Tommy Rowlands article in The Dispatch
Tommy Rowlands, right, takes down training partner Sean Salmon in the wrestling room at Ohio State in preparation for the U.S. Senior Nationals.
JEFF HINCKLEY | DISPATCH
Tommy Rowlands is spotted by training partner Sean Salmon as he carries 60-pound weights while running on a treadmill.
<!-- /freeform --> <!-- /ptr --> The distance between Columbus and Beijing, and this is as a crow with an eye out for shiny objects might zigzag, is around 6,800 miles.
Tommy Rowlands has China and gold on his mind, but no time for detours if he hopes to reach his dream of making the Olympic freestyle wrestling team for the United States. The next step on a trek that began in earnest six years ago occurs Saturday in Las Vegas at the U.S. Senior National Championships.
A four-time All-American and a two-time NCAA champion at Ohio State, Rowlands, 26, enters the tournament as the defending national heavyweight champion and the No. 1 seed. He finished fifth in the 2007 world championships in Azerbaijan.
Eight months later, Rowlands is ranked third in the world behind a Russian and an Iranian, respectively. He pinned defending world champion Alexis Rodriguez of Cuba in the Pan Am Championships in March in Colorado Springs.
"I'm wrestling the best I ever have in my life," Rowlands said. "My conditioning, my skill level, my mental approach, everything has come to a peak for me. I'm 248 pounds. I think I'm at my absolute physical peak."
Yet the two-tier format to qualify for the U.S. team is as precarious as an outdoor tightrope walk into gale-force winds. Each national champion still faces the hurdle of winning his weight class at the Olympic trials on June 13-15 in Las Vegas. One slip, one fall and a dream ends.
"It is one of those things where you just don't look down," Rowlands said. "You look forward and focus on the things you can do."
Focus never has been a problem for Rowlands from the time he discovered wrestling while growing up in Hilliard. He was a two-time state champion at Ready High School. He trains twice a day four to five times a week. Part of his routine includes running the steps on A Deck in Ohio Stadium.
"I've had a passion for the sport since I was 12 or 13 years old," he said. "But I've been training at this intense of a level ever since I entered college. Training twice a day when you're 18 is such a unique experience. You think it's something you won't ever be able to do, and I've been doing it for eight years now."
He is blessed, he added, by a support system that includes his wife, Elizabeth, his extended family and his association with the Ohio State wrestling team. Assistant OSU coach Lou Rosselli, a two-time national freestyle coach, is his personal coach.
"Training in Columbus is absolutely the best thing for him," Rosselli said. "He loves Ohio State. His family is here. He grew up here. He went to school here. His network is big and we're all pulling to help him."
While he trains, Rowlands is on a leave of absence from his job as an assistant coach with the Buckeyes. He receives a stipend from the Buckeye Wrestling Club that also allowed Elizabeth to stay at home with their 15-month-old daughter Ellie.
"My wife taught in the Dublin City Schools," Rowlands said. "This year she is at home with our daughter. It limits the distractions if we were both working. She's been unbelievably supportive. She was a college athlete. She understands the mind-set when it gets close to competition. She has been my backbone."
An All-Southeastern Conference soccer player at Kentucky, Elizabeth met Tommy in high school. She attended Hilliard Darby.
"I played soccer from the time I was 5," she said. "I played softball and basketball. He is the hardest worker I've ever been around. I know how much work he has put into reaching his goal. I think about it every day. As the time draws closer, I almost think it's my goal, too. It's nerve racking."
Rowlands is well aware of what is at stake and that old rivals such as Steve Mocco and Les Sigman are among those standing in his way.
"Even the guys I have to beat have made the same commitment," Rowlands said. "It's astounding, especially when you think of all the sacrifices that other people have made so that I can be in this position -- my wife, my parents, my sisters, my coaches and my teammates."
The winner of the national championships receives a bye to the two-out-of three final matchup in the Olympic trials.
"Whoever wins sits out of the mini-tournament at the trials," Rowlands said. "Then we break for three or four hours and we come back to wrestle the winner, who hopefully is me. So it's a distinct advantage to win the U.S. Nationals."
The wind sometimes has a hurricane-force feel, but Rowlands won't look down.
"It's like when I'm wrestling; I'm representing myself, the community and everyone who has ever helped me," Rowlands said. "On top of that, I've logged thousands of hours of work. When I was 19, I placed second in the (NCAA tournament). That's when the Olympic dream took hold of me. I realized that thinking internationally wasn't crazy. I'm hoping to achieve all the goals I set out for the Olympics in August. When that happens, I can retire."
"My conditioning, my skill level, my mental approach, everything has come to a peak for me ... I think I'm at my absolute physical peak."
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