IF you are to contemplate the recent rise of Benji Peak (60 kg), it pays to consider all sides. Peak’s decision to attend Northern Michigan in effort to get an early jump on a full-time Greco-Roman career involved a healthy dose of sacrifice. Think about it. He wasn’t just leaving home and the relative creature comforts most teens are tethered to. And he wasn’t just hitting the pause button on his collection of valued friendships, despite how difficult of a task that is to manage at an age when peers lean on each other through every life situation which comes their way.
Peak, 17, was also waving goodbye to his sparkling ledger for Wisconsin’s Elkhorn High School. A state champion last year at 126 lbs, there is little question a repeat performance this coming winter danced around in his mind. It had to. A folkstyle state championship in the US, regardless of where you’re from or what your long-term goals are, is important currency. To win one tends to lengthen a wrestler’s competitive lifespan, specifically at the collegiate level. You get to keep going. Peak wanted to keep going, too. He just wanted it to be in a different direction.
Surgery to repair a torn labrum put him on the sidelines until the summer, but it didn’t slow down the process. Peak got in his visit to Northern, the country’s premier Greco-Roman developmental program (a label they’re not too fond of in Marquette nowadays), and zeroed in on a new and exciting future that included reuniting with Alston Nutter (66 kg), the other Wisconsin mold-breaker whose footsteps Peak was now following. The pair, they share the same dream, and it is one that ends with the US national anthem blaring in the background while they’re standing on a podium at the World Championships.
In the meantime, Peak is simply happy to get to work. Following recovery from that whole labrum deal, he returned to active competition for the first time this fall at the Bear Cup in Denmark. The result? A bronze medal performance that offered some stunning late-match heroics. Next was another bronze, this time in Sweden at the Senior Klippan Cup. Peak closed out his string of overseas tournaments with a gold at the Malar Cupen, racking up a jaw-dropping 81 points combined across his eight bouts.
To say he has come out of the gate strong falls short. Peak set his sights on making an impression as soon as possible and the fact that message was delivered on the heels of three consecutive international medals only served to underscore his choosing to pack up for NMU in the first place. “I didn’t leave home and leave high school early to do what everyone else does,” Peak says. “I want to be different, I want to win at the Worlds, and wrestling the best guys on the planet isn’t something I feel like putting off into the future.”
Most 17-year-olds are knuckleheads. It’s part of growing up. But nothing fast-forwards young adulthood quite like understanding what you’re after and having the maturity to invest in doing whatever is necessary to go and get it. Benji Peak knows what he wants, that much is clear. With a purposeful yet stoic attitude that belies his years, it isn’t too difficult to see his fast start as a trend that will continue, long after any remaining knuckleheadedness has been washed away.
Benji Peak — 60 kg, NMU/OTS
5PM: Your bronze in Denmark that required a four-point move with literally, like :05 remaining, made that match an instant classic. What did that tournament do for you mentally, especially since you hadn’t competed in so long?
Benji Peak: I mean, that was my first tournament back after shoulder surgery, so yes, I was nervous. But after I lost to that one kid from Denmark (Mikkel Lassen), I knew the kid I had for third (Lauri Karjalainen) was really good because he was up 7-0 in like :06 before he got headlocked and pinned. And that was Finland’s World Team member, the kid I wrestled for third. Everyone kept telling me that, so I was pretty nervous.
I was wrestling with him pretty well, but going into the break Alston (Nutter) guaranteed me that I was going to win this match if I kept changing my levels and trying for as many attacks as I could. When that next period came around, I just kept trying to push him as much as I could. We’re pretty conditioned at Northern Michigan, so I was like, I’m just going to keep hammering and hope something turns up. When we went out of bounds and came back with short time left, I remembered watching at U23’s where Kamal Bey hit that five at the end and he said, “Short time’s enough time.” He said that and I swear I did, too. I was like, Short time’s enough time, and I just put my head down and hoped for the best (laughs). I watched that interview when Kamal said that and I was like, He’s right, I can do this, short time’s enough time, and I just gave it everything I had.
5PM: It was an impressive sequence because you went low and finished high.
BP: Yeah, I went bodylock and headlock, kind of a head-pinch.
5PM: Not a lot of guys can do that, I reckon it’s one of the advantages your height offers.
BP: I have long arms and they helped me out a little bit there.
5PM: You also wrestled very well the next week at the Klippan Cup and your third-place match there was against a tough guy in Christoffer Svensson, who Randon Miranda actually got in a dogfight with in the semis. That was a different tournament than the Bear Cup, it’s pretty much a Senior event. What was your attitude heading into Klippan? If there was rust before, a lot of it had to have been knocked off.
BP: Well, I went down to 61 kilos. I’m really not that big, I walk around at 64, 65 kilos, so it’s not like I cut a lot, but I’m a skinny guy so that is a decent amount. I really wanted to go down because I felt like the team, for the most part, I wouldn’t say they didn’t think I was good, but I don’t think I had the respect I do now because of it. So it was really big to me because I wanted to do well in front of all of them.
I went out and did good in my first couple of matches and then I had Anton Rosen from Sweden, that World Team member. I was so excited to wrestle him, just so excited. I was like, I want to beat this kid, he’s a big deal. I warmed up way too early. I don’t know, when I got out there, I kind of froze almost. I got tech’ed, that was my first time getting tech’ed since I don’t even know when, so that was new. When I got off the mat I told Lucas (Steldt) and Rob (Hermann), “I just froze.” I was just too over-excited to wrestle. That kind of sucked.
My next match I had that other kid from the US, Luis (Hernandez), and I put some big points up to try to get back from what I did wrong in the other match. I made some corrections and did well. I saw that Randon struggled against the kid I had for third. Randon and I battle hard in the room, so I was pretty nervous. But when I wrestled that kid it was, I’m going to make 50 attempts and if I even just get one of them…, and I wound up getting a couple. I got a bodylock right away, I got a slide-by, and another slide-by to tech him. It was basically all me, there just wasn’t much he could do. Coming off of that third-place finish I was feeling pretty good, I was one of the only guys to place at the tournament and I felt like a lot of the guys on the team respected me more, so I’d probably say that was the biggest win I had in a long time.
5PM: If you feel like you earned your team’s respect at Klippan, then what you did the next week at the Malar Cupen had to have solidified it. You scored 81 points across eight matches en-route to gold. Since you’ve been back from that tour, does it feel like you want to jump into more events right away, or do you need time to brush back up on technique and keep improving in the room?
BP: I wouldn’t say I need to get into a competition right away. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to if one popped up and I felt good going into it or whatever. But right now, I don’t feel like I need to work on my technique exactly. I mean, I feel pretty confident in my technique but I can always learn something.
I wrestle a lot of live matches in our practice room and the guys I have in the room I feel are some of the best in the world. I think Randon Miranda is one of the best, if not the best 55 kilogram wrestler in the world. I know he’s a little bit smaller than me, but I mean, what he teaches me is insane. Dalton Roberts, what he teaches me… Lately, I’m scoring more and more points on them and it makes me feel confident, but it’s not like they’re being dicks to me about it. They are like, Nice job, keep doing this. Or after practice, they will pull me to the side. Right now, I really like what I have going, and (Andy) Bisek and Hermann are great coaches. I feel like everything at NMU is going exactly how I want it to go, so I’m not in too much of a hurry to be leaving and going on all these other tours and everything.
5PM: It’s very early in your full-time career. What has surprised you competitively so far, and what hasn’t?
Benji Peak: I feel like I’m scoring a lot more than I thought I would be scoring before I came in here. I thought I was going to be a little further behind everyone. I mean, I’m behind a lot of these Senior guys, don’t get me wrong. But I thought it was going to take me a lot of time and I feel like I have been scoring a lot of points right away. I thought I was going to have to work a lot more on that. I feel like my defense needs more work than my offense, and that’s a bigger shock than I thought.
As for what has not been surprising, I don’t know, everything has kind of been surprising me on this whole new journey. Something new is always happening. But I think one thing that hasn’t surprised me is probably the drive from the teams. When we go to all of those competitions overseas, how motivated they are to score points, I knew that was how it was going to be. When I envisioned wrestling Greco-Roman like this, I knew the pace was going to be a whole lot different than it is in America, like the reaching and the way we wrestle. It is just like how I envisioned wrestling those foreigners to be.