By the time Pat Smith, ‘17 MA-HRIR, stepped onto the mat in Iowa City, Iowa, for his shot at the 2016 Olympics, the Minnesota-born-and-raised wrestler had already endured his share of heartbreak in his beloved sport.
There was the college career that didn’t reach the heights he had hoped. And the second-place finish at the 2014 World Team Trials that left him one win short of a spot on the United States team for that year’s World Championships. And yet another finals loss at the 2015 World Team Trials.
So it would have been entirely understandable if Smith had left Carver-Hawkeye Arena that April night—after one more agonizing finals defeat, this one with a Rio Olympics berth on the line, with a one-match lead slipping away, with a referee’s judgment call playing a role—and simply walked away from wrestling. In the short term, he and his brother had talked about training for an Ironman triathlon together. Longer term, he had a business career to build and a body, mind, and spirit to rest.
But then, this is what has carried the 26-year-old through setbacks on the mat, through a demanding gauntlet of wrestling, work, and master’s schooling, and to this month’s World Championships in Paris: He just keeps going.
“He’s a grinder,” says Smith’s brother and childhood coach, Zach McGillis, ’02 BSB, ’09 MBA. “He has an ability to push himself beyond what other people can.”
Smith will make his debut on the world stage August 21 in the 71-kilogram weight class of the Greco-Roman division, having finally broken through at the World Team Trials in April—a month before he graduated from the Carlson School Master of Arts in Human Resources & Industrial Relations Program.
“I’ve put a lot of work into the sport, so just to have the opportunity to represent our country in the World Championships is validating,” he says.
Learning hard lessons
Smith has had his eye on international competition since taking a redshirt in the middle of his college wrestling career at the University of Minnesota to try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. By his own admission, his time as a Golden Gopher, during which he compiled a 57-32 competitive record, didn’t include the level of success he expected. But he says it prepared him for confronting setbacks, taught him tough lessons (for one: “not everything’s transactional”), and forced him to fundamentally examine why he continued to wrestle.
“It’s a really good avenue for me for personal growth, and it’s an environment where I’m constantly vulnerable and it holds me accountable for everything that I’m doing,” he says. “I have nowhere to hide.”
He references a quote by Vietnam War fighter pilot and prisoner of war James Stockdale from James C. Collins’ famed business book Good to Great: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
That mentality might explain how Smith has persevered through his near misses, including last year’s Olympic Trials loss. After winning the first match in the best-of-three format, he led in the second with about a minute to go before being whistled for a caution point—he was deemed to be fleeing the mat—and losing on a tiebreaker. He lost decisively in the third match, ending his Rio dreams.
“That hurt,” he says. “I felt like I was wrestling great and did all the right things, but … it’s really important to evaluate exactly where you’re at, no matter the circumstances. … I wasn’t at the level that I needed to be to win that medal, because if I was, it wouldn’t have mattered what the ref did or what [my opponent] did or anything like that; I would have been able to score points and capitalize on any situation, because that’s what it means to be the best in the world.”
A new approach with competing demands
An objective self-evaluation led Smith to make slight adjustments to his approach on the mat. He wanted to retain his high-paced, incessant style—Timothy Hands of the wrestling website Five Point Move once wrote that Smith “wrestles as if he and his opponent are locked in a phone booth while being swept away by a tornado”—while improving his technique to score more points.
He’s twice traveled to Hungary to train with the group that won the Greco-Roman team title at the European Senior Wrestling Championships. He also crafted his International Experience for the MA-HRIR Program—with the help of Carlson Global Institute Education Abroad Program Manager Kate Terry—to allow him to train with the Swedish national team while taking classes at the Stockholm School of Economics for 10 weeks earlier this year.
“They kind of took me in as one of their own,” he says. “It was really cool for me to be able to find a situation where I could go over, train, get better at wrestling but also get plugged in with a high-level school in Europe.”
Smith has juggled those dual ambitions of sport and school throughout his life, but the past year was particularly demanding. After taking a year off from the MA-HRIR Program to focus on training for the 2016 Olympic Trials, he was determined to finish a degree that melded his interests in business and coaching. That required a typical daily grind of morning and afternoon workouts at PINnacle Wrestling School in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Shoreview, work at Minneapolis-based manufacturing company Graco, and class at the Carlson School.
“I was able to learn a lot about being present and getting the most out of where I was,” he says, “because I didn’t have any other choice.”
Reaching the summit
Smith’s goal for the World Championships is to earn a spot on the podium, but he admittedly has eyes on an even larger prize: an Olympic gold medal in 2020. He says the Tokyo Games are on his mind every morning when he wakes up and part of every decision he makes.
“That’s the ultimate goal. That’s the pinnacle of our sport,” says Smith, who is coached by fellow Carlson School alumnus and 1996 Olympic silver medalist Brandon Paulson, ‘98 BSB. “Olympics is the end-all, be-all for us.”
And if Smith reaches that pinnacle, it will be because he pushed through the disappointment that tempted him to transfer or quit during college or the inner whispers about a more financially stable career and less physically taxing lifestyle. It will be because he never skipped 6 a.m. workouts, five days a week, all year round, during high school.
It will be because he sat for hours in the bowels of an arena in Iowa City last April after another bitter defeat, undergoing mandatory drug testing as an Olympic Trials finalist, and resisted the urge to quit.
“A lot of the people, I think, that you see succeed in the world are the ones that are persistent and stay with it,” he says. “It can be really, really hard, but I think the true test of somebody’s character is when they’re at the very bottom and how they react to it.”