At the South Beach Duals last December, Cornell wrestling’s Yianni Diakomihalis lost by decision to Jaydin Eierman of Missouri. A video review in the match’s waning moments gave Eierman a chance to come from behind, and the Tiger wrestler executed a six-point cradle in the final seconds to stun then-No. 1 Diakomihalis and hand the freshman his first career collegiate loss.
The loss to Eierman turned out to be the only defeat that Diakomihalis suffered en route to a national championship. But it was one loss too many, according to Diakomihalis.
“That cost me a few nights of sleep,” he said. “I [wanted] that back.”
Diakomihalis earned the chance to redeem himself against Eierman on the national stage at the NCAA Championships in Cleveland. Except this time around, he was operating with a torn right ACL.
But against all odds, the fearless grappler rose to the challenge. Diakomihalis avenged his single loss and won in the national semifinal to advance to the title bout. The weight of the latter achievement notwithstanding, the young wrestler was grateful to get a chance at redemption.
“The Eiermann match wasn’t about winning nationals or making the finals,” Diakomihalis said. “That one was just for me.”
Not even the toughest of injuries was going to stop Diakomihalis from getting that loss back, illustrating the attitude and determination it takes to be a national champion.
In the national quarterfinals against two-time national champion Dean Heil of Oklahoma State, Diakomihalis unknowingly tore his ACL. The rookie would go on to win the match — and then two more — anyway, to win the title at 141 pounds, joining Cornell wrestling legend Kyle Dake ’13 as the second true freshman in program history to win an NCAA Championship.
Dake went on to win four national titles in his collegiate career.
“If we expect anything like we did with Kyle, the next three years are going to be a heck of a lot of fun,” said head coach Rob Koll.
To wrestle not one, not two, but three matches with a busted knee undoubtedly takes physical toughness to endure the pain. But it also takes a mental grit that separates wrestlers from champions like Diakomihalis.
After that quarterfinal match, the trainers examined his right knee. But Diakomihalis insisted that he not know the details of the injury. He didn’t care how his knee felt, or what was wrong with it. He was going to keep wrestling for the title — no matter what.
“[Trainer] Chris [Scarlata] did the ACL check and … he just made this face, and I was like, ‘don’t tell me what’s wrong, I don’t want to know. I am wrestling no matter what, so I rather not know,’” Diakomihalis said.
A year before winning the title, it was unclear whether or not Diakomihalis would have been able to pull off what he accomplished at the NCAAs. Coming to Cornell, the talent was certainly there.
“Just because he’s 18, 19 years old doesn’t mean he can’t beat a 22 or 23 year old; he will,” Koll said at the beginning of the season. “We know Yianni, although unproven [on the collegiate level], he’s a proven commodity.”
But still, there was something missing.
“A flaw of mine in high school [was] … I never had the full push,” Diakomihalis said. “And you need the full push.”
On a technical level, Diakomihalis was wrestling at a very high level upon his arrival to East Hill. But skill alone is not enough to win a national title. He still had plenty of work to do — mentally and physically — in the months leading up to the start of his first season as a collegiate wrestler.
“[A lot of my improvement] came from training my mind, because I always had good skills, but I was never really in great shape and I never was super tough, [I never] grinded people,” Diakomihalis said. “I never broke people in high school. I just won matches because I was a better wrestler.”
As good as he was, Diakomihalis was more than ready to improve as a wrestler, to obtain that ‘full push.’ He didn’t have to do go at it alone.
Two-time All-American Mike Grey ’11, now an assistant coach at Cornell, has been an integral part of helping the freshman become a championship-caliber wrestler.
“When I got here, all the intangibles — the ability to win close matches, the ability to score when you need to — all those things I had inside of me that I was not able to pull out, Mike was able to pull out of me,” Diakomihalis said.
“Mike’s the toughest dude I know,” he added. “I knew he could get that out of me. I wasn’t tough, and he made me a lot tougher than I used to be.”
According to Diakomihalis, Grey has gone above and beyond in helping him rise to the top.
“[Grey’s] done so much for me this year,” Diakomihalis said. “He’s put a lot of time and effort into me. Even though it’s his job, he didn’t have to do that; he doesn’t have to work out with me and help me cut weight, help me diet, way more than he needs to, way more than he should, some would say.”
Every day, Grey would give Diakomihalis a mental test to complete. Whether it be getting a certain number of takedowns in a practice, or hanging from a bar for a period of time, the tests involved physical ability and tested Diakomihalis’ mental will.
“When he first got here, he obviously had a lot of accolades to his name,” Grey said. “[But] there was a lot of unknowns.”
He either passed or he failed. There was no in between, and failure was not an option — at least not for a champion.
“I just try to challenge him mentally every day,” Grey said. “Every day there is an opportunity to expand his mental capacity and his mental toughness. And that’s really what I tried to hammer home to him.”
Grey put significant time and effort into ensuring Diakomihalis was where he needed to be by the time the postseason rolled around.
“I wouldn’t have won this year if he didn’t put so much time into me,” Diakomihalis said. “Bottom line, the odds of me winning go way down if I am just going through the regular season without [Mike] focusing on me.”
As a result of all this time spent together, Grey has become much more than just a coach or trainer to Diakomihalis.
“[Mike] is like family to me,” he said. “Mike’s done so much for me … He’s given up a lot for me.”
Blessed with some of the best coaches in the world… Coach Grey has done more for me in these past few months than I could ever do for him. Thank you Mike pic.twitter.com/HcrvZeGxO2
— Yianni Diakomihalis (@yiannidiako_LGR) March 18, 2018
The unwavering support from Grey helped elevate Diakomihalis, physically and mentally, to a place he wasn’t at when he first walked into the Friedman Wrestling Center. But by the time March rolled around, winning the NCAA Championship didn’t take him by surprise.
“Not that I thought that I was better than everybody, but if you gave me a thousand dollars and said ‘bet’ I would have bet on myself,” Diakomihalis said. “For me, I expect the best possible result for myself whether or not I can do it.”
Now, with a national title already under his belt, Diakomihalis is set to lead the charge over the next three years for the Red.
“What I see from him in the future is just continued success,” Grey said. “He knows what his goals are, we know what his goals are … The goal is to just wrestle to the best of your ability … His goal is to win when he steps on the mat.”
‘Demand the best’
After winning a national title in his first year, the expectation for Diakomihalis remains the same — four championships.
“I expect to win four [championships] because I demand the best of myself,” Diakomihalis said. “So the fact I won my freshman year, the most I can get is four, so I am going for four.”
Diakomihalis has shown he can win a national championship, even in the toughest of situations. And by returning the favor to Eierman in the national semifinal, the rising star has shown he can defeat everyone he has faced thus far.
Nonetheless, there isn’t a sliver of complacency surrounding his mindset.
“The goal is to continue to improve,” Diakomihalis. “You set these milestones for yourself, but really, you’re just looking to improve.”
The true goal for Diakomihalis is to become the best wrestler he can be. And the national title is a result of this drive to improve — another stop along the road to greatness.
Dylan McDevitt ’19 contributed reporting to this story.