Taking on the world one baby step at a time

(Above) Joe Colon’s arm is raised as the bronze medalist at the 2018 Senior World Championships. -Photo by Larry Slater.

by Marianne Gasaway

“Baby steps,” Joe Colon calls them.  “Baby steps.”

Days ago Colon, a Clear Lake High School graduate, stepped his way into history with a third place finish at the 2018 Senior World Championships held in Budapest, Hungary Oct. 20-21.  The two-time Iowa high school state wrestling champion who went on to become a JUCO national champion at Iowa Central and an All-American at Northern Iowa, captured the bronze medal with a 13-2 win over Iran’s Mohammadbagher Yahkeshi at 61 kilograms.

“I’m gettin’ there— baby steps,” said Colon, who currently trains with the Valley RTC and is the volunteer assistant coach for Fresno State in California.   “It was an amazing opportunity for me and I had to take advantage of it.”

The opportunity presented to Colon was a spot on the USA wrestling roster after Nahshon Garrett (Tempe, Ariz./Sunkist Kids) withdrew from the 2018 World Wrestling Championships due to injury.  Garrett, an NCAA champion and four-time All-American at Cornell, defeated Colon in an exciting three-match series in Final X to secure his World Team berth. Colon finished as the Final X runner-up.  Colon won the first bout, 7-5, but Garrett rallied with two straight wins, 10-5 and 12-0, to win Final X.  In the 2018 U.S. Open finals in April, Colon won a finals bout over Garrett, 20-13.

“Two weeks ago I was not going (to Budapest). Eighteen days before Worlds I got the call and my hopes and dreams were coming true.”

Colon was quick to note that it was unfortunate that another’s injury made it possible for him to compete,  but he was determined to make the most of it.

“I competed all summer and attended training camps.  I was grinding and living the right lifestyle,” he said when asked if he was ready to compete when the call came.

Those who know him say there was never any doubt he’d be ready.

“Joe thinks about wrestling everyday— 365 days a year,” said his high school coach, Gary Weber.  “I love wrestling, too.  But I also love to go golfing and do other things.  It’s always just been wrestling for Joe.  I barely coached him in high school,” he said laughing. “He had such an usual style and he worked it.  He’s like a cat.  He’s got funk.”

Weber, along with his son, Tucker, who was Colon’s training partner in high school and college roommate at the University of Northern Iowa, traveled to Budapest to watch Colon compete.  They were among nine friends and family who wanted to see Colon compete on the world stage. In addition, fans of wrestling on that level were also there to witness Colon’s rise to national prominence.  Legendary Iowa wrestler, coach and gold medal Olympian Dan Gable was there, as well as Penn State Coach Cael Sanderson and others from top college programs, such as Oklahoma State wrestling coach John Smith.

With his bronze medal, Colon enters rarified Iowa wrestling air.  He is now one of only six native born Iowa wrestlers to medal at the World Championships.  That list, shared by iawrestle, includes Dan Gable, Barry Davis, Royce Alger, Holly Thompson, Thomas Gilman and Colon.

Joe’s first steps into wrestling didn’t happen as a baby, but they were not long after.  His mother, Maria, said he started wrestling in kindergarten and never stopped.

“We had (wrestling) mats in the basement from the time the boys were very young and they were down there all the time.  Pat Harlan would come over two or three times a week and work with six or seven kids down there.  They also did a lot with the Mighty Lions group.  There are a lot of people who don’t get credit for all they did,” she said.

Although she has sat through hundreds of wrestling meets, watching her son on the world stage was a new level of excitement.

“I was nervous.  I had butterflies in my stomach worse than at any high school or college meet.  When I was sitting in the stands and I would see his name come across the board my stomach just turned into knots. When his name was announced it was even worse.  All the support around me was great.  Instead of waving a Lion hand or an Iowa Central hand in the air, I was waving an American flag.  What a great feeling!”

Joe’s placement at World’s did more than place him among Iowas wrestling elite.  It also makes him the top competitor at his weight for the next year. He will not need to work his way through qualifying meets for the opportunity to wrestle for a coveted spot on Team USA.  Instead, he will be able to sit and wait for challengers.

And you can bet he will be ready.

There is another goal to achieve.  The 2020 Olympics are on his radar.

Baby steps.  Baby steps.

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