Jordan Oliver gets in on a shot against Joey McKenna at Senior Nationals (Photos/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Peak, when used as an intransitive verb, means to reach a maximum as of capacity, value or activity. In athletics, the word is often used as part of the phrase "peaking at the right time." The theory is that you need to be at your very best when it matters the most. Competition on the international level is so intense that any variation in an athlete's form or condition could have a great impact on the result.
One could make a credible case that Jordan Oliver was nearing his peak before the global pandemic forced a halt to virtually all athletic competition. Last November he won four matches at the Bill Farrell tournament to qualify for the Olympic Team Trials. Despite already winning a spot, he returned the following month and ran through the Senior Nationals. He outscored his five opponents by a combined 50-0 score. Oliver then traveled to Rome where he took silver in the Matteo Pellicone, only dropping a close match against multiple-time world medalist Bajrang Punia.
The quest to return to peak form begins on Sunday in the main event of Rumble on the Rooftop. Oliver will take on three-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf in an open-weight match. When you ask him about returning to peak form after being halting during perhaps one of the best runs of his freestyle career, he answers without any hesitation.
"One thing I always say to people, and I learned it from Coach [John] Smith, and I've held it with me this whole time, peaking is a mind state," he explains. "It is a state of mind. It is when you feel your best. Maybe it is because you are cooling off in your training or competition is getting close. You're feeling that excitement, and then all the sudden, you want to turn it into peaking. Yes, you feel great. You're doing the right things, but I think if you are consistently doing the right things and executing and making every right decision on an everyday basis, I think you can be constantly improving. What we saw before is that I put myself in a position down here at UNC with Coleman Scott, Tony Ramos and obviously my coach Kenny Monday, I put myself in a position to go make this team and not just make the team but to go win the Olympic gold."
Winning the Trials will not be enough for Oliver to make the Olympic Games. The U.S. as a country still needs to qualify the 65-kilogram weight class. One of Oliver's rivals, Zain Retherford, came up short in the Pan American Qualifier back in March. The U.S. will likely send the winner of the Trials to the final World Qualifier tentatively scheduled for next April.
"It is always tough," Oliver says about watching Retherford attempt to qualify the weight. "At the end of the day, you have to sit back and look at it from an outside perspective. I did not get the job done for me to go and qualify the weight. Zain earned the right as he beat me, Yianni and all the guys to earn that spot to go qualify the weight. It is wrestling. People get caught. Things happen with this sport. Any given day anything can happen. With that being said, I think Zain was more than prepared to qualify it and he was qualified to qualify it. He just got caught in a position that did not turn out the best. It is hard sitting back, because you always want to put the responsibility in your hands. It goes to the old saying, if you want something done, do it yourself. In that aspect, I should have made the team last year if I wanted the chance to qualify the weight so in a sense, it is a little bit my fault as well."
The process of qualifying the weight class following the Trials adds an element of difficulty that most other members of the team will not have to face. However, Oliver will be able to rely on the experience of one of his coaches. In 2012, 60 kilograms was not qualified and the schedule of the Trials resulted in an odd process that involved Coleman Scott wrestling at the Trials and Shawn Bunch qualifying the weight at a qualifier tournament. Scott eventually defeated Reece Humphrey and Bunch to earn the right to travel to London and eventually bring home a bronze medal. That journey could act as a guide to Oliver.
"We took an approach of going back and looking when Coleman was successful on his bronze-medal run," Oliver says. "If you look at the scenarios, they are very similar to what I am going through right now. His weight wasn't qualified, and he had a very tough weight class. He had to go qualify the weight at the last chance qualifier, and Coleman had a crazy wrestle-off situation. Then he went and got the bronze. Looking at the scenario, I think we just keep getting better. I think the more time shows what we are doing is working. So for us, it is really let's improve and let's go compete to see where we need to improve. Competition, as everyone knows, is different from the training room. When you get out there, there is nothing like it. You gotta make weight, you are coming off the mat, you have fans around you, you have refs, you have a bunch of chaos going on all around with the noise and the crowd."
Even if 65 kilograms remains unqualified for the Olympics, it is quickly becoming one of the most competitive weight classes domestically. Retherford won the spot of the 2019 World Team, but Yianni Diakomihalis has also stood out at this weight. If Oliver wants to make the team, he will likely have to get past one, if not both, of these competitors. Despite this, he sees someone else as his biggest rival.
"I think it is me versus me to be honest," he says succinctly. "Don't get me wrong, Zain, Yianni, McKenna, even going down the list, Meredith, Henderson, all those guys are great. I believe all those guys are incredible talents. They are all very good at what they do. I think for me to be successful I have to be the best version of Jordan Oliver and not worry about what my competition is doing or who is across the line. I have to wrestle my style better than anybody else wrestles their style, and I believe that is going to get the job done for me. I don't like to read into what these guys are doing as much as what I am doing and what I do best. Biggest competition for me domestically, obviously you've got Zain and you've got Yianni. Those guys bring two different games to the mat. Yianni is very, very different, he scrambles, creates scrambles. Zain is very much pressure and hands in your face. Those two are obviously the front runners, but 65 is a loaded weight class so you can't ever count anybody out, but there is too much time to work on myself in training to not be focused on what I need to do better and where I need to improve, so like I said, it is me versus me."
Before he turns his focus entirely to the Olympic Team Trials, Oliver will face off against Nolf this weekend. Due to the weight difference it certainly qualifies as a dream match, but it is actually going to happen. On top of that, the differences in styles will likely result in an exciting and intriguing bout.
"You might not ever get a chance to see Jason Nolf and Jordan Oliver get to wrestle in a tournament just because of the weight classes." Oliver says. " I am a 65-kilogram wrestler and Nolf was wrestling 79 kilograms last year. I think we came to a gentleman's agreement that it is for the fans, but it is for us too. We are competitors, and we want to put ourselves against the best guys to test ourselves and also have fun doing what we love. Me and Nolf agreed that we are around the same weight, so we don't need to weigh in. People want to see the match, we both love to compete against another high-level competitor, and we are both very very offensive. It should be a very fun and entertaining match with attacks and scoring. It interested me, because again I never got to wrestle Jason Nolf but I have always watched him and he is awesome. He is a very creative and crafty wrestler and I have always had respect for him. He was one of my favorites to watch when he was in college. It will be fun to mix it up with him and dance with him all around the mat."