A gutsy national champion
After reaching the Class AAA 113-pound finals as a freshman, Willmar's Cael Carlson received an invitation to join Minnesota's Greco-Roman team.
"I said, 'Well, sure, I would love to do that,'" Cael said.
"'But,'" he continued, "'I have no idea what I'm doing.'"
Cael found his stride in freestyle and folkstyle early on. Greco-Roman wrestling was foreign territory to him. Even with how fluent his family is in wrestling, Greco-Roman was unfamiliar for everyone.
"I never wrestled Greco in my life. I joke with other people about it," said Chad Carlson, Cael's dad and a former University of Minnesota grappler. "I don't know why I never did. I can't teach (Cael) anything about Greco. I rely on his coaches he has and I try to listen to what they're saying and try to reiterate that."
But, it turns out that Cael is a Greco-Roman natural. And now, he's a national champion.
Competing in the 2018 USA Wrestling Men's Junior Greco-Roman National Championships on July 19-20 in Fargo, Cael, an upcoming senior for Willmar, came away as the 145-pound championship in the field of 86.
"There was a couple times when I rode home from Fargo and I'd look over at Dad and laugh and I was like 'How did I become a Greco-Roman national champ," Cael said. "'It doesn't seem right.'"
A mile outside of Pennock, Chad's home is a training ground with a wrestling room in the basement, complete with a full-size mat.
"I didn't ask for a whole lot for the new house. My wife wanted to build a new house and I said 'That's fine, but we're having a wrestling room,'" Chad said. "I only had one request and that's all I needed."
It's in the basement where iron sharpens iron. When it comes to training, Cael could wrestle his cousin Clay, who was the Class AAA 132-pound state champion this past winter.
"I would credit a lot of success to (training with Clay)," Cael said. "We're 10 months apart and almost identical in size. There isn't any way we get where we're at without each other. We have one of the best training partners in the state a mile away. It does so much for you when you can do it together."
Together, the cousins had one goal in mind: Become All-Americans. It was a goal that no one else in the Carlson family had been able to achieve up to that point.
"Two times when I wrestled for the Gophers I lost in the blood round," Chad said. "I wish I could have won one of them or both of them. That haunts me to this day that I lost in those matches. Nobody else has been an All-American, let alone national champion."
Greco-Roman gains much of its fanfare for being the throwing style.
However, if there's one thing that helps set Cael apart from the field, it's his ability to stand his ground and grind out wins.
"It's like how I wrestle in folkstyle is how I wrestle in Greco. I'm very stubborn; I don't give up points easily," Cael said. "I do a really good job of staying in good position, especially in Greco where people can't throw me and control the center of the mat and put pressure on them all the time. You keep that pace and eventually people get tired."
And, as Cael puts it, he has cement feet.
"I can't move my feet," Cael said. "Freestyle is speedy people, then folkstyle is where you can get away without super fast feet. Then you have Greco where you don't use the feet and don't need to worry about it. It kind of fit me.
"It's a grind. It's a style where the toughest kid usually wins and I feed off of that."
Dad saw the Greco-Roman ability a little quicker than Cael did.
"When you get to the Olympic and world champion level, there really are no throws," Chad said. "It's all about positioning, hand fighting and controlling the center of the mat, which are all things Cael does extremely well. ... He really fights and controls other people's hands and other people's heads. You tire people out like that and when you tire people out, you score points at the end of matches."
An All-American showing in the freestyle tournament wasn't in the cards for either Cael or Clay. It was a bummer, but the two shifted their focus to Greco-Roman. There was one more chance to finish in the top eight and get the elusive accolade.
"We got to Greco and we were both like 'Let's forget about that. That's not going to matter when we're All-Americans,'" Cael said. "'We still have Greco left. That's what we're going to do and let's get it done.'"
Clay, wrestling at 138, lost his second-round match and finished the tournament with a 3-2 record. Cael kept winning, going so far as to knock out the third seed, Montana's Chance Mclane, with a 16-4 technical fall in the round of 16.
"I just went out there, wrestled my style and stayed in good position," Cael said. "And all of a sudden I come off the mat and I teched the kid. Someone told me afterwards, 'Cael, that was the three seed,' and I'm like, 'What?'"
Cael notched another tech fall in the quarterfinals against Missouri's Mitchell Bohlken, 17-6. His All-American status was secured and Cael could play with house money.
Facing South Dakota's Caden Moore in the semifinals, Cael trailed 3-0 with a minute to go. He turned the tide by scoring a takedown and forcing Moore out of bounds to tie the match at 3-3. The match stayed that way, allowing Carlson to reach the finals on criteria by virtue of being the last one to score.
Cael got to the finals, which is something he never envisioned the last two years at the Greco-Roman tournament.
"I had watched the tournament two years now and thought 'Holy crap, those people are good. How am I ever going to get to a level where they are and have a chance at competing,'" Cael said. "Now I'm going to be one of those guys on the stage that the kids are watching."
Cael did his homework for the finals.
Teammate Chandler Mooney, from Roseau, was on the other end of the bracket and managed to also reach the semifinals. But Mooney took a 13-10 loss against We Rachel of Illinois. This allowed Cael to see what to look out for.
"I knew what he was going to do and he was going for this throw," Cael said.
The first time, Rachel landed the throw and managed to take an 11-5 lead. And when something works the first time, try it again.
This time, Cael was ready.
"He came to get it and I locked it up tight and dropped him on his back and I knew it was over," Cael said. "He didn't even try to fight. He knew, too."
Cael clinched a national title with a pin at 3 minutes, 33 seconds.
"It was a good example of how Cael picks up on other people's tendencies," Chad said. "Someone may get it on him once, maybe twice. But very seldom are they going to hit him a third time with something. He'll catch on and change position or his technique."
Cael became a Greco-Roman champion without ever scoring a point on a throw.
Even with the stop sign-shaped trophy in his possession, it took a week before his accomplishment really set in.
"A week later in bed, it finally hit me. I'm a national champion," Cael said. "It wasn't luck. It was guts and skill."