Cheney Haight makes strong comeback after reviving his Olympic dream

By Joe Mehling, USA Wrestling | March 03, 2016, 9:07 p.m. (ET)
Cheney Haight battles in the 2016 U.S. Open finals. Photo by John Sachs,

2011 World Team member Cheney Haight has had his share of peaks and valleys in his wrestling career. He has been on the edge of the summit in the sport and has fallen down the mountain entirely.

The Orem, Utah native advanced to the finals of the 2008 Olympic Trials at 74 kg/163 lbs. where he ran into five-time World Team member T.C. Dantzler and was defeated in a best-of-three series.

“Those losses hurt,” Haight said. “I was young though. I thought I could come back.”

Haight did bounce back for another run at the 2012 Olympic Team. He won the 2010 U.S. Open and made the 2011 World Team after defeating Jordan Holm 2-1 in a best-of-three series. Haight seemed poised for a spot on the team in London.

Then it all came unraveled.

Haight struggled mightily in 2012 and began to feel as though he had given all he had to the sport.

“I was burnt out,” Haight said. “I was burned out from the lifestyle and I was burned out from the training. I was burned out financially. I never had any money. I was training my butt off and had a great year in 2011 but just fell off in 2012. I didn’t think I had it in me to train another four years. I thought that was a good time to call it quits.”

Haight retired from the sport of wrestling in 2012. He began to work for his college coach at the Northern Michigan USOE, Ivan Ivanov, at Suples Training Systems, selling wrestling training supplies such as dummies and Bulgarian balls.

For two-and-a-half years, Haight sold wrestling supplies to athletes training to become Olympians. He may have retired from competition but he never left the sport entirely. He was constantly surrounded by it, working for Ivanov.

Gradually, the fire and desire for competition returned. Thoughts of a comeback began to roll around in his head. After talking with his wife, Haight began to train again.

“I realized talking with my wife that I missed wrestling,” Haight said. “2016 is probably my last chance at the Olympic Team.”

Haight returned to competition in 2014 and made his comeback known to others with an impressive third place finish at Bill Farrell in his first international tournament in over two years.

The momentum continued into 2015 with another bronze at the Bill Farrell and then a third place finish at the U.S. Open. In 2016, Haight took a major step back towards his Olympic dream as he took home the gold medal at the Pan American Championships last weekend.

“It was a good tournament for me,” Haight said. “It was perfect timing for me because I got to get in some matches and now I have enough time to get into a training cycle for Trials. I had never won Pan American’s before, so it was good to go and represent my country and get the win. Winning is a just a huge mental monster in this sport. It helps get your mind right at this stage.

“My perspective on wrestling and just life has changed,” Haight said. “I realized how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. There is a precious time in your life when you can do this. I am not an old guy in the outside world, but for an athlete I am writing my last chapter. That perspective made me realize how lucky I am. I am enjoying it every day.”

U.S. Greco-Roman National Coach Matt Lindland has noticed a different level of intensity in Haight since his return.

“I see a very intense focus in Cheney,” Lindland said. “Cheney is an incredible fighter. He exemplifies what the U.S. Greco program is all about. We fight, attack and take some risks. Cheney is more technical than our up-and-coming guys, who are great fighters as well, but Cheney understands the sport.”

Now the acting ‘old man’ in the room, Haight has enjoyed his time with the younger wrestlers and remembers when he was one of the raw guys trying to make a name for himself.

“When I was younger, the ‘old guys’ in the room were older than I am now,” Haight said. “The guys I was competing against were the same guys I was looked up to as a kid, the Keith Sieracki’s and the T.C. Dantzlers of the world. There used to be a bunch of guys over 30 in that room. Now it is fun to watch these young guys. They are so competitive and raw. They have so much potential. I tease them around a little bit. It’s a great atmosphere in the room.”

Lindland enjoys having Haight in the wrestling room at the Olympic Training Center to show the younger guys the effort that it takes to reach this level.

“Cheney is a great leader,” Lindland said. “He helps our young guys and does whatever is asked of him. He is a team guy. He is going to help us out in any situation.”

With age and experience comes wisdom, and Haight has formed a plan for success that he believes will carry him to Rio de Janeiro in August.

“For me, it’s all about consistently getting better,” Haight said. “I want to come into practice and leave a little a bit better each time. I don’t want to conquer the world every day but I don’t just want to go through the motions. I want to leave knowing I improved each day.”

Haight’s journey to the 2016 Olympic Trials is a little bit different than the other wrestlers competing at Iowa City in April. However, he has been to this stage before. He has been to the edge before and he is thinking about even higher peaks for his one last run.

“When your growing up, you don’t just dream about making the team, you dream about winning that gold medal,” Haight said. “That’s why I am back now. I want another shot. Win or lose, I want to be able to tell myself I gave it all I had.”