Aug. 6, 2008
BEIJING - He was never a state champion. He never won a conference title. He never earned the title of All-American. But none of that matters now for former Northern Illinois wrestler T.C. Dantzler.
Because now he is an Olympian.
Fifteen years and five surgeries after last suiting up for the Cardinal and Black in 1993, Dantzler earned his way to Beijing as one of nine wrestlers of the U.S. Greco-Roman team.
"I always knew I'd made an Olympic team. I always knew I'd win a gold medal. I just didn't know when," said the 37-year old Dantzler.
The journey for Dantzler from his hometown of Harvey, Ill. to Beijing has been even longer than the 6,613 miles it measures on a map.
In 1988, his senior year at Thornwood High School, Danztler placed second at the state championships to Armando Sanders of Waubonsie Valley. Still, Danztler was deemed worthy of an offer to wrestler at Iowa, a team that had won 11 of last 13 NCAA Championships. But he declined, deciding instead to come to Northern Illinois, where he could wrestle and play football.
After earning trips to the NCAA Championships in his first three years, Danztler tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during the 1992 spring football game, an injury that hampered him as a senior.
"My body just sort of ran out on me," he said. "Wrestling with no ACL is not a good thing."
Dantzler overcame the injury to become the first Huskie to qualify for the national championships four times, but ended his career without part of his dream.
"I never won an NCAA Championship or All-American status," Dantzler said. "Not getting those things is what drove me to the level of success I'm at now."
Almost immediately after graduating from NIU with a degree in economics in May of 1993, Dantzler had surgery to repair his ACL. He continued to compete, and in November of 1995, was invited to a two-week training camp at the U.S.A. Wrestling Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I was supposed to be here two weeks. I've been here 13 years," he said.
In those years, Dantzler has accomplished more than anyone could have anticipated. His career highlights include finishing fifth at the 2006 World Championships, winning a 2007 Pan American Games bronze medal, and being a five-time U.S. World Team member.
But one of the accolades that eluded Dantzler was a trip to compete on the biggest stage in the world: the Olympics. He placed third at U.S. Nationals in 2000, and the U.S. didn't qualify at 163 pounds, his natural weight class, in 2004.
Dantzler's next chance came in April. He made the championship match at the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas, and with his parents, high school coach, and a fraternity brother from his time at NIU in attendance, he was set to face 23-year-old Cheney Haight. With 20 minutes to go before the start of the match, Dantzler received a phone call that shook his world.
Dan Edwards, once an assistant coach at Northern Illinois and Dantzler's lifetime mentor and friend, had died after a truck cut in front of Edwards' motorcycle.
"I bawled for 15 minutes," Dantzler said. "Then I went out, and I won. I feel like I won it for him."
He defeated Haight in the first two matches of a best two-out-of-three final, clinching his place in Beijing.
"I wrestled a young guy who put everything on the line," Dantzler said. "But I was denied four times making the team, and I wasn't going to let that happen."
Dantzler is in Beijing, preparing for his chance at a gold medal. Greco-Roman competition goes from Aug. 12-14, and, though the world will be watching, Dantzler will approach the Olympics with a level head.
"Mentally, my approach is to treat it like any other competition," he said, noting that he will actually face only one-third of the competitors he has battled at the World Championships.
And, also like any contest, Dantzler will be counting on the support of his family and friends, especially Edwards, to fuel him toward victory.
"It's all about the people that support you," he said. "It's easy to quit on yourself, but it's other people that pushed me through the years."
Since beginning his training in Colorado Springs, Dantzler has added a few more people to his inner-circle, there to give him that push when he needs it. He married his wife, Tanya, and the pair have had three children, Thomas Curtis III, Tyce Caiden, and True Callia, all of whom were born in Olympic years.
In addition to his family, Dantzler finds balance through the company he founded, TC logiQ. The company, which has 23 employees, provides background checks, with an emphasis on serving youth sports. So when Dantzler, the second-oldest American wrestler to compete at the Olympics, does decide to hang up his wrestling shoes, he has a solid fall back operation.
But don't count on that happening anytime soon. Win or lose in Beijing, Dantzler is eyeing the Olympics of 2012, when he'll be 41, but far from over the hill.
"If you think you're old, you're already done," he said. "Age is overrated."
Maybe Dantzler will convince the world that state championships are, too.