IOWA CITY - Matt McDonough has conquered the best college wrestling had to offer. Now, he is ready for the best in the world.
Shortly after claiming his second NCAA title in March, the University of Iowa junior focused his sights on a chance to represent the United States in the Olympic Games this summer in London, England.
McDonough will attempt to earn that opportunity at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials this weekend at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Wrestlers from men's and women's freestyle and Greco-Roman will compete in the two-day event.
Five minutes after he won the 125-pound national title in his third NCAA finals appearance McDonough knew he wanted to compete at the Olympic Trials. He was excited to be one of 10 wrestlers granted a wild-card berth from USA Wrestling to compete at 121 pounds.
"All season we talked about the Olympic Trials being here at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and obviously as a college wrestler we didn't get the chance to compete in the qualifiers so we heard all season you win a national title that's going to be your sell for getting in the Olympic Trials," said McDonough, who is 100-4 in three seasons with the Hawkeyes. "That was my goal then and as soon as I was done it was moving on to the next things. That's how it always is, moving on and moving forward."
McDonough has only had four weeks to transition from being married to folkstyle competition with the Hawkeyes to training for freestyle. Although he is adapting to different scoring, rules and strategy, there are constants.
"There's definitely some things you have to adjust to, but the goal is still the same," McDonough said. "You're taking your opponent down and you're dominating. It's about being in good position no matter where you're at."
McDonough is quite familiar with freestyle. He was a 132-pound member of the 2010 U.S. Junior World Team, and even captured a Cadet National Freestyle championship during his high school career, when he won three state titles for Linn-Mar. The upcoming test is unmatched by any previous challenges in wrestling.
"Each time you step into a new competitive arena you have to know you're stepping up to a higher level," McDonough said. "You have to respond to that."
The 21-year-old could be involved in at least two more Olympic Trials. Don't expect this to be a "trial run" of sorts, preparing for his post-collegiate international career. He isn't wired to think that way, and neither are the people who help him train.
"We didn't push to get the wild card so it could be a learning experience. (USA Wrestling Freestyle Coach) Zeke Jones would have us tarred and feathered if we were using this as a learning experience," Iowa assistant and former U.S. Wrestling Team Coach Terry Brands said. "This is about high-level wrestling. Matt McDonough is about high level wrestling. He's about going forward with his wrestling, both figuratively and literally. You want experience then you go to win the doggone tournament."
Some elite college wrestlers opted for an Olympic red-shirt year, suspending their collegiate careers, without losing eligibility, to contend for an Olympic spot. McDonough didn't consider the idea. He didn't think it was necessary to stop working hard in one discipline to be involved in another.
"You only have so much time to compete and it's important to get the most out of it," McDonough said. "I'm going to get the most out of college and as soon as college is over I'm going to get the most out of my international wrestling."
McDonough has put himself in position to initiate his international wrestling. His relentless training and belief that he works harder than anyone bolsters his confidence. He said he has to transfer that to competition to get the desired results.
"He believes he can be the guy," Brands said. "There's going to have to be some things and some maturity in his wrestling and he knows it. We know it. We like where he's at, his mind and looking forward to seeing him compete."
The weight class includes 2011 World Team Trials champion Nick Simmons and his fellow Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club member Sam Hazewinkel. The field also consists of a number of McDonough's former college foes, including Angel Escobedo (Indiana), Brandon Precin (Northwestern) and Zach Sanders (Minnesota).
This is the next step for McDonough. He is ready to try and add the Olympic Trials champion to his list of accolades."I'm in between college seasons, but this is the time for becoming an Olympian and Olympic champion," McDonough said. "I have the chance to do that and I'm going to go for it. There's a group of guys who all want what I want and they all want to take my head off."