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Grappling -- and running -- for Olympic gold

Mack Lewnes '11 with assistant wrestling coach Mike Grey '11

Mack Lewnes '11, right, with volunteer assistant wrestling coach Mike Grey '11, who was one of Lewnes' teammates when they were undergraduates. Grey is now assisting Lewnes in his attempt to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

Looking back on it, the moment seems silly. But when Mack Lewnes '11, as a middle schooler, finally pinned big-man-on-campus and good friend Dave Dulski, he knew he could become an excellent wrestler.

"He was a big name in junior league," Lewnes says. "He was the top dog. I remember thinking, 'Whoa! This is an upset!'"

More than a decade later, Lewnes has more than followed through on the promise of toppling a fellow preteen. Lewnes is the all-time winningest wrestler in Cornell history. He won four consecutive Eastern Collegiate Wrestling Association titles during his time in Ithaca. Now he's ready for an even bigger step in April when he and several former Cornellians attempt to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

Three former Cornell track athletes – Max King '02, Zachary Hine '09 and Sage Canaday '09 – tried to qualify for the Olympic marathon in January. All three came up short but turned in times that were among their career bests. Another Big Red track veteran, Morgan Uceny '07, will be making an effort to qualify for the Olympics, as well. Uceny was a distance runner during her time on the Hill. She recently was named the world's best 1,500-meter runner by Track & Field News and also claimed the 1,500 title in 2011 at the Diamond League. Those honors – while putting additional pressure on her as top dog – might make Uceny seem like a shoo-in to make the Olympic Games.

Morgan Uceny '07 competes in the 2006 ECAC track championships

Morgan Uceny '07 competes in the 4x400 relay at the 2006 ECAC outdoor track championships.

When qualifying comes around in late June, though, Uceny expects the competition to be much tougher than she faced in 2011.

"I think I definitely have a target on my back because I was running very consistently last year and did kind of have a breakthrough season," Uceny says. "But with an Olympic year, people come out of the woodwork where everyone is trying to bring their 'A' game. I understand that it's going to be harder this year, so I'm not giving myself any breaks."

Uceny started her Cornell career as a freshman who didn't make the varsity squad. She went home that summer and vowed to make herself more accountable for her progress. Every year after that in college, she set personal records. Now she's one of the best in the world.

Training with coach Terrence Mahon and wearing her signature colorful beaded necklace during races, Uceny has a solid chance to be on the other side of the Atlantic when the Olympic torch is lit.

Uceny and her coach "are not trying to rewrite history or anything," she says. "We're just doing what we know works and trying to stay healthy so that by the time June rolls around, we'll be in peak form."

Lewnes too has dreams of London. He has always been the type of athlete who sets his goals high – sometimes incredibly high.

Mack Lewnes '11 wins an NCAA semifinal match in 2008

Lewnes is declared the winner of a match against Michael Cannon of American University during the 2008 NCAA Wrestlebacks semifinals.

"When I came to Cornell, my goals were [that] I never wanted to lose," Lewnes says. "I wanted to go out there winning every match. I would have loved to win NCAAs every year."

While he wound up not winning a national crown in his four years with the Big Red, he still accomplished quite a bit. He was an All-American in 2008 when he finished the NCAA Tournament in fourth place. He also was named the Ivy League's freshman of the year that season. For the next two years he was honored as the league's player of the year. He finished his Cornell career with more wins than anyone in school history.

Now, though, it only gets harder.

In preparation for the Olympic qualifiers, Lewnes had to gain mass to wrestle in a higher weight class. In college he fought at 174 pounds; now he's wrestling at 185 pounds (84 kilograms). To gain the weight, he has spent countless hours lifting weights and working out, eating right and training with former Cornell teammates. Current Big Red wrestlers Cam Simaz '12, Steve Bosak '12 and Kyle Dake '13 have all played a role in keeping Lewnes ready to face the opposition at the trials.

And what opposition it will be.

"It's the highest level of competition in the United States," Lewnes says. "There are no easy matches."

Twelve competitors will vie for one 84-kilogram slot in the Olympics. While Lewnes spent his college career performing folkstyle wrestling, international tournaments use freestyle. There are many differences between the two styles, with freestyle wrestling emphasizing throws more than at the college level. Lewnes spent one year between high school and college at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., fine-tuning his freestyle abilities, which should help him come time for the Olympic Trials.

"I set my goals so high – and it's something I'm thankful for – that when I fail, it's an accomplishment still," Lewnes says. "I'd have to stop right now if my goal wasn't to win. You don't go in thinking, 'I'd love to get top three and not make it to the Olympics.' I'm going for it. Even if The Hulk shows up, I'm going to try to beat him."


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