Rau, an Illinois native, competed collegiately at Elmhurst College and was a three-time All-American and NCAA Division III champion as a senior in 2013.
InterMat caught up with Rau.
You recently earned a silver medal at the Grand Prix Zagreb Open in Zagreb, Croatia. What did you take away from that event?
Joe Rau gets his hands locked on his opponent at the U.S. World Team Trials (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)Rau: It was a fun experience. I actually went to the tournament last year and won it at 80 kilos. So all of the Croatians sure thought it was funny that I was at 98 kilos this year. You know it is a smaller tournament, but a lot of tough competition still. Last year I wrestled some studs, wrestling the Belarusian who was silver medalist in the world in the finals. This year was kind of the same. I only had seven guys in my bracket, I believe, but it was some tough competition still. I started off with a comeback win against a pretty tough Hungarian. Then I had a rematch with a tough Polish guy and beat him at the last second again in the semis and then I lost to a big Czech Republic wrestler who is usually at 85 kilos in the finals. I lost 6-4. I blew a 4-0 lead which I was pretty upset about, but I got something out of it. From a technical standpoint I need to work more on clearing underhooks and repummeling. From a mental strategical standpoint, never stop working to score. It's something I already know, but tend to forget sometimes when I'm tired and in the lead.
What does your competition schedule look like leading up to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in April?
Rau: After competing in the Hungarian Grand Prix I come home, take a week off the mats, and then head to pre-Pan Ams camp at the OTC in Colorado Springs. At the end of the camp I will go to Texas to wrestle in the Pan American Olympic qualifier at the start of March. I have to finish in the top two at that tournament to qualify the U.S. for the Olympics at my weight class. So that is the main focus right now. Trials won't really matter until we get all of our weight classes qualified. Being the No. 1 guy in the U.S. won't qualify you for the Olympics unless someone at your weight class took top five in the previous World Championships at your weight class or a top-two finish at the Pan American Olympic qualifier. 75 kilos and 130 kilos are the only U.S. Greco weight classes qualified so far.
Joe Rau executed a throw on Caylor Williams at the U.S. Nationals (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)You have notched two wins over returning World team member Caylor Williams since November. What has been the key to beating Williams?
Rau: Well, I really think something that has been key has just been focusing on my own wrestling, not as much my weight or anyone else. Trying to get back to what makes me good. And trying to become technically better at Greco, which has definitely been a process.
You grew up in Illinois and wrestled collegiately in your home state at Elmhurst. What brought you to Minnesota?
Rau: Yeah and that was amazing. I had a great experience there at Elmhurst. And I cherish all my time in Illinois with my family and friends. What brought me to Minnesota was initially Jim Moulsoff, the head wrestling coach at Augsburg College. He approached me at the NCAA tournament my senior year knowing that I was looking to continue my wrestling career post-collegiately. He told me about the Minnesota Training Center and about what Coach Chandler, Brandon Paulson, and Jordan Holm had going on out there. One phone call and one visit to Minnesota later I was a part of the Minnesota Storm. It has been quite a ride since then.
What's the better Greco-Roman wrestling state, Minnesota or Illinois?
Rau: You are going to kill me for saying it, but when it comes to high school Greco, Illinois is better hands down. We have the recent Fargo and National Duals titles to prove that. Now college and senior level is a different story.
Several Minnesota Storm Greco-Roman wrestlers are ranked in the top 10 in their respective weight classes. How would you describe the training environment for Greco-Roman wrestlers at the Minnesota Training Center?
Rau: We are a pretty close group of teammates and we have a lot of fun, something rare, I think, at this level. Most of us have been around for the whole Olympic quad or at least most of it. The coaches are awesome. Brandon Paulson and Dan Chandler know their stuff. Coach Mike Houck has been coming in a lot lately as well, which has been great. Coach David Zuniga has jumped in the room and showed some stuff too, which has been a great addition. Minnesota has a lot of wrestling greats just in our backyard so I think we are powerful in our tradition and our numbers.
Jake Clark returned to competition after a three-year layoff and won a national title in December at 85 kilos. He's back training with the Minnesota Storm. What's it like having Clark in Minnesota?
Rau: Jake Clark is the man. Great dude and a great wrestler. It is really good to have him in the room. I think he has an unorthodox approach to wrestling and different stuff technically that he has mastered. It is not surprising to me that he won Senior Nationals, even with the three-year break. He has come in the room and wrestled with me ever since I joined the Storm whenever he was in town, and he's definitely still got it. He has never lost it. It's great having him back as a training partner.
Joe Rau gets his hand raised after winning the U.S. Nationals title (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)You have been a Fargo champion, NCAA Division III national champion, University Nationals champion, U.S. Open champion, World Team Trials champion, and won international events. When you reflect on your wrestling career, what wrestling achievement means the most to you?
Rau: That is really hard to answer. They all mean so much to me, all having their own crazy sub-journeys accumulating to make up my whole journey. When I look back at it, the craziest accomplishment of them all has been winning Fargo. I don't think a lot of that other stuff would have happened without winning Fargo. It was my first big breakthrough as a wrestler, and I proved to myself that day that I can be something.
Steve Marianetti is best known in the wrestling world for pulling one of the biggest upsets in NCAA wrestling history when he beat Lincoln McIlravy in the NCAA finals in 1995. What was it like wrestling for Marianetti?
Rau: Coach Marianetti is a legend. Wrestling for him was pretty amazing. He has a very different wrestling mind. Very analytical, very knowledgeable, and very laid back … something I always needed. I never knew it until I had a coach like that, but I respond way better to a laid back, positive, technically-driven coach. I don't always respond well to the big screamers who tend to only criticize negatively. It's hard being a coach. I know that from coaching myself. I am blown away more and more by his poise and knowledge of the sport the more I try to coach. He was a lot of fun to wrestle for, and he gave me a lot of control of my own career, yet was always there when I needed it. It was an empowering experience as a wrestler and a person.
What has Mike Powell meant to your wrestling career?
Rau: Just like Marianetti, Coach Powell changed me as a wrestler and as a human being forever. I always wanted it really bad and was constantly searching for ways to be successful, but until I met those guys it was somewhat aimless. Coach Powell taught me Greco-Roman wrestling, the sport that has taken me around the world. I'm forever grateful for that. He also taught me how to be more positive and to believe in myself. I think I was crippled by self-degradation and negativity as an athlete for most of my career … something that's hard to shake off even nowadays. He took me in as an outsider and taught me Greco in high school and then he continued to teach me things and mentor me throughout college and even now in my senior level career.
You've performed stand-up comedy. Is that something you still plan to continue with?
Rau: It's kind of a pipe dream, but I guess so. I don't always feel funny, and I'm not one of those guys who can be funny on command all of the time, but when I'm on a roll I think I can make anyone laugh. It is really hard to balance comedy and wrestling because the lifestyles kind of conflict with each other. Sitting at a bar or a comedy club until midnight or later waiting to tell some jokes doesn't mix well with the wrestling lifestyle of training and taking care of your body. I am kind of putting the performances on halt this Olympic year, but I am always writing and always joking around.
Do you ever work wrestling into your stand-up comedy?
Rau: Not really, but on wrestling trips and in practice I, of course, will joke around about wrestling a lot. I think it is a hard thing for non-wrestlers to relate to, but if you could effectively it has the potential for some hilarious jokes. I know Greg Warren does some funny wrestling stuff.
Do you get more nervous before doing a stand-up comedy performance or before wrestling a match?
Rau: They are both nerve-racking for me, but I think stand-up comedy. Wrestling is my world and even though I love comedy and like doing it, I haven't made it my world yet. I get really nervous with wrestling sometimes, but after wrestling in every tournament possible for the last 19 years, I think I am used to the atmosphere. I know how to perform under the pressure of a big tournament because I have put myself there over and over again. Plus, comedy isn't just going up and talking publicly to a bunch of people you don't know. You have to make them laugh. If you don't get laughs, it can be humiliating and kind of crushing. If you get laughs, it is just as rewarding as getting your hand raised. I think after many years of exposing myself to that, it will be just like wrestling.
You have competed in several different countries. Where is your favorite place to compete outside of the United States?
Rau: The traveling for me has been a dream come true in itself. I love going to new places. So I guess my favorite place to compete at is somewhere new. I love Europe a lot. I'm in Hungary for a tournament right now and it is definitely one of my favorite places. This is my fourth time wrestling in Hungary.
Joe Rau was an NCAA champion and multiple-time All-American at Elmhurst College in IllinoisAs a high school wrestler you failed to place in the Illinois state tournament. At that point did you still believe you could be a national champion in college?
Rau: I always had a little flame inside of me that believed that I could be a national champ, even through the hard times. I really put some logs and gasoline on that flame after winning Fargo and it hasn't gone out yet.
You made the U.S. World team at 80 kilos. Now you're competing at 98 kilos. What are some of the differences between the two weight classes?
Rau: Yeah, crazy, isn't it? I think stylistically there are some differences, most of which come to my advantage. Not as many guys at 98 make as many attempts to score. There aren't as many level changes and throws. So I am trying to bring that lighter guy feel to the big dogs and take it to them. Physically, I guess guys are stronger, but that doesn't make much of a difference for me. My body doesn't really like being this heavy, but I think that's just some growing pains.
What are your wrestling goals for 2016?
Rau: My goals are to be Hungarian Grand Prix champion, Pan Am Olympic qualifier champion, Olympian, Olympic medalist and Olympic champion.
This story also appears in the February 12 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.