Patrick Smith (71 kg, Minnesota Storm) made a statement in Frisco, Texas. Hopefully, it got your attention.
With the Olympic Trials just around the corner, we tend to scrutinize international performances even more closely. And the Pan Am Championships, with its annual offering of solid South American athletes, serves as a solid barometer for where athletes are with regards to their training during a most crucial time of year.
As a returning Pan Ams champion, Smith was expected to win, but it’s what a gold at an event like the Pan Ams means to Smith in the context of both his career — and this season. It is almost a fresh slate. At 71 kilos, Smith fell to Justin Lester (Army/WCAP) each time they faced off, be it at the Nationals or World Team Trials (in 2014 and ’15, respectively). But Lester aside, the former Gopher has proven capable of beating just about everyone else on domestic shores.
So here’s Smith, sauntering into Frisco, at a non-Olympic weight, called upon to do some work. Nothing was guaranteed. These things aren’t automatic, and 71 kilos was not without some depth. And as the incumbent champ, surely there must have been a little added pressure to perform well. And, he surely did.
This tournament was important for Smith because it could set him on a proper trajectory towards the Olympic Trials in a weight class where he will most assuredly find suitable challengers, as most found out in December. What occurred in Frisco could deliver a confidence boost — not because of the opposition, but the timing. As well as due to Smith’s ability to stick to his guns and own the pocket. When Jair Cuero Munoz (COL) gutted Smith for a two-spot in the final, maybe there was a little nail-biting. But probably not. Smith held his ground thereafter, and chopped Munoz down expertly.
“It was a little grittier than I wanted it to be, but that’s alright,” Smith told USA Wrestling after the tournament. “Sometimes, you’ve got to do that.” When Smith is successful, it is because he grinds. He doesn’t leave his perch. You know how baseball players talk about “staying within themselves” whenever they hit a walk-off homer, and how all they saw or cared about was the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand? It’s like that. Smith did what elite Greco athletes absolutely have to do, which is adhere to an attack strategy without minding a margin for error. Force the opposition into a mistake by sheer will. This isn’t a simple cat and mouse game. There’s no time for that, at least not in the finals of a “prove it” tournament that could indicate increased performance later on at a much grander, more important one.
Naturally, when Cuero had no choice but to gesture with a desperate throw attempt, Smith was ready. More than that, it was exactly what he was waiting for. Smith grabbed his two points, assumed criteria, stood on the podium, and now there is still one more step left to take. Smith is going to enter the Olympic Trials at 66 kilos. It will be a bracket of assassins. That’s why it is an understatement to suggest that a Pan Am gold was simply a nice little footnote heading into the homestretch with everything, at least this year, on the line.
Iowa City is a month away. It might as well be an hour away at this point. But if Smith is to find himself (once again) in position to break through, you’ll know he needed this Pan Ams as a reminder of what he can do when he has to do it.