"Ice in His Veins" Yianni's Fight for No. 4

Four-time NCAA Champion Yianni Diakomihalis (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo;

The NCAA wrestling record books will show that Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis came for his final season in Ithaca, saw it through after a busy freestyle season, and he conquered the 149-pound NCAA championship bracket. Diakomihalis became the fifth wrestler in NCAA history to win four titles while he simultaneously emerged as the elite freestyle wrestler everyone knew he could be.

Reality will say that one of the sport's biggest names had to be as crafty and sly as ever to get to the finish line with labor-intensive wins over Iowa's Max Murin, Penn State's Shayne Van Ness and Ohio State's Sammy Sasso in the NCAA quarters, semis and finals. He also suffered the second and final loss of his remarkable college career to Wisconsin's Austin Gomez in November.

The book was out on Diakomihalis and opponents were better than ever at forcing him away from his strengths. Meanwhile, Yianni had spent the entire offseason training and competing in freestyle, rather than going through a traditional camp. It was an uphill climb from the start.

"I didn't give enough credit, I think, to the college wrestlers and the differences between the two," Diakomihalis said. "I kind of was like, 'You know what, I'll just keep really focusing on what I've got to do for these international guys, and that will kind of take care of everything.' And that's not really how things work.

"You've got to have very focused training. My focus was good, just not really in the right area. I guess to make a long story short, that stuff plays a role. It makes a difference when you're competing against high-level guys, whether it's college or internationally."

But when the dust all settled, Yianni had an unbelievable trump card in his ability to close out matches. He wasn't as crisp as he wanted to be in finishing off Murin in the quarterfinals, but he completed the job. Against Van Ness, Yianni took the gifted freshman's best shot and flipped the switch late for a six-point move and an 8-3 victory.

The title was a culmination of every lesson Yianni learned through his first three years of winning championships. The focus this time around shifted away from dominating opponents, many of whom were better prepared and engaged less. Yianni instead awaited his best scoring chances and converted them when they counted.

That's how it played out in Tulsa.

"It's hard to do and just speaks volumes to go from one style to the next, but also having to deal with the pressures and expectations that come with being the face of a program and being one of the faces of the sport," Cornell coach Mike Grey said. "He and Spencer [Lee], those guys had a lot to deal with. That's what kind of makes Yianni so special is the fact that he finds a way.

Yianni Diakomihalis in the 2023 NCAA finals (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo;

"Look at any of his big matches, right? Final X, he gets his hands locked and pushes Henderson out of bounds in the first match. He finds a way to get to Van Ness' legs and finish there. Meredith his freshman year. You feel like at some point, it's not just luck. He's got ice in his veins."

In a perfect world, sure, Diakomihalis wouldn't need to rally with his back against the wall. But that wasn't a reality for him during the NCAA season, and it likely won't be at most of the international events in his future, beginning with the Pan-American Championships in Argentina in May.

For a wrestler with a history of shining in tight moments, Yianni still found a way to get better in that area.

He was fortunate to have gained that experience in a winning effort at NCAAs. And while he earned each and every one of his four titles, Yianni also earned the outrageous privilege to sift through them and pick out a favorite. That one, by the way, was his freshman season when he went 37-1 and won a 141-pound title.

Where does No. 4 rank? Perhaps not high in terms of satisfaction, but it was the right one at the right time as Diakomihalis finally unleashes on freestyle full-time.

"It's definitely lower," Diakomihalis said of his title. "This year, kind of the big message from my coaches was, 'Listen, you don't need to blow the scoreboard open because these guys are just sitting on what you're doing. So if you can get one takedown, just to crack the guy open, now they have to come get you.' And I think that this year was very important for my patience.

"I think I developed a lot of different ways to score on a guy because I have this good left-handed single kind of knee pull motion and everybody all season is sitting on that," Diakomihalis said. "I had to develop offense and attack to the right side, get back to my arm drags and all sorts of stuff like that. This year was frustrating at times, but I needed that. I needed to develop those skills."

Diakomihalis was in rarified air before he even got his hand raised against Sasso to capture his fourth NCAA title. Few wrestlers in the history of college wrestling were as accomplished as he was on the international front while still closing out his collegiate career. And with that came a great big target and impossible expectations.

This was never going to be the year for Diakomihalis to blow the doors off the competition. But it was perhaps his best opportunity to be humbled by the sport for the next chapter and all the great big things he hopes to achieve. And whether it's at Pan-Ams, Final X or the Olympics in Paris in 2024, this season's lessons will stay with him.

None of it was easy, but Yianni grew through the struggle.

International stardom could be next.

"Yianni and our head RTC coach Frank Perrelli will just try to separate themselves now on the freestyle side," Grey said. "Nationally but also continue to be a force internationally, and ultimately chase down that Iranian [Rahman Amouzad] and get him when it counts."


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