Sam Hazewinkel loves the sport of wrestling as much as anybody on the planet.
But something changed last year.
Hazewinkel wasn't having as much fun. Practices were becoming monotonous. The fire and passion wasn't burning in him as much as it had been in the past.
"It was frustrating and depressing," Hazewinkel said. "I thought I was the best guy in my weight class, but I was second so many times in big tournaments. It was tough for me."
The fire is back now. The 25-year-old Hazewinkel has changed styles, switching from Greco-Roman to freestyle this season.
He's enjoyed immediate success this fall in freestyle competition at 55 kg/121 lbs. He won the Sunkist Kids International Open, placed second at the Hargobind International in Canada, and placed third at the New York AC International Open.
"You need to wrestle the style where you think you have the best chance of winning an Olympic title, and I feel like I have the best chance of doing that in freestyle right now," Hazewinkel said. "I've always liked doing freestyle and I'm really enjoying it right now. It's been great."
A move back to a place he calls home - Norman, Okla. - also has been a contributor to his success and renewed love for the sport this season.
Hazewinkel was a four-time All-American for the University of Oklahoma. He's back training in Norman and back helping out with the Sooners' college program.
He's also working with OU assistant coach Sammie Henson, a past World champion and Olympic silver medalist.
"Working with Sammie, I have a strategy and a game plan now," Hazewinkel said. "He's making me really think through how I wrestle a match. He's a great technician and he's taught me a lot. Sammie has really pushed me."
Henson is one of the World's top lightweight coaches in freestyle. He worked closely with his close friend Danny Felix last year when Felix made his first U.S. World Team at 55 kg/121 lbs.
"Sam Hazewinkel's a great competitor who I think can make a huge impact internationally in freestyle," Henson said. "He will definitely be in the mix to make the World Team in 2010. Sam's pretty athletic and his Greco background really helps him with these rules. He can hand fight, he can throw you, he's strong and he doesn't get pushed out of bounds.
"I think Sam's work ethic has changed. He's always been a hard worker, but we're pushing him even harder in practice now. We thought he would make an immediate impact when he switched back to freestyle, and he has done that. He just needs to keep working."
Hazewinkel also works closely with past OU standout Michael Lightner, a 2005 World Team member in freestyle.
"There is probably nobody faster than Lightner," Hazewinkel said. "He's great to train with."
Being back in Norman also has paid off for Hazewinkel.
"Absolutely, being back there is a great fit for me," he said. "This is home for me. I'm a lot more comfortable training here. It's been great, being back in this environment. I love it."
Hazewinkel's string of near-misses in Greco-Roman extend back to 2004 when he placed third at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. He placed second at the 2005 and 2006 U.S. World Team Trials before placing second behind Spenser Mango at the 2008 Olympic Trials.
He won U.S. Nationals in 2005 and 2007.
Hazewinkel dropped a heartbreaker to Mango in the semifinals of the 2009 World Team Trials in Greco-Roman. Trailing late in the match, Hazewinkel threw Mango to his back and nearly pinned him. Mango held on to win the match and went on to make the World Team.
"That match was real frustrating," Hazewinkel said. "I thought I did what I needed to do and I just didn't get the call. That match was one of the reasons I decided to switch to freestyle. Things just weren't going my way in Greco and it was time to make a change."
Hazewinkel said he hasn't ruled out returning to the Greco-Roman style down the road. His father, Dave, and uncle, Jim, both competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games in Greco-Roman.
"My goal has always been to make a World Team in Greco and freestyle," he said. "I think I can wrestle Greco a lot longer. If I'm going to make a freestyle team I need to make it soon. I will switch back to Greco at some point. I haven't made a World Team in Greco and I plan on doing that."
Hazewinkel hadn't competed in freestyle in two years when he won the Sunkist event this fall.
"My reactions were a little slower at first because I wasn't used to guys shooting on my legs after wrestling Greco," he said. "People were shooting and getting in on my legs before I could sprawl back. I'm learning from it and making good progress."
Hazewinkel plans to compete in tournaments in Russia and Cuba after the holidays. He also hopes to land a spot on the U.S. team for the World Cup in early March.
Hazewinkel dropped a tight three-period match to Junior World champion and 2009 European champion Nariman Israpilov of Russia during a dual meet last month in New York City.
Hazewinkel dropped the first period 5-0 before storming back to win the second period 3-1. The Russian then won the third period by virtue of criteria after it ended with the score even at 2-2.
"That match gives me a real good idea that I'm right there with some of the best guys in the World," Hazewinkel said. "I think I can beat the Russian. He outwrestled me that day, but I think I have a lot of room to grow. I'm looking forward to having another shot at wrestling him."