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On wrestling: Through dreams, drive and perfection, Russell is a champion

Matt Slocum/AP
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BY DANIEL WASSERMAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 20, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — Kellen Russell stepped to the mat Saturday night with a dream.

It’s a dream he’s had for 730 days — something he just couldn’t shake.

He’s dreamt of never feeling what he felt 730 nights ago. He dreamt of winning.

Winning every match he wrestled. Winning a national championship.

730 days ago — exactly two years to the day before he stepped to the mats in Philadelphia hoping to make that dream reality — Kellen Russell lost.

In 2009, despite being the top-seeded 141-pound wrestler in the country, Russell was stunned by Illinois’ Ryan Prater — abolishing his pursuit of becoming a champion.

The next day, Russell lost again, before finally garnering seventh place at the NCAA Championships that year.

Now a redshirt junior, Russell hasn’t lost since that day. Granted, he was forced to redshirt last year due to injury. For 39 straight matches, Russell has stepped onto the mats, each time emerging victorious.

And the 39th time brought all 730 dreams into reality: Kellen Russell had just beaten Cal Poly’s Borislav Novachkov, 3-2, to win a title.

It didn’t matter when he heard his ankle pop while he was tied, midway through the championship match and couldn’t put pressure on his leg.

It didn’t matter that it took Russell a combined four overtimes to advance through the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, or that both wins came from the slimmest of margins — a meager 21 seconds of combined riding time, earned by being on top of your opponent.

It didn’t matter that Kellen isn’t flashy, or offensively oriented, like many of the other top wrestlers at Nationals who often win by large margins or with quick pins.

“I’ve been talking a lot about his heart — it’s a heart of a lion,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said after watching his star win the title. “They’re tough to sit through as a coach, but I love the fact that he gets his hand up. He’s got a lot of poise. It’s grace under pressure.”

The phenom from High Bridge, New Jersey — only an hour and a half away from the Wells Fargo Center, which hosted this year’s championships — isn’t overtly confident or cocky. Teammates say he keeps to himself. McFarland said numerous times throughout the week that he has a quiet confidence about him.

“I don't think I really talk a lot about how confident I am,” Russell said. “But, you know, throughout the day I might be quiet outside, but inside the wheels are always turning, and I'm always thinking about what I'm going to do when I'm out on the mat there.”

Whatever those wheels are that drove Russell through stiff regular season competition — the Big Ten plays home to five of the top six wrestlers in his weight class — and through Nationals matches that at points were so close they were hard to watch, the wheels weren’t going to be stopped.

Just after Russell rose from the mat pumping his fists in the air, he was relegated to limp weakly off the stage. He limped again up to the podium.

He continued to limp through the gloomy shadows of the arena’s basement and then through an elevator, where he greeted family. Still in his uniform, his ankle was heavily taped. His hands, though, were wrapped tightly around his trophy.

But even with his body suddenly weakened, and despite the fact his dream was now materialized and in his hands, Kellen Russell’s wheels aren’t done churning.

“It’s a big relief to come here and win my first national title, but again, I have another year, so I’ve got to start training for next year,” Russell said, only minutes after winning the title.

After 730 nights, Russell’s dreams are now reality. But who am I to think the 731st dream will be any different?