It is safe to say that prior to the current NCAA wrestling season, few people outside of Durham, North Carolina were very familiar with Duke University wrestler, Jacob Kasper. And why would they have been? Kasper was not heavily recruited out of Lexington High School where he qualified for the state wrestling tournament in Ohio as a junior and senior, placing 4th and 3rd respectively. Upon arriving at Duke, he started immediately as a true freshman for the Blue Devils. Kasper managed to go 39-28 at 184 pounds in his first two seasons at Duke, including a trip to the NCAA Championships as a sophomore.
During the off –seasons after his freshman and sophomore years he began to compete again in Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, even finding success on the university and senior circuit. He placed 4th at the 2014 Asics University Greco Nationals and was a single win away from also placing in the Freestyle division as well. He followed up these performances by placing 7th at the 2015 Senior Greco Nationals. After speaking with his coaches and teammates and laying out his goals, their full support lead to Kasper taking a redshirt during the 2015-2016 collegiate season with the hopes of making an Olympic team; a move that went largely unnoticed by many in the wrestling community.
Fast forward to the current wrestling season, Kasper has made the jump up two weight classes to the 285 pound weight class. After starting the season unranked, an early season victory over Edinboro’s Billy Miller propelled Kasper into the rankings. Then, at the 2017 Southern Scuffle in January, Kasper completed an improbable run to a title that included wins over three top 10 ranked heavyweights, including 2x All-American Michael Kroells.
It would be easy to dismiss this tournament as a fluke; however, Kasper is currently 25-1 on the season, with his lone blemish, an early season loss to Wisconsin back-up, Ben Stone. In that match, Kasper attempted a well-executed throw on the noticeably bigger Stone, only to get rolled through and eventually pinned. When asked about this loss, Kasper made no excuses and gave all the credit to Stone for being ready that night.
To further cement his status as one of the best heavyweights in the country, Kasper recently scored a 15-7 major decision victory over 2x All-American and 3rd ranked Ty Walz of Virginia Tech. When the “surprise” result hit social media, it left many fans wondering if it was a typo. It definitely was not a typo and that result really put the wrestling community and the 285 pound weight class on notice that he is for real.
I recently reached out to Jacob to see if I could ask him a few questions with the hopes of writing a little piece about him. Being from Ohio, I enjoy rooting for Ohio teams as well as other wrestlers from the state. To my pleasant surprise, not only did he agree, but he really provided in-depth and thought provoking responses.
As I went back to read through his answers, a couple of things started to stick out to me. First, while he is very confident in his abilities, do not mistake it for arrogance. He knows who he is, where he has been, and most importantly, where he wants to be. The second thing that stood out to me is his obvious passion for the sport of wrestling and his drive to be great. He takes pride in getting out of his comfort zone and pushing himself to his limits and beyond. Lastly, it was evident to me that Jacob Kasper cares more than just about himself. He finds enjoyment in the success of others and is willing to help out anyone.
Now let’s get down to business, allow me to introduce you to the current 4th ranked heavyweight in NCAA Division 1 wrestling, Jacob Kasper. You may find yourself rooting for him as I am.
Jacob, let’s start with a little background information, when did you get involved in the sport of wrestling and what attracted you to it?
Jacob: With my name and its biblical ties to Jacob wrestling the angel I guess it was just destined to be. I started competing when I was like 4 years old because my dad was a junior high coach at our local school but it really started when I was sleeping on the mats as early as 6 weeks old. To be honest, I really did not like wrestling growing up. I cried before every match, after every loss, and even during some matches I won. I took 2nd place seventeen times before finally winning a tournament because I would get so nervous for the finals.
At the time, I only continued to wrestle because my parents wanted me to and I loved how proud it made them of me. This was important to me because I know how hard they’ve worked to afford my brothers and me the opportunities we’ve had. As I got older and everybody got busier with school, work, friends, etc. it was the one thing we did together. My mom drove hours with us in the car to practices and my dad went with us to compete. Additionally, we were a pretty athletic and gritty family. We exceled early at most things we did growing up but wrestling was the exception for me. I’ve always loved the challenge and doing things people said I could not.
When did you begin to get serious about wrestling?
Jacob: It started in middle school. I was small and always had been small. I wrestled around 90 pounds from 4th grade through 8th grade and was sure I was never going to be big enough to pursue other sports. I started on my school’s football team at linebacker and was a catcher on the baseball team but wanted to compete at the highest levels and did not think I would be able to. As a side note, my dad always told me I would graduate at over six feet tall and 180 pounds, but as an undersized freshman I thought I knew more and did not listen. Well, when I graduated I was over both six feet tall and 180 pounds. Parents definitely know best.
Can you tell us about your recruiting process and the schools that were interested in you?
Jacob: A lot of people think that coming out of Ohio as a state placer you get heavily recruited, but that really was not the case for me. I received a few of the mass letters schools send but that was about it. Duke was really the only school that contacted me more than once. I had to take control of the situation and besides Duke, I contacted Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Virginia, North Carolina State, UNC, Cornell, Brown, Penn, and a few others schools.
I found their coaches’ phone numbers and emails and constantly reached out to them. I really put myself out there. I told them who I was, what I had done, what I was about, and what I was going to accomplish. It hurt pretty badly to put myself out there like I did and get very few responses. Rejection hurts but it definitely added fuel to the fire.
North Carolina State was really the only school that got back to me. I had followed what Coach Pop had done at Binghamton and knew he would also be successful at North Carolina State. I remain grateful for North Carolina State and Duke for taking the time to recruit me.
What made you finally choose Duke?
Jacob: Duke was always what I really wanted. I wanted a place where I meshed well with the coaches and team; some place where I felt comfortable, and a place I would be able to push myself academically and would provide opportunities and avenues to pursue any career at the highest level.
Most importantly, I chose the place where other people believed in me and what I said I was going to accomplish. In all of those calls and letters I sent, I said I was going to be an NCAA champion and Coach Lanham told me from day one he believed I could do it and do it at Duke. He was the only coach I received that level of support from.
Speaking of academics, what is your major?
Jacob: I am double majoring in Sociology and Evolutionary Anthropology with a formal concentration in Paleoanthropology and Anatomy. I have met a number of my pre-med/health requirements and also will graduate with either a minor in Biology or African and African-American Studies. I’ve worked hard and done well in school and am glad to have options to really pursue anything I want after undergrad.
You started as a true freshman. How difficult was the transition from high school to college wrestling for you that season?
Jacob: The transition from high school to college wrestling was definitely tough. I went in everyday trying to push myself out of my comfort zone in the room and get better. Ultimately, my goal was to go undefeated and win an NCAA title, as it is every year. There were a lot of workouts that broke me but ultimately made me stronger.
Although I got out of my comfort zone in the wrestling room, I failed to do so outside of the room. I never drank or smoked and have held to that, but when I got to college I was surrounded by it. I thought people saw me as the straight edge outsider. I stayed to myself, did not talk to any classmates, stressed about school, and developed tunnel vision. The toll of being away from my family, stresses from school, injuries, and possibly being in the starting lineup wore me down and made my first semester unenjoyable. Everybody leaves high school with this Hollywood image of college and that really is not the case. The transition is a lot harder than people let you know.
Additionally, I thought I would redshirt my freshman year but after a strong summer and fall my coaches felt I was ready to compete nationally. Then, after winning my wrestle offs, they decided to start me. I was off to a strong start but had my first ever Crohn’s flare up. I tried to “tough guy” through the symptoms, but it only made things worse. I ended up not getting as much out of that year as I really should have.
If you are headed to college next year, have fun, meet people, expect it to be tough, and reach out if you are having problems. There is no shame in struggling and seeking help, and most importantly stay true to your beliefs and who you are.
You went 24-12 your sophomore season, qualifying for your first trip to the National Tournament. Describe your experience there and any big takeaways from that experience.
Jacob: I was told by a good number of my peers that I was not good enough to wrestle D-1, I would never make it in a D-1 room, and even if I did, I would just be a throwing dummy. Making the NCAA tournament shut those people up.
Honestly, 2015 went by in a blur. Most of my time was spent cutting weight. I remember being at NCAA’s with some of my closest friends and a school record 5 qualifiers. That was pretty much the only positives for me. I remember the feeling of being out of the tournament early, falling short of my goals, being miserable cutting weight, and hurting inside as others got what I wanted. I remember occasionally focusing on losing weight instead of getting better at practice and feeling that was partly to blame for not accomplishing what I had wanted to.
You spent some time at the Olympic Training Center during your redshirt year. What was that experience like?
Jacob: I basically just packed my car up one day and started driving the 22+ hours without any idea of where I was going, where I was going to stay, what time practices were, or anything really. I ended up in a basement bedroom without hot water or a working kitchen but within walking distance of the facilities. Obviously this pushed me out of all of my comfort zones. Practices were good, and when I was healthy enough I rolled with both the Freestyle and Greco guys. I learned a great deal from the other top level athletes there. Unfortunately I had a pretty serious Crohn’s flare up out there which hindered my ability to train at the level I was used to. In order to make the most out of my trip I watched wrestling all the time, worked technique, studied nutrition, picked guys’ brains about their mental approach, focused on recovery, etc. I scraped together change to eat on and do my laundry. I wrestled, lifted with, learned from, competed with, and ultimately began beating guys I admired and watched growing up.
Also during my time there, I had numerous doctor appointments because of my Crohn’s disease and the possibility of not wrestling anymore was discussed. All in all, the experience was an uncomfortable one. I was rarely, if at all in my comfort zone, but became comfortable being uncomfortable. I have tried to continue forward with that mindset. I try and do something every day that makes me uncomfortable so I continue to grow as an athlete and as a person. I know there will be very few times in wrestling and life where I will be able to work or compete in my comfort zone so I am preparing for that now. I’m almost four years in at Duke and have only sat out one practice and it was to get my first colonoscopy. I work harder, longer, and more often than anybody in college wrestling and therefore in the country. I haven’t had perfect health, I have sprained things, torn things, been sick, but just keep pushing. I am just preparing myself for that and the world. That’s what I took most of my time at the O.T.C. I definitely appreciate both my Duke and OTC coaches for allowing me to experience it and grow as a wrestler and person.
What lead to your decision to jump two weight classes and compete at 285 pounds this year?
Jacob: I had my 3rd serious Crohn’s flare up in three years while at the OTC. I was getting ready to represent the U.S.A. at the Pan American Championships and had to get an expedited colonoscopy because I was having so many problems. Again, I had tried to push through the pain, discomfort, sickness, and symptoms to only make it worse. The doctor told me I would have to miss Pan Ams in order to get treated so I got up to leave the office because I would not listen or sit out. He told me to wait and shifted things around to get me in in time. After seeing my insides he told me I need to avoid cutting weight, document what foods give me problems, start seeking help and listening to my body, or potentially have to stop wrestling altogether. I walked around lean and far from 197 pounds so I began focusing on getting bigger, lifting hard, and becoming a heavyweight.
You don’t appear to be one of the bigger heavyweights. How do you combat the size of larger opponents?
Jacob: I am definitely not towards the upper limit of 285 but if size mattered, elephants would be king of the jungle. Luckily for me I have a lion’s heart. My game plan does not change regardless of whom I wrestle. I’m looking to go out and win every position, score, be exciting, and most importantly have fun.
I perform best with the pressure on because that is how I prepare. I visualize myself wrestling against these guys thousands of times before I actually do so I have beaten them thousands of times without ever losing to them and that gives me confidence. I am obsessed with this. When I start to get tired in a match, not just breathing hard but vision blurry, heart pounding, lungs screaming, feeling like I am going to die, I smile because I know if I am tired so is he. When I get to that point I smell blood and push harder, I know nobody is tougher than me or willing to go longer and harder. For me losing hurts worse than form of exhaustion ever could, even death.
At 25-1, what has been the biggest reason for your great start this year and improvement from previous years?
Jacob: I go into every year with the same goal, to be an undefeated national champion. I think if your goal is any less then you will cut corners, sell yourself short, waste your time, waste your coaches’ time and waste your teammate’s time. Every day I do all the right things, from the food I eat, the way I lift, the way I practice, to the amount I sleep I get. I’ve paid the price for a long time and it is just starting to pay off. I see the trajectory of my career thus far and don’t see a limit; as long as people keep saying I cannot do things I will keep proving them wrong.
I came into this year with a hunting mentality and that is why I have been as successful as I have been against guys. I am going to keep that mindset and continue to hunt, I’m looking to go out, hit people with my best stuff, and see what they have, throw them on their heads, and get the crowd on its feet. My ultimate goal is to win a national title. I know I could do that at 197 without a doubt, but I made the decision to stay at heavyweight, despite being undersized, because I want to make a mark.
Wrestlers do not get remembered in college wrestling for just being a 1, 2, or even 3 time NCAA champion. However, the first collegiate wrestling Olympic gold medalist is at heavyweight and considered untouchable by just about everyone and he should be, he’s a great wrestler who obviously put the time in and paid the price. He is widely considered the king of American wrestling but I want to take that crown. I want to go down as the giant slayer, as the guy who did the impossible, but most importantly I just want to be remembered. The NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion is hands down the baddest person in college athletics and I want to have that title. I have earned it, now it’s time to take it.
You recently defeated 2x All-American and top heavyweight contender, Ty Walz, by major decision. Give us your thoughts on that match.
Jacob: Ty is a big strong dude. He moves well, has a variety of attacks, and a good tank. I remember watching him win Fargo at 215 pounds while I ate dip n dots in the stands with my dad because I went 0-2 at 135 pounds. He has been a beast for a long time so I have a lot of respect for him, especially coming from the great state of Ohio.
I love going out there in a match up like that. I feel like when the going gets tough and it is just you and an elite dude on the mat, you’re going to have to go to a dark place. When you are searching for that dark place you find out a lot about yourself. I know I am not a quitter, I know I am tough, I know what my parents raised me to be. I have a lot of respect for somebody that takes me there because I know what they are made of then too.
What needs to happen for this season to be considered a successful one for you?
Jacob: The simple answer is to be Duke’s first wrestling NCAA champion, a two-time NCAA champion since I have another season after this one, and a Hodge trophy winner. But honestly I’m driven by more than just materialistic accolades. I want to motivate, inspire, and entertain. I want some kid that has a losing record right now to read my story and believe he can because I was in the same situation. I want a kid to hear about how I was not the best student and didn’t make varsity my first year of high school but found a way to achieve what I set out to do. I hope somebody hears what I have done and pushes through Crohn’s and becomes and Olympian and everything I have failed at because they believed in themselves because of me. Also, I want to bring more fans to our program and the sport of wrestling through my personality and exciting style. I want more people to support Duke wrestling and wrestling as a whole as I build my own personal brand and legacy. And most importantly, I want those same kids to know that I did it the right way. By eating right, sleeping right, studying right, never cutting corners, never smoking, never drinking alcohol, all while being a good person.
What would you consider your greatest moment in wrestling to date?
Jacob: That’s a great question and three things come to mind right away. First thing was helping my little brother get his state title. I fell short my senior year and crawled into my dad’s lap, still sweaty in my singlet, crying to apologize for not winning it for him, my family, my coaches, and myself. As he consoled me, my brother cried with me. I asked him to promise me he would win it so he did not have to feel what I felt. He promised and I pushed him until he hated me. I did not want him to feel like I did so I was willing to do whatever it took for him. He beat a kid from Revere in the semis, the same school I had lost to in the semis, on the same mat, and in the same singlet. I booked a last second flight and flew in to watch his finals. He won and ran over, jumped the barrier, and hugged me as we both sobbed. Nobody had any clue I was flying in but as he hugged me he told me he just knew I was there, he could feel it, and that he had held true on his promise but could not have done it without me.
The second thing is helping Brannon King at Fargo. Brannon is a wrestler from Vandalia, Ohio with Autism however; he never let that hold him back and has always worked extremely hard. Brannon worked extremely hard at the National team training camp, but unfortunately couldn't successfully make the weight cut. That meant he couldn't wrestle at the National tournament he trained months for. Two coaches and I came up with the idea of trying to get Brannon an exhibition match so he could go out compete against some of the best in the country. With the help of some great individuals involved in USA Wrestling, including tournament directors, state directors, opposing coaches, and officials, we all were able to take it a step further. We were not only able to get Brannon a match in front of his family who had driven 24+ hours to watch him, but we were also able to get his match on the elevated finals mat. The whole situation, from start to finish, put into perspective how closely knitted the wrestling community is nationwide. Similar to anything in wrestling, Brannon did not deserve this match. He earned it. His passion, love, and fight inspire me.
The third thing that comes to mind is helping Ohio kids get out from rough home lives, achieve their dreams, see the world, and get to college. Knowing I played a small role in their stories’ is what it is all about for me. I love it.
What are your plans for after college?
Jacob: I am not entirely sure what I am going to do after college. Like previously stated, I have avenues open I just have to decide which to pursue. I’m interested in competing for a while longer, coaching, sports administration/management, medical school, sales/running a corporate company, or if Mr. Brisco can get McMahon to open his check book possibly WWE.
Lastly, what is something that most people don’t know about you? Is there anything else you would like to say or tell us?
Jacob: Sometimes my passion can come off as harsh, brash, arrogant, stoic, not caring, and unforgiving but that is not who I really am. I really am a nice and likeable guy. I love what I do and the people in my life so much that I am often misinterpreted. If you ever run into me take the second and say hey and I will show you who I really am, text is so hard to interpret. People stopping and saying hey to me means so much; I spend so much time pouring everything I have into this sport for myself, my family, my teammates, coaches, and this university a simple hey for me is like telling an artist you appreciate his paintings. Come March tune into ESPN and cheer for or against me, I really do not care as long as you cheer!
Brandon Olinger is an NCAA wrestling fanatic and the “not so loud member” of The Inside Trip wrestling podcast. You can follow Brandon on twitter @brando413 and The Inside Trip @theinsidetrip1. You can email Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org