“Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it’s because you’ve started to think of failure.”
– Tommy Lasorda
There is no doubt that heading into the 2nd OG World Qualifier in Istanbul, Turkey yesterday, pressure was a word on a lot of people’s minds. It wasn’t without simplicity for the athletes involved. If anything, the beauty rested in the event’s offering of deductive reasoning. The objective was presented in no uncertain terms: Be one of the last two standing and the mission is accomplished.
In a weight class filled with enough world-level talent to pass for an All-Star meet, Jesse Thielke (NYAC, 59 kg) entered the day as sort of an underdog. At least to those who may have been otherwise unfamiliar with what the 23-year old can be truly capable of. Alas, in a tournament field featuring accomplished stars such as Hamid Soryan, Ivo Angelov, Roman Amoyan, Revaz Lashki, and Peter Modos, many Greco wrestling observers figured it would come down to any two of those five names mentioned. Because even though Thielke had been acknowledged for his run of dominance at the 2016 Olympic Trials (where he dismounted two former Olympians in a row), surely his setback in Mongolia brought on some skepticism regarding his chances in Turkey.
Underestimate him at your own peril.
Jesse Thielke not only made it through to the finals, guaranteeing the US qualification at that weight, but he also demonstrated he can win versus top-flight international competition wrestling his way. So much of Greco Roman wrestling is predicated upon posturing, of playing games inside the clutches of an opponent’s grasp. Thielke doesn’t operate like that, certainly not in a vacuum. Instead, he varies his attacks by relying on a seemingly endless array of setups, utilizing his athletic gifts and desire for aggression to strike with precision. It also says a lot that when the chips were down and the dealer walked away, Thielke raised the bet and went for it. Over and over again. That’s how you make you a statement no one forgets.
In his first match of the morning, Thielke was called upon to face 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Peter Modos of Hungary. Modos appeared to be a great test for Thielke to get started with. This was a bout which had all the makings of a close, back-and-forth nail-biter. Apparently, Thielke didn’t agree with that assessment. He drew first blood with a positively nasty “touch” duck-under.
Of course, he wasn’t done. Once they reset on their feet, Thielke deftly pulled behind Modos, taking him to the mat and initiated the match-ending sequence. It was as much of a message being sent as it was a “get the ball rolling” first round victory.
His next opponent, Revaz Lashki (GEO), 2012 Olympic silver medalist at 60 kg, offered a different kind of challenge. While Modos is a capable scorer, Lashki is a “pro’s pro” who doesn’t easily get rattled and can be a nightmare if he gets on top of you. Even still, Thielke had very little trouble opening up on the Georgian, which he did immediately.
Examine the context. This is Lashki, a world-traveled medal winning vet. Thielke showed him zero respect. Look at the top right corner of the image. We’re talking Thielke went after him at the whistle. He didn’t bother engaging in any probing ties or pretend he wanted to spend 20 seconds clinched up for no reason. Quite the contrary, he was there to score and that he did, lowering his level for a four-point bodylock before gutting him over. That’s six points before Lashki had any idea what hit him.
Thielke tossed Lashki for another four off the edge, but it wasn’t confirmed due to legs. To Lashki’s credit, he stayed in it. In the second period, Lashki had his par terre chance and rolled Thielke three times for 6 points, tying the match. With less than a minute remaining and Lashki holding criteria, the American had to make something happen. He rose to the occasion.
Thielke initiated the action by lowering into a wide bodylock, this time arching it over as Lashki tried in vain to wrap around his head. It was good for four points, plus another tacked on due to Georgia challenging and being denied. That made the score 11-6. Thielke would add two more with another sick duck attempt to close it out 13-6. At this juncture, any doubters began to be converted to believers. It’s hard not to believe when the athlete performing certainly does.
Jesse Thielke’s opponent in the quarterfinal was the tough, angular Swede Frunze Harutyunyan. Harutyunyan had earlier defeated 2013 World Champion Ivo Angelov (BUL), so there’s no question he was working with some confidence of his own. Nevertheless, Thielke tossed him for two early in the first period.
Harutyunyan did not lay down after that. A minute later, the Swedish wrestler snatched a two-on-one and pulled it around for a takedown, which tied the score at two apiece. In the second period, Harutyunyan was awarded a par terre opportunity off of Thielke’s second passivity knock. He used it to lock up a deep elbow-to-elbow gutwrench and rolled Thielke for two points. 4-2, Harutyunyan.
There are windows, chances in each match where a wrestler can do something big. These opportunities are microscopic at times and perhaps not able to be discerned from the outside looking in. But these moments can change everything. They can be turning points that are too monumental to recover from.
When Harutyunyan reset to adjust his grip, he came around with his left arm and clamped it onto Thielke’s left shoulder while also keeping his right arm wrapped around. He then moved to create momentum but just as he did, Thielke exploded up and switched his hips, momentarily reverse-locking Harutyunyan’s head. It was a shocking turn of events which saw the Swedish wrestler on his back. Thielke locked around his opponent’s head, kept position and came away with the pin. It was also a sequence that will probably remembered by US Greco fans for years to come.
Only one more challenge remained for Thielke and the United States to qualify 59 kg. It would come in the form of Moldavian Donior Islamov. Islamov is widely recognized as smart, opportunistic wrestler who knows how to work inside for arm-drags and other assorted takedown maneuvers. He had met his match in Thielke. Just by profile alone, this one was set-up to be a high-scoring contest and it didn’t disappoint. But it also wasn’t without some early trepidation for the American side.
Islamov started the scoring by hitting a beautiful arm-spin and proceeded to hold position on top of Thielke, who soon scrambled out and reversed for two points. His confidence remained high. Thielke then bored in on Islamov and drove him out for another point. That made the match 4-3 in favor of Islamov. Just when it seemed like Thielke would turn on the jets yet again, Islamov hit yet another arm-spin to increase his lead 8-3. But despite Islamov’s tally, you just had a feeling watching the action that Thielke would find his own chances. Not only did he, but he wound up going on a tear of practically epic proportions.
With a minute left in the first, Thielke clasped double under-hooks and slid it by for two near the edge. 8-5, Islamov. He wasn’t done. Before the period ran out, Thielke ducked under for a lightening-fast bodylock and turned it into a gutwrench for four big points, taking the lead 9-8. The clouds were swirling, though the storm hadn’t even arrived in full just yet.
The entire scope of the match was defined in the opening seconds of the final period. Thielke worked off of Islamov’s forward movement and when the Moldavian raised his arm just enough, Thielke leaped inside and bodied another four point toss. Islamov was simply out of answers. Thielke was now ahead 13-8 and the rain had joined the thunder.
Only a little under a minute separated Thielke from winning the bout and thus, qualifying the weight. But there was one issue with that: He wanted to keep scoring. Islamov, still game and down by a full five, clashed inside before the two broke apart. As Islamov stepped forward to re-engage, Thielke got underneath him once more, locking him to the mat and rolling for the qualifying-clinching four points. Numbers don’t always tell the story but they do in this case: Jesse Thielke had amassed 14 unanswered points in one of the biggest matches of his life. It was also against a skilled and experienced opponent when the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
In sports, the word “clutch” is bandied about to describe an athlete coming through during pivotal moments. But it is an incomplete term because it is usually assigned in a singular instance. It is often reserved for one moment, one snapshot, one look at how a single event changed the face of everything leading up to it. The term doesn’t do justice when discussing what Jesse Thielke accomplished at the 2nd OG Qualifier. It also isn’t merely that he “fought through” or “persevered” through the bracket. Rather, it’s that Thielke attacked the situation rather than let his path be dictated by it. He used the concept of pressure and turned it into a rallying cry, a catalyst for enthusiastic aggression.
The best part? He hasn’t even peaked yet. His trajectory is still expanding.
Wait, just wait. Only August couldn’t come soon enough.