Paul Rands was in junior high when he decided that one day, he would be an All-America college wrestler.
Since then, the former Cary-Grove football and wrestling standout has followed a winding path that started at Northwestern and included a two-year sabbatical while he served a Mormon mission before he landed at the U.S. Naval Academy.
But when the NCAA wrestling championships begin March 20 in Oklahoma City, Rands will be one of three local wrestlers – including Oklahoma State's Austin Marsden (Crystal Lake Central) and Old Dominion's Jack Dechow (Richmond-Burton) – who hope to finish the weekend as All-Americans, which comes with a top-eight finish.
Marsden (285 pounds) and Dechow (184 pounds) are coming off Big 12 and Mid-American Conference championships, respectively. Rands, meanwhile, placed fourth at 197 pounds at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships despite having to wrestle back after losing his first match.
Overcoming adversity, after all, is nothing new for Rands.
Upon returning from his Mormon mission, Rands discovered that transitioning back into competitive wrestling was more difficult than he anticipated. He struggled to rediscover his competitive edge, which carried over to his first season with the Midshipmen when he finished 13-22 overall and 2-10 in dual meet competition before finishing 21-9 as a redshirt freshman.
This season, Rands overcame two injuries and later had to fight through times when he knew he wasn't performing to his potential.
"I was winning, I was still placing at tournaments, but I wasn't being what I wanted to be," Rands said. "I wasn't being a champion."
A "moment of self-reflection" led Rands to engage one of his coaches in a one-hour discussion. He began to put in extra work after practice, which paid off during a stretch of two months when he didn't lose a match. He carried that streak into the conference championships when he wrestled well enough to extend his season.
"It's a perfect time to be clicking," Rands said. "But I don't want to draw my confidence on [past] matches. ...You have to have a short memory, learn what you need to learn from what happened and then move on."
Like Rands, Dechow's road to the national championships also included having to get past an early injury. A high ankle sprain forced Dechow to miss the first part of the season, sending his emotions spiraling. Dechow quickly grew frustrated that he couldn't contribute for his team, especially when Old Dominion would drop a closely contested dual match.
Mentally, though, Dechow pictured himself on top of the podium – images that quickly allowed the 184-pounder to picture himself in Oklahoma City wrestling for All-America status. At last weekend's Mid-American Conference Championships, Dechow defeated Northern Iowa All-American Ryan Loder, whom Dechow also knocked off earlier this season.
Loder is expected to be one of the top performers in the 184-pound weight class. But Dechow will build on his previous two matches against Loder.
"Nationals is the one time when it counts; it's the only time that it matters," Dechow said.
It was a regular-season loss that helped turn things around for Marsden, who will make his second NCAA appearance.
A 3-2 loss to Oklahoma's Ross Larson in December stuck with Marsden throughout the season, pushing him to overcome some early-season issues when the Cowboys' heavyweight felt like he wasn't at his best.
Despite efforts to move forward, Marsden found himself routinely returning to the loss to Larson. Motivated to make up for the disappointing result, Marsden trained harder, eventually seeing things improve during the season and into last weekend's Big 12 championships when Oklahoma State won its 48th conference title and fourth in the past five years.
The top-seeded Marsden beat West Virginia's A.J. Vizcarrondo, the tournament's No. 2 seed, to capture an individual championship. Now, he can draw on his national championships experience.
"Last year, I had no idea what I was getting into," Marsden said. "But I will use that as a reminder, knowing how much work you have to put and how difficult each match is to win."