Olympian Daniel Dennis tells PEOPLE he feels like he "can beat anybody" after taking a break from wrestling refreshed his body and soul
Three years ago, after deciding that he was finished as a competitive wrestler, Daniel Dennis bought an old ’86 Ford pickup for $500, stocked a cooler with food and drinks and hit the road.
Injured, tired and broke, the former University of Iowa wrestling champ figured that he would never hit the mats again after failing to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012. But while living in his truck for five months and a fifth-wheel trailer in California for two years after that, Dennis couldn’t stop thinking about the sport he’d loved since age 8.
Unable to walk away forever, Dennis took small coaching jobs to earn money to live on and signed up to participate in several wrestling tournaments, which he won handily. Now, the 29-year-old is on his way from his current home in Iowa City to Rio, where he will compete as a member of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team at the Summer Games.
Last spring, few people could have imagined his success, especially Dennis, who at 5’5″ and 125.5 pounds, wrestles in the 57kg freestyle division, where he is ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“I was beaten down and had pretty much moved on,” he tells PEOPLE, “but my old friends and coaches kept pressuring me to come back and compete, so I finally did. One small step at a time, I kept working on it and now here I am. It’s a good feeling.”
Dennis, who made the team in April, will compete in Rio on Aug. 19 to the delight of his coaches, family and friends.
“Daniel is very dedicated, driven and focused, and at the same time is a free spirit off the mat,” Bill Zadick, assistant national freestyle coach for the U.S. team, tells PEOPLE. “Knowing the story Daniel brings with him and the adventures and challenges he’s faced through life, you have to understand the depth of his character. That depth is what I respect and love about him.”
The son of Tim Dennis, a building supply office manager who died of brain cancer in 2014, and Jane Dennis, a retired school administrator, Daniel Dennis was introduced to wrestling in his hometown of Fox Lake, Illinois. His father agreed to sign him up for a team at a local Boys and Girls Club after a neighbor spied him taking down his friends in the backyard.
“Because he was smaller, wrestling allowed him to work with kids his own weight and size,” Jane Dennis tells PEOPLE. “He and his older brother, Charlie, would often go at it on the living room floor, with furniture flying all over the place. It’s amazing how effective a mother’s well-placed ear twist can work at separating two tussling boys.”
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After competing at Grant Community High School, Dennis made the team at the University of Iowa, wrestling for four years and becoming University Nationals champion in 2008 before graduating in 2010 with a business degree.
Although he tried competing internationally, “I didn’t have the success I was hoping for,” he tells PEOPLE, “and I was feeling restless and down.”
That led him to buy a black Ford pickup on Craigslist with his life savings. He headed west in his new vehicle, hoping to forget about wrestling and climb rocks, instead.
“I did a lot of climbing and a whole lot of nothing,” he says, “and I really learned to appreciate living a simple life. No TV, no Internet, no distractions. I loved it.”
His former wrestling teammates in Iowa, though, kept the pressure on for him to return to the sport.
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After two years in Windsor, California, living in a fifth-wheel trailer purchased with coaching gigs and tournament winnings, Dennis’ old neck and arm injuries had healed enough for him to consider rejoining his friends at the April 2015 U.S. Olympic team trials. Losing his dad the year before also weighed on his mind.
“I don’t look at it like I’m honoring him to compete,” he tells PEOPLE, “but I know that my dad loved watching me, just like any parent would. He was always very supportive of me and encouraged me to live a free-spirited life.”
Finishing second at the 2015 World Championships last June, Dennis realized that his time off had refreshed his body and spirit and that there was no stopping him from going after the ultimate prize: an Olympic medal.
“I’m feeling good – like I can beat anybody,” he says. “I’m ready now to wrestle anybody, absolutely anybody, in the world.”
To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.0000org. The Rio Olympics begin Aug. 5 on NBC.