I first met Mitch Clark in 1997 at Ohio State as he was about to embark upon his lifelong pursuit of an NCAA championship victory. I was a doctoral student and graduate assistant in the athletic department at the time, and was intrigued by the unique circumstances and the great mental toughness that Mitch Clark needed in his pursuit of an NCAA championship. Now, thirteen years after Mitch’s 1998 championship, we reflect back on his incredible and unique story.
After finishing Runner Up at the NCAA wrestling championships his JR year at Ohio St., Clark faced unbelievable expectations from everyone around him who assumed that he would cruise through his SR year to the eventual championship (after all, he finished Runner Up as a Jr.). I remember talking regularly with Mitch during his Senior year run, and witnessing the incredible resolve he had in living up to fans expectations (many of whom forgot just how difficult of an accomplishment it would still be for Mitch to win his championship).
Unlike team sports where athletes tend to blend together, individual sports like wrestling offer the athlete no place to hide, point fingers, or make excuses. Mitch Clark took on the nation’s expectations that he would win the national wrestling championship, arguably the most grueling sport in college athletics — not only physically, but mentally. Clark did in fact end his career by winning the 1998 NCAA championship, doing so in spectacular fashion as he tech-falled his opponent in the first period (meaning he created a 15 point margin, automatically stopping the match for victory). Clark’s championship tech-fall win was so impressive that it is still talked about today (you can watch the match below):
I pick up my recent conversation with Mitch talking about his dreams of being an NCAA champion, and his thoughts looking back on his championship run his senior year (1998):
Mitch, every wrestler dreams of winning an NCAA championship, but when was the moment when you truly believed you could win one?
CLARK: “There is a big difference between setting a goal and realizing your goal is realistically attainable. So many times people say they want to do something or become something special but don’t truly believe they can do it. The moment that I knew that I could be an NCAA champ happened at a preseason tournament my Junior year when I pinned the number one ranked wrestler in the country. I remember being in the weight room the following Monday and it dawned on me that I controlled my own destiny. In other words, if I outworked my toughest opponents, I would eventually be standing at the top of the podium. For me that was the greatest feeling (almost a relief) because I knew I had the drive and desire to put outwork my opponents and it was all coming together at the right time. I had been doing it my whole life but until that point I don’t think I had the tools to be the absolute best.”
Talk about your JR year and how close you came – were you more inspired after the loss, or upset you didn’t win?
CLARK: “It took me many years to admit what I am going to say… My junior year when I lost in the finals, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because honestly, I was just happy to be there. Admitting that you had already accepted a loss before you stepped on the mat is a very tough thing to do. After the match the loss stung for a little bit but I had outdone everyones expectations for myself (including my own) so I guess I didn’t take a winning approach to my finals match. I regret it now but that is because I have a different perspective on it via winning the title bout a year later.”
You experienced unique pressure after your JR year – talk about that, and what the pressure did to you?
CLARK: “I was a two time runner up at the state tournament in high school. Never winning the state championship was extremely painful especially losing in overtime my senior year. The night before I won the NCAA title I had a nightmare that I lost in the finals once again and that I was a 2X runner-up at the NCAA Championships. That nightmare was part of the reason I was mentally focused to win the match at all costs. It rekindled a feeling that I knew I never wanted to feel again and at that point, in my mind, the option to lose did not exist.”
The famous tech fall win in the NCAA Championship match – your thoughts all these years later?
CLARK: “I would say a big part of why I was able to rack up so many points in such a little amount of time was because I was 100% mentally and physically prepared for the match. Conversely, my opponent did not have the luxury of wrestling an NCAA Finals match prior to our match and the fact is you have such an edge when you have been on that type of stage before. So many finalists wrestle extremely cautious, afraid to open up and make a mistake. It’s not the type of strategy that I subscribe to and fortunately it worked out good for me my second time around.”
Now that you are being enshrined in the Ohio State Hall of Fame, any final thoughts and advice for athletes?
CLARK: “Being inducted into the OSU Hall of Fame is a huge honor and I am excited for the ceremony. The reason why I was able to accomplish my goals in college had everything to do with the support that I was given along the way. I had a coach that motivated me, an athletic training staff that kept me healthy, a sports psychologist that brought the best out of me and an academic staff that kept me eligible to compete. I’ve said this before, if I didn’t have the one on one sessions with our sports psychologist, I believe I would’ve cracked under the pressure and ultimately would not have accomplished my goals. Having that type of support is key because it helps minimize some of the hurdles that get in the way of reaching your potential. Hard work and dedication are always the right ingredients to being your best but if you don’t have the mental edge, you are way behind.”
Thanks Mitch – I enjoyed your championship run and was happy to play a small part!
You can learn more about Mitch Clark by visiting his website, and be sure to check out his book “Make it Happen”