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FEATURE: Jacob Clark finally takes his place at the top of the podium after winning the U.S. Nationals

The time had finally come for No. 2 ranked Greco-Roman wrestler Jacob Clark. For the last couple of years, he fell to Brad Vering, the No. 1 wrestler at 84 kg/185 pounds. Clark placed second to Vering at the 2004 U.S. Nationals and at the 2005 World Team Trials.

This year was different.

At the 2006 U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas, the second-seeded Clark defeated his long-time rival 1-1, 2-1.

Clark knew that in order for him to finally be the National champion, he would have to commit fully to wrestling and to a better diet and lifestyle. With a gold medal in mind, he cut out fast food and snacks, and began to train with the heavy weights in his group.

"My problem has been my conditioning," he said. "When I got to Nationals [this year], I felt much bigger and it wasn't as difficult staying in and pummeling with the other guys."

After an intense battle to the top of the ladder, Clark once again found himself competing against Vering for the National title.

"He has always been able to get me in par terre and get me with a gut wrench," Clark said. "I feel that if I can stop him in par terre I can win. All you need to do is stop someone for 30 seconds and you can win the match."

Those were the words Clark repeated to himself as he was able to counter a turn attempt by Vering in the last few seconds of his gold-medal match. The move gave Clark the two points he needed to win the match and the National Championship.

"I think it definitely gave me a boost in the mental aspect of wrestling," Clark said. "Now I know I can beat him."

"[His win] had a lot to do with Jacob becoming more focused," said Dan Hicks, head coach of the Marine Corps squad. "He decided it was time he was the No. 1 guy. It's obvious in the way he's living and training that he's a lot more focused on winning."

Winning the U.S. Nationals is a first for Clark, and a major milestone in a wrestling career that began at the age of five.

Clark first became involved in the sport after attending the wrestling practices of his older brother Joe. While there, Clark would wrestle with other children there to watch their older brothers.

"The sport grew on me. I wanted to be like my brother like every other little kid," said Clark.

Clark continued to follow in his brother's footsteps. While attending South St. Paul High School in Minnesota, Clark was a two-time state champion, as well as a bronze medalist in the 1998 High School Senior National Championships.

After high school, Clark attended the University of Minnesota for a year, and eventually joined the U.S. Marine Corps where he continued to compete in the sport he loved since childhood.

While he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for the Marines, Clark began Team Okinawa, a wrestling club for the children of various military personnel stationed there in order to pass on the thrill of wrestling.

Clark's team enjoyed its first success when he brought two of his wrestlers, Steve Courtney from Okinawa and Zack Dopslaf from mainland Japan, to the 2005 Junior Nationals.

"We had the first win in the history of Team Okinawa by way of a pin from Steve Courtney," said Clark.

In the coming years, Clark hopes to have one of his wrestlers named an All-American at the Junior Nationals, but doesn't see that as the main focus of Team Okinawa.

"It's more about the experience," said Clark.

This year, Clark hopes to expand the team and will be bringing 10 kids to Junior Nationals this summer.

Clark will return to Japan to finish his two-year tour in Okinawa a few months after he competes in the World Team Trials. But while he still resides in the States, his thoughts are focused on competing in the World Team Trials in May, and possibly facing Vering again in the final match. If there is another matchup with Vering, Clark will have to defeat him twice in the same day.

"Jacob has to continue to try to score in par terre on top, which he wasn't able to do in the National Championships," Hicks said. "If he can score on top, he can beat him again."

Clark hopes for a second victory, not only for himself, but for the Marine Corps, which has aided and supported him along the way.

"I plan to wrestle as long as the Marine Corps lets me," Clark said. "The Marine Corps has let me wrestle the past six years and that's my way of paying them back."

If the Marine Corps will let him, Clark plans to continue to wrestle a while longer, with bigger goals in mind.

"Winning Nationals is a great accomplishment for me, but I don't want it to end there," he said.

Clark has his sights set on competing in the 2008 Olympics.

"It's been a goal of mine since I stepped on a mat at five years old," he said.

He knows that he must focus his energy and drive on the next two World Team Trials in order to represent the United States in Beijing, China, in 2008.

"A lot of what makes Jacob such a great wrestler is he's such a great competitor. He refuses to lose - it doesn't matter what sport," Hicks said. "He doesn't give the guys he trains with one opportunity to score. You can't coach that. It's instinctive. Some athletes hate to lose and Jacob is one of those guys. He hates to lose immensely."

His recent victory over Vering, however, has proven that he is worthy of standing in the top spot.

"I had a little luck on my side in Vegas. I'll take luck on my side any day," Clark said. "Hopefully at Trials I'll have a little more luck and we'll go from there."

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