Tyler Graff after beating Joe Colon at Final X (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
Six-year-old Tyler Graff walked into a wrestling clinic and all he saw was gold.
A wide-eyed Graff listened intently as Kevin Jackson shared his inspirational story with young wrestlers in Fort Collins, Colorado.
And then Jackson reached into a bag and pulled out something shiny.
His Olympic gold medal and his two gold medals from the World Championships.
"If you work hard," Jackson said, "you can achieve your dreams."
Graff was paying close attention.
"Ever since that day," Graff said, "I've wanted to become a world and Olympic champion."
Now nearly a quarter of a century later, Graff finally has his opportunity to achieve one of his goals.
He will compete for the United States at his first Senior World Championships next month in Kazakhstan.
Graff will wrestle for Team USA at 61 kilograms for the strong American freestyle team.
"I've always had the desire to be the best wrestler in the world - that never changed," Graff said. "I just had faith and I believed that I needed to keep working. I kept everything in perspective and it finally happened. It was a very rewarding feeling to take the next step. All the time I put in and all the years I've wrestled, it was well worth it when I made the World Team."
Graff just turned 30, but he's no stranger to having success. He made two Junior world teams and a University world team. He was an NCAA finalist at Wisconsin.
And he's excelled on the Senior level. He's won championships at nine international tournaments.
Graff earned two wins over returning world bronze medalist Joe Colon earlier this summer to make his first U.S. World Team.
Colon is ranked No. 2 in the world behind returning world champion Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez of Cuba.
Colon knocked off Rodriguez earlier this year before falling to Graff in the Final X event that determined the U.S. World Team.
"We've had some battles," Graff said of Colon. "Joe is obviously a good wrestler and we've had some good matches. I just had to execute and wrestle like I was capable."
Tyler Graff at the Final X press conference (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
Graff also has benefited from a change of scenery. He started working with a new coach, past World Team member Reece Humphrey, at the New Jersey Regional Training Center.
"I started working with Reece in April and he's done a lot to help me," Graff said. "He's a great coach. The guy is awesome. He is a huge motivator for everybody he comes across. He can work with all different styles and personalities. He can adapt his coaching to whatever style I wrestle.
"I am able to wrestle with him and train with him. If he really wanted to compete, he still could. He pushes us all in the room and it's been great having him to coach me and train with."
Graff is coming off a bronze-medal finish earlier this month at the Medved International in Minsk, Belarus.
Graff fell to Russia's Artyom Gebekov 7-0 in his first bout before downing Turkey's Emrah Ormanoglu 3-0 and North Macedonia's Vladimir Egorov 5-0.
"When I wrestled the Russian, I was in deep on several shots," Graff said. "I had the leg lifted, but I wasn't able to finish for the takedown. I knew there were things I could do to capitalize. I need to make adjustments. I need to be able to convert and finish for takedowns. That tournament is something I can definitely learn from and build off.
"I was able to come back and was able to win a couple of matches. I made some adjustments. I feel like I keep making gains and I keep progressing. Both of those guys I beat had close matches with the Russian. They were good opponents."
Humphrey came away encouraged by Graff's performance.
"Tyler wrestled great," Humphrey said. "The Russian was a good opponent for him. Tyler was in on the guy's leg six times, but he wasn't able to finish. He came back strong and dominated his next two matches on the backside.
"I am excited to see what Tyler is capable of doing at the World Championships. He is doing a great job attacking with his offense - he just needs to work on finishing to score the takedown. I know he can correct that."
Humphrey said Graff is capable of making a strong run in Kazakhstan.
"Tyler beat Joe Colon and Colon was a returning world medalist who beat the Cuban who won Worlds last year," Humphrey said. "We know Tyler is right in there. He's always been a scrapper. He's been improving in so many areas. He needs to finish his shots better. His down blocking and his defense have improved. He has elevated his game. He's always been a grinder and always been really tough. He has that will to win. He absolutely has the capability to win a medal at the World Championships."
Graff knows the Olympic Games are right around the corner, but he hasn't given much thought to it.
He competes in the non-Olympic weight class of 61 kilograms, and would have to either drop down to 57 kilograms or move up to 65 kilograms in one of those Olympic classes.
"My plan is to 100 percent focus on this World Championships," he said. "As soon as the Worlds are complete, I will take that task on. For now, I am completely locked in on getting ready for the Worlds."
Humphrey said Graff has been enjoyable to work with.
"I think Tyler's in a place where he's comfortable now," Humphrey said. "For whatever reason, we have really clicked and he's made a big jump since he came here. He has a team he trusts. He's made some big jumps mentally. And he's improved technically. It's his time."
Graff was a top contender at 57 kilograms at the 2017 U.S. World Team Trials before losing a close match to Thomas Gilman, who went on to earn a silver medal at the World Championships in Paris. Gilman beat Graff on criteria after their quarterfinal match ended in a 1-1 deadlock at the 2017 Trials.
Graff is now part of a loaded American World Team led by Olympic and world champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder.
"It's awesome to be around those guys on the U.S. team," he said. "It's surreal. There are some tremendous wrestlers and great people on this team. Being around those guys and working with them, it's been great and it's been fun. Some of them have done it multiple times and been the best in the world on numerous occasions. I pick their brains and ask them questions. I see the way they train and how they approach it. It's the best room in the world when we're at a camp together."
Tyler Graff works to finish a takedown on Earl Hall at the U.S. Open (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Graff said he was watching from home when Snyder earned a dramatic win over Olympic and world champion Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Russia to give the U.S. the men's freestyle team title in 2017.
"It's great to have an opportunity to be on a team that can contend for the title," Graff said. "It was awesome when the U.S. won in 2017 - we want to win it again. Everybody is focused on getting the best out of each other. By approaching it that way, that helps everybody perform their best.
"When Snyder beat Sadulaev to give the U.S. the team title, I was really excited for Kyle and for the team. It was awesome to see them do it. I was happy for those guys. I went and worked out right after that because I was so inspired."
One of the American freestyle coaches on the U.S. freestyle team is Jackson, the wrestler who inspired Graff 24 years ago at that Colorado clinic.
"I am excited to compete at the World Championships," Graff said. "I need to make every day count as I prepare for this tournament. I know what I need to do, I just need to go out there and execute.
"Every time I step on the mat, I have high expectations and goals. I've had some setbacks in my career, but I wouldn't be where I am today without all of the lessons that I've learned. I've worked a long time for this opportunity and I'm going to make sure I'm ready."
Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.