Surely, you know Pat Smith. If you have caught any of the major domestic US Greco Roman competitions over the past few years, you are undoubtedly quite familiar with him. In case you need a refresher, he’s the one who wrestles as if he and his opponent are locked in a phone booth while being swept away by a tornado. It’s constant pressure with Smith. His goal: to make you wilt. His method: be in your face the entire time.
This is one dude who doesn’t just prefer hard contact, but almost seems to need it in order to get going. But it’s not singularly about his wrestling style. Pat Smith is an accomplished, talented athlete who is not only dangerous everywhere on the mat, but also holds impressive credentials to back it up.
Just last week, the 25-year old Smith (Minnesota Storm) seemed on the verge of realizing a dream. At the 2016 US Olympic Wrestling Trials, he had taken the first of three matches against RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC), a gifted wrestler in his own right who also enjoyed a successful run to the finals. The following two matches didn’t go the Minnesotan’s way, however, leaving him just shy of accomplishing his goal.
It’s not that we wanted to get in touch with Pat Smith on the heels of his heartbreaking loss. But at the same time, this is someone who embodies the Greco spirit and what younger wrestlers should aspire to be: tough, uncompromising, and accountable. He is also unfailingly kind and outgoing, traits we hope come across in this interview.
5PM Interview with Pat Smith
5PM: It’s Friday. How are you doing this week?
Pat Smith: Um, not bad, trying to kind of get myself to step away from it a little bit. I had a conversation with Jim Gruenwald at the Trials and he told me to take a “wrestling sabbatical.” So I’m trying to clear my head a little bit. It was good advice. I’ve been going hard, real hard ever since Worlds last year, strict with my diet, strict with everything else. It’s been a transition period letting myself relax a little bit and get my mind off of it, you know? Recharge the batteries a little. I know that there are probably a lot of thoughts that come into your head with everything that happened. Obviously, it was a huge disappointment and it wasn’t the way I thought it was going to go. I’m going to relax and hang out with friends and family, take my wrestling sabbatical and take some time off.
5PM: When you say “time off”, it’s April 15th. Are you going to be involved with Perkins at all, are you going to be helping with any kind of camps going forward?
PS: I just got my schedule. I’m for sure going out to pre-Olympic camp in Colorado and obviously if they need my help for anything else, I’ll step up and do that, too. We’re all part of Team USA right now, so even though my season didn’t go quite the way I wanted it to, we still got to win some medals here in Rio. I know I’ll be in Colorado for the pre-Olympic stuff but I haven’t been approached for anything else yet.
5PM: You’ve been coaching this week, is that right?
PS: Yep, I coach a kids club in a small town 15 minutes northwest of the cities a little bit. We’re called the “Mat Stalkers”, so I go in and help out those kids. It’s a pretty decent group of kids and they have been getting better throughout the year so it’s been fun to see them progress. It’s just a small club of kids, cadets, and juniors with freestyle and Greco stuff that they run here in Minnesota.
5PM: When did you start wrestling, since you were like a tot?
PS: Yes, I’ve been wrestling since I was five. My mom likes to tell everybody I was wrestling since I could roll over because my brother used to just grab me and roll around with me, beat me up with my stuffed animals, all sorts of stuff like that. But no, my mom actually snuck me into the club at five. They wanted first graders but she talked the coach into letting me come in a year early because I was biting at the bit so much.
5PM: You’re from Minnesota, so maybe this is easy, but was Greco just natural for you to go into?
PS: You mean as far as the rich history we have here?
Pat Smith: Looking back, my brother is the reason I got into wrestling in the first place. He’s about 11 years older than me and I pretty much just wanted to do everything he did. I basically wanted to be him growing up. That’s how I got into wrestling and when I was in third grade, he actually got into coaching our freestyle club in Chaska. One day he asked, “Hey, you want to go into a Greco tournament?” I think I responded like, “What’s Greco?” (Laughs) So he brought me to that and I had fun, but I hadn’t really thought about it. And then over the years we had Mike Houck, who was living in Chaska, and he started to help out at our club in fourth and fifth grade. He was a middle school shop teacher and not really involved, but we somehow got him to show up at our little kids club in Chaska. That’s when I first met him, although I still didn’t know a whole lot about Greco.
In high school, he (Houck) actually started helping out at our high school, he was our co-head coach, and that is when I really started getting involved. I started pummeling with him and I caught the Greco bug I think then. He broke a lot of stuff down and I learned a lot from him. It’s also when I really started having some success. I was an All-American in Fargo for the first time in Greco with him, and then the next year. From eighth grade on, we started having regional site training practices and I had a lot of really great exposure to really good Greco guys coming through. All that success kind of built up itself and I really started enjoying it. I had the opportunity to train a little with (Jake) Deitchler when I was a junior in high school before he went to the Olympic Trials and made the team. It was also the first time I got hooked up with Brandon Paulson, so I had all this great exposure.
I guess you could say it wasn’t really a thought, like, I’m going to wrestle Greco because I’m from Minnesota, but as you become more and more involved, you are surrounded by so many really successful people. You get to learn from them and at least for me, I got their passion for the sport and it’s really contagious. The people around Minnesota get you excited about it, I got bit by that bug. And as a sport, I love Greco because it’s more of a brawl (laughs). I love pure hand-fighting, I love going out there and out-pummeling the guy. I enjoy that because it caters to my strength, as well. In folkstyle, I was always a better hand-fighter with that positioning. I had a harder time with the faster, slick guys and things like that, so Greco fit my style more that way. To go out there chest-to-chest and we’re going to go at it for six minutes. I like it.
5PM: Your style is extremely physical. One could make the argument it’s one of the most violent out of the lower weight classes. It’s as if you’re saying, “Okay, here’s my head, it’s going to be in front of yours the entire time. There’s your arms, I’m going to control them, too.” Did you grow into this style or was it yours from the beginning?
PS: I think a good way to describe me coming up all the way through has been “gritty.” It hasn’t always had that high pace, but as I got older I learned more. We had Mike Houck, who’s been unbelievably influential in my life and there was Ned Shuck, who is the head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Shuck wrestled for five years at the University of Iowa and he came straight from there to be our coach in Chaska. He brought with him that kind of in-your-face-constant attack-dominate all positions-mentality. And that’s when I think I really started to develop that and he pushed us that way. It was an expectation. He described it as “Domination is the only way to win.” I think me and a lot of the guys coming up through that room really embraced that. We kind of used that as a lifestyle thing, as well. We’ve had this pact, me and a few buddies of mine, that we’re going to dominate the decade.
When I go out there I don’t want to just squeak out wins, I don’t really like putting myself in that position. I train extremely hard so that I know I’m going to go out there and if he wants to step up to the plate, it’s going to be hell for him to go through. I want to send that message every time I wrestle. I want to put that idea into their heads. And that philosophy has continued to build, it’s the same philosophy that they teach at the University of Minnesota and that is just the way I started to find success. So I have continued to grow off of that. I’ve focused on setting my pace and I don’t think people can hang with me if I keep that up.
5PM: Did you enjoy college wrestling?
PS: Yes, I did. I enjoyed it. College wrestling was a very hard point for me in my wrestling career. I had a lot of expectations. I was of the mindset that it didn’t matter. The room at the “U” (University of Minnesota) is incredibly deep with a lot of great guys and sometimes, the hardest thing is just getting out of that room to be able to have an opportunity to compete. Especially the years I was there, we had a couple of these awesome classes and a lot of great guys. My thought process going in was that I wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school, I hadn’t won a state title, but I was an All-American in Fargo a couple of times and felt I really was climbing the ladder since I was ranked in the nation coming in.
So I had the mindset it didn’t matter, I was just going to outwork everybody and get to where I wanted to be. And I felt like I did everything I possible could have. And it still didn’t work out. So that was a really hard pill for me to swallow throughout college. I was just trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, things like that. So from a wrestling standpoint it was really hard, but at the same time, it was also a great learning experience for me.
J Robinson’s huge thing is all about perspective. I think if I were to glean anything from my wrestling career at the U, it would just be perspective about what are the things that really matter, what are you actually getting out of it, how it’s not quite about the trophies and the accolades, but the people you meet, the lessons you learn, the work you put in, and what you gain from yourself in that process. And I think it was really hard for me to go through that, a lot of people had a lot of success and I kind of felt like I was left behind. I couldn’t really figure out what I was doing wrong to not make it happen.
But from another standpoint, I made some of the best friends I will ever have in my entire life. These guys, some of them are like my brothers, which is pretty awesome. I got put in front of a lot of amazing people. I got to be with J Robinson every day, and Luke Becker, Brandon Eggum, just to name a few. I also made a great connection with John Peterson and got to meet with him every week. He taught me a lot about wrestling and about faith, and how those two things tie together. I honestly wouldn’t be the person I am without having had all those experiences, so it was kind of a bittersweet time. I wasn’t getting what I thought I wanted, but I was getting what I needed.
5PM: You told me at one point you’ve been coaching for the last six years?
PS: Yeah, when you’re a wrestling guy the way to pay the bills with all of the great opportunities in Minnesota is to get hooked up with a kids club and things like that. Brandon Paulson and Jared Lawrence have also been helping me out, letting me come in and work with the guys at the PINnacle Wrestling Club in Shoreview, too, so that’s just been a great opportunity. I’ve been able to extend out to a lot of different areas in Minnesota and work with a lot of really good kids, so it’s been kind of cool that way while also helping to pay the bills.
5PM: Does coaching help you become a better wrestler?
PS: Oh no doubt, no doubt. It’s one thing to be able to do it yourself and kind of understand it in your own head, but when you’ve got multiple people you have to show a technique to and communicate an idea to, you really have to break it down and understand where they’re coming from. It can make sense in your head but if it’s not communicated properly to them, you’re not getting the job done. It helps you break down the technique and think about why it works. They say the best way to learn something is to try and go teach it to somebody and it’s true. I worked four years at J Robinson’s camp and got a lot of practice showing stuff and working on my public speaking skills that way too, I suppose.
5PM: What was your major in college at Minnesota?
PS: I actually earned a degree where you actually get to make up your own major, an individually designed major. I went to business school at Minnesota and received a basic business degree, and the other half was in psychology. And then by my final year of eligibility I had already finished my undergrad, so I moved onto to my Masters and am about halfway through to an M.A. in human resources and industrial relations right now.
5PM: I haven’t traveled enough to have spent any substantial time in Minnesota. What are some of the things you do out there in your downtime?
Pat Smith: Anything outdoors, man, I love. Minnesota in the summertime is gorgeous, we have the lakes. Whenever I’m on the lake is pretty much my happy place. I’d like to say that I like to go fishing, but what I more or less call it is sitting in the boat with a line in the water, just not catching a bunch of fish. It’s an excuse to get out in the sun for me. Any time I can get out on the lake is where I want to be. My dad’s got this 1985 CJ7 Jeep that’s kind of like my stress reliever. I’ll just drive that around, I have an old mixed CD in there that I made for Father’s Day or something in high school. And I’ll drive that thing around until the CD is over, which is good stress relief for me.
I like to play guitar and mess around with that with my buddies. Just hanging out with friends, getting away from it, relaxing, those are my favorite things to do. When I’m out in Colorado I love to check out the mountains, get out, go camping, stuff like that. I’ve got Jordan Holm’s brother’s kayak right now, so I’ve been taking that sucker out and cruising around the lakes in Minnesota. I love watersports, slalom skiing, wakeboarding…
5PM: Wakeboarding? Is that where you’re standing up and holding onto a rope?
PS: Yeah, you’re behind the boat on a thicker board. Maybe compare it to snowboarding on the water. But it’s a thicker board, it has two fins on it and you get towed by the boat into the wake and stuff like that. So it’s pretty fun, it’s cool (laughs).
5PM: You’re also into music, huh? What kind of music?
PS: Country music is probably my favorite but man, I like everything. I love hitting up concerts, especially in the summer outdoors. Last year when we were out in Colorado, we went rafting one day and then on a whim found out that Mumford and Sons were playing 30 minutes away. So we got there and ended up sneaking into that concert, which was pretty sweet in the middle of the mountains in Colorado. It was an awesome day. I’m always checking that stuff too, what bands are coming into town, all that.
5PM: If and when you do have kids one day, is wrestling a given for them?
PS: Good question. I think I’ve always told myself “no.” I think I’d do what my parents did with me, which was super-helpful, and that was supporting me in my interests and whatever I wanted to do. That was extremely helpful. They never pushed me in one direction or another. Obviously, if I started something I wasn’t going to quit it, I had to see things through.
5PM: Did you play other sports?
Pat Smith: Oh yeah, I grew up playing baseball through eighth grade and then football through my senior year of high school. My team wasn’t that good, but I liked playing other sports.
But getting back, my parents were just really supportive of whatever I wanted to, it’s just that I caught a big bug for wrestling. I really wanted to be good and right around middle school I had this burning desire to not be mediocre at something, so I started working hard at wrestling. And the hard work became addicting because I was seeing results. I was getting stronger, faster, in better shape, winning more matches, and it became kind of an addiction at that point. Plus, wrestling is just a great sport for people to set goals and take some accountability for those goals and go after them. Because the bottom line is you see results from the work you put in. Wrestling was a really great avenue for me to do that. I spent my time that way because it was on me. Maybe it was a lot harder on the front-end, but the rewards were greater afterwards.
Anyway, I’d probably take an approach similar to what my parents did, which is to support my kids’ interests, make sure that whatever they’re doing, they are learning the right values. Sportsmanship, integrity, hard work, accountability, things like that, you might be able to pick them up from other activities. As long as they’re learning those types of values, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s wrestling. If they want to wrestle, obviously, it’d be awesome. But sometimes, after a weekend like the one I just had, you don’t want someone to go through the roller-coaster ride that is wrestling. But you learn a lot from it, too, so it’s kind of a love-hate relationship at times.