After Returning to PU Wrestling and Making History, Kolodzik Now Training For Spot in 2021 Olympics
EYEING THE OLYMPICS: Princeton University wrestling star Matt Kolodzik sizes up a Rutgers foe during a 2016 bout. Kolodzik, who completed his Princeton career this past winter by helping the Tigers win their first Ivy League title since 1986, was later named as a co-recipient, along with lacrosse superstar Michael Sowers, of the Roper Award, given to the top senior male athlete at the school. Kolodzik is turning his focus to making the U.S. team for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Last month, Kolodzik finished sixth in the 65-kilogram (143-pound) freestyle competition at the U.S. Senior Nationals in Iowa. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
As 2020 approached, Matt Kolodzik was focusing on making the U.S. wrestling squad for the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The Princeton University star had deferred his senior season with the Tigers to train with the NJRTC, a shared Regional Training Center between Rutgers and Princeton wrestling with the end goal to produce Olympians.
But with Princeton 149-pounder Matt D’Angelo getting injured and winning an NCAA individual title as another path to the Olympic Trials, Kolodzik returned to the mat for the Tigers and helped the program make history.
After winning by a technical fall over Andrew Garr of Columbia in his 2020 debut on February 8, Kolodzik came back the next day to defeat Hunter Richard 4-2 as Princeton edged Cornell 19-13 to end a 32-match losing streak to the Big Red and clinch the program’s first Ivy League title since 1986.
“Being on the bench with the team, there is nothing like it,” said Kolodzik, reflecting on the triumph over Cornell.
“We will be talking about that match for the next 45 years. It was a watershed moment for the program because we had been working so hard for so long to not just achieve that goal but many more milestones. It was validation that we were doing the right thing all along and all of this hard work that we have been putting in is propelling us in the direction that we want to go.”
But when the season ended in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the NCAA Championships were canceled, it felt like that hard work was for naught.
“There is no other way to say it, it is really disappointing,” said Kolodzik, who returned home to Bellbrook, Ohio, and took a two-month break from training.
“I am not the only kid who was devastated by that and I am still a little angry about it. It is kind of crushing, especially given the fact that the NCAAs are usually a week earlier. They pushed it back a week because that was the only time we could get the venue for NCAAs.”
Despite that disappointment, Kolodzik has no regrets about his Princeton career.
“I look back and I can’t imagine it having gone any other way even if I had made a different decision for my college choice or if I had chosen another major,” said Kolodzik, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major.
“Any sequence of events that would have happened would have steered me back to what ended up actually happening. I just feel that it was kind of fateful, just the whole experience has been nothing but positive. I am incredibly grateful for it.”
In late May, Kolodzik received an incredible honor as he was the co-recipient, along with lacrosse superstar Michael Sowers, of the Roper Award, given to the top senior male athlete at the school.
“I was extremely honored and extremely shocked, honestly, to even be considered for it,” said Kolodzik, the first four-time All-American in program history with a best finish of third at the NCAAs in 2018 at 149 and the fourth wrestler at Princeton to win three EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) titles and first since 1941.
“It was incredible. I sent him an email saying it is an honor to be sharing this with you. I know him because he is in the same eating club with me. I have seen him around but both of us have been in our routines. He is a very admirable kid.”
After his break during COVID quarantine, Kolodzik got back into his training routine in New Jersey, preparing for the U.S. Senior Nationals held in Coralville, Iowa in October.
“At the beginning of May, I came back and began training with NJRTC,” said Kolodzik, who lives in an apartment in Princeton near Palmer Square.
“It is a little bit different with NJRTC being a private club. We can’t get into the Princeton room so we have been working out at a local club. It is pretty much the NJRTC guys so it is bubble style training. It sucks that you can’t wrestle other kids as much as you would like but it is good to be training. I am pretty fortunate in the sense that my coach, Reece Humphrey, is a three-time world team member and he is at my weight. He knows exactly what I need; he has been great.”
While things didn’t go great at the nationals for Kolodzik as he finished sixth in the 65-kilogram (143-pound) freestyle class, he came away from the competition with some valuable lessons.
“I feel like I underperformed, there are a few reasons for that but at the end of the day it comes back to re-evaluating my wrestling and also re-evaluating how I go into matches mentally,” said Kolodzik.
“There is a lot of interplay between being tough and being technical. Sometimes, if you think a little too much in a match and get a little too technical then you can lose that aspect of toughness. So it is just staying tough and getting your mind in a frame where you don’t know how you are going to do it but you are going to do it. That is more key than anything else.”
Just getting to wrestle again after the COVID cancellations was key for Kolodzik and the other competitors.
“I think everybody was thrilled to be back on the mat, obviously there were precautions,” said Kolodzik.
“It was an extremely well-run tournament, you had to wear your mask when you weren’t wrestling. They wouldn’t let you on the mat before the match before you finished. They had this gigantic warm up area that was very, very spread out. I have never had half a mat to warm up on at a wrestling meet, usually it is just packed. I was thrilled. They were cleaning things. It is a little bit weird, the ref doesn’t raise your hand after the match but it was very well done. I haven’t heard of anybody getting sick. Me and the rest of teammates got tested after the tournament.”
While the date for the U.S. Olympic Trials has not been set in the wake of the Summer Olympics having been rescheduled for next July, Kolodzik is currently immersed in his NJRTC program.
“We are having practice at 9 a.m. every morning and then in the evening we will do technique or film,” said Kolodzik, who competed in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s Showdown Open in Coralville on November 1, falling 7-2 to Iowa star Pat Lugo in the freestyle exhibition event. “Usually I get a lift in once or twice a week.”
As 2021 approaches, Kolodzik knows he has to lift his game to earn a trip to Tokyo.
“I talked with Reece after the nationals, it was a long, hard tournament,” said Kolodzik, who had seven matches at the competition.
“One of the things that struck me was in college if you want to get a set up for a certain shot or a certain move, if you have enough willpower usually you can go ahead and get it. At the higher level, there are guys who won’t let you have the move that you want so you have to make adjustments. You have to say fine, I am going to shoot something else. I am going to score on another attack that I might go to. That was definitely a wakeup call. When you get up to the higher level, guys realize that ‘oh he wants my left arm so I am not going to give him my left arm.’ It is that simple, so you have to make adjustments.”