Pat Smith lifts RaVaughn Perkins in the finals of the Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Greco-Roman wrestler Pat Smith competed at the 2017 World Championships in Paris, France, at 71 kilograms, going 1-1. Smith, who wrestled collegiately at the University of Minnesota, finished runner-up at the U.S. Open three straight years (2014-16) before winning his first U.S. Open title this year. He is also a two-time World Team Trials runner-up, Olympic Team Trials runner-up, three-time Pan American champion and University world silver medalist.
InterMat recently caught up with the 26-year-old Smith.
You had been knocking on the door for so many years. This year you broke through to make your first U.S. World team in Greco-Roman. Was it a sense of relief? Or what were the emotions when you earned a spot on the team?
Smith: It was maybe a little bit of relief, but more validation. I set my goals really high. If you're going to put everything into something, you might as well try to be the best. Not only was I second at the U.S. Open and Trials for a few years, I also took second in the state tournament and was a backup at Minnesota for so long. I really struggled breaking through. It was a good confidence builder.
Pat Smith fell to Nurgazy Asangulov of Kyrgyzstan at the World Championships (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
At the World Championships, you opened with a 5-0 shutout win over a wrestler from the Czech Republic. In your second match against a wrestler from Kyrgyzstan, you took an early lead before giving up a headlock late in the first period and eventually lost 8-2. What were your takeaways from the World Championships?
Smith: Overall, it was a great experience. It was good to get out there, get on the mat and get that first win. That was pretty big. That headlock in the second match really changed a lot of things. There were like four seconds left in the first period and I got a little out of position. That was pretty much the difference in the match. What I took away is that tiny mistakes make the difference at the highest level. It made me hungry for the next time.
I have heard you say you now believe now that you can wrestle with anybody in the world. What has made you believe that?
Smith: I'm starting to turn a corner. I'm starting to build the skills that I need to be able to execute in the right way to win at a high level in Greco-Roman. I don't feel like I'm guessing as much anymore. When I first started competing overseas it just kind of felt like they just knew so much more. Now I'm starting to feel the position. I know what they're looking for. I'm know what I'm looking for and where I need to be. It makes a big difference. Now I'm starting to get a good feel, but it has taken a couple years. It has taken a decent amount of exposure to international competition. It doesn't happen unless you get that feel.
Pat Smith (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
At the highest level, it's little things that can make a difference since the top wrestlers are not separated by much. What specifically do you need to improve upon to take that next leap from World Championships participant to world medalist or world champion?
Smith: I need to clean up a lot of those mistakes, little things like hip position even, leaving my hips out and letting guys step inside and get the big throws. I need to be shutting down the best in the world a little more. I also need to constantly build my skills and attacks. Putting multiple attacks together is going to be a big thing for me. Wrestling needs to be more fluid for me. I need to create more fluid action, and that's what I'm working on right now.
What has life been like since the World Championships in Paris? Did you take some time off from wrestling?
Smith: I had a lot of family that came out for the World Championships. I had quite a few friends come out as well, especially guys I don't see a whole lot. It was cool to see everybody in Paris. I had both my high school coaches there. My family and I went to Normandy after the tournament, which was a very surreal experience. We also went to Norway, and made quick trip to Sweden because I wanted to have my parents meet all the people that helped me out there when I was there last winter. It was cool because it was my mom's first time ever really leaving North America. My dad hadn't been to Europe in like 40 years. My brother was celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary. I took some time off the mat when I returned. Brandon Paulson wanted to make sure that I stayed off the mat, so I listened. I get scared that if I don't listen he's not going to tell me stuff anymore, and then I get really worried. I want his advice, so I have to listen.
Many of the top American Greco-Roman wrestlers have focused on Greco-Roman immediately after high school. You chose the path of Division I wrestling at the University of Minnesota. I know you have said you don't have any regrets with your decision. What was your experience like at the University of Minnesota?
Smith: It was a good growing up experience for me. I made some of the best friends I'll ever have on the wrestling team. That's a really cool thing about the University of Minnesota's wrestling program. There's this brotherhood that kind of stays with everybody, from the alumni all the way down to the guys competing on the team. There's a bond that has been created and it's largely in part because of the culture created by J Robinson. That's something you can't put a price tag on or trade for anything. I attended a major university and one of the best programs in the world. I trained with tough guys every single day, guys that were unbelievably motivated all the time and always challenging you to make you better. Those are guys I still talk with.
It was a good coming of age too. I didn't accomplish my goals. I came in and wanted to be an NCAA champ. I wanted to win an NCAA team title. I wanted to be the guy. It didn't happen. I felt like I was doing everything right. I think it was a big thing for me to really learn that sometimes A plus B doesn't always equal C. In life you're not guaranteed outcomes. But you work as hard as you can, do everything to the best you possibly can to give yourself the opportunity to create the outcomes that you want. You have to be OK with the fact that maybe it's not going to happen. No matter what I can walk away knowing I did everything in my power to make it happen. It's not going to change who I am as a person. I had to learn some hard lessons. It's more about being the best you can possibly be, not so much about where you're standing on the podium if you even get a chance. I was a lifer. I took a regular redshirt. I took an Olympic redshirt. I was on the team for six years. I definitely did my time and was ready to move on. I felt like I did everything I could.
Pat Smith talks with coaches Mike Houck and Brandon Paulson at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
You were successful in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman growing up. When did Greco-Roman become your preferred style?
Smith: I think it kind of happened when [Greco-Roman world champ] Mike Houck started coaching at my high school. He helped out a little bit my sophomore year, and we started working on some Greco stuff. Apparently, it didn't click too well because I went 0-2 in Fargo in Greco that year. It took me until my junior year to place in Fargo. I kept working with him and picked up some intricacies of pummeling and other aspects of Greco. I started to really love the battle. I've always been more of a brawler. I have heavy hands. I'm going to be in your face. I like the contact. I like the fight, the brawl. I felt like there were some strengths that I had that translated well. My junior year in high school I started noticing that I really liked Greco. I continued to wrestle Greco, and competed in my first U.S. Open my freshman year of college.
The biggest thing for me personally with Greco is I had just enough success in the right spots that it kept leading me toward that path. I saw continuous improvements. I was getting opportunities to wrestle at a higher level, and it was fun. I got to be a part of Team USA. I'm grateful the Minnesota Storm provided the opportunity for me to train and compete.
Wrestling has taken you all over the world. What has been your favorite place to wrestle?
Smith: It's been awesome. Wrestling takes you all over the world, but a lot of times it takes you to places most people will never go or think about going. My favorite place to wrestle is Iran hands down. It's like their NFL there. It's everything. They love it. When we went over there for the World Cup in 2014, they were crazy. It was held in this dungeon-like arena. No natural light. It was real dark. Those people chanted for like 48 straight hours. The bleachers were constantly shaking because these people were chanting and yelling and they had the drums going. They just love wrestling.
Pat Smith and Andy Bisek attended the same high school, Chaska (Minn.)
Andy Bisek is from the same high school as you, but five years older. What role has he played in your wrestling career?
Smith: I always knew Bisek when I was coming up. His senior year I was a seventh-grader on the team, and that was the first year I was really taking wrestling seriously and trying to put myself at a higher level. I was doing extra workouts and looking at the sport in a new way. He was the best guy on the team and a team captain. He took third at state that year and had a great season. He has always been somebody I've looked up to. When he went out to Northern Michigan and came back that first year, I was like, 'Holy crap, man, what happened to you?' He gained 20 bounds and was jacked all of a sudden. He kind of opened the door for me to see a higher level of wrestling and see that it was possible for someone from my school to do that. He would come back when I was in high school and coach in Fargo, and come in the room every time he was back in town. He has always been super supportive and encouraging, which I always appreciated. It's been great to see him have the success he had in the last quad because he stuck with it for so long. He is a super talented and hard-working guy. He found a way to make it happen. It was awesome to be his training partner when he won his first world medal, and then his training partner again when he won his second world medal, and just be around him throughout that whole process. I have always just tried to pick his brain. He's an awesome resource and has always been there for me.
You have talked about 2020 and wrestling at the Tokyo Olympics. How often does 2020 go through your head?
Smith: It's on my mind pretty much every day when I wake up directly or indirectly. Everything that I'm doing, all the decisions I'm making, center around wrestling and accomplishing my goals in wrestling because that's my top priority right now. 2020 always crosses my mind, whether I'm going to get a lift in or some kind of conditioning workout. The small, purposeful goals all lead into it.
You're currently competing in a non-Olympic weight class. It's in between the Olympic weight classes. Any idea if you will go up or down in 2020?
Smith: We're working through that right now. I'm kind of in an interesting spot. 71 or 72 kilograms is kind of a perfect weight class for me. For the Olympic year, I'll have the option of going 67 kilograms or 77 kilograms. Now there are different weigh-in procedures. So we're working through it. I'm going to try to figure it out. It's not a decision I have to make immediately, but it's definitely something that's on my mind.
This story also appears in the October 13 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.