By Anna Kayser
I guess the best way to start this off is with a story – my favorite wrestling story to tell, actually, and one that tells you all you need to know about where I came from and why I’m here.
There’s no pretty table-setting for this story, except that I’m an Iowa Hawkeye through-and-through. I’ve been attending Iowa football games at Kinnick Stadium since I was a kid, attracted to the sports world from a young age. Wrestling, however, wasn’t on my radar. Not even as I moved up to one of the biggest wrestling high schools in the state of Iowa.
Fast forward to college, my junior year in Iowa City. I don’t remember what the weather was that day in October or how I felt as I walked into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for my second ever experience with Iowa wrestling. I was blissfully unaware of what the next year or two of my life would hold for me.
My introduction to the Hawkeye program had come just a few weeks earlier – yes, two and a half years into my college career, roughly 20 years into growing up in the middle of wrestling country – but that one’s not important. I was informally introduced to Hawkeye head coach Tom Brands, it was chill.
It was less chill on media day as I sat facing the press conference podium at CHA, watching in fear as Brands tore apart – for lack of a better term – a reporter sitting on the other side of the room. I don’t remember what question was asked, I don’t remember the exact response. All I remember was feeling VERY in over my head.
I wasn’t a fan of the sport. The opposite, in fact, bored and completely unaware of the rules in high school. So, when my editor approached me about covering Iowa wrestling a year prior, I wanted none of it.
Thankfully, I changed my mind. But as I sat in that room, I couldn’t help but wonder if I made the wrong decision.
Following the press conference in which I doubt I dared to even think about speaking, the cohort of Iowa media made its way downstairs to the “Room that Gable Built” for interviews with athletes.
As I attempted to get my bearings on the room, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and there was Tom Brands: The guy that just barked at a reporter not more than 10 minutes ago.
He asked me how I was doing and if everyone was treating me okay – a complete 180 in demeanor from what I had witnessed upstairs. I felt… at home.
The first Iowa dual I went to was the nail in the coffin. I have no idea who they wrestled (UT-Chattanooga, maybe?) or what the score was (I wouldn’t be surprised if they shut their opponent out completely). All I remember was feeling in complete awe of the spectacle, the lone mat in the middle of thunderous applause and the deep rumble of 15 thousand fans yelling “TWOOOO” in unison.
I covered Spencer Lee’s second NCAA championship, traveling out to Pittsburgh by myself with one photographer to survive only on midnight IHOP and press meals. I felt CHA rumble as Michael Kemerer defeated No. 1 Mark Hall to lead the Hawkeyes to a win over Penn State in early 2020.
So, why am I here now? Because there’s nothing I love more than being able to tell the stories of tremendous athletes and what it takes to stand atop a field of excellence – and I believe Indiana is full of these stories.
Wrestling is growing here, exponentially. The first dual meet I attended in Indiana blew me away, from the invested crowd to the spotlight highlighting all of the action. The State Finals, my first experience of finals action in Indiana, brought a number of separate communities together in a way that celebrated each athlete’s achievements.
I saw Jake Hockaday look unbeatable as an on-paper underdog in the 120-pound state finals. I witnessed future Hawkeye Leighton Jones finally tackle (nice use of a football pun here, don’t ya think?) the walls in his mind and stand atop the heavyweight podium in February. Spending my first year covering wrestling in Indiana immersed in the Brownsburg program opened my eyes to the tight-knit community this state never fails to disappoint.
The IHSAA State Finals showcase the best the state has to offer in the best way – center stage, on a single mat with a lone light on the middle circle. It’s a best-of-the-best battle. The fans are enthralled.
But there’s room for growth, as there always is from youth to professional sports, and Indiana’s wrestling community has the chance foster it. The more wrestlers that have their chance at a state title – hell, even just a chance to wrestle in that arena – the more will crave that experience. The more families that come out, the more siblings, cousins or friends will want to try their hand at wrestling.
As the sport grows, so do the number of powerhouses. No longer is there one powerhouse for the state of Indiana, but multiple at different levels of competition and school size, growing the sport exponentially and the exposure to smaller schools often overshadowed.
And as the years progress, as the word spreads about how Indiana puts on a show for its wrestlers, the more will pack that house year after year in anticipation for the greatest spectacle in amateur sports.
Those stories are here. Those kids are here. The opportunity is here. Trust me – I’ve grown in my wrestling career surrounded by the best fans, the best environment wrestling has to offer. It’s time to emulate that in the state of Indiana.