Tyler Graff always had designs on competing against the best his sport had to offer. He just had to wait for the opportunity to arise.
Graff, a member of the Wisconsin wrestling team, decided to sit out the 2011 season in order to attempt to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Earlier this year, Graff traveled to Iowa City, Iowa, to face off against top wrestlers from around the country. The redshirt junior from Loveland, Colo., ultimately fell short, finishing third in the 132-pound weight class with a 4-1 record. Still, it was an experience Graff said he’ll never forget.
“It was a feeling I always knew I’d experience one day,” Graff said. “I just wasn’t sure when.”
Success at any level he competed at was not foreign to Graff. A four-time state champion in high school, Graff has already twice been named an NCAA All-American. He took fifth place at the NCAA Division I Championships in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
In order to earn his spot in Iowa City, Graff first had to win the Men’s Freestyle Olympic Trials Qualifier in Las Vegas. Not only did Graff defeat a three-time Olympian in the match, but he was also named Outstanding Wrestler for the entire trial.
Despite failing to qualify for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Graff said he learned how to block distractions out and work toward his goal.
“I really learned how to apply myself to what I’m doing,” Graff said. “That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Graff had experience in international competition prior to the Olympic trials. He placed second at the 2007 Junior Pan-American Games in Venezuela and competed twice in the Junior Worlds Championship, first in China in 2007, then in Turkey in 2008. In February, Graff took part in a competition in Russia.
Representing his country is always a special opportunity, Graff said.
“It’s an honor, a privilege,” Graff said. “This country gave me the opportunity to do the things I’ve been doing. To be able to represent it is a good thing.”
The heightened level of competition at these events pushed him to be an even better wrestler, Graff said. One of the most important things Graff said he has learned from these tournaments was developing a day-by-day process by which to improve himself.
Nationally-ranked in freestyle since high school, Graff returned to the team prior to this season. In his first action since the 2010-11 season, the third-ranked Graff earned a 5-3 decision Nov. 11 over then-No. 13 Luke Vaith of Hofstra University in the 141-pound weight class. The victory gave the Badgers their first team points of the young season.
Getting back into the rhythm of a collegiate wrestling season has been challenging, Graff said, but he has established a set of goals for himself to reach this season.
“Keep things simple; get better every day,” Graff said. “Take it one day at a time, one workout at a time, and one match at a time.”
Wisconsin wrestling coach Barry Davis said he helped prepare Graff for the Olympic trials by watching film and helping Graff with workouts.
Davis knows the ropes of the Olympic experience well. Davis also took a year off from college at the University of Iowa to attempt to land a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. He qualified and earned a silver medal in the 125.5-pound class at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Davis was also a member of the 1988 team that competed in Seoul, South Korea.
Davis said Graff brings leadership and a solid work ethic to the team. Having Graff on the team shows other wrestlers the heights they can reach with hard work and dedication, Davis said.
Davis has had assistant coaches attempt to qualify for the Olympics, and this experience is invaluable to the program. Davis said potential recruits are impressed when they see current wrestlers competing for spots on the U.S. Olympic Team.
Possibly the most demanding and challenging aspect of trying to make the Olympic squad is the intense training regimen most wrestlers put themselves through. Still, learning to make time for other activities is important as well, Davis said.
Expectations for Graff are high this season, but Davis said Graff has clear achievements in mind and it is the coaching staff’s duty to help him accomplish his goals.
“My duty as a coach is to prepare him for those situations,” Davis said. “If he’s doing that, what he wants to achieve at the end, he’ll get there.”
Graff said he continues to set lofty standards for himself even after the defeat in Iowa City.
“You just learn from mistakes,” Graff said. “I had plans for greatness, and still do.”