Dan Dennis at a team practice a week before competing in the 2016 Olympics (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Dan Dennis walks into Hi Fi Clyde's, an eclectic bar adorned with 1980's and '90's Americana situated on the south side of Chattanooga. It's late January and he's wearing a blue Columbia jacket and hat. Aside from his cauliflower ears you wouldn't recognize him as a wrestler. In fact, aside from the author, not a single person in the bar knows that he was an Olympian. He greets me with a combination of a hand slap followed by a bro' hug. The short exchange is enough to feel his compact strength. His back is broad, and his forearms are like Popeye.
We both place our drink orders and begin an exchange that starts with Dennis' short, rapid-fire questions and ends with my even-shorter responses.
"Have you been climbing recently?" Dennis asks. Dan introduced me to the sport of rock climbing a few months earlier and is checking on my progress. I report that some things have come up and I haven't been to the rock-climbing gym in a few days. You know? Life.
"Where are you at this week?" This is Dennis' way of asking from which office I will be working this week. Being employed by the world's largest candy company spreads my attention across many factories in the southeastern United States. It has also enabled me to become Dan Dennis' de facto Altoids® dealer. He pops them as often as Lincoln McIlravy popped boot scoots.
"Did you watch the Iowa-Ohio State dual meet? How good is Spencer Lee!?" he asks. Given Lee's dominance of the 125-pound division over the past two seasons I assume the question is rhetorical. So I don't bother answering it all.
Dan Dennis will know soon enough. He's returning to Iowa City to coach Lee and other top-level athletes as the head coach of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
The move comes with mixed emotions for Dennis, who will be leaving Chattanooga after three years in which he spent time running the Southeast Regional Training Center (CERTC) and serving as a volunteer assistant at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). He originally moved to Chattanooga because he liked the area.
"I did a camp here [in Chattanooga] three years ago and got my wallet stolen at a sports bar. It was an adventure (laughs). But it is a beautiful area. I like the [rock] climbing scene. I like smaller cities. It just made sense at the time."
During his three years in Chattanooga, Dennis became ubiquitous in the broader wrestling community. Besides his tireless work with the Southeast Regional Training Center and UTC, he also served as a mentor and coach to some of the area's top high school wrestling talent.
Trae McDaniel, with Dan Dennis, after becoming an All-American in Fargo
Trae McDaniel is one local wrestler who benefited from Dennis' presence. He met Dennis in the summer of 2018 while training for Fargo at the "The Barn," a 5,000 square foot training facility in Cleveland, Tennessee, owned by Shane Chittum (father of Cody Chittum of Blair Academy, ranked No. 11 nationally by InterMat at 138 pounds). When asked about his first encounter with Dennis, McDaniel said, "Dan is crazy! But he ran a perfect practice. He knows what he's doing."
In Fargo that year, McDaniel lost his opening match at 100 pounds and faced a daunting task: Win eight straight matches to become an All-American. He found a source of inspiration in Dan Dennis, who promised he would compete at next year's U.S. Open if McDaniel became an All-American.
The rest, as they say, is history. McDaniel rattled off eight straight wins to earn a seventh-place finish and become an All-American.
"Dan was the biggest motivator for me," says McDaniel. "You can see him screaming and clapping. Having someone in your corner like Dan is the biggest motivation."
Dennis honored his word and competed in the 2019 U.S. Open in the 132-pound weight class in the Greco Roman division. He went 1-1 before defaulting with an LCL injury but had fun with the whole experience.
"I was just hoping not to bust my knee or get thrown on my head!" Dennis says looking back on the event with zero hubris.
Dan Dennis defeated Franklin Gomez to reach the NCAA finals in 2010 (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
In his return to Iowa City, Dennis has the opportunity to work out in the same wrestling environment where he trained while competing for the Iowa Hawkeyes from 2006 to 2010. In 2008, RevWrestling (the parent company of InterMat) interviewed Dennis after he won the 132-pound freestyle title at University Nationals.
Asked to reflect on the interview 12 years later, Dennis says about his University Nationals title, "I said I knew I was going to win the tournament. I was full of shit. I was terrified. I was motivated to beat [Franklin] Gomez so I didn't have to wrestle [Alex] Tsirtsis. I was jacked up. I wanted to get off the mat as soon as possible. I looked good, but I just wanted to get off the mat. I was told if I lost in the finals, I had to wrestle a true-second type match against Tsirtsis and there is no way in hell I wanted to have an extra match against Tsirtsis. That was a big motivation. He was a freak in the wrestling room. I scored on him [only] four times. In five years [in the Iowa wrestling room]."
Asked about the rest of the interview, Dennis says, "I was just trying to say what I think I should have said. If I was more mature, those comments would have been more sincere. But it was just rhetoric."
Much has been made of Dennis' disappearance from competition from 2011 to 2014 while soul searching out west, and his meteoric rise from the figurative ashes to secure a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic freestyle team. This story and Dennis' wild man personality were portrayed in a 2018 documentary by FloWrestling.
"I just wish [the FloWrestling documentary] didn't have me swearing so much. It was fun. I just wish they didn't depict me as appearing so reckless," Dennis said recently while reflecting on the film.
The RevWrestling article from 2008 and subsequent documentaries following the 2016 Olympics paint very different pictures of Dan Dennis.
Will the real Dan Dennis please stand up?
The truth about Dan Dennis lies somewhere in the middle. Dennis is dedicated to his craft, but not a mindless Iowa wrestling robot. He is passionate about life, but not reckless. He may curse occasionally, but he is well spoken and well read. He passes out reading assignments like Robin Williams in "Dead Poet Society."
"This book summarizes my philosophy on coaching," he says passing along a copy of "Season of Life" by Jeffery Marx. The book tells the true story of a football community in Baltimore characterized by excellence on the field, brotherhood, and love and support from the coaching staff.
"You need to read this book," he says of the book "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. "[Future wife] Kirsti gave it to me. I read it during the time leading up to [the Olympics in] Rio." Dweck's book is an academic work of art in her field of psychology and the correlation between a growth-minded attitude, self-improvement and success.
The first time I met Dan was through Bruce McDaniel, Trae's father. As our first conversation unfolded, glimpses of Dennis' personality emerged. For example, he struggles with the morality of charging equal rates for private coaching lessons to the son of a local billionaire businessman and the son of a single mom just trying to scrape by each month to make ends meet.
"I just can't [charge the same amount of money]" he says, seemingly to himself, about the paradox of being consistent, earning a living, and doing what's morally right in his heart.
I tell him I'm part owner of InterMat and would love the opportunity to tell his story.
"I don't want it to be about me," he says, clarifying the terms of the potential story. "I would want it to be about the wrestling community in Chattanooga."
Over the following two and half years, Dan becomes a bigger part of my personal and professional life. He accepts my invitation to be an inspirational guest speaker at my work and in exchange gets the privilege of taking a tour of a candy factory.
As our interactions become more regular, I gain more insight into Dan's personal convictions and personality. Dan Dennis is extremely authentic. He has a warm smile and laughs genuinely deep from his gut. He is at the same time inclusive and intimate, which creates a paradox of feeling like you're just another fan and feeling like you just inadvertently befriended an Olympic wrestler.
Dennis's transition from one hotbed for amateur wrestling (Chattanooga) to an even hotter bed (Iowa) can be characterized macroscopically through the first two laws of thermodynamics. The first law relates to the conservation of energy: Energy cannot be created or destroyed. And so it goes with Dan's energy, enthusiasm, and contributions to the respective wrestling communities impacted: what Chattanooga loses, Iowa gains.
Shawn Cordell understands this give-and-take. He grew up the product of the Chattanooga wrestling community having won three individual state wrestling titles and five team titles while competing for Bradley Central High School (Cleveland, Tennessee). He would later go on to compete at Division I West Virginia and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before injuries plagued his collegiate career. Today, Cordell remains dialed into to the Chattanooga wrestling community as an assistant coach at his high school alma matter and occasional guest technician at The Barn. That's where he met Dennis in the spring of 2018.
"I met Dan because [Coach Josh] Bosken wanted me to come to The Barn. So I show up at The Barn and [Bosken] stops and asks me to show some knee pulls. I asked, 'Why are ya'll asking me to show knee pulls? You have Dan Dennis!' I started laughing. He liked it. And we started chatting. He's just a regular guy. His attitude is phenomenal."
Cordell and Dennis developed a friendship rooted in their passion for wrestling and building up the sport in the Chattanooga area. When asked about Dennis' departure from Chattanooga he said, "We lose the buzz about Dan. Being an Olympian. Iowa wrestling. The guy would go anywhere anyone asked him [to run a practice]. I think that's what will be missed the most. The guy never asked for money one time. That's the crazy thing."
The Iowa Hawkeye community that fostered Dennis' development in college and enabled his return to competition in 2015 will now benefit from his high-level coaching and passion for his athletes.
"Dan Dennis ranks high as a coach," Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands said in a press release. "He ranks high as a Hawkeye. And he ranks high in our locker room. He is the best choice for a lot of reasons starting with his popularity among our HWC athletes. There is always excitement with a new hire and there is a little more pizazz with this one. Dan Dennis is coming back to Iowa and we are fired up."
When asked about what excites him about taking the head coaching job with the Hawkeye wrestling program, Dennis says, "Absolutely everything! Looking forward to wrestling with [Spencer] Lee again. [Cory] Clark. [Austin] DeSanto. Wrestling these guys is a breath of fresh air. I'm looking forward to just sparring with the guys. Having fun."
Dan Dennis locks up a gut wrench on Tony Ramos at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
This time around, Dennis also faces the challenge of learning a new role within the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. Besides coaching high-level athletes, he wants to grow the Inner Circle, the team's booster club that provides exclusive privileges such as HWC gear and inside access information in exchange for financial support.
If the first law of thermodynamics describes the loss of one wrestling community and the gain of another, the second law explains the chaotic nature with which it is happening. Besides the global pandemic that has turned our world upside down, Dennis faces another life-changing event: becoming a father for the first time. Last month his wife, Kirsti, gave birth to their first child, Magnolia.
Dan Dennis and Jon HippsIn his return to the Midwest, Dennis gets the opportunity to raise his daughter with the love and support of family. His mother, Jane, lives just three and a half hours away by car in Ingleside, Illinois, while Kirsti's parents and siblings live another 10 minutes away in Antioch, Illinois.
Dennis conferred with me on his decision to accept the position with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. He wrestled with the arguments for and against leaving Chattanooga in favor of Iowa City. When he announced the decision he had made, I told him I was happy for him but sad to see a friend leave the Chattanooga area. He thanked me and asked if I would be willing to write a piece for InterMat. I told him it would be my honor.
I think I inadvertently befriended an Olympic wrestler.