One goal, one plan: Junior wrestler Matthew Kolodzik eyes national championship for Tigers| Dec 5, 2018
“If anyone can win a national championship,” said freshman wrestler Patrick Glory, “it’s Matt.” Every collegiate ranking platform agrees. For junior Matthew Kolodzik, it’s non-negotiable: “I have to go out there and wrestle,” he says of the March national championship.
Kolodzik has never known life without wrestling. His father wrestled through high school. Seven years older than Matthew, his brother Daniel began wrestling as soon as his parents would let him. The older Kolodzik went on to wrestle at Princeton and graduated with the Class of 2012. Matthew gravitated toward both the family tradition and the sport — “kids just wrestle naturally, don’t they?” Starting when he was two years old, he tagged along to Daniel’s practices. He watched from the sidelines as the older boys wrestled. He did push-ups with them when their sessions ended. One day when Kolodzik was four years old, his father let him onto the mat at the beginning of practice.
Kolodzik has never had a breakout season, a breakout match, or a breakout moment. There have been no ups and downs in his career. He has simply dominated the wrestling world ever since that moment, 18 years ago. His freshman year of high school, Kolodzik worked as a one-man team, with his father as his coach. The two of them traveled to some of the most competitive meets in the nation; he was a Super 32 and Ironman runner-up and a Cadet freestyle champ, and he finished at Fargo as a double All-American. That year, he won Ohio’s state wrestling championship, one of the most competitive state meets in the country. That wasn’t enough for him.
“For most of the guys I knew and trained with in Ohio,” he said, “wrestling was their whole life. I wanted more — I wanted to work harder.” His sophomore year of high school, he transferred to Blair Academy, a New Jersey boarding school with the country’s top high school wrestling program. He thrived there, balancing rigorous academics with his sports commitments. He claimed titles at Powerade, Ironman, Beast of the East, and the Geary Invitational — some of the most competitive tournaments in the country. He won three consecutive national championships. His senior year, InterMat and FloWrestling ranked him the nation’s top recruit for his weight class, then 138 pounds.
Kolodzik started receiving recruiting offers his junior year. From the outset, he knew what he wanted: a school that, like Blair, would present both an academic and an athletic challenge. He also aspired, once more, to follow in his brother's footsteps.
“Because of Daniel,” explained Kolodzik, “I knew exactly what Princeton could offer me, knew about the caliber and quality of the coaching staff. I also knew the infrastructure had developed a lot since Daniel had been here — in terms of the network, the funding, the coaching staff. I wanted to make a shot at winning a national title or two. Princeton seemed like the place to do it.”
Head wrestling coach Chris Ayres was just as enthusiastic about Kolodzik. “He just fit our program so well,” he said. “He had interests besides wrestling, had this strong desire to be an engineering major. And he wasn’t only one of the best recruits for his weight class; he was one of the best recruits overall.”
Kolodzik was Princeton wrestling’s first top-10 recruit in history. From the moment he set foot on campus in 2016 (after a gap year during which he qualified for the World University Games) he has clinched milestone after milestone for the program. He was Princeton’s first freshman All-American in history, its first freshman victor at EIWAs (the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championship), and its second wrestler to earn Ivy League Rookie of the Year. His third-place finish at NCAA Nationals his sophomore year was the program’s best since 2002. (As a sophomore, Kolodzik also repeated as an All-American and EIWA champion.) In the past three years, he has won 63 matches. He has lost 10. His number one ranking is the first for a Tiger in more than a decade.
“It’s kind of absurd to see Kolodzik’s success,” said Glory. “He’s doing the same things we are — training with the same coaches with us, eating with us, doing the same work. Why can’t we do what he does?”
Kolodzik answered that question himself. “I’m great at identifying problems, and great at ignoring what’s going well. That’s part of the reason I have so much success — I’m always critiquing myself.”
Sophomore Patrick Brucki agrees. “Kolodzik’s work ethic sets him apart from the pack. The guy comes in early probably three to five times a week. He’s just a workhorse. He does everything to a T, follows coach’s orders. He’s totally bought into our program. He’s just all in.”
Glory called Kolodzik a perfectionist. “He’s the kid who comes in the most for private lessons for coaches. He’s always watching video. He spends all his free time always critiquing little things. His whole life is this structured plan of how he’s going to win a national title. On Sundays, he plans out the whole week ahead — exactly when he’s going to eat, study, go to class, watch film.”
Ayres described what he views as the keys to Kolodzik’s success. “I joke that he has the ‘clutch-gene,’” he said. “If there’s a big stage and a big moment, he just comes through. When he’s put in a tough spot, against a really good guy, that’s when he’s at his best. He feeds off the pressure. It’s incredible.”
Kolodzik’s success serves as a marker of how far Princeton wrestling has come in the past years. During Ayres’ first two seasons, the Tigers went 0–35. Last weekend, they beat No. 8 Lehigh for the first time since 1968. And his success is also contagious. His individual victories motivate his teammates.
“Our program is right on the edge of breaking into the top 10 teams nationally,” said Glory. “We have the talent and the resources. At this point, it’s about believing, about trying to get these kids to believe in themselves. I would say that Kolodzik is the sole reason anyone believes we can do it.” Ayres echoed that. “Every milestone gives the collective more confidence. He sets the bar very high.”
But to Kolodzik, only one milestone matters. “The expectations are higher this year. I can sense it. Everybody else can sense it. Everything between now and March is just hype. We haven’t had a national champion since 1951,” he said. “His name was Bradley Glass, and his picture’s hanging up in our team room. It’s black and white. We need a color photo up there.”