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Upper Iowa's Decker motivated as ever at age 33

Justin Decker is gaining some attention as he completes his college wrestling career.

The 157-pounder for Upper Iowa University was the subject of a three-minute sports story on the ABC-TV affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa ... and a video for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Web site. He's the subject of discussions on online amateur wrestling forums. Publications outside the world of wrestling are writing about him.

Why all the attention? Right now, Decker has a 14-5 record this season, including five falls ... and his team, the UIU Peacocks, have jumped to sixth place in the January 22 NCAA Division II rankings from the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA).

But there's so much more to the story. Justin Decker is a dairy farmer, a husband, father of two (with a third on the way) ... and, now, at age 33, he's wrestling for Upper Iowa.

Not a mat neophyte

Just to be clear, Justin Decker is not a thirtysomething guy who recently decided to take up wrestling on a dare ... or as an item to cross off a bucket list.

Justin Decker
Decker wrestled at West Central High in Maynard, Iowa, compiling a 150-7 record. He was a four-time state qualifier, winning the Iowa high school state championship twice.

With those credentials, Decker then continued his wrestling career at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s, and was, in fact, the 158-pound starter for a time. Among his teammates: Joe Williams, Bill Zadick, Lincoln McIlravy, Jeff McGinness, Wes Hand, and Lee Fullhart. ("Some of the all-time Hawkeye greats," as Decker described them.)

Justin Decker left the Hawkeyes after nearly three years. "I was cutting a lot of weight, close to thirty pounds. I was doing a lot of extra-curricular activities -- too much partying. My grades suffered. I didn't have my priorities straight."

Decker returned home to northeastern Iowa, to his family's huge dairy farm, which has 600 cows and over 1,800 acres. He went to work at the farm with his dad and two of his brothers, and had nothing to do with wrestling for an entire year.

However, Justin Decker couldn't stay away from the sport he had been involved with since age 5. He got back into wrestling as a coach ... first, as head coach at his high school alma mater, West Central, for two years, then as an assistant coach at North Fayette High in West Union, Iowa for five seasons. Then, as Upper Iowa University head coach Heath Grimm put it, "We kept nibbling at him, and he eventually came here as an assistant coach for two years."

Then, with the encouragement of the Peacock coaches and wrestlers, Decker decided to step back onto the mat as a wrestler for the 2009-2010 season at age 33.

What brought him back to the mat

So, how can a guy in his early thirties get back into collegiate wrestling?

There are multiple aspects of that question. First, there's the issue of eligibility.

"In Division II, an athlete is eligible for four seasons of competition, for a total of ten semesters," according to Heath Grimm, who has coached the UIU Peacocks for a decade. "However, unlike D1, the semesters do not have to be consecutive ... Justin had one semester of eligibility left from his time at Iowa."

What sparked the dairy farmer/father/assistant coach to put on a singlet and enter intercollegiate competition for the first time in over a decade?

Heath Grimm
"He was more than holding his own with the senior class wrestlers in practice," said Grimm.

"He has a strong bond with the team, especially with the seniors. They respect him a lot as a wrestling coach, and, now as a teammate. He's right there in terms of training."

Coach Grimm disclosed one issue: "(Decker) has taken someone's spot -- a senior who was the starter at 157 -- but everyone on the team knows we always put our ten best out there."

"This was not a quick decision," Grimm continued. "He had talked about this four or five years ago, but the time seemed right, now."

"(Decker) talked about it last year, and announced it at our spring awards banquet. He did road work and some wrestling in the summer. Got in three to four months training before the season."

When asked what brought him back to being a wrestler, Justin Decker replied, "It was always in the back of my mind, but, for the longest time, I couldn't see myself wrestling anywhere other than at Iowa."

However, as an assistant coach at Upper Iowa, Decker started to see things differently. "I had been training in the room with middleweights. I remembered that I had some eligibility left ..."

"I love Upper Iowa. I think we have one of the top D2 programs in the country, and wanted to help contribute to our program's success." (The Peacocks placed fifth at the 2010 NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals. As of this writing, the team has a 9-1-0 record, the only loss being to Gannon at the National Duals.)

Head coach Heath Grimm concurred with that sentiment: "With our goal of being among the top four teams in Division II, he decided he wanted to step back onto the mat."

Another motivating factor for Justin Decker came from another former Iowa Hawkeye, Randy Lewis. In separate interviews, Decker and coach Grimm each mentioned that the 33-year-old dairy farmer/wrestler had attended the Northern Plains regional tournament -- a qualifying event for the U.S. World Team Trials -- in Waterloo last May. Lewis, a two-time NCAA champ at Iowa and 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, competed in the 163-pound freestyle bracket at that regional, about a month before his 50th birthday.

"It was cool to see Lewis do so well, after not having wrestled in years," said Decker. "He got so much attention, especially in his (semifinals) match against (Northern Iowa wrestler Moza) Fay. All action stopped on the other mats. Everyone had to see how Lewis would do."

Physical and mental aspects

When a wrestler returns to the mat after a long layoff -- whether it's Randy Lewis (who hadn't competed since the early 1990s), or Justin Decker -- questions arise. How can an athlete in his thirties or forties do well, especially in a tough sport such as wrestling?

Both coach Grimm and Justin Decker mentioned that, especially in international competition, wrestlers can continue to win titles well into their thirties, specifically citing Bruce Baumgartner and Alexander Karelin as prime examples.

"He's very resilient," said Grimm. "He's been wrestling with injuries, and still having success ... He has a 14-5 record right now, with two of those losses to D1 opponents. I think every one of his losses was attainable."

(Justin Decker's two Division I losses occurred at the 2009 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, vs. Thomas Scotton of the University of North Carolina, 3-2, and West Virginia's Ryan Goodman, 3-1.)

"As a former coach, (Decker) brings maturity to his wrestling. Mentally, he's stronger than ever. The anxieties of being a competitor have left ... During the season, there are highs and lows that can mess with the mental aspect for a young wrestler. He sees losses as building blocks."

"Physically, he looks great."

Justin Decker weighed in: "At my age, I have to be smart about it. I can't go through the grind a typical 22-year-old can."

"Realize too that I didn't train at all for 12 years. That makes things harder for me."

At this point of the interview, Decker described the differences in the two college programs where he's wrestled.

"At Iowa, you beat your body every day. You go at it with intensity, no let up ... At Upper Iowa, we train hard a couple days a week, mixing in a couple lighter days. It's still very demanding, but it works better for me where I am right now."

"There are some advantages for me mentally. I have more mental toughness. I'm less likely to beat myself up mentally, more able to put things in perspective. See the positives that can come from a loss."

"Wrestling is a series of highs and lows. With my experience, I'm more easily able to get through all that."

Decker also seems to take strength from his teammates.

"I've become something of a mentor to this team. Most of the guys have been jacked up about me being on the team ... I continue to learn something every day."

Now or never, no regrets

At this point of the conversation, Justin Decker became even more philosophical.

"It takes a bit of a toll on me -- class work, wrestling, my family, running the farm. Mentally, it has been tougher for me than I thought ... I'm glad that it is for just one semester."

"I count the days to the national tournament."

Then, Decker mentioned the challenges faced by significant others in his life.

"I've lost two best friends -- one in a plane crash, one in a car wreck. Dad has cancer ... I feel as motivated as ever. I want to make a difference. I don't want to have any regrets."

"I've gotten lots of support from guys in their thirties and forties, especially from guys who may have regrets, who may be wondering, ‘what if?'"

"I step out onto the mat to win," Decker continued. "I feel as if I'm in a position to win. I realize that if I don't bring it, I can get beat. There are no slouches in D2."

As Justin Decker told KCRG-TV sportscaster John Sears in an interview for the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, "You only live once. I'm 33 years old. I'm in an ideal situation. I just want to go through life without any regrets I guess."

Decker also told Sears that, for the first time in his life, wrestling is fun, and he still feels he can compete with the best in the country.

Don't bet against Decker. After all, another dairy farmer -- Rulon Gardner -- overcame considerable odds to beat Russia's Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Sydney Olympics to win the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Once he completes his on-the-mat career, Justin Decker plans to continue his coursework and eventually graduate ... and hopes to return to coaching, where he can provide a fresh perspective as a recent wrestler.

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