Hours after Ohio State senior Tommy Rowlands won the NCAA
heavyweight wrestling title in St. Louis last Saturday night,
many of the roughly 200 Buckeyes faithful who'd gathered at a
restaurant to celebrate were discussing their grand plans for
him. "We need to get you on a Wheaties box," shouted one.
"Nah, toothpaste," yelled another. "He was made for toothpaste."
In fact, the legend of Tommy Rowlands, all-American kid from just
outside Columbus, evolved long before he emerged as Ohio State's
first four-time All-America wrestler. When he was in fifth grade,
Rowlands lost to an eighth-grade girl. "Tommy, what happened?"
asked a teammate afterward. "You didn't wrestle like yourself."
"Well, she's in eighth grade," Tommy explained.
"You've beaten older guys before."
"But she's, you know, bigger."
"You beat bigger guys all the time."
"But she's a girl."
"So what's your point?"
"Well, I was afraid to, um, touch her."
No Catholic-school altar boy who served meals in soup kitchens
and backed out of school fights he knew he would win was about to
use a gut wrench or a crotch lift on a girl, even if it meant
he'd be razzed by teammates for months.
It was that Tommy Rowlands, friends said, who felt honor-bound to
return to Ohio State in a year when most elite collegians are
redshirting to train for a shot at the Athens Olympics. Rowlands,
perhaps the best of the lot, wanted to do both. Next month, at
the U.S. championships in Las Vegas, he'll try to qualify for the
Olympic trials in Indianapolis in May, even as he plans his June
wedding to high school sweetheart Elizabeth Ramsey, an All-SEC
soccer player at Kentucky who is studying to be a teacher.
"Tommy made a commitment to us before he committed to the
Olympics," says Buckeyes coach Russ Hellickson, a silver medalist
at the 1976 Games. "He wanted to be a part of this." Rowlands's
6-2 victory over Penn State's Pat Cummins last Saturday paced
Ohio State to a third-place tie with Lehigh--the highest finish
in Buckeyes history--behind national champion Oklahoma State and
runner-up Iowa. It was Rowlands's second NCAA title in three
years; in 2002 he beat Iowa's Steve Mocco, one of this year's
Rowlands complicated his wrestling life in two ways by returning
to Ohio State this year. First, even the best wrestlers usually
take time to adjust to Olympic freestyle rules after the college
season ends, and Rowlands now has little time to make that
transition. Second, for the Olympics the 6'4" Rowlands wants to
compete in the class below heavyweight (211.5 pounds), so this
season he wrestled at 225 pounds--down from 250 last year--and
thus was badly outweighed in most of his matches. Cummins, for
instance, checked in at 258 pounds.
What he lacked in heft, Rowlands made up for with his trademark
quickness, especially in shooting at his opponents' legs. This
year he set school marks for takedowns in a season and in a
career, which is akin to a defensive tackle's having the fastest
40 time on the roster.
Rowlands learned that relentless style from his father, Tom Sr.,
who wrestled at Ohio and coached Tommy until he turned 14.
Sisters Meghan, 20; Katie, 17; and Annie, 14, pitched in by
plying him with food when he had trouble gaining weight as a
teenager. "I'd push the next helping away, and they'd tell me how
my opponents were having seconds," he says. "So I'd eat again.
Wrestling's always been a family effort for us."
Rowlands has another talent, a knack for imitation, from voices
to mannerisms. During one practice this year, his teammates
howled over his flawless renditions of the public-address
announcers who call most of the national meets. One by one he
described pins and spectacular throws by teammates, until he'd
run through nearly the entire roster. When one wrestler pointed
out that he'd skipped himself, Rowlands put on a serious face and
said, "That guy's still got a long way to go."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HOLDING STRONG Rowlands earned his second heavyweight championship in three years by taking down Cummins.
Oklahoma State and Iowa are the class of NCAA Division I
wrestling. Between them the two programs have won 52 of the
sport's 75 national championships, and save for a two-year run by
Minnesota in 2001 and '02, the Cowboys or the Hawkeyes have won
every title since 1989.
Oklahoma State. 32
Iowa State 8