Iconic wrestler Metcalf, normally relentless, takes break

BY J.T. BUGOS | JULY 20, 2009 7:15 AM

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Brent Metcalf has been a national champion. He has been a national runner-up. He has been an All-American — twice. He has been a Big Ten champion — twice. He has been the Outstanding Wrestler at the Big Ten championships — twice. He has been the Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA championships. He has been the Dan Hodge Trophy winner. He has a 69-match winning streak.

Yet, he is not satisfied.

Accolades such as that could make anybody’s head swell. But Metcalf is not the pompous type. While the 23-year-old exudes cool confidence, he has remained grounded. He doesn’t bask in the glory of his victories; instead, he chooses to find motivation in his few losses.

The Hawkeye senior has been wrestling since he was 8. From the moment he first stepped onto the mat, he has been an opponent to be feared.

He began in the novice division of youth wrestling, but that didn’t last long. In just one weekend, he advanced to the regular division, a transition that took other successful wrestlers months. After that, he won the youth state championships in his home state of Michigan as well as tournaments across the country.

His first national victory came at age 11 at the USA Championships in Waterloo, and his parents, Tom and Lynn Metcalf, see that win as a turning point.

“That was probably the first inkling we had that he could do this on a national stage,” Tom Metcalf said. “But I certainly never thought he was going to be an Olympic athlete.”

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Brent Metcalf credits his parents and others who have surrounded him for helping create the person he is today. His family stressed taking things one step at a time. They taught him nothing is ever given; everything is earned through hard work.

“We’ve always said, ‘You give 100 percent,’ ” Tom Metcalf said. “If it’s not enough today, it’s not enough. But you always give 100 percent.”

Brent Metcalf has never had a problem giving all he has, having been in high gear all his life. As a kid, he would take apart half the things in his house to try to figure out how they worked. He was always on the go, and that remains true today.

The Davison, Mich., native describes himself as antsy. He feels he always has to be doing something, and if he’s not busy, he’s falling behind. For an athlete, that’s usually a good thing. But he has actually devoted this off-season to the opposite; downtime.

The Iowa wrestling coaches looked back on this past season and decided he needed to spend more time recuperating off the mat. A wrestler’s goal is to compete when mind and body are at their peak. After 36 months of intense training, Metcalf was physically and emotionally worn down.

Taking advantage of his free hours is something the Iowa grappler is still trying to, well, grapple with. With head coach Tom Brands putting a large emphasis on relaxation, Metcalf has tried to embrace a less-rigorous lifestyle.

“I think the biggest thing is that he has to become eager to get back to that fanaticism,” Brands said. “In order for that, there needs to be downtime, because that creates the eagerness.”

Eagerness doesn’t seem to be a problem for Metcalf. This spring’s loss in the NCAA championships is keeping him motivated and focused throughout the off-season.

“Second is not enough,” he said. “I’m not happy because I have such high expectations of myself.”

The runner-up finish provided a learning experience, though: He realized some of his preparation needed to change.

Brands has high hopes for Metcalf, both for his senior season and beyond. The Iowa coach not only believes Metcalf is better than he has been but that the 149-pounder can be significantly better than he ever was. In order to do that, Brands wants Metcalf to get smart.

“The knowledge that he gains has to be learning to evolve in his own wrestling, to be tougher in tough situations,” Brands said. “You have to learn to be patient and aggressive all at the same time, and it’s not easy.”

If anybody can learn to do that, Metcalf can. He is self-motivated and extremely driven, a potent combination. He puts in his time, most days spending at least four hours at the gym. While there, he doesn’t just do the work that he wants to; he does the workouts most people aren’t willing to do.

“He does the things that are mundane and boring, and he does them every day,” Brands said. “He makes it into a challenge for himself and gets better because of it.”

Metcalf must challenge himself, because his goals remain fixed on their lofty perch. He intends to improve upon what he did last year, and that means winning the national championship. He wants to make sure that he doesn’t overlook anybody and that before every match, he’s ready not just to win but to “whoop some tail.”

Last season, Metcalf separated himself from the rest of the pack, and he wants to do that again this season. Former Iowa head coach Dan Gable said he sees Metcalf as “head and shoulders” above most other wrestlers, but he, too, is not satisfied with Metcalf’s recent performance.

Before Metcalf’s season-ending loss, Gable would have described the wrestler as intense, exciting, and maybe one of the most relentless grapplers he has seen. Now, a couple setbacks later, he’s looking for Metcalf to prove himself again. The Iowa legend has seen something in Metcalf that could make him not just an Iowa icon but a national name.

In fact, Gable believes Metcalf could be the future of U.S. wrestling. He’s out promoting the sport and wants to be able to point to someone as an example of how wrestlers should compete. Metcalf could be that person.

Gable expects that when something is done once, it should be done all the time. That consistency has been missing recently with Metcalf, and Brands agrees with that evaluation.

“He struggled with consistency in the past and realizing that there are people who are out there who are trying to take away the results you crave,” Brands said. “There are people out there who are trying to wreck your career, so to speak, in the loss column.”

Brands knows that ultimately, a wrestler is defined by his win-loss column. It’s important, then, to have a nearly demented work ethic, one in which a wrestler imagines the person he just beat doing everything in that guy’s power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Metcalf’s work ethic seems to be on par with what Brands is expecting from him.

“I think his attitude that he comes to work with every day is inspiring for a lot of the roster,” Brands said. “I think he epitomizes the attitude that we’re trying to instill every day in the program.”

Metcalf’s motto is, Never concede. In his NCAA finals match against North Carolina State’s Darrion Caldwell, three seconds remained on the clock. Caldwell began to celebrate when time started, but Metcalf scrambled to finish out the match positively or maybe even get a pin.

One thing was for sure: Metcalf didn’t give up until time is up. And continually, he won’t stand there and accept the loss. If an opponent’s back is turned, expect him to be on it trying to get a takedown. Two more points, and at the very least, he can feel a bit better about a loss.

“I’m not going to sit there and wait for time to click down and have you run circles around the mat,” Metcalf said. “I’m going to chase you around the mat if that’s the case.”

Gable can relate to Metcalf’s most recent defeat. In Gable’s last collegiate match, in 1970, he lost to Washington’s Larry Owings. He, too, finished runner-up to the national champion. Both Gable and Metcalf were favored to win their respective matches. They were both probably the most-picked wrestler to win any weight class, and both finished second.

The key is in the response. Gable beat Owings later in his career and also won Olympic gold without surrendering a single point. Metcalf has the opportunity at that sort of redemption.

If Metcalf’s career at Iowa had ended after his loss, he wouldn’t have been happy about what he had accomplished, even with his national championship. As a competitor, he would feel cut short. His mindset must be that any time could be the last time on the mat.

“Do I want to go out there, and just show up, and put in my time?” he said. “Or am I doing it with a purpose, knowing that you are leaving a legacy for yourself?”

Metcalf is entering his final season as a Hawkeye. He has laid the groundwork to leave a memorable legacy. The 5-7 warrior must now prove he can be as relentless as ever.

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