NCAA champion Darrion Caldwell back on the mat, hoping for chance to compete at World Team Trials
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Plenty has changed in the wrestling world since Darrion Caldwell last competed in a freestyle match.
The reigning NCAA champion from North Carolina State arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center last Saturday, but quickly learned that the rules are much different since he last wrestled a freestyle match following his senior year of high school.
Caldwell's life also has changed dramatically since he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Championships when he stunned Iowa's Brent Metcalf 11-6 in the 149-pound finals on March 21 in St. Louis.
Metcalf was a returning NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner. Caldwell was named Outstanding Wrestler of the 2009 NCAA tournament.
The much-anticipated Caldwell-Metcalf rematch could happen in just a couple of weeks.
Caldwell is practicing twice a day at the Olympic Training Center in hopes of competing in the U.S. World Team Trials on May 30-31 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Caldwell hasn't qualified for the Trials, but he has submitted a formal request for the one wild card spot that will be granted next week at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. USA Wrestling can select one wild card spot per weight class for the Trials in freestyle.
"My first goal in freestyle is to go into the World Team Trials and turn in a strong performance," Caldwell said. "I don't see any reason why I can't go in there and win it. That's the mindset you need to have."
Caldwell's landmark win over Metcalf certainly caught the attention of U.S. National Coach Zeke Jones, who invited Caldwell to train in Colorado Springs. Caldwell, who has one year of college eligibility left, plans to spend the summer training at the OTC.
"Darrion is pretty special," said Jones, looking out onto the mat as Caldwell warmed up early Thursday afternoon at the OTC. "He works real hard and he's a great kid. He's a great person and fits in real well with our guys. He obviously has tremendous potential."
Jones said Caldwell's skill set and explosiveness were on full display when he won the NCAA title.
"Darrion is suited for freestyle," Jones said. "He likes to wrestle in a forward motion and he explodes off the whistle where he can shoot in on a guy right away. He wrestles in all positions all the time. He's extremely athletic. In a six-minute match, he will be very good. In a four-minute match, he will be great. He has World class potential, but it has to be realized."
The lanky, 5-foot-10 Caldwell said he is asked "several times" each day about his stunning win over Metcalf, who rebounded to place second in the U.S. Nationals just three weeks after the NCAA meet.
Metcalf lost to Trent Paulson in the finals of the U.S. Nationals. With that win, Paulson has already secured a berth in the finals of the Trials.
The remaining qualifiers at 66 kilos will compete in a Challenge Tournament earlier in the day for the right to meet Paulson in the finals. Metcalf will be the No. 1 seed in the Challenge Tournament by virtue of placing second at the U.S. Nationals.
If Caldwell draws the 8 or 9 seed, he could meet Metcalf in a highly anticipated match in the quarterfinals of the World Team Trials.
"Folkstyle and freestyle are two different styles of wrestling," Caldwell said. "But I feel real confident in my ability if we happen to meet again. Metcalf is a great wrestler and a great competitor. He puts in the time and effort to be successful. I know he's very good in freestyle. I really like freestyle and I think I can be real successful in that style as well."
A couple of weeks before the 2009 NCAA tournament, Caldwell said his coaches had him watch tape of two of the biggest upsets in NCAA history - Larry Owings' stunning win over Dan Gable in the 1970 NCAA finals and Steve Marianetti's shocking win over Lincoln McIlravy in the 1995 NCAA finals.
"My coach, Carter Jordan, told me that my match could be very similar to those matches," Caldwell said. "I think that really helped prepare me for wrestling Metcalf in the finals. I think it inspired me and it showed me that it can be done."
Caldwell started to celebrate in the closing seconds of his 2009 NCAA finals match and Metcalf shoved Caldwell as he was trying to execute a celebratory backflip.
"I didn't even see him coming," Caldwell said. "I landed on my lower back. I'm just glad my head didn't hit the mat. He hit me pretty hard, but it happened so fast that I didn't really know what hit me at first.
"The whole thing, most definitely got blown out of proportion. We were just two great competitors out there and he wanted it just as bad as I did."
Caldwell said he wasn't trying to show up his opponent in the NCAA finals. He did a similar celebration when he won his third New Jersey state title as a prep senior. He is from Rahway, N.J.
"I was really excited about winning the match, I was just excited about being an NCAA champion," Caldwell said. "Who knows? I may never get that opportunity again, so I wanted to celebrate. I meant no disrespect to my opponent whatsoever."
Metcalf issued a public apology shortly after the match with Caldwell.
"Of course, I accept his apology," Caldwell said. "I never had any animosity built up against him at all for what happened. Everyone talks about the push, but Brent Metcalf said he was sorry and it's time to move on."
Caldwell's win snapped Metcalf's 69-match winning streak in college. Caldwell caught and pinned Metcalf the previous season with a spladle. That was Metcalf's only college loss before the 2009 NCAA finals.
Metcalf, who also has one year of college eligibility left, pounded Caldwell by technical fall in the all-star meet at the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
"I had a real good game plan," Caldwell said of his NCAA finals win. "I executed it almost perfectly. I didn't wrestle a perfect match, but everything worked out for me. I was so pumped up for that match that I couldn't be denied that day."
Caldwell, who placed fifth as a sophomore at the 2008 NCAAs, wrestled as a true freshman. He said he may take a redshirt season during the 2009-10 school year as he shifts his focus to freestyle wrestling.
The 21-year-old Caldwell is still adapting to the freestyle rules.
"The rules are a lot different from the college rules," Caldwell said. "I've learned a lot already and I still have a lot to learn. I have to be aware of the pushouts. I also like to roll around a lot and expose my back to the mat in college. I obviously will have to change that up in freestyle."
Caldwell is working with Jones along with USA Wrestling Assistant National Coaches Brandon Slay and Bill Zadick. Jones and Zadick won World titles in freestyle and Slay won an Olympic title.
"The coaching here is just tremendous - these guys are great," Caldwell said. "I am just like a sponge - I'm trying to absorb everything that the coaches are throwing my way. I love it out here."
Caldwell took a break from wrestling after the NCAAs and recently completed the school year at North Carolina State. He resumed training full-time this past weekend.
Caldwell also has said he hasn't ruled out pursuing his dream of playing football. He said he has run a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash "in the rain" and may try to play football at some point.
For now, his focus is on wrestling. Freestyle and folkstyle. He plans to return for his senior season at N.C. State and hopes to win his second NCAA title. But that quest may wait a year if he elects to redshirt next season.
No matter what he does, Caldwell obviously has a bright future ahead of him on the mat.
"I want to win another NCAA title and my ultimate goal is to win an Olympic gold medal," Caldwell said. "I realize I have a long way to go before I win the Olympics, but I think it's a realistic goal."