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BY CODY GOODWIN | DECEMBER 16, 2014 5:00 AM

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Before we talk to Cory Clark, who’s sitting in the Iowa wrestling room before another Tuesday afternoon practice, there’s a story you need to hear. During his true freshman season (2012-13), he competed unattached at the Midlands Championships in Evanston, Illinois. He placed fourth at 125 pounds, behind two All-Americans and another NCAA qualifier.

After the award presentation, Clark walked underneath Welsh-Ryan Arena. He looked pissed off. He found former Iowa wrestler Daniel Dennis, his coach and practice partner that weekend.

“Can I just throw this away?” Clark pleaded, motioning toward his bronze trophy. (His predecessor, Matt McDonough, would do just that after finishing second at that season’s Big Ten championships.)

Dennis understood the disappointment. He, too, wrestled at that year’s Midlands and finished second at 133 pounds. He lost, 8-7, in the finals, a tight match that was decided in the closing moments.

“Not here,” Dennis said. “People will see. When we get out on the highway, we’ll throw ’em out.”
Clark smiled. The thought of tossing that piece of junk sounded much better than keeping it. Gold is the only color he takes home, the only one he accepts. He lost just once in high school and responded by inviting a friend over to wrestle for hours in a shed in the backyard, correcting and critiquing, making sure that match, that feeling, wouldn’t dare happen again. Losing is not an option, especially when you wrestle for Iowa under Tom Brands.

Sometime later that evening, when he and Dennis sped west toward Iowa City, Clark threw that useless trophy out into the cold December night.

•••

Here’s another story: One summer, the exact date long forgotten, Clark picked up skateboarding. He spent hours each day working on flips and tricks, a normally simple hobby turned all-consuming task. He came inside once the Sun set with bruised and bloody shins, but he went out the next day to do it all over again.

“He would just do it all day long until he got the flip,” says Robin VanHeeswyk, Clark’s mother. “But he could do it by the end of the day or the few days it took.”

This story has absolutely nothing to do with wrestling, of course, but it does offer some insight into Clark’s mind and how he’s wired. He stopped at nothing until he proved he could master a simple skateboard trick. He did whatever it took — which, in this case, was spending day after day outside, flipping and landing again and again until he ultimately put feet to board with all four wheels on the ground.

And perhaps that’s all we need to know about Cory Clark, that he’ll do whatever it takes to be the best, even if that means leaving his comfort zone and weathering some tough lessons in order to get what he wants.

In this still-young 2014-15 wrestling season, it’s clear that Clark’s decision to bump up to 133 pounds has paid dividends in numerous ways.

It opened the 125-pound spot in the lineup, and Thomas Gilman — who could have earned All-American honors last season at 125, as Clark did — has flourished there, to the tune of 10 wins and no losses. Having both Clark and Gilman in the lineup undoubtedly makes Iowa a better wrestling team.

But even more, it’s allowed Clark to wrestle and train freely — he’s ranked fourth according to Flowrestling and is 9-0, as of this writing — while continuing to learn and perfect his version of the necessary lifestyle that’s required of an Iowa wrestler.

For all the good Clark has done this year, and even last, there have been moments like the 2012 Midlands, when good just doesn’t get the job done. The sophomore’s admittedly very hard on himself, whether it’s a bad workout, not winning a tournament, or even surrendering points to former Iowa wrestler Tony Ramos in the practice room.

At times, that self-criticism reaches the forefront of his thoughts, often spilling out when he talks. After beating Iowa State’s Earl Hall on Nov. 29, 8-3, Clark called himself out. He said the win was “not terrible,” that he could’ve been more aggressive, that he could have widened the gap because “that’s what I’m about.”

“I don’t know if he’s never not got it,” Brands says. “It’s more like — this is who he is. He’s got a lot of other interests out there. He’s a free spirit, I guess, would be one way to describe him.

“I think he gets it. I just think that, sometimes, those other things get in the way of what he knows is right. Does he always act? I think that’s part of growing up and part of learning, that you continue to get better. It’s not a you just get-better-overnight kind of thing.”

It’s here, according to those who have watched him, coached him, trained with him, that the learning process takes on a whole new meaning. Clark never had to cut weight in high school — “There’s a lot of truth to that,” says Jason Christenson, his head coach at Southeast Polk in Pleasant Hill, Iowa — and got by, at times, on his natural talent.

And it goes even deeper than that still, Clark said. The kind of lifestyle that’s demanded of an Iowa wrestler is more than just drilling through pain and weariness. It’s more than just learning to get out from bottom and being a better handfighter.

It starts before the day begins, he says, with a good night’s sleep and continues when he sits down to eat that next morning.

One-by-one, the Iowa wrestlers enter the practice room and take a seat in the bleachers while Clark sits off to the side on a small chair. This season, he appears more open and honest, more willing to talk, to voice his sometimes-rambling thoughts as the words come to mind. He’s comfortable and has no issue discussing what went wrong at times last year, but only to a point.

He’s talked of how his weight was out of control, weighing as much as 140 pounds within a few days of having to make 125. He’s talked about how, sometimes, he crumbled late in matches, be it because of fatigue or being mentally outmatched. The more he talks about those specific struggles, the more annoyed he seemingly gets — because, in the typical Iowa fashion, he’s ready to move forward.

But on this day, in the practice room, he has no problem sharing details. Maybe because sorting these thoughts helps remind himself of what he needs to do. Maybe talking through what he’s learned helps him stay accountable.

“A lot more discipline with my eating,” Clark says when asked what needed to change. “It wasn’t like I was purposefully eating whatever I wanted. I just wasn’t really thinking, Oh, I can’t eat this, or I can’t eat that. That was one of the biggest changes.”

Adopting a new diet was the toughest part of the transition for him. Because he didn’t have to cut weight in high school, Clark generally ate whatever he wanted, and while he says his diet wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t exactly the healthiest, either.

Clark says it took a couple of hard lessons before he “cut out the crap” and began eating healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and protein.

“A lunch can’t be a cheeseburger, French fries, and a chocolate shake or something. That won’t work too well for a 3:30 workout. Believe me,” he says. “I’d come in here and have no energy. I’d talk to the coaches and be like, ‘I don’t know, I feel like crap today,’ and they’d be like, ‘Well, what did you eat?’ And I wasn’t ashamed to say it because I didn’t really know any better. I’d say, ‘Oh I had this and this and this.’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, geez, you have to eat more than just a peanut butter and jelly.’ ”

Clark admits that not having to cut a lot of weight this year allows him the freedom of a “cheat meal” every now and then. His biggest weakness: ice cream. He’s been known to come home with a big grin and an Oreo McFlurry. He says he could eat one after every meal. The flavor matters not.

“I would see him come home with ice-cream cones on the weekends,” says Ramos, who lived with Clark last year. “And when if you were cutting to 125 like he was, the day after the meet, you have to start watching your weight. You can’t be going out and having your ice cream. I don’t know if he was doing the nutrition part right.

“But I think he gets it this year. I think it helps that he’s up a weight class, where he’s more around his natural weight, so he doesn’t really have to be as strict as he was.”

Clark noted that, like other things, the diet is still a work in progress.

“It took a while for it to really register, but once it started, my body responded,” he says. “But even to this day, I could do a better job of it. I’m still working on it. I’m not perfect by any means.”

•••

Like skateboarding and wrestling, Clark’s competitive spirit, at times, seems almost unbelievable.

His mother tells the story of Clark’s early days playing Halo on his Xbox and that he’d stay up all night playing so he could beat certain levels or the entire game.

To this point, Clark is a self-proclaimed “night hawk,” but his video-gaming prowess is no different from his dedication to landing a skateboard trick.

“I’ve played with him before, and it’s crazy how good he is,” Ramos says. “You just know he spends a lot of time practicing. He’s got his microphone. He’s got his mini screen. He knows everything. He knows all the glitches. He’s pretty deep into it.”

Clark’s Halo skill has become part of his legend. Growing up, he and his buddies organized Halo tournaments, complete with a myriad of televisions and consoles with wires stringing across the living-room carpet. His dad jokingly thought he’d pick the game over wrestling. These days, he locks himself in his room, where he can be heard talking to his friends while gunshots ring out.

At one point, he was believed to be one of the top Halo players in the world, and his teammates continually tease him, a different kind of accountability. Former Iowa wrestler Brent Metcalf once took to Twitter and offered a scholarship to whomever could beat Clark in Halo.

“I used to, probably, but not anymore,” Clark says about playing too much Halo (there’s an unconfirmed rumor that a member of the team, be it athlete or coach, once took Clark’s Xbox from him so he could focus more on wrestling). “But just staying up late in general and getting up early, you feel — we’ve all felt that. You feel tired, and you just get sick of it, so you start doing it right.

“Every now and then, you stray away from it and notice how big of a difference it can make. And that’s when you get on track.”

Clark admits he strays away in order to check out and relax. His Xbox is his escape from the lifestyle, what he does when he needs to get away from wrestling, something most wrestlers admit they need or they’ll “burn out.”

“You have these other guys who go downtown. They go down, and they party. But this is his thing that he does,” Ramos says. “At the same time, you’re trying to show him that it is a distraction. It keeps you up at night. You’re not going to bed, not doing the right things to keep moving forward.

“We have to keep on him about it and make sure he’s making the right choices. You know, do you want to be the best video-game player in the world? Or do you want to be a national champ? That’s where we’re having the conversations with him.”

It’s clear Clark has made strides in this area, too. At the team’s media day in November, Brands was asked who the leaders on his team were, and he noted “one guy likes to maybe play video games, and the other guy likes to be outdoors all the time. But they still have common themes in their head, and that is to produce results on the mat and in the classroom.”

There, he subtly referred to Clark and heavyweight Bobby Telford. More recently, Brands talked about how it’s been a slow process for Clark, in terms of understanding the demands it takes to compete at his best — and that means putting the controller down at a reasonable hour so he can get a good night’s rest.

“He’s always handled tough conversations,” Brands says. “He’s been accountable. He’s had to produce some things and blossom on his own a bit more.”

After Ramos won his national title, he brought back his commemorative bracket and hung it up on a wall at home. There were times when Ramos caught Clark staring at it, admiring it, maybe dreaming one day to bring home his own.

“I saw him stop a few times to turn around and look at it,” Ramos says, smiling. “Maybe I have to go hang it on his wall again just to remind him of what he’s trying to accomplish.”

Those reminders always help, Clark says, whether it’s a bracket on the wall or dialogue between him and Brands. He skips ice cream because he knows doing so is good for his body. He’ll opt to not play Halo one night because it means he’ll get more sleep, but he’ll lock into a game of Slayer on a Sunday because he needs to recharge before preparing for the next competition.

He said he’s working on it continually, and that’s all he can share for now. Ultimately, we’ll know how well he kept to his new wonts by whether he brings home a national title, both for the team and individually.

That, too, will take time and practice. Clark knows this as he stands up from the small chair and joins his teammates in a warm-up jog — after which, he’ll wrestle, and train, and prepare his mind and body for gold, because there’s a chance every other color will land on the side of a highway on his way back home.


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