Luke Lofthouse: Wrestling through this life

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | MARCH 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Luke Lofthouse smiled easily and spoke calmly, despite the blood clouding most of his left eye and the dark scratches lining his neck.

Minutes earlier, during a match with Purdue’s Logan Brown, his coaches were up and out of their seats, screaming at officials about the alleged illegal grabbing and eye-poking that would leave Lofthouse bloodied.

But after the match, the 25-year old senior kept a level head.

“It feels OK now,” Lofthouse shrugged after locking up a 9-3 decision and a berth in the Big Ten finals. “My biggest thing this whole year has been being able to keep things under perspective and under control in my mind. In good situations and bad.”

Perspective is something Iowa’s oldest wrestler has in spades. It’s something a two-year African missionary trip, a marriage, and seven years of adult life have given him.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Early frustration

“I don’t know what happened, exactly,” Lofthouse said. “But things just wore on me. I wasn’t there mentally or physically as much as I should’ve been.”

Lofthouse was a first-year starter during the 2004-05 season. It was, he said, the low point of his Iowa career. After going undefeated in his last two high-school seasons, the native of Avon, Utah, struggled to an 8-17 record as a true freshman. He lost all six of his Big Ten dual matches.

Weighing around 215 pounds when he arrived on campus, Lofthouse cut to 174 to fill an opening in the Hawkeye lineup. As the season wore on, he spent more energy keeping his weight down than he did improving his wrestling skills. That cost him victories. A cycle of hunger, defeat, and frustration set in.

“The mind’s a powerful thing,” he said. “If you let it wander and take control, you’re going to struggle. And I did. If you don’t feel good mentally, you’ve got to be able to take control of your body. And I definitely didn’t have that skill in my wrestling.”

On a mission

The miniature shuttle-bus sat idle, waiting to fill up with Zimbabwean grocery shoppers to take them back to their homes.

But the shoppers all stood stubbornly outside the bus, refusing for more than 20 minutes to ride with the two Mormon missionaries sitting in the back. One of the missionaries was Lofthouse, who had left his wrestling struggles more than 8,500 miles away.

He had traveled to southern Africa to spread the gospel, teach people about Christ, and help people improve their situation spiritually. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints encourages men ages 19 to 25 to go on such missions.

But not everyone trusted the missionaries’ motives. Lofthouse repeatedly had doors slammed in his face by people who suspected he was doing Satan’s bidding. He received far more outright rejection than acceptance. It helped him learn perseverance, but that didn’t make it easy to swallow.

“It’s definitely not easy,” he said. “It’s something that I care about, and something that I know is beneficial to the lives of everybody. It’s heartbreaking, really.”

He and his companion for six months of the trip, Nick Hansen, went door to door and spoke to people about their religion. Hansen, a student at Brigham Young University, told The Daily Iowan it was often “very difficult.”

“How often do you stand in your doorway and talk to two complete strangers about religion?” Hansen said. “But Luke was really good at helping people feel comfortable. He was always really calm, and he had a nice, easygoing demeanor. And he talked to these people with respect.”

The sting of rejection, Lofthouse said, was worth it for the opportunity to help those who would let him.

One such person was Ayanda Godi, a girl whose family was searching for a church where they could belong, a church “where it actually made sense,” she said from her current home in Rexburg, Idaho.

She remembers two young men coming to her home one day and asking her mother to talk about a religion she’d never heard of. The men came in and sat down. When her mother offered them coffee, Ayanda remembers, they said their religionwouldn’t allow it. She then offered tea and received the same response.

But as Ayanda and her family learned more about the church from Lofthouse and Hansen, she said it was “like an answer to a prayer.”

The family joined the church. Lofthouse spent enough time around them to begin calling Ayanda’s mother “mom,” and he said he thinks of Ayanda as a little sister.

“He was really funny,” she said. “He was part of us, in a way.”

Being part of the church has changed the way she views herself, she said, and helped her understand meaning in life.

“I am so grateful to [Lofthouse and Hansen],” she said. “I really am.”

Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate in 2009 was 95 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. As of 2004 , 68 percent of its citizens lived in poverty. Being a member of the Mormon Church allowed Godi, now 20, to leave those conditions behind and attend a church-owned college in Idaho, where she will receive a scholarship next semester.

Lofthouse said he changed completely for the better on the mission he called “the best choice I ever made.”

“There were life lessons galore,” he said. “You name something you need to learn, and you can learn it on your mission.”

Regaining lost ground

Lofthouse tried to sit up and get out of bed, but he couldn’t move.

It was the beginning of August 2007, and he had gone through three workouts a day for the last three days in a frantic effort to rebuild his body into wrestling condition. Lofthouse had a new head coach to impress. Hawkeye alumnus — and Big Ten champion, NCAA champion, and Olympic medalist — Tom Brands had replaced Jim Zalesky while Lofthouse was gone.

And that morning, the workouts caught up to him.

His nephew and now teammate Ethen Lofthouse had seen plenty of friends and brothers leave for missions.

“They leave, and they’re not that spiritual. And they come back, and they’re really humbled,” Ethen Lofthouse said. “There was a big change in Luke. He’s not going to like me saying this, but he got a little soft.”

He was speaking about his uncle’s attitude but could just as easily have described Luke Lofthouse’s body.

During his mission, Luke Lofthouse had only a half-hour each morning to exercise, and he lived on a diet consisting mostly of rice. Hansen half-joked that during the course of the mission, Lofthouse “got a little flabby.”

Upon his return, Lofthouse could bench-press less than he could as a sophomore in high school. He was dismayed at how far his wrestling skills had eroded. He redshirted his first season back in order to remake himself as the wrestler he was before his mission.

“It was challenging,” he said. “You’re trying to do things in your mind that your body isn’t used to. So you have to rebuild a lot of that muscle memory. I don’t think there was a day that year where I wasn’t sore.”

‘Being able to control my mind’

Many of the underclassmen who populate most of Iowa’s lineup this season look up to their married, 25-year-old, seventh-year senior teammate. All that experience makes him an example for his teammates to follow, but it’s also helped him perform individually.

For much of his career, Lofthouse has successfully been able to shoot in and snatch an opponent’s leg. But in the past two seasons, he’s seen scoring opportunities and victories get away when he couldn’t bring them to the mat.

That’s no longer a problem.

His takedowns have been crisp and devastatingly effective this year, vaulting him from a national ranking in the high teens to one in the top seven. After posting a record of 24-15 over his previous two seasons, Lofthouse is 20-5 this year. He once recorded 19 takedowns over a three-match span.
While his technique and physical skills have improved, he credits his breakout season largely to the mental strides he’s made as he has grown up.

“Being able to control my emotions and my mind,” he said. “Being able to do things on the mat even if I can’t understand them at the time. And being able to focus and zone in on what it is you’re all about.

“I’m pretty consistent in things I do. I try to do the right things, whether I’m in the classroom or home with my wife or on the mat. And a lot of that comes down to one word: ‘experience.’ ”

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