Four years of intense training for Tommy Rowlands comes down to exactly eight minutes Sunday.
That's when the former Ohio State wrestler and current Buckeye assistant coach will face off with an as-yet undetermined foe in an eight-minute, best-of-three match in Las Vegas. The winner will represent the United States as a heavyweight freestyle wrestler at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in August.
For a wrestler who's already achieved so much – Rowlands won the 2002 and 2004 NCAA championships, is a World University Games champion and won the U.S. national title in April to vault himself into the Olympic trial final Sunday – a long-term dream comes down to one final match.
Rowlands' mind-set going in? The combination of confidence and humbleness one might expect from a top-seeded competitor.
"I'm very confident that I'm going to be in the Olympic Games, but to look past June 15 would be foolish," Rowlands said before a training session last week. "There are too many good wrestlers to start thinking about the gold medal entirely."
Whoever he faces should be a familiar foe. To win the U.S. freestyle title back in April, his final two opponents were Pat Cummins, the Penn State wrestler he defeated to win the 2004 Big Ten and national crowns, and Steve Mocco, a former Iowa grappler who Rowlands defeated in the 2002 NCAA final.
Rowlands described the situation between the longtime rivals as civil with mutual respect and admiration, but there will be no love lost come the fateful eight minutes this weekend. Whichever wrestler comes out of the mini-tournament held before the final will get to face Rowlands, who fit a variety of qualifications to advance straight to the final, with an Olympic bid on the line.
"I think no matter who comes out, we're all going well acquainted with each other," Rowlands said. "I just know that I'm prepared to be at my best, and whoever comes out of the mini-tournament is certainly going to be a motivated person."
To prepare for the finals, Rowlands has been training like a maniac. He said he gets in between 10 and 15 workouts per week, with the specific work based on where he is in relation to a competition.
When interviewed near the end of last week, Rowlands said his hard training days would soon be coming to an end as he tapered off before the trials. The morning of the interview was for conditioning work and running, although a hard workout was on the docket for the afternoon.
When he's actually training on the mat, Rowlands said the workouts last about an hour and 40 minutes, 80 to 90 percent of which is live wrestling. One workout includes him switching off between two sparring partners.
"The hard workout for me is I do 15 two-minute sessions with two people rotating on me, so one guy goes two minutes and then the other guy comes in and does two minutes and I stay in the middle," he said. "That's really hard."
And then there are the conditioning drills, which include more than running. He's been filmed on the university's official website sprinting up stairs in Ohio Stadium and carrying 100-pound medicine balls after workouts. Another drill has him carrying dumbbells while running on a treadmill. Those latter two are the brainchild of Ohio State assistant and noted freestyle coach Lou Rosselli.
The result is that the Hilliard native is at his peak when he needs to be.
"I'm wrestling the best I think I've ever wrestled," he said. "I peaked for the U.S. Open and then I took some time off and eased back into my training and then hit a really hard 20-day training cycle in May. I'm feeling the way I did last time. I'm ready to be at my best June 15."
Help From Many Places
There's a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but no corresponding old saw about what it takes to send an Olympian to the event.
Perhaps that should be changed.
Rowlands has had support from plenty of people in his quest to make the Olympics, not the least of which is his wife Elizabeth.
The former University of Kentucky soccer player has been tasked with dealing with Tommy's extended training time while keeping track of their now 17-month-old daughter Ellie.
"I did my taxes for last year and I was gone for 108 days, not counting Ohio State stuff," Rowlands said. "It's pretty taxing, but they're understanding and they're supportive. They're behind me 100 percent. It's stressful at times, but since I know how much they understand, how much they're behind me, it makes it tolerable."
Elizabeth was present at the training session last week and was keeping tabs on Ellie, who couldn't find a piece of equipment in Ohio State's wrestling room on which she didn't enjoy crawling.
"I think it's actually harder on him," Elizabeth said of Tommy's travel schedule. "I told him, in six months, Ellie will never know that he was ever gone because she's so young, but I have to send him pictures all the time when he's gone. I definitely think it's harder on him than it is on us."
"I feel like it's become one of my goals," she added. "I think about it at night before I go to bed and things like that. You get so nervous in the stands."
Then there are those who have taken time to work out with Rowlands, whether they be at a place like the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club in Phoenix, where Rowlands recently spent some time, or those who are in Columbus like former Buckeye Nickolai Timbs. When asked if the Timbs ever got the positive end of a confrontation with Rowlands, the Olympic candidate laughed and shook his head.
"I owe a lot to him just for taking some beatings from time to time," Rowlands said. "He's a great guy and I owe a lot of my success to his dependability and his ability to come in and work out whenever I need him. He comes in because he's a great person."
Then there's the support given to him by the Ohio State wrestling community in general. Rowlands was set to have to move away to continue his training before head coach Tom Ryan came along two seasons ago and installed both Rowlands and Rosselli as assistant coaches.
"I was going to have to move to the Olympic training center because I wanted to get a world-class freestyle environment," Rowlands said. "Tom Ryan brought in Lou Rosselli, who is one of the best freestyle coaches in the country, and enabled me to stay in my hometown, train in my hometown and coach the program that I love."
If all goes well Sunday, that commitment will lead to eight minutes that make the last four worth it.
"It's been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember," Rowlands said. "The last four years, it's been the total focus."