honest with myself and accepted that I was never going to be an NCAA All-American, hear my name echo through an arena with thousands of cheering fans, or share that sweaty championship hug with my mom. However, what I could do was help develop the freshman class that I would be leaving behind. During my time as a Hokie, there have been multiple guys that may have never achieved greatness, but they helped me grow as a wrestler and a person.
Mattheos Lozier was a volunteer assistant coach my freshman year. He never started a single match, but when we would wrestle, he always found ways that I could improve. Caden Darber was a year ahead of me, and one of my toughest training partners. He pushed me every day at practice, and we made each other better. While his motivation was to improve his own wrestling ability and achieve his own goals, I believe he wanted to see me succeed just as much as he wanted it for himself.
Now that I’m at the end of my career, there are five freshmen that are all around my size. I do my best to beat the breaks off of them any chance I get, but I am always looking for ways to help them improve. If I’m able to defend one of their shots, I will show them where to lock their
hands so it’s harder for me to defend. If I’m controlling them from the top position –– even when I’m burying their face in the mat –– I show them how to build back to their base and get out. If I’m able to escape from them on the bottom without any trouble, I show them how to beat me off of the whistle and break me down the next time. The way that I see it is if I can’t reach the goals that I set for myself, then I’m going to do what I can to help them reach theirs.
Even though my college career didn’t work out the way that I expected it, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. While I do wish there were things I had done differently, I think the lessons I learned from being a part of this program far outweigh the disappointments. Being on this team has ultimately instilled the mindset that I don’t need anyone else’s approval in any facet of life.
My validation is the only validation that matters.
It taught me that it’s okay to romanticize things, but I have to be ready to adapt when things aren’t going the way that I planned. While the term may have a negative connotation, I don’t think romanticizing is always a bad thing. If you don’t set crazy expectations for yourself, you have nothing to work towards.
Almost everyone that has wrestled can attest that wrestling is one of the hardest sports –– not just physically, but mentally as well. In a wrestling match, I could wrestle the best I ever have and still lose. I can’t blame anyone but myself. I am the only one out there on the mat. I can’t blame my coaches for not telling me to do the right moves, I can’t blame my teammates for not helping me prepare, and I can’t blame the official for making a bad call.
I am the only person that determines if I win or lose. I have to be the one to figure out what I did wrong; I have to figure out how I’m going to bounce back and where I need to improve. The mental toll that comes with that can either break or shape a person.
I’m grateful to know that any obstacle I face in life will never compare to the hours I spent on the third floor of the Merryman Athletic Facility in Blacksburg, Virginia. Out of all the
lessons I’ve gained from being a Virginia Tech wrestler, the most important one is this: There isn’t a damn thing I can’t do in life.
Edited by Grace Kelly
Photos provided by Jake Hart