Transition wrestling has become the “new norm” at the collegiate level. Some of the top athletes enrolled at several of the biggest schools in the country have elevated both their profiles and skill-sets after taking redshirt years to prepare for international competition, especially in Olympic years. That might be part of what is behind Jacob Kasper’s surge. The redshirt senior at Duke took seventh at the US Nationals in December has been on a tear this season at Duke following his time spent training Greco Roman in Colorado Springs last year. Now back in Durham and on the unforgiving NCAA grind, Kasper is focused on smashing his way through the Atlantic Coast Conference before hopefully bigger things come March, when the national championships take place.
There are a few elements at play here. Kasper has always been a talented competitor. But as this season continues to unfold, he is flourishing at a different speed and in a new weight class. Kasper spent his first two seasons at Duke wrestling at 184 lbs. After competing at 98 kilograms in Greco Roman last year, Kasper has “stayed big”, making the jump to heavyweight. “I walk around at about 250 lbs. Wrestling at 98 kilos required no weight cutting and it let me train and keep my body fueled,” Kasper says. “Since I’m no longer allowed to cut weight, being at 250 is fine, even though I’m light for heavyweight.”
Indeed he is. Kasper is often outweighed in matches but despite that, he doesn’t feel as if he is over-matched in any way, shape, or form. If anything, Kasper believes he has an advantage.
“[Wrestling Greco] gives me an element of danger,” he acknowledges. “In the back of their minds, I want opponents to fear me because they know I have the potential to toss them on their head. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is the Greco mindset. It’s a fight to determine who’s tougher. I know that I can still hand-fight when I’m tired. I can outlast opponents because I out-train them. That’s what I’ve learned from Greco.”
Two styles complimenting one another
However, this is not a narrative declaring, Wrestler who has competed in Greco believes it is the superior style. Not really. At this stage in his career, Kasper is more interested in his own progression and the way he sees it, everything is centered around where his goals lie. “In my mind, wrestling is wrestling,” notes Kasper. “Competing is competing, and I love to compete. Intermixing styles makes better, more well-rounded wrestlers. I don’t want to be a good folkstyle or Greco wrestler, I want to be a great wrestler, period. An NCAA champ and an Olympic champ.”
To get there, Kasper has settled into a style that’s all his own. It’s what happens when you throw innate wrestling ability, seemingly good genetics, and an opened mind into a pot and stir it around. Currently, there is no phase of a wrestling match Kasper does not feel he is in control of. Why should he? He has seen where his trajectory can point towards and following a fast start to this season, his conviction in all facets of the sport keeps growing.
“I don’t force top [in folkstyle] like people expect. I still go for a leg, but they’re gonna know I can take ’em to that Greco place. I want to challenge them, see if they can swim. No one wants it more than me, and I know that.”
He will have a chance to demonstrate how far he has come soon enough, as the arrival of the spring will also usher in three major events that could provide a spotlight for Kasper. First, there will be the ACC Championships; then the NCAA National Championships; and a month after that will be the US Greco Roman World Team Trials. And because he has another year of eligibility in front of him, Kasper has the option to return to campus next fall and do it all over again. That is what makes his preparation so important. Kasper is fully-aware of the stakes, which is why he’s going after each objective on a match-to-match basis. It also doesn’t hurt that he is willing to push himself to the limit every time he strolls into a wrestling room.
“I approach every match the same — I know what I’ve done and I know how tired I am at the end of the day,” says Kasper. “No one’s willing to sacrifice as much as me. No one’s willing to give what I have given. I still get pre-match nerves, but I know I have trained harder.”
When asked to expound, Kasper provides an even more colorful philosophical perspective: “If you cut corners training, you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s. If I have to train so hard I kill myself on the mat to get to where I want, then I’ll be the first dead champion.”
The ultimate stepping stone
During an era in American wrestling where the debate about folkstyle’s role in the international styles seems to perpetually rage on, Kasper portrays a sense of balance. He took his redshirt last year as a way to “step back” while also chasing down his Olympic dream (Kasper went 1-2 at the Olympic Trials in Iowa City). He might have fallen short of achieving one goal for now, but a valuable lesson came with it and it is one of perception. “I realized that college is just a stepping stone to where I want to be,” Kasper admits. “It’s not as big of a stage as I thought. The next step is to make the push to 2020 and the World teams leading up.”
In the meantime, he has his sights zeroed in on the remainder of the college wrestling season and helping Duke get rolling in conference competition. It’s the beginning of an important stretch that will determine a lot about the immediate future. Everything comes in steps, something Kasper is aware of. That is probably why he is first to point to the bonds he has forged with the guys on the Duke squad. “The highlight of my season is that our team has grown close. I think of these guys as my brothers. I’m looking forward to see what we can accomplish as the season ends.”
But eventually, the college season will end. The NCAA tournament will come and go, green leaves will start reappearing on trees, and collegiate wrestlers who once expressed desires to attain glory at the world level will find their way back into the fold. An annual occurrence, all of it. Thing is, Kasper has an edge. He’s seen what it takes. He isn’t afraid of the price. Plus, he’s interested in putting on a show for everybody. Because you see, Kasper doesn’t look at himself as just a wrestler, he also wants to be an entertainer. “I want to be able to get the crowd on their feet whether they’re cheering for or against me. The sport needs more of that.”
He’s right. Greco does need more of that.
April can’t come soon enough.