DeKALB – Northern Illinois wrestler Trace Engelkes raced back to his apartment after getting out of class on the afternoon of March 8.
Engelkes, who had a chance to make an at-large bit for the 2015-16 NCAA Championships at 174 pounds, eagerly refreshed his phone as the NCAA was preparing to tweet out the field. He waited to see if his 21-12 performance on the year was good enough to nab one of the four at-large bids.
"It felt like I was watching 'the Hunger Games'. They're drawing names and everybody in the crowd is nervous and they go weight class by weight class," Engelkes said. "I know there's only a certain amount of (at-large) bids that will be called. I watch one bid go. I watch two bids go. Now I'm sick to my stomach and I never felt that sense of helplessness before."
The helplessness turned to sorrow when the NCAA tweeted out the qualifiers at 12:31 p.m.
Engelkes didn't make it.
While four members of the Huskies went to the NCAA Championships at Madison Square Garden in New York City – Shawn Scott, Steve Bleise, Austin Eicher and Andrew Morse – Engelkes stayed home, struggling to watch any of the matches at the biggest tournament of the season.
"Trace keeps things in perspective very well, but he was bummed," Northern Illinois coach Ryan Ludwig said. "He was happy for his teammates – four guys went to the national championship. He was really happy for those guys because he's a team guy. On the other hand, he was very disappointed he wasn't on the trip. He mentioned he had a hard time watching the matches and seeing what was going on down there. It made him sick."
It's no surprise that Ludwig said that Engelkes had a tremendous offseason.
Fueled partly by the disappointment, he earned All-American status by placing fourth at the University Freestyle Nationals in Akron, Ohio, in June, and Engelkes said that coming into his senior season this year, he knows his body and how to physically prepare better than he's ever had. The moment of learning he didn't make the NCAA Championships last season still enters his mind – "I think a lot about how bad it felt because I imagine it happening again," he said – but the preparation has paid off so far in the 2016-17 campaign.
So far this season, Engelkes is off to an 8-1 start with four pins. He said a lot of the credit goes to the brutal offseason and preseason training – particularly a dreaded workout that consists of a combined 3.5 miles of sprinting.
"It's a necessary evil because wrestling isn't comfortable," Engelkes said. "It's not supposed to be comfortable. The more you get comfortable with being uncomfortable, the better you're going to do. The training for wrestling is just to do what sucks as much as you can for as long as you can and learn to deal with it."
Engelkes said he tries not to decide whether or not a season is a failure based off of wins and loss, but admits it's tough not to have the expectation be a trip to the 2017 NCAA Championships at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Not only that, but he wants to win the whole thing.
While Engelkes still has the rest of his senior season to go, Ludwig said he sees a future coach in the Huskie wrestler. He sees the adoration of breaking down technique and sharing it with others. Engelkes, who is a captain for the Huskies, has coached youth wrestling since he was a freshman in college and the former IHSA state champion from Winnebago talks enthusiastically about front headlocks, scramble positions and technical wins.
Wrestling, Engelkes passionately said, is a sport of inseparable opposites. It's part machismo and part analytical. It's part art and part violence.
"I always view it as a combat sport. When you break it down to its basic element, it's a hand-to-hand combat sport. It's no different from any martial art, it's no different from jiu-jitsu or submission wrestling," he said. "I view it in that way, but I also view it like it's a chess match. It's as much strategic as it is violent and explosive. It all comes together. It's an art form – like a theatrical production of athleticism. It's that technical aspect that turns it into an art.
"When I watch a wrestling match, it's not like watching football. You can watch a football game and see a play develop, but wrestling is very singular," he continued. "It's watching one person develop their own style. It's watching one person develop what they want to happen. If you look at a sitcom, you have the person who created the sitcom and wrote it and then you have all these people who are changing it. That's what I like about wrestling. The person who wrote it gets the final say. There's nobody on the outside dictating what happens. It's you and the other guy. If you're a better writer, you're going to write the ending. You're going to write the story."
For Engelkes, the hope is the final chapter of that story is set in St. Louis.