In a video interview with Jason Bryant just ahead of the US Nationals in December of 2015, Minnesota Storm coach Brandon Paulson was describing the influx of athletes in the practice room as the camera panned around to various shots of guys pummeling with each other and drilling gutwrenches. “Six, seven years ago even, we had two or four guys in the room,” said Paulson. “Now we’ve got 14.”
If Paulson had just stopped there, it would have been enough. The Storm, America’s cornerstone institution for Greco-Roman wrestling responsible for a historical line of Olympic qualifiers, was hitting a healthy stride at the time. The video, hosted on the Storm’s own YouTube channel, provided the kind of update those in the sport tend to eagerly consume. Paulson matter-of-factly yet proudly delivering the scoop came off nicely, and as a viewer, you looked forward to the banter that might appear over the next three or so minutes.
But then he slipped it in. And it was apt. And when you look back now, prophetic.
“So it’s good to see Jake Clark back,” continued Paulson. “Whenever an Olympic Year comes, Jake Clark comes back. So you just watch. 2020, 2024, Clark will be back.”
We’re now nearly halfway through 2019. We are gradually approaching the dawn of another Olympic Year.
And indeed, Jake Clark is coming back.
“Maybe you could mention that my training for 2020 includes studying my opponents, since there are a few newer guys, to see what I have to prepare for.”
Clark and I had just wrapped up an interview that took over a month to coordinate and there was some confusion. I was under the impression that Clark, 39, had designs on returning for the 2019 US Open. Although, his latest re-entry into competition was not the sole motivating factor for the discussion. There were plans for such a talk three years ago, just after he advanced to the finals of the ’16 Olympic Trials and fell in two matches to Ben Provisor (87 kg, NYAC/NLWC). Time speeds up in this line of work. Clark had his own life to tend to, as well, and it just didn’t materialize.
When you look at Clark the athlete, to see anything other than an immensely successful competitor is high comedy. Nine National titles earned across pretty much every age group combined with two Senior World Championships appearances makes for a resume any wrestler would do well to aspire towards. Now throw in the obvious longevity, aided in part by spaces where Clark was absent from competition, including his most recent break that is due to end sometime this coming fall. You’re talking about a body of work that stretches back over two decades and has been nothing short of jump-off-the-page remarkable.
Even more remarkable was Clark’s last foray onto the Senior circuit that arrived in late 2015. He hadn’t wrestled a match in a few years, but found little difficulty placing third at the Bill Farrell Memorial. Four weeks passed and then Clark won his second Senior Open title without surrendering a single point.
Clark’s run came to an end against Provisor in the best-of-three Olympic Trials finals the following spring. You didn’t quite know what that meant just yet. Later that month, he swooped into the Veteran Nationals and collected another USA Wrestling “stop sign”. There weren’t any registered competitors in Clark’s weight class but he got an exhibition match in all the same. That’s what people still don’t get when it comes to Clark. He didn’t care about gobbling up another title as much as he did the opportunity to wrestle.
Which leads us into the present.
Family life and the operation of his Wrestle-Jitsu academy dominates most of his time these days, and this is the fastest way to glean the most about Clark the person. He is at peace. He is a rested warrior, but not necessarily a resting warrior. There is too much to do to actually rest, not with a baby girl and four other kids at home. That’s the weird thing, though. It’s in Clark’s wife, Jocelyn, and their brood why he comes off as peaceful. Is he tired, and maybe run a little ragged for a dude who is about to hop down the comeback trail? Yes and no. Yes, in that he’d probably love a nap occasionally; but no, not really, because it’s his family where he seems to derive the most inspirational energy.
Even still, there was a miscommunication. I figured Clark was going to zip down to Vegas for April’s Open, and he originally did, too. That’s more than enough reason for a conversation. So as I was telling him about how I was going to position this very piece, and use it as part of our preview material, he cut me off and said, “No, I’m actually not going to the Open this year and I can’t go to the Trials because they changed the procedures that used to allow former World Team members to automatically enter. It has been too crazy lately, so instead we’re going on a trip to Florida, but I’ll be coming back for sure once next season begins.”
Not a problem, I told him. It’s not like I was going to sit on the thing for another six months. But because I had gone through the effort, Clark wanted to help me with an explanation. That’s why he offered up that line about “studying” his opponents in advance of next season so could get a sense of the domestic opposition he was going to have to “prepare for”.
Come on, man. This is Jake Clark. They’ll probably be worried about how to prepare for him.
5PM Interview with Jake Clark
5PM: The last time we spoke, you were getting ready to compete in the North Country Open, a college open tournament, and you won. Sure, you bumped all the way up to heavyweight, but the bigger deal is that it was your first folkstyle match in however many years. What was that like?
Jake Clark: I mean, one of the benefits of wrestling in a heavier weight in folkstyle is that it can be kind of similar to Greco (laughs). Some of the guys I ended up going against were lighter heavyweights, around 220 pounds. I was like, Jeeze, these guys are going to be shooting on me (laughs). But for the most part, wrestling is wrestling. I like to wrestle — freestyle, folkstyle, Greco. Now I’m grappling, doing jiu jitsu, all that kind of stuff. They’re all somewhat similar. I think I was just excited to be out there competing. I love the sport, and that’s it.
5PM: How did you feel in-match?
Clark: I was exhausted, I was so exhausted (laughs). I’ve competed in World Championships, I’ve competed in World Cups, I’ve competed on big stages and all that, and now I’m wrestling at the North Country Open and I am nervous. My adrenaline was pumping. I remember in the first period of my first match — and that first period is three minutes — about a minute in, I looked at the clock and thought, Oh, I’ve got to pin this guy because I need a break (laughs).
I mean, the nerves, I guess they are always going to be there. It wasn’t like these wrestlers who were there had competed at the highest level by any means, they were up-and-coming college kids. But I was pretty nervous and I think that drained me a bit. When I was out there trying to keep guys down, I wasn’t really used to all of that. I couldn’t get into front headlocks probably the way I like to use them to kind of drain some people. It was exhausting, it was very exhausting. I need to definitely condition myself a lot more before I throw down with those young bucks again.
5PM: How’d you feel the day after?
Clark: The day after I felt great. I didn’t really have any bumps or bruises from the tournament. I had a wrestling event (the next day) and I was sitting in the bleachers for it, and my back was killing me from the bleachers — not from wrestling the day before. The bleachers the next day at a youth tournament I was watching, that got me pretty good (laughs).
I felt great afterwards. I was thinking, I’m going to be sore, I’m going to be hurting and probably need to take it easy. I was taking it easy in the stands. I mean, maybe some of that had to do with the tournament from the day before but sitting in the bleachers all day long I think will get anybody.
5PM: I would think the fact you felt fine the next day was a pretty big sign of encouragement.
Clark: Yeah, oh yeah. I felt great. I had been training once a week, maybe twice a week, because of wrestling with the young high school guys who are a part of my club. But I wasn’t as prepared as I should be or as prepared as I will make sure that I am for my next time on the mat. But I felt good overall, My body’s fine, I could do this.
5PM: Right, exactly, that’s what I’m trying to say. This was in the winter and it’s not like you were in the middle of some kind of training block or something like that. If anything, I’d expect you to have an adrenaline rush you felt that good.
Clark: I had marked it on my calendar in probably November. I had marked it on my calendar that there was a tournament, and I said, You know what? I’m going to compete in that. I’m going to write it down, that way if I write it down I have to stick to it. The next thing I know, I’m looking at my phone thinking, Jeeze, that tournament is right around the corner, I better crank this up a bit. I was excited to get on the mat for it, but it’s something I will make sure I am more prepared for in the future.
5PM: How does coaching fit into your life as an athlete? We hear all the time how instructing allows wrestlers to see things clearer, be it picking up small adjustments or seeing a technique from a different angle. Has that been the case for you, even if you’re coaching folkstyle?
Jake Clark: I’m a very firm believer in that. 100% support for what you just said there. I love the sport, so I love to coach and I love to give back. But at the same time, even giving back to the sport helps me when I’m coaching. Just like you said, you see things differently. And not just on the technical side but to practice what you preach, as well. So if I’m standing in front of a bunch of young wrestlers and I’m talking about getting extra work in at the end of practice, or waking up early to do something extra, I’ve got to hold true to my words to them and do it, too.
On the technical side, it definitely helps. I learn so many things when I slow a move down while teaching it to someone else. Then on the mental side of it, if I’m saying something and telling a wrestler that’s what they have to do to be the best, I have to follow suit in my own words on that. I think it helps in several ways.
5PM: How has becoming a dad, a husband, a family man — all of that stuff — affected your perception of being a competitive athlete?
Clark: That is a tough one that I’m trying to figure out right now. I think of a World Teammate of mine, Justin Ruiz. He was one of the guys who had kids when we were traveling and training. Man, just so much more respect to him now (laughs).
My focus is definitely on my family, and this is the first time that my main focus hasn’t been on myself and my wrestling. I’m grateful now that I have a family to focus on, and at the same time, I’m trying to figure out that balance. I’m trying to learn how to make everything work properly going forward. In training, I always made sure that I worked really hard during my practices but that I also had a good opportunity to rest between those workouts. I’ve got to figure that one out again because there’s not much time for naps anymore. But I’ll figure it out though. I’ve got a little bit of time left.
5PM: Do you think that’s an advantage? You have a family now and you also used the word “balance”. Does this balance things out more now insofar as when you do compete again, you won’t have to necessarily contend with the mental gymnastics that go along with being a high-level competitor?
Clark: Oh, for sure. I think there is definitely a positive side to having the family with just the support from my wife. Before waking up in the morning and having to take care of a bunch of things, sometimes there’s already a breakfast waiting. Here ya go, honey, go enjoy your workout. Different things like that.
It’s great to have that support from family. I mean, I always had support from my mom, support from my brothers, the support of my coaches, friends. But to have the support of my partner, my wife, to have her support and the support from our kids — because, we have five kids in total, she has four from a previous marriage — their excitement for me getting back on the mat is fun. It gives me an extra push. At the highest level, those extra pushes come in handy and are much-needed. Especially when it’s a rainy day and you don’t want to get that workout in, you have some people in your ear right here and that’s a positive thing, I believe.
5PM: You came back for the 2015-16 season, the Olympic Year. Took third in New York and then you won the Nationals without giving up a point, defeating Ben Provisor in the finals. You and Jordan (Holm) were seen as the favorites at the Olympic Trials. You had this incredible run during that season, it was really something. Was that like, close to the zenith for you in terms of confidence leading to a Trials event like that one?
Clark: Most definitely. That was the greatest I ever felt, and I honestly felt that day was going to be mine. However, that’s the way the sport goes. It’s who shows up that day. I felt that I had showed up that day, I felt like I showed up the best I could possibly be. I was living right, I was living healthy, I was working hard. I was doing as many positive things as I could to help put me in that position. And things were falling into place.
If I would have had Holm in the finals… It’s a match and yes, we would have wrestled, and yes, everything’s great. We knew each other, we trained with each other, and he has been a buddy of mine…
5PM: And you had brought him over to the Worlds some years back, too.
Clark: Yeah, he was a training partner of mine and that would have been great and all, but I also think it was a good opportunity for us to not have each other in the finals. Because, I know that on the side of the mat, Jordan Holm was there cheering me on. And if it would have been Holm and Provisor in the finals, I would have been on the side of the mat cheering Jordan on.
You know, gosh, everything seemed to play out in the best-case scenario I could have imagined. I felt great, my body felt great, and on the mental side of things I was so positive. That’s just the way it goes. You live, learn, move forward, and say Man, I was so close. But — if I had won that tournament and it made it to the Olympics I probably wouldn’t have met my wife, I wouldn’t have my little baby. So, I’m very happy with it. I’m happy with the runner-up finish in that case.
5PM: Is it bittersweet then? Not simply because you didn’t get on the Team, but in the way that it ended?
Clark: (Laughs) That’s a tough one. That is a tough one. That’s the way it goes. I’m not at all upset with it. Provisor beat me that day. If things could have been seen from a different angle, maybe, maybe that would have changed things. I’ve seen video from a different angle, and man, it’s some interesting stuff. But — Provisor did a great job of wrestling and that’s the way it is. He was on point that day. Not too bittersweet.
Making the Olympics has been a goal of mine since I was a little, little, little guy. But chasing that dream and what that has done for me? I’m very happy with the road it has taken me on. I’m definitely happy with that. Sure, it would be great to wrestle in the Olympics someday and I hope in 2020 I have that chance. I’m going to do whatever I can to put myself in a position to make that happen. But again, the journey of it — and if you talk to a lot of athletes which I am sure that you do — I would imagine that they would say the same thing. The journey that we’ve been on as some of the top wrestlers in the country, with the places we’ve seen, the people we’ve met, the adventures we’ve been on competing at that level, is all worth it.
5PM: If you had won that Trial and competed in Rio — now look, obviously it worked out for you fantastically, anyway — would you have put a definitive cap on your career?
Jake Clark: Wow. I don’t know. That would have been a nice little cherry on top. But again, I’ve always told people and I’ve always told myself that as long as I’m healthy, I will continue to compete because I love the sport.
And because, I’ve also had a lot of buddies who had injuries and couldn’t compete anymore. I want to make sure I’m not throwing in the towel too soon. As long as I can compete with these guys, as long as I can hang in there and I’m healthy — and as long as I have the support of my friends, family, and coaches — I’ll keep throwing down. Yes, it would have been great to make the Olympics in Rio. I felt great. I was definitely on pace to get a medal, not just make the Olympics. I was training with the intentions of bringing home a medal and I was very confident about that.
When Provisor beat me, I remember thinking and I believe I even discussed this in some of the interviews, but I was saying Look, Ben is going to get a medal. And I would have put money on it. Thank God I didn’t (laughs). But he wrestled great. He wrestled smart. And I felt that if he beat me — and if I felt that I was on pace to get a medal — then there’s no doubt in my mind that he was going to bring one back. But that’s always the interesting thing about our sport, there are so many different factors that play into something. The mix of different styles, different people. Your draw, that can be a big piece of it, too.
5PM: 85 kilograms was pretty good the last time around with Provisor, Holm, Jon Anderson, and (Pat) Martinez was just coming up. You look now and 87 kilos is really overcrowded. Joe Rau is now there, Alan Vera will be, Barrett Stanghill, James Souza, just all of these guys. It’s the most stacked weight in years in terms of credentials. But you’ve been around a long time. Do you look at this weight class and see it the same way?
Clark: I mean, some of those names in there are the young up-and-comers and I’m sure they’re pretty tough. I try to follow along the best that I can. You know, I’ll see tournaments, look at results, and all of that. Yeah, it’s going to be a pretty tough weight but that’s a great opportunity for all of us. Just knowing, We’ve got a lot of guys in this group, so who is going to show up that day? And maybe that pushes everybody to a higher level. I know it’s definitely going to push me to a higher level. I’m happy about it, that will maybe be an awesome opportunity to finish off the career, winning what some might say is the toughest bracket around. That would be pretty cool (laughs).
5PM: Veering back for a second, does it annoy you at all that like, say even after Rio, that because you had creeped into your late thirties the consensus was ‘Oh, Clark is probably done’? And we’ve seen this with other athletes, too, once they reach a certain age towards the end of a quad it is assumed that’s a wrap, that they’re done.
Clark: Nah, I don’t take any offense to that. I am kind of the old guy. Look, in 2020 I will be 40-years-old. There is a good chance that someone in our bracket will be 20-years-old (laughs). It’s pretty crazy. 40-year-olds are usually not able to meet the training schedule and the commitments of training to be at that highest level. We get weighed down with so many other things in life, your body falls apart, and so I don’t think it’s the norm for people like myself to be competing. I’m kind of honored that my name is still in the mix of things, even though I did disappear for a couple years and I have taken some time off. I’ve been busy with some other things.
But I don’t take offense to that. I mean, what is the age you’re considered to be in your prime? It might be a bit older for Greco than it is for freestyle, but what is it? Is it 30?
5PM: No, I’m not really sure other than that they say the athletic prime for the modern American male keeps getting older and older and older.
Clark: Sweet, thank you (laughs). That’s good news. But I don’t take offense to that. If there are a handful of people out there who say, Oh, Clark, he’s done, he hasn’t been doing anything for a couple of years, then okay. Maybe it’ll make for a bigger and better story.
5PM: Do you look for vulnerabilities in domestic opponents, or do you just focus on you and your strengths?
Clark: I think you definitely have to do both of those. I really focus on my techniques, my attacks, and what works for me, and then really fine-tune them. But at the same time, it’s not like we have a pool of 70 people who are in this tournament or are all competing in the main brackets at Nationals. What’s the bracket at Nationals? 20 people, or somewhere around there? It’s not like you have to learn so many things about so many people. We probably have group of about six people who just by being around them, watching their matches, and training with them, you catch onto the things that are their strengths.
I think any athlete at the highest level is going to be able to adapt to others. If you want to look at baseball or something and a pitcher has a good curveball; well, even if you have a great swing you still have to play into that curveball a bit. You have to work on the timing of it.
I look into opponents. I watch video, and thankfully that’s a much easier thing to do now. I definitely pay attention to their techniques, but also, I’m looking at some of their weaknesses, too. But when it comes down to it, I make sure I am putting a lot of time into my attacks, and I have a lot of confidence in those attacks. You can watch my videos. I’m going to arm drag you. I’m going to. I’m going to come after you and I am probably going to get an arm drag. I am probably going to get a front headlock on you. People know to expect those things, and that’s good, as well, because it makes me evolve more. I have to start adding little things here and there to stay a step ahead. I definitely pay attention to both of those.
5PM: The weigh-in procedures are different now, same-day, two days, all of that. Is that something you’re at all wary of or have been observing?
Clark: You know, I saw that, and who knows? Maybe by the time I’m on a mat again they will change the rules again (laughs). We’ll see. I don’t think I am going to have an issue with that weight being that it’s bumped up another two kilos. I felt that 85 kilos was about a perfect weight for me with weigh-ins the day before. Now adding two kilos, four-and-a-half pounds, that’s a decent amount of weight and I think that will be a pretty good weight for me. I’m actually excited about that weight. So please don’t change that weight, come on!
5PM: What was the main catalyst that led you to moving out to Hawaii some years back? What brought you there, climate, aesthetics, what?
Clark: My brother had been working with BJ Penn for a couple of years. I was in the military (Marines) and training quite a bit with wrestling, so I was never able to really get away. But when I got out of the military, shortly after that BJ contacted my brother. He had been working on some of the wrestling side of things with BJ on and off for a couple of years. I was #2 in the country at the time, or #1, I don’t remember, and my brother told BJ that I’d be able to come out there and join them. The next day I had a ticket to Hawaii (laughs). It was the day after Christmas I think, so it was perfect timing.
I started going out there to work with BJ, and every time it was supposed to be for like, a two-week training camp. And each time I would stay for about two months. I just loved it out there. I loved the way of life, I loved the climate as far as for training. When your body is here in this cold weather, yeah, it toughens you, but I felt like I was already pretty tough. Being there in Hawaii, I don’t know if it’s the air… Just everything felt great. My body felt so much better. It was a lot easier to loosen up for training and practices. Just something about being there, I loved the way of life.
And I kept going back there on and off. BJ would call me up and say, Hey, we want to bring you out. Especially if he had a wrestler coming up — Matt Hughes, (Georges) St. Pierre, (Jon) Fitch. Some of these fighters he was going to be facing had pretty good wrestling backgrounds. So, I would go out to help with the wrestling side of things and imitate those guys he was going to be fighting. I’d watch videos of those fighters so I could give BJ a pretty close look compared to what he was going to be seeing in the cage. That was on the wrestling side of it.
And then a job opportunity opened up. BJ said, Hey, we’re opening up a gym and we know you’d like to live out here someday and this could be the opportunity for you. If you want it, you’ve got it. A couple of weeks later I was out there.
It was a good adventure. I met a lot of good people. It was definitely a great experience all around.
5PM: You always hear about the locals dealing with mainlanders. Did they accept you right off the bat?
Jake Clark: I understand what people are saying. It can be a little tough to go there. But I also understand where the locals are coming from. That’s their home, and people are going there to vacation without respecting the area and the culture. I’m a big fan of culture, so as soon as I got there I took some college courses on Hawaiian language and Hawaiian culture. If I am going to live somewhere, I want to understand the culture and the people, the language. And I think because of that, and also because I was working with BJ and their people, they were a lot more open to me. For the most part. There were still some in the wrestling community, I had a difficult time with some of the people there. Maybe they felt I was coming in and stepping on toes. People are very protective. I was there wanting to help, I just wanted to spread the love of the sport.
5PM: You look at Hawaii, just tons of great athletes in all these sports, surfing, football, boxing, MMA. Maybe it’s their ancestry, something in the island DNA, but you look at the place and it’s like, ‘Man, how is this not an awesome Greco state?’
Clark: I saw that, and even in the other islands out in the Pacific, like Micronesia. You’re looking at this and it’s, Whoa, this can be great. In Hawaii, they are very, very cautious of some mainlanders coming in. Maybe they look at it as selling snake oil or something.
A lot of times, and I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but a lot of the people I came across in the wrestling community were more of the “king of the island” mentality where they wanted to be the best one on the island. For me, I wanted those kids be the best in the country. I wanted to see those kids be the best in the world. And I’m not saying they don’t want the best for their kids, either, just that maybe sometimes they are a little blinded with that because they are so far away from everything. They are pretty isolated out there. For some people, that’s good enough, to be the best on the island.
There was a young wrestler out there who I think if he had more opportunities could have done some great things. He wound up getting into the MMA scene. It’s a common thing, a lot of the wrestlers tend to do that out there. But it is a place where hopefully someday something will happen that creates a lot of opportunities for the guys. You saw it with Clarissa Chun and some of the women wrestlers out there. They’re great because they have a judo background, as well. Judo is a high school-sanctioned sport for them. Well, Greco and judo share a lot of similarities. They’re getting to train Greco already, except they’re wearing pajamas when they do it. No offense, but that’s what it looks like (laughs).
5PM: This latest iteration of Greco isn’t too different than it was the last time you competed, but it is still not the same. The rules are a little modified. What do you think about the way the sport is competed at the moment?
Clark: I was watching a couple of videos the other day and I still feel like they’re putting too much in the referee’s hands. That was what I got from the videos I was watching. I really liked the days of Hey, it’s five minutes. Shake hands, ready, wrestle. Who’s winning at the end, you’re the winner (laughs). Oh wait, it’s tied? Okay, shake hands again, who is going to score and win is the winner. The Paulson/Hall match. I know myself and Aaron Sieracki had a ten, eleven-minute match before and it was awesome.
Aaron and Keith Sieracki are two guys I always looked up to. Great friends, great competitors, great opponents. I remember when Aaron and I wrestled in that overtime match and the referee said, Well, it’s a National tournament and they’re saying you guys have to score to decide it. Aaron and I just looked at each other, and we were both covered in sweat. We were also both in pretty good shape at the time, so we just looked at each other like, Okay, let’s do it. Gosh, it was a great battle but I didn’t feel one bit bad losing that way because, hey, he beat me. He got that point at the end. You can’t complain about that.
But now, some of these calls and the way they’re doing things, I get confused. I know there are a lot of other wrestlers who are still trying to figure out the way these rules are. Like I mentioned earlier, at this level you just have to adapt. You have to go Okay, figure this out real quick. What, it has been over the past 10-15 years that we’ve had to adapt over and over. When it comes down to it, it’s just wrestling. For the most part. There might be some little things they throw in there.
I remember at the 2000 Junior World Championships when we showed up to the tournament in France. This was the Junior Worlds, the biggest tournament I had ever competed in at that time. They went and put this big red dot in the center of the mat and said that any point scored in that red dot is double. So now, your five-point throws are worth ten, and the match is over. This was the morning of the tournament when we learned this. Who knows? Maybe if they didn’t put that rule in, there would have been a different World Champion that day. But that’s the way it goes, right?
5PM: As a human and as a competitor, because essentially, you are both, is this the happiest you’ve ever been? You sound excited while at the same time, at peace.
Jake Clark: Oh, yeah. For sure. Most definitely. In the sport of wrestling, I have been fortunate enough to travel the world and see places I had only seen in books before. And to do that, I didn’t even have to buy the plane ticket, I earned it from wrestling. I’ve seen some really cool places, but I was doing that alone. And now, most definitely, I am very happy with life.
I am excited to bring wrestling back into my life with this different angle, too. For one, I want our kids to watch me compete, I want my wife to be able to see me compete. I want to have them see that side of me, too. Because, I had met her pretty much post-training. I was taking a break from the sport at the time. I wasn’t done. I was never done with the sport, but it was during a time when I wasn’t really competing or training, so the wrestling side of me is still new to her. The competitive side is. But I am definitely happy. It’s great to have a family with whom I will be able to share the up’s and down’s of what’s going to happen over the next year.
Follow Jake Clark on Instagram to keep up with his school, Wrestle-Jitsu, as well as his competitive career.