It is October of 2020. The reason it is important to mention has nothing to do with the madness of the past ten months, but rather, to point out that it is now just over three years since Benji Peak (67 kg, Sunkist/NTS) began his full-time Greco career at Northern Michigan University. And in case you were unaware, he just walked away with his first Senior National title.
Prior to last Friday, Peak was already considered a vital part of American Greco-Roman’s long-term future. Almost immediately upon arriving at NMU in August of ’17, he started moving in the right direction. First was a memorable bronze in Denmark, punctuated by a literal last-second comeback at the Bear Cup; next, he rung up consecutive medals in Sweden, including a gold; the following spring, Peak won the Junior World Team Trials (though did not compete in that year’s Junior Worlds). There have been other tournament wins and noteworthy moments during Peak’s tenure in Marquette, but what went down last Friday in Coralville, Iowa — for the time being, anyway — stands as the hardest one about which to forget.
The triumph in the final over former NMU teammate and fellow super-prospect Calvin Germinaro (Minnesota Storm, 5PM #8) is still responsible for the bulk of the chatter. What was expected to be a fun, six-minute points bonanza ended abruptly after Peak received a restart from par terre top early in the first period and took advantage by launching a booming four-point side lift. Then there was the aftermath, with the screams, smiles, and dual-athlete celebration. All of the positive post-match vibes were nice, even heartwarming. They also obscure the fact that even before the final, Peak had put together his strongest Senior performance yet.
He had done it before, just not at the top level. Peak rang up three technical superiority victories in advancing to the semis, outscoring the opposition 29-0. In the semifinal round opposite top-seeded Nolan Baker (NYAC, 5PM #7) — who had pinned Peak twice previously — the train kept rolling. The Wisconsin-born athlete was composed yet aggressive, and had an answer for Baker in each exchange. The result was one more tech to go along with all of the others, not to mention the methodology involved with his downing of Germinaro. In total, Peak went 5-0 in the tournament, amassing 45 offensive points and giving up zero in return. For his efforts, Peak was named the Nationals’ Outstanding Wrestler.
What’s on the horizon is anyone’s guess. Peak says that he is flirting with the idea of entering the Junior event in November, particularly because it is his last year of eligibility in that age-group. Could be worth it, there are several athletes against whom he might be able to test himself appropriately. For now, though? For now, and even going forward? Peak is a Senior, and a National Champion one, at that.
Maybe he saw this coming back in ’17 but pushed it off into the distance. Wasn’t a concern then. A lot can change in three years.
Benji Peak — 67 kg, Sunkist/NTS
5PM: Knowing what has been the situation in Marquette the past couple of months, how did you prepare for this tournament?
Benji Peak: We did a bunch of different stuff. I mean, one thing is that we have done a lot of strength training since the beginning of quarantine in March and then leading up to the summer. Our whole team has gotten a lot stronger. And we have also done a lot of running. My conditioning, I didn’t really get to test it that much, but my conditioning I felt was pretty solid. I didn’t feel like it was behind. We only had a couple of weeks on the mat, so I didn’t get to do a ton, but I felt pretty good.
I felt like I was almost wrestling better because of the break, in a sense, because every time I went to practice I was so excited to go there that I was learning a lot. I felt like I was taking advantage of practice more than usual.
5PM: Are you saying it like you felt fresher than you might normally feel during the spring and summer because of this?
BP: Yeah. I mean, we were only doing one practice a day instead of two, but we’d go a little bit longer in that one practice so we still got a lot out of it. Injuries were down, there was more time to recover. Obviously, getting on the mat full-time and wrestling would have been a lot better than what we did — but at the same time, I felt like what we did didn’t hurt us too bad.
5PM: Did you know that as soon as this tournament was announced that you would be entering it?
BP: Oh, heck yeah, definitely. My whole house for the most part went, all of the people I live with, and that is just because we need some competition. We were starting to bet on stuff, we were racing marbles… We needed some competition, so as soon as this tournament was announced I was all in for it. I loved the idea of it.
5PM: I would imagine having something to actually train for reinvigorated you.
BP: Oh, yeah. Having this tournament made training a lot more important at the time, I guess, is how I would put it. Because, even if I had class or something, I had to make sure I was there and making up everything and keeping my weight down, because over the quarantine I did get quite a bit bigger and so now I had to diet for the weight class. I don’t know, the tournament made practice a lot more fun. Definitely.
5PM: You wrestled Baker a couple of times before this tournament. We know how those matches ended. You seemed to have an answer for his movement and positions this time. What was your general strategy, especially knowing how explosive he is from head-and-arm?
Benji Peak: I promise you, I would have bet my life that I was going to win that match. All of my friends and coaches knew that I was winning that match. The whole day was going my way. I have been practicing a little bit, not a ton on how to defend headlocks, but I have definitely been going over it. I wasn’t really worried about it. I had a night-and-day different game plan and everything was just clicking. I wasn’t even worried about him. I kid you not, I wasn’t even worried about him in this tournament.
5PM: By the time you got to the finals, you already had four matches. Did the change from a two-day format to a one-day format bug you at all? Or were you happy to get it all over with in one day?
BP: I was happy about that. I knew that meant we were only making weight once, and I knew that if I got the ball rolling early on Friday that it was just going to roll on through the night, and I wouldn’t have to reset the next day. I was pretty happy about it.
5PM: Against Calvin, you go for that lift, it drops and you go out of bounds. Then you gesture to the officials. It’s a bad angle on video, the camera was far and it was hard to tell. What exactly did you feel on that lift attempt?
BP: Oh, I felt absolute popcorn butter. I was like, This is it — I’m going to throw him, I’m going to go up. I thought that maybe I was going to get a five. I knew that I was going to get a big throw. But then I didn’t get it and I knew the fact that I didn’t score on that throw, which is what I have been dominating with lately, I knew that he had definitely hooked my leg because there’s no way that wasn’t happening. And I don’t think a bunch of people saw it. I don’t even know if my coach saw it but I could feel the little leg hook, that he pulled my leg up just enough so I dropped him. I wasn’t going to let that go by, especially knowing that I was going to get to go back on top (par terre).
5PM: Did you have any immediate reservations going back to that lift? Did you at all consider going gutwrench or switching up to something else figuring that he might be expecting you to return to the lift on that side? Or were you just, I’m going right back to this lift as soon as the whistle blows?
BP: No, no, no — I knew that I was going to lift. I can say that I was thinking about other things, but I knew I was going back to that lift. Especially in practice lately, I have felt solid on my feet but we have been working a lot of par terre, and I have been working that lift the whole two weeks leading up. I was feeling really good about that lift going into this tournament so I knew that I was going to stick with it, especially when it was crunch time.
5PM: In the three years since you’ve been up in Marquette, you have developed nicely thus far and have experienced a good deal of success domestically and overseas. Where does this event rank for you in the three years you have been a full-time athlete?
BP: I think it is definitely a good stepping stone in the right direction. Even though some of those guys weren’t there, it is still a Senior National title and a lot of people don’t get to do that. So I feel like what I’m doing right now is good, but there is also a lot I can definitely work on. I have to get ready to wrestle even the better guys. I don’t know, it feels good.
5PM: Is this thus far your favorite achievement?
BP: Yeah, probably. I would think so. There is not really much else you can put above a Senior National title.
5PM: Does this change the way you view yourself as a competitor in an Olympic Year?
Benji Peak: I mean, yes, definitely. I was looking forward to the Junior side of things. I always kept the Olympics being moved to this year in the back of my mind and I was definitely going to get better and bigger. I feel like last year I was a lot more worried about the Junior idea just because I felt like I was a little younger. But I’m about to be a Senior in terms of age, anyway, so now it’s my time to be at the top. I like to be at the top of my age group every time I move up — Cadet, Junior, U23, Senior. I am trying to be at the top, so I definitely consider myself to be a competitor in this weight class.