Clark is a top contender at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City on April 9. It will mark the fifth time he has competed at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
InterMat recently caught up with the 36-year-old South St. Paul native.
You returned to competition in 2015 after a long layoff and won a Senior Nationals title in December. You seemed surprised that you came out on top. What were your expectations going into that event?
Clark: My expectation was to win it and show that I'm ready to make this 2016 Olympic Team. However, I had an injury, and that kept me off the mat for the two weeks leading up to it. I was very frustrated, and it definitely had me questioning whether or not I was as prepared as I needed to be. USA Wrestling recently changed their criteria to where former World and Olympic team members are no longer automatic bids into the Olympic Team Trials, so I had to lace my shoes up, wrestle smart and make it into the top seven. I honestly debated injury defaulting once I made it far enough to be qualified. Thankfully, I talked myself out of that one. At this point in my 32-year career I have to be smart about keeping my body healthy as can be. My mind has been set on the 2016 Trials. That is my goal, and it's where all of my focus has been directed. I wrestled smart, and won the tournament feeling around seventy percent of where I want to be for the Trials. It was definitely a surprise and a confidence booster.
Jake Clark battles Ben Provisor in the finals of the Senior Nationals (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)What went into the decision to take a long layoff from competition?
Clark: I never planned to take that much time off. I was bouncing around the globe and doing lots of traveling, which made it too difficult to focus on training at the highest level. At the 2012 Trials I busted my shoulder, had to get two surgeries, and this was the first real break I took from the sport in 30 years. I was living in Hawaii, and being so far away made things a little difficult to make it to competitions. I think it's nearly impossible to compete at this level if you're not fully committed and training 7-10 times per week. If I'm not able to put in the time needed I don't think it's smart decision to put my body on the line and risk injury.
What do you enjoy about Hawaii?
Clark: I grew up in the frozen lands of Minnesota … Need I say more?! I've been fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling, and there's something about the island life that pulled me in. That, and I think I'm allergic to winter. Mentally and physically it's a great place for training. I practice in the morning, and would go straight to the beach after to take a dip in Waikiki. I'm a fan of the culture, the weather and the food. The only downfall is that it's so far from home, and as I'm getting older I'd rather be closer to family and friends. I'm thinking the Caribbean is up next, and I'll need a few training partners if anyone is interested.
Hawaii seems to be producing some top wrestlers, especially in women's freestyle. Clarissa Chun, a Hawaii native, won an Olympic medal in 2012. Now another Hawaii native, Teshya Alo, is an Olympic hopeful. What's the wrestling culture like in Hawaii?
Clark: Clarissa and Teshya are both amazing wrestlers, and more importantly great people. Martial arts in general are very popular throughout the islands, and they have some amazing athletes. I really believe they could produce more top-level wrestlers more frequently, but sometimes the King of the Island mentality gets in the way of those running the programs there. I hope that some of the more recently successful Hawaiian wrestlers go back and take charge in the near future. There is a lot of potential for the sport in Hawaii, and even into other Pacific Islands.
Jake Clark with training partnersWhat has your training situation been like leading up to the Olympic Team Trials?
Clark: My training has been great. I feel the best I've ever felt mentally and physically. As much as I enjoy living and training in Hawaii I had to come home to take my training to another level. I've been back in Minnesota since the beginning of December, and am grateful to be around my family and friends leading up to the Trials. I'm on the mat nine times per week, and have an amazing group of training partners and coaches helping in every area of my game. It's been a real team effort in preparing for this one. So many family, friends, sponsors and coaches have all brought different pieces of the puzzle, and I'm more than ready to throw down on April 9.
Jordan Holm is a three-time returning World Team member at your weight class and is a teammate of yours on the Minnesota Storm. Is it a difficult situation having arguably your toughest U.S. competitor in the same wrestling room? Do you avoid wrestling each other?
Clark: There are definitely some pros and cons to that situation. Leading up to the Trials we haven't partnered up much, but thankfully our room is full of other great practice partners to choose from.
The U.S. Greco-Roman head coach is Matt Lindland. He's someone you wrestled early in your senior level career. Is it strange having someone you competed against now coaching Team USA?
Clark: I don't think it's strange at all. Matt is a very accomplished wrestler and fighter, so I think it's great to have someone with his knowledge and experience in both areas running the Greco program. When we wrestled in 2000 he bit my ear during one of our matches. I'd definitely like to ask him about that sometime, but that conversation hasn't come up … yet.
Jake Clark with friends Dustin Zahursky and Cazzy Zahursky of Kutting Weight at the World Championships in Las Vegas (Photo/Larry Slater)You were in Las Vegas for the 2015 World Championships. What did you take away from that event as a spectator?
Clark: I was working at my friend's Kutting Weight booth and didn't watch too much of the action. It was like a huge reunion, so I spent most of my time chatting with wrestling friends from all over the world. Las Vegas should definitely host the World Championships at least once every Olympic cycle. That place was slam-packed with fans from all over the world, and it was by far the best wrestling event I've ever been to.
Andy Bisek has been on the Greco-Roman scene for several years, but over the past two years he has established himself as one of the best in the world at 75 kilos, winning two straight World medals. Why do you think it's all coming together now for Bisek?
Clark: It's pretty simple. He grew up drinking Minnesota tap water. That, and he's an extremely hard worker. He's done a great job of forming his own style of wrestling. He wrestles smart and has earned every bit of his success on the mat.
A wrestler from Minnesota has represented the United States in every Olympics since 1968. As a Minnesota native, how much pride do you take in that streak?
Clark: It's a huge honor to be a part of this program, and definitely something we all think about. We seriously have a great shot at placing several of us on the 2016 team, and I wouldn't be one bit surprised if things turn out that way. With all the support we have from the Minnesota Storm, Minnesota Training Center, Minnesota Wrestling Club, and the entire Minnesota wrestling community it allows us to fully concentrate on our training, and continuing this streak not only in 2016, but also through many more Olympics in the future.
How have you changed as a wrestler since 2012?
Clark: I thought I was on point in 2012, but have since added a few more things to my arsenal. I am so ready to hit the mat in Iowa City. I've worked on my weaknesses all while continuing to fine-tune my strengths. This will be the oldest Jake Clark you've seen in these Trials, but I promise it will be by far the best Jake Clark that has ever stepped on a mat.
Jake Clark lifts Peter Hicks at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)The Olympic Team Trials were at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City in 2012. What's it like wrestling at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in front of such a large and passionate crowd?
Clark: It was unreal in 2012, and I'm sure it will be even better this time around. The crowd was great, and it was an honor to compete in front of so many fans. Their energy is definitely something we feed off as athletes and something we all appreciate very much. I have a huge group of family, friends, and fans attending the Trials, so I know they will be giving me, and my Storm teammates an extra boost of energy throughout our matches.
You have talked about how leading up to the 2012 Olympic Team Trials was the best you've ever felt. How are you feeling heading into the 2016 Olympic Team Trials?
Clark: I felt great in 2012. I know I had done everything right leading up to the Trials that year, but it just wasn't meant to be. The stars are aligning for me. I feel it, and I believe more than ever that this is my time.
You have been on multiple World teams, but I know you have always had a goal of competing in the Olympic Games and winning an Olympic medal. Do you feel more pressure when it's an Olympic year?
Clark: There's definitely some added pressure, but with that comes more excitement. I've been very close several times, and honestly feel like I'm meant to make this team. I know that I have done what is needed to be an Olympian. It's time.
I know you're focused on this year, but have you put a timetable on your career? Do you plan to compete after 2016?
Clark: My body feels healthy and I'm still competing at the highest level, so I'll probably continue wrestling through 2020. I love the sport, and it's definitely not something I'm ready to walk away from just yet.
Jake Clark gets his hand raised after winning a Senior Nationals title (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)What are keys for you to be successful in Iowa City?
Clark: I've put in the time, and am going into this event very confident. I have to wrestle smart matches, stick to my plan, and with those two keys I will be the representative at 85 kilos for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro.
I would like to say thank you to all my family, friends, sponsors, and people of the wrestling community who have been supporting my training leading up to this great opportunity to compete in the 2016 Olympic Trials. I'm beyond excited to step on the mat representing all of them, my teammates, my training partners, the Minnesota Storm, my coaches, and the many others who have played even the smallest roles in getting me to this point. I'm ready.
This story also appears in the April 8 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.