Scratch another prized prospect off the list.
Two-time Fargo Cadet National placewinner and 2016 Wisconsin state champ Benji Peak has chosen to forgo his senior year at Elkhorn High School in favor of getting a head start on his full-time Greco-Roman career and will attend Northern Michigan University in the fall. While there, Peak will earn the balance of his remaining high school credits via online schooling.
A runner-up at the Cadet Nationals in 2015 and a bronze medalist last year, Peak has been tabbed as a potential future star for the US Greco-Roman program due to his uncanny ability to sniff out points and his technical-but-aggressive approach. As an emerging age-grouper, Peak also trained and competed in Europe on trips with Lucas Steldt and Jared Lewis, essentially paving the way for his love affair with the classical style. So the blueprint was already in place. But when close friend and current NMU wrestler Alston Nutter(66 kg) decided to leave high school early last year, Peak felt the same desire. The soon-to-be high school senior even went so far as to inform his parents of his plans before the folkstyle season got underway.
“I told my mom before the season started that if I won states this year, Northern was something I wanted to look into,” Peak said. “I told her, ‘If I win, I am going to do what Alston did’, because he and I kept in contact obviously, and I really wanted to do that. Once I won (the state tournament), two days later I started talking about it again and it all came together.”
Part of this story began budding over a year ago. Peak might have had his blinders on, but he was still intent on finishing what he started at Elkhorn. He had to take it in steps. Steldt helped him put a sense of tangibility on what the road ahead might offer. A one-thing-at-a-time way of doing things would have to win out before any trips to Marquette were scheduled. Things started to change when the first order of business was knocked off the list.
“Lucas and I wrote down some goals a year ago and one of them was to win a folkstyle state championship,” explained Peak. “So I wrote that down and completed it. The next thing was to make a World Team and win the Worlds, and in order to do that, we thought about what the best thing for me to do was. He told me I had outgrown what he could teach me and that the best thing for me to do was move out to NMU and do what Alston Nutter did. Alston is like my best friend, so I was all for it. I talked to Rob (Hermann), took some visits, and now I’m planning on going out there.”
Athletes in high school may think they know what’s best for them and at times, may even know what is best. But the decision to leave school early, specifically at the crossroads of life the upper years of high school typically represent, requires a heavy dose of parental understanding. It is sometimes asking a lot, to break from convention in effort to chase down the loftiest of sporting dreams away from home. That’s why Peak is lucky. Very lucky. Throughout the process leading up to the decision, his parents were behind him the entire time. “My parents are supportive of it and they helped me the whole way with figuring out how I am going to do my schooling and everything, because I am going to do online classes. They really left the decision to me in the end and they were super supportive of it all,” said Peak.
Nutter’s role is similarly pivotal. Sure, Peak was influenced by his friend bolting for Greco the year prior, but it’s more than that. The duo kept in touch regularly throughout each other’s seasons and Peak listened intently to what his pal would relay to him. The scope wasn’t too wide for him to become lost in the lens. Nutter got the point across that while he was doing well and blossoming in his own right, there were some lumps to expect along the way. Peak, naturally, is undeterred. That’s because Nutter also did a fine job of letting him know how it is for the greater good.
“Alston told me at first it was a little frustrating because he didn’t score points for a while, but then he started scoring more and more and more,” informed Peak. “Now that he’s been there, he told me it’s the best thing he could have done for his Greco-Roman wrestling and his career in the future. I hope it’s like that for me, too. He said it’s fun, but that you mature faster because you’re on your own, obviously. He makes it sound pretty good, so I’m hoping it’s as good for me as it is for him.”
Right out of the gate, the key attractions for Peak are a two-way tie between the coaching and the training partners, of which for him are many (Peak can be expected to compete between 60 and 63 kilos to start off). “The full-time training is going to be cool,” he admitted. “We had a very good high school team at Elkhorn, but I was always the best kid in the room, so I think coming in and being the low man on the totem pole is going to be good for me and humble me out a little bit.” There is also the matter of building relationships. On that front, Peak has another leg up — it isn’t as if all of the faces he will be seeing come the fall are new to him. There is also a certain assistant coach he is looking forward to studying under. “I didn’t really know the team that well, but now I have gotten to know them. And plus, Andy Bisek is there. That is kind of like the icing on the cake because he is the best Greco wrestler we’ve had in this country for a little bit, so that is kind of cool.”
Currently, Peak is still rehabbing following labrum surgery, though he is expected to be cleared to resume live wrestling sometime next month. It’s going to be a whirlwind of a summer. There is a lot to prepare for. Once he has his sea legs under him again, Peak will be trying to rebuild the physical foundation necessary for the jump in competition he is certain awaits. Then there is the little matter of moving from Wisconsin to Michigan, getting settled, booking that first trip, likely to Sweden, and everything that comes after. But just like how he got here in the first place, it’ll be one step at a time. Check one item off the list, accomplish the next task, and then check that one off the list. He will be busy. Peak knows as much. It’s what he wants. He is also excited to look ahead, even if he can’t help but grow a little wistful at the thought of what he’s leaving behind in pursuit of Olympic glory.
“I’ll miss my team because we’ve been growing up together since we were four. We’ve wrestled together through the youth programs and then through high school, and we are going to be good again next year. So yes, I’ll miss my teammates and how fun some of those dual meets were. It’s going to suck to miss that stuff. But sacrifice.”
See? He knows. That’s how you can tell he’s ready.