February 23, 2005

The Mystique of One of Cornell's Greatest Athletes

Print More

At least wrestler Travis Lee was on time for his last match at Cornell.

Fans were uncomfortably shuffling in their red chair backs. Coaches screamed out indecipherable blabber to their grapplers. I was wondering how fat I’d look in a singlet.

Before I could catch my breath, the prince arrives. His head coach, Rob Koll, compares Travis to Clark Kent — when he takes off the clothes and has his Cornell wrestling singlet underneath, he is Superman. Judging from the thunderous applause, he might as well have an “S” on his torso instead of the “C”.

But, enough about the way he looks or the superhero he might be. Everyone has been waiting to see Travis wrestle, and now it is his time.

Time and Travis have never seemed to co-exist on East Hill. His teammates and coaches say he’s on “Hawaiian time” — and for good reason. When Travis was a freshman, he was routinely 30 to 40 minutes late for practice. Now, he has cut his tardiness down to 15, or even five minutes on occasion, quite the improvement in only four short years. But come on, give him a break. He is a national champion after all, and came down a long road to where he is now.

Born to a Chinese father and Japanese mother, the five-year-old kid from Honolulu first took up judo — a form of Japanese martial arts — and began to wrestle in eighth grade. Travis was the youngest child, but he was still feisty and competitive — especially with his older brothers, Todd and Dustin. He’d put up a decent fight, but the big brothers would almost always win.

As Travis wrestled in high school, he was the one who started winning. With one eye towards college, Travis heeded advice that a high school wrestling coach once told him — “never be satisfied.” This is a motto that would stick with Travis forever.

So the ambitious and relatively accomplished competitor sent letters to over 20 top Division I programs, trying to gain national exposure. However, Hawaiian state champions do not have quite the prestige of an Iowa or Oklahoma champ. And not surprisingly, none of these nitwit coaches responded.

Koll was one of these unfortunate nitwits — at least at first. One day, he too got one of these letters and immediately discarded it. The coach wrote the Hawaiian kid back though, thanking him for his interest and asking him to send a video. When Travis complied, Koll watched a little bit of the tape before putting it aside.

A couple of months later, on a whim, Koll decided to watch the tape again — a move which might have changed Cornell wrestling forever.

“Something came through,” Koll said about the tape. “There was an intensity that you could feel.”

Technique aside, the kid was fast, focused, and relentless. He looked hungry. Against his better judgment, Koll went to recruit Travis, the unheralded kid with little hope for an athletic scholarship. The coach saw something — something that the rest of the country was only beginning to recognize.

During his senior year, Travis won both the freestyle and the Greco-Roman titles at the junior national championships. Now in the national spotlight, his college prospects looked luminous. Iowa was calling. So was Northwestern. And Duke. And other top schools and programs, ready to give full scholarships. Cornell athletic director Andy Noel remembers talking to an apprehensive Koll over the phone, as Travis progressed through the tournament.

Koll told Noel at the time that it will be, “very hard [for us] to land our top guy.”

But fortunately for Cornell, Travis picked us. And as Koll now says, “The rest is history…”

To be honest, if you see Travis around campus, he does not look that imposing. At 5’5″, he gets bundled up like a teddy bear during the winter like everyone else, and — gasp — is an Asian engineer. Not the prototypical wrestler in my, or really anyone’s, imagination.

But if you watched his first-ever practice, skeptics like me would be harshly mistaken. Especially hearing about “the takedown.”

Assistant coaches Steve Garland and Clint Wattenberg ’03 — a former teammate of Travis’ — laughed about it when I went to visit the Friedman Wrestling Center the other day, but the Hawaiian proved that day at practice almost four years ago that he was not a joke.

Garland remembered seeing the baby-faced killer that day. Travis was still a kid who had not fully matured yet. He was quiet and barely said a word. Opposing coaches thought the kid was mean. And frankly, on the mat, he was.

When Garland got on the mat with the freshman for the first time, Garland — a 2000 national title runner-up — saw this sudden burst of intensity and energy, and the assistant was taken down by this tiny freshman.

“I couldn’t believe how flexible and strong he was,” Garland said Monday. “I’ve never seen a kid who could be so mentally focused.”

Probably one of the most down to earth and polite kids away from competition, Travis is the type of guy who is overly thankful for the support he gains from admirers, who enthusiastically signs autographs after matches, who juggles the constant responsibility of being one of the nation’s top wrestlers with being a top student at the same time.

The three-time All-American’s technique is as fine-tuned as a racecar. Coaches and teammates comment that he has no pain threshold and he works out and drills constantly. However, it is Travis’ will and quiet confidence on the mat that sets him apart.

“His intensity is one of a kind,” Wattenberg said. “There’s been times in matches, especially in important matches … [where he is] so intense that you know it’s going to get done.”

Like the one time he faced Edinboro’s Shawn Bunch for an All-American spot as a freshman. As the whistle sounded for overtime, Bunch lunged and had Travis by both legs as the Cornell wrestler fell to the mat. Somewhat inexplicably, the Hawaiian landed on top of Bunch to clinch the points and the match.

“[It was] the only time in my life I can’t connect what I saw with what happened in reality,” says Noel, a former Cornell wrestling coach.

How about the other time when the sophomore knocked off Iowa’s then No. 1 Luke Eustice, 9-3, at the Midlands Championships, leading Garland to realize that, “This kid is going to win [the national title] this year.”

What about the time when Garland’s prediction came true, when, after an undefeated season, Travis faced Purdue’s No. 1 Chris Fleeger in the finals of Nationals? That memory is permanently tacked onto the walls in the coaches’ office at the Friedman Wrestling Center — a picture of Travis putting an ankle pick on the unbeaten Boilermaker No. 1 to win the match.

Perhaps we should add last Saturday’s win number 135 to this list too.

I genuinely feel bad for Tony Curto. Do you know who Curto is? He, like many of the opponents that have faced Travis, is nameless, unmemorable and about to be on the losing end. Koll says that defeats are engrained into wrestlers’ memory, and luckily, Travis’ recollection is short — he only has 13 career losses.

Unfortunately for Curto, he is unlucky victim number 135 — someone Travis will have to beat to claim Cornell’s all-time wins record and another stepping stone to another national title run.

As the sore-palmed crowd gets back into their seats, Travis is attacking, eventually taking the hapless Curto down in typical Travis Lee fashion. Curto reverses however, and the crowd and I are startled. What if he loses? Is there too much pressure? Is he jinxed? But come on, we’re talking about Travis Lee here.

And sure enough, Travis pushed it up another gear. Fifty gears in fact. Watching Travis unleash his fury on Curto after the reversal was like using a chainsaw when only a butter knife was needed. On four occasions, Curto was centimeters away from being pinned, but he luckily escaped in the end — with a 17-2 tech fall loss. A focused, quick, relentless attack — and an almost typical Travis Lee victory in the end.

However, Noel noticed that Travis seemed unhappy right after the match.

The real reason:

“He was disappointed he didn’t get the pin for the c
rowd. I’ll make him do some sprints tomorrow,” Koll quipped.

After the match, I spoke to Travis — his neck was covered with multi-colored leis, friends and fans were congratulating him and he was back to the same, humble personality you’d see walking across the Engineering Quad, studying at Uris Library or getting food in Collegetown. I asked him if he was unhappy with himself for not getting the pin.

“It kind of goes back to what I was telling you earlier — never be satisfied,” Travis told me, before quickly adding, “But I’m happy, don’t get me wrong.”

Isn’t that what we want from our champions? To never settle just for the win? To always push yourself to seemingly unachievable limits? To never be satisfied with merely doing things 100 percent?

And who would imagine it was Travis? A down to earth Hawaiian, who loves eating fresh fish, going surfing, hanging out on the beach and skateboarding whenever he’s home. A reserved student, who will probably be staying at Cornell next year to study biological and environmental engineering in the MEng program and hopes he has time to eventually learn how to snowboard. An iron-willed grappler who comes from the last state you’d think a wrestler would come from, and establishes himself as arguably the greatest athlete in the program’s 99-year history, let alone Cornell athletics.

Which begs the question: If you have all of this, and could accomplish so much, why can’t you ever be on time?

“I guess I try to get so much done during the day that I lose track of time,” he says.

Don’t worry Travis. We weren’t waiting long. In fact, you were always right on time.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Senior Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao