When Columbia sophomore Wyatt Baker defeated Parker Betts in the 120 kg title bout of the Greco Roman Junior World Team Trials in May, he made the United States team that will travel to Thailand this week to compete against the best competition from all over the globe.
But his victory did more than that.
It got rid of a feeling he’d been carrying around with him for over a month after losing to Betts on his way to third place at the FILA Juniors in Wisconsin.
“When I lose, I just get sick to my stomach and it doesn’t go away until I redeem myself against that person or someone better,” Baker said. “I’m really, really competitive and I hate losing so much. I told myself I definitely wasn’t going to lose to the kid who beat me a few weeks before, even though he beat me pretty badly.”
He was right. Baker got his redemption against Betts to make the World Team, winning straight bouts, 1-0, 1-1 and 1-0, 0-4, 1-0.
So, what was the difference?
For starters, Baker learned a lot more about Greco in the time between the two tournaments. He said he didn’t do much in that style while at Servite High in California, where he played three sports and spent more time on football than he did on the mat.
In fact, his Greco experience in high school wasn’t what he categorized as successful.
“I was on a Junior Duals team,” he said. “I think I lost almost every match. I had no idea what I was doing. I was basically wrestling folkstyle. At FILA Juniors, when I lost in freestyle, I knew exactly what I did wrong, but when I lost in Greco, I didn’t really know what to fix. It lit a fire under me. I was uncomfortable in some throwing positions during the college season and I thought if I focused on Greco, it would help me in my college career too.”
So Baker got to work, training with Columbia head coach Carl Fronhofer.
“[Fronhofer] did a lot of Greco and he was super helpful,” Baker said. “He knew I was really new to it and he didn’t get frustrated with me at all. We just worked on the basics and things I would be good at based on my strengths.”
Baker further prepared by spending time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he interacted with many experienced Greco competitors.
“I had a lot of help from resident athlete Rob Smith, who worked with me everyday. Slowly, little by little, I caught on to Greco,” he said. “I also had some of the Olympians helping me and the coaches there were great.”
The efforts paid off with his Junior World Team Trials title. And he followed that by briefly going home to California before returning to Colorado Springs for the remainder of the summer.
“It’s been eye opening to see what the next level looks like and what you need to do to get there,” he said. “I know now that’s what I want. I was here [Colorado Springs] almost the whole summer, except for a few days back in New York.”
Baker returned to the Empire State to make sure everything was in place for the fall semester of his sophomore year.
He expects to be the starter at 285 for the Lions in 2012-13 after backing up NCAA qualifier Kevin Lester in his debut campaign. Baker compiled a 13-5 record with nine bonus point victories as a freshman. He won the New York States B title at heavyweight and also placed in the Freshman/Sophomore division at the Michigan State Open.
“I felt the difference between high school and college wrestling was huge,” he said. “You go from the top of the totem pole in high school to the bottom where you’re getting beaten up every day. The first year is really a character builder. You have to have the mentality to say, ‘I’m going to keep getting better and if he’s going to beat me, he’ll have to work for every single point’. Kevin [Lester] and I would go at it everyday and he taught me a lot. As the season went on, I started believing a lot more.”
His belief has continued to grow, especially with his success in the college offseason.
“My goal is to be an All-American next year,” he said. “I feel like the Ivies are wide open right now at my weight and I know that the EIWA has some good heavyweights, but I think I can be at that caliber if I stay hungry and humble.”
Helping him do that is assistant coach Hudson Taylor, a multiple-time All-American at Maryland.
“Hudson beats me down pretty much every day and it’s a really good situation,” he said. “I’m used to heavyweight wrestling – matching strength for strength. But Hudson is goofy and he’s like Gumby. It’s really different. He’s teaching me so much and what’s great is that every day we pick one thing to work on when we go live. It makes things so much more tangible and makes me so much better. I’m more and more prepared for the college season.”
The California native was also prepared for the East Coast weather when he arrived to college. When he was on a trip to visit the Columbia campus as a high schooler, he experienced a severe blizzard. So when he decided to attend the Ivy League institution, he got himself ready.
“I spent my summer earnings on Arctic certified jackets and snowboots and everything like that,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone was really happy that last winter wasn’t terribly cold, but I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to use the things I bought.”
Still, there’s little else that has disappointed him about his time in New York City.
“California is a lot more laid back, but the people in New York are really good people,” he said. “Being in this city is really awesome. And the team and the coaches are great. I think what really put things over the top for me was the alumni support we have at Columbia. It’s amazing.”
While he loves New York, he excited to be heading to Thailand for the September 4-9 FILA Junior World Championships. He’s hoping to see some of the country, but is focused first on what he needs to do on the mat.
“I’ve never been to any part of Asia before and I think we’ll have fun when the wrestling is done. But we’re there for business and to win. The scenery doesn’t matter; all that matters is winning. I’m itching for the competition and ready for the international stage for the first time to see how I stack up against the rest of the world. It’s a huge honor to represent the United States. I feel really blessed.”