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The unlikeliest qualifier: Joe Rau's long, strange trip to Freestyle World Team Trials

Joe Rau gets his hand raised after a victory at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)

It's 11 at night and Elmhurst College's Division III national champion Joe Rau is on the phone with three-time U.S. Greco-Roman World Team member Jordan Holm. The college senior wants to train in Greco with the Minnesota Storm after graduation. Holm suggests he come out to practice. The next morning. At 6 a.m. That's a nearly six-hour drive. And it's snowing, hard. But Rau doesn't hesitate. He jumps in his Volkswagen Golf.

"I drove through a blizzard in April. I almost died," said Rau.

It turns out the 6 a.m. practice was just a basketball game. The real practice, the one where he would be able to show his best wrestling to the Minnesota Storm coaches, was not until 3:30 p.m. Rau remembers that practice well.

"I was so tired I didn't have to think at all, I just wrestled. I had an unbelievable practice."

The coaches apparently thought so too. They presented him with team sweats and asked if he would wrestle for the Minnesota Storm. Rau's answer: "Heck yeah."

That story from 2013 shows the essence of Joe Rau. He's a guy with an unquenchable thirst to wrestle, a laser-focused direction and an openness to follow any and all opportunities that come his way.

Joe Rau talks to Minnesota Storm coach Dan Chandler at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)

Now he'll take that moxie to the Freestyle World Team Trials in Lincoln, Nebraska, this weekend. He'll compete at 86 kilograms after winning the Last Chance World Team Trials Qualifier in Rochester, Minnesota, in May.

That a wrestler who is one of the top Greco athletes in the country -- Rau just missed making the World Team, finishing second at the Greco trials -- would go to and win a freestyle qualifier might surprise some people, but not those who know Rau.

Joe Rau was a Division III national champion wrestler at Elmhurst College
"It didn't surprise me at all because Joe loves to wrestle," said Steve Marianetti, head wrestling coach at Elmhurst College and NCAA champion. "He loves it and he loves to compete."

In the finals of the Last Chance Qualifier Rau teched an NCAA Division I All-American. That didn't surprise Marianetti either. "Just because he's been focused on Greco that gives him some unique skill sets to go against some of these guys."

But going against the freestyle guys was more of a whim than a plan. He and Minnesota Storm teammate Hayden Zillmer, NCAA All-American from North Dakota State, decided only four or five days before the tournament to enter it.

"It really was just for fun and I had no pressure. As matches went on I started feeling more and more comfortable with freestyle again," said Rau.

Rau's first freestyle coach was Mike Powell, who coaches at Oak Park River Forest High School and is an NCAA All-American. Powell took notice of Rau when he lost to one of Powell's best high school wrestlers. "He was getting his butt kicked and he didn't give up," said Powell.

Rau remembers the match too. "He beat me up pretty bad. He beat me by 14 points, but I almost scored on him and I didn't get teched and Powell invited me to come wrestle Greco after the season."

According to Powell, Rau is "freakishly strong and he has great endurance. He has an incredible work ethic." But that doesn't mean success came easily or early for Rau.

Joe Rau during his youth wrestling days
Rau's been wrestling since he was 6 years old. He has a brother who is three years older and Rau remembers getting teased and trying to fight the older boys. His neighbor saw it and convinced Rau's parents to let him wrestle. That neighbor was eventually deported to his native Poland.

"I never saw him again until after I made the World Team when I was 22. I went out to visit him in Poland … I feel like I owe him a lot because he got me into this sport that's guided my life."

But don't think that life is all work. Rau is known for his playful side as well. He's even trying his hand at stand-up comedy. In true Rau fashion he only does stand-up when there's a lull in his wrestling schedule, but he's performed in the Twin Cities, Chicago and elsewhere.

One of his Minnesota Storm coaches, Olympic silver medalist Brandon Paulson, hasn't seen him perform because he's worried it might make Rau too nervous, but he said, "I might just have to sneak in one night."

Marianetti credits Rau with creating a culture at Elmhurst, one of serious training, but one where he and his teammates had fun and kept things light. Marianetti recalls a trip to Nashville for a competition. When they stopped at a gas station Rau came out of the store with a six-foot-long white tiger stuffed animal. Something Marianetti said Rau just had to have.

"That goofiness, that spontaneity, that randomness was so Joe," Marianetti said.

Powell calls Rau a "unique character" when it comes to his personality and a "self-made man" when it comes to his wrestling. And Rau agrees.

"It was all just me figuring it out for myself. I would go to the library and rent wrestling books and I'd read all the books they had on wrestling that Mike Chapman wrote or anybody that would write on technique or about wrestling or wrestling history." Along with seeking out knowledge he also sought out competition, anywhere he could find it.

Joe Rau gets interviewed by Shane Sparks after winning a title at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)

But there were naysayers. Those who thought all the time and money spent on wrestling was a waste.

"I've been told that over and over again. I've been laughed at over and over again and I had a lot of guys on teams that were better than me and they thought that it was funny how hard I tried."

But he kept trying. Now Rau, the sometimes-pudgy kid who didn't like to lose, the one-time Illinois state tournament qualifier, is among the country's best at Greco and freestyle.

And he'll show it to the naysayers and supporters alike in Lincoln. Marianetti has a prediction about how that will go.

"He's going to crush some dreams."

This story also appears in the June 9 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.

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