Carlsons carry on family tradition
Willmar's Cael Carlson knew everything was going to be okay as soon as he saw his cousin, Clay, step off the mat with a beaming smile.
The pressure from falling just short in the Class AAA state final twice washed away. Instead, it transferred to Clay, a brand new state champion himself.
"I was more nervous after my match," said Clay, who captured the 132-pound Class AAA state title just moments earlier with a 10-4 decision victory over Apple Valley's Sebas Swiggum. "I wanted it so bad for Cael. We've done everything together, we've trained together, we compete together, now we can celebrate together."
Clay, a senior, got his wish. Cael added to his family's legacy with the 138-pound state title following a hardfought 2-0 decision over Apple Valley's Brady Gross. The cousins, both wrapping up perfect seasons at 48-0, were crowned champions at the same time.
Well, not quite.
"It's a bummer he got to get it first," Cael Carlson said jokingly. "He'll always have that on me."
Clay, ever-competitive with his cousin, couldn't hold back.
"You may get two state titles but I'll always have the first one and that's what matters," Clay said, teasing his cousin.
If Clay Carlson feels like being technical about it, though, one has to remember it's actually Cael's dad, Chad, who had first dibs on the state title. Chad captured state titles as a junior and senior in 1989 and 1990, respectively, winning the inaugural MWCA Mr. Minnesota High School Wrestler award in 1989. Chad's younger brother, Carl--and Clay's father--also won a state title his senior year in 1992.
Oh, and Clay's older brother, Colten, also won a state title in 2016.
Suffice to say, winning state titles is a Carlson family tradition and both Cael and Clay are now part of that winning tradition.
"We were blessed with parents that knew what it took to win and we've always wanted to win so bad," Cael said. "My dad has said, 'I wouldn't eat for a year if I could do one more season of high school wrestling.' So I live every moment like it's my last."
As part of a rich wrestling background, Cael and Clay Carlson grew up on the mat, attending state tournaments the way most kids make trips to the state fair. They remember the days of seeing elite high school wrestlers appear to elevate to a new stratosphere, commanding an entire arena with a winning combination of technique and brute strength. In a sport where the athletes appear chiseled from marble, the Carlson boys idolized the wrestlers as Greek gods.
"We used to come as kids, and we loved the middleweights because they were the best," Cael said. "You never believe you're going to be that good and be at that level. Now we're those kids."
Cael and Clay grew up competing against each other at the family farm, training with their dads and other brothers. But Cael and Clay were closest in age and size, making standard training sessions feel like state final matches.
"We're both just so dang competitive," Clay said. "We never give each other takedowns. We'd start and the first 10 minutes would be pretty light, then all of a sudden we draw a little blood and we're going all out with crossfaces because neither of us wants to lose. We learn something every time from each other. And look where it got us now."
Clay says training with Cael played a huge part in his dominant state tournament run, one in which he won the opening three matches by technical fall, before wrapping up his high school career with a takedown-heavy championship victory.
"There's not a single person in the state at 132 pounds that's stronger than Cael, so when I'm trying to get a takedown it's easier because in training I have to take him down," Clay said.
Cael, more of a top wrestler that focuses on pins and maintaining top position, used his stamina to outlast his opponents in both the semifinal and final round. His quest for a state title almost came to a screeching halt when he needed an ultimate tiebreaker to defeat Anoka's Colby Njos, the eventual third place winner.
"In both of those matches, I just had to hang on and get it done," Cael said. "Whenever they thought they were getting a takedown I just wouldn't let it happen. I saw that moment when he was breaking. He started walking back to the center, pulling up his knee pads, taking extra time during blood time. He didn't want it as bad as I did."
Clay now looks to graduation with a championship title to his name. Cael, on the other hand, will return next year hungry for another. The person in charge of banners at Willmar High School better be ready.