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Greatest Athlete #4: New York had never seen a wrestler like Jantzen
Of all the moves, all the skills and all the talents that Jesse Jantzen acquired over the course of his great wrestling career, it might come as a surprise to hear what he considered to be the most valuable tool in his toolbox: humility.
“I think you need to be humble in your life,” Jantzen said. “You can be confident, but need to be confident with a certain level of humility. You have to know what your ability is. You have to know what your shortcomings are.”
Shortcomings? Jantzen didn’t have many of those. That only makes his appreciation of humility all the more impressive.
Jantzen was a dominant force on the wrestling mat. The former Shoreham-Wading River High School star was a four-time New York State champion. He was the state’s winningest wrestler at the time of his high school graduation. He became a three-time all-American and an NCAA Division I champion at Harvard University. He was a World University Games champion.
Humility, as well as confidence, played a role in all of that. A wrestler needs humility, confidence and a healthy balance between the two. It can be a delicate balance, to be sure, but Jantzen found the right mix.
Jantzen, 29, can trace his humility to his parents, Don and Deborah. It is in his nature. “I never thought I was good enough to act any other way, to be honest with you,” he said. “There’s always someone who’s better than you.”
Not many were better than Jantzen. New York had never seen a high school wrestler like him before. With the notable exception of a place on the United States Olympic team, Jantzen squeezed about as much as he could out of a full wrestling career. His wrestling exploits are legend and his name became nationally known.
Jesse Jantzen was introduced to the sport that his name later became synonymous with as a youngster around kindergarten age when his father brought him to a kid wrestling session at Rocky Point High School. It was there where he met his future best friend, Mike Torriero. Those two were part of quite a training trio at the time along with Steve Broglie. Torriero would go on to become a high school all-American for Rocky Point and then a wrestler at West Virginia. As a wrestler for Mount Sinai, Broglie became a Suffolk County champion.
Wrestling suited Jantzen well. By the time he was 9 years old, he won a state freestyle tournament. Meanwhile, he was being exposed to top-notch instruction. He attended clinics and camps that featured accomplished wrestlers like Olympic gold medalists Dan Gable and Kevin Jackson.
“He got to see the Mickey Mantles of wrestling,” said Don Jantzen.
And then there was instruction from Don Jantzen himself, a 1972 county champion for Comsewogue who later wrestled at C.W. Post, and then coached Comsewogue and Shoreham-Wading River.
Described as fanatical about his workouts, Jesse Jantzen was determined not to be outworked by any opponent. Dan Miracola, a former Shoreham teammate of Jantzen’s, said: “He puts so much time in. No matter how hard you work, he’s working a little bit harder than you.”
Jantzen progressed quickly. When he was in seventh grade, he skipped middle school wrestling and was bumped right up to the varsity team.
“As we got older, we went to bigger and bigger tournaments,” Torriero said, “They seemed to get tougher and tougher for me, and easier and easier for him. He was ready for the varsity level when he was a third-, fourth-grader. He was ready for the state and national level when he was a seventh-grader.”
Don Jantzen, who was an assistant coach for the Wildcats at the time, kept a watchful eye over his seventh-grade son in the state tournament in 1995. It might have been with a little concern that Don Jantzen watched 12-year-old Jesse, wearing braces, step on the mat in the match for third place at 96 pounds.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I hope he doesn’t break him,” Don Jantzen said. “The guy he’s wrestling really looks like a man.”
Jesse Jantzen won that bout, capping a 28-2 season that saw him become the first seventh-grader to win a Suffolk championship. It was the start of a wondrous time for Jantzen and the Wildcats.
“His high school career was nothing I or anyone else could have dreamed of,” said Don Jantzen.
Although it didn’t happen much and he tried to keep his composure in public when it did happen, Jesse Jantzen said he didn’t handle losing well early on. “It ate at me,” he said. “I hated it. It pissed me off.”
While it was rare for Jantzen not to have his arm raised by the referee after a match, Torriero saw how losses affected Jantzen. “Those things stung like hornets,” said Torriero.
Don Jantzen said: “Wrestling is one of those sports [in which] the difference between winning and losing is so drastic. When you lose it hurts. It was difficult. It was emotional. It was an open wound.”
But Jantzen turned his losses into a positive. They motivated him to train harder.
Jantzen won his first 16 bouts that freshman season before he suffered a loss to a defending league champion from Rocky Point, who pinned him with one second left in the third period. The following morning, Don Jantzen noticed a newspaper clipping hanging on a mirror in Jesse’s room with a headline that included the words “Jantzen Pinned.”
When Jesse was later asked about it, he told his father: “I put up [a story] that I was pinned. That’s not going to happen again.”
It didn’t. That was the last time Jantzen was pinned in high school.
Wrestling at 112 pounds, Jantzen was a repeat league and county champion and took third in the state once again as an eighth-grader.
Paul Jendrewski, Shoreham’s coach at the time, didn’t realize how dominant Jantzen would be when he first saw him as a sixth-grader, but he was finding out. Making good use of innovative takedowns and the crab ride, Jantzen controlled bouts.
“He went out there with just fearlessness,” Jendrewski said. “I hadn’t seen anybody better than him on their feet. He could take people down with a flick of the hand. That whistle [blew], and he was on you.”
Jantzen lost only one of his 33 bouts as an eighth-grader — in a state semifinal. It was his last loss in high school.
From that point on, the wins piled up as Jantzen improved and added state titles to his résumé. He went 37-0 as a freshman at 125 pounds, 41-0 as a sophomore at 135, and 36-0 as a junior at 145.
By the time Jantzen completed his junior year, he had passed Adam Mariano of Comsewogue as Long Island’s winningest wrestler and became one of 11 New York wrestlers to have won three state championships.
Heading into his senior season, the aim was for a fourth state title. It had never been done before. Could he do it?
Jantzen’s wrestling was scrutinized that season. Three matches would be going on at once in tournaments, and all eyes were focused on one mat — the one Jantzen was wrestling on. One newspaper reporter wrote that critiquing Jantzen is like trying to find a flaw in Superman, stating that Jantzen is about as close to wrestling perfection as they come. It got to a point that if Jantzen made one slip in a match, it was a big deal.
Because they were so one-sided, Jantzen’s matches weren’t always the most exciting to watch, though. He was so superior to many opponents that he threw down like a rag doll and routinely controlled bouts from start to finish, making it look almost effortless.
Jantzen finished his quest in style. In the state tournament at the Onondaga War Memorial in Syracuse, he breezed into the 145-pound final by recording three first-period pins in a total time of 2 minutes 48 seconds. Then, in the title bout, Jantzen stopped Ben Morczek of South Lewis by technical fall at 2:08 to become the first four-time state champion in New York history.
“It was the most remarkable thing that ever happened in the State of New York in wrestling,” Torriero said. “He’s the Roger Bannister of wrestling. It couldn’t get done, it couldn’t get done. He did it.”
While the capacity crowd of 7,113 erupted into cheers, Jantzen leaped into the arms of Jendrewski and then hugged his father. Meanwhile, the crowd began a chant of “Jesse! Jesse!” and gave him a two-minute standing ovation.
“It was a moment to be cherished,” said Jendrewski.
Afterward, Jantzen said: “It was pretty exciting. I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes and wrestled as well as I could. I didn’t want to go out with any regrets.”
He acknowledged that he had felt butterflies, saying, “There was a lot riding on this.”
Don Jantzen recalled it as a surreal moment. “It seemed like every time he did something amazing or spectacular or that seemed like the climbing of Mount Everest, the next major event he’d outdo that one,” he said.
The victory extended a state record win streak to 157. All but one of his wins that senior season came by pins or technical falls. He also finished high school with six league and six county titles (something no one else has ever done) to go with his four state crowns. One upstate New York newspaper hailed him as “The Mat King.”
Three days later, Shoreham-Wading River High School celebrated “Jesse Jantzen Day” in recognition of the milestone. Speaking before an assembly of students in the school auditorium, the principal, Joe Hayward, told Jantzen, “You are our hero and our champion.”
Four state titles put Jantzen in a class of his own at the time. Two wrestlers — J.P. O’Connor of Oxford (2003-6) and Alex Ekstrom of Palmyra Macedon (2006-9) — have since joined him as New York’s only four-time champions.
John Lange had been the first Suffolk wrestler to win three state titles when he did so for Longwood from 1992-94. When Jantzen’s name was brought up during an interview last week, Lange, who later won a Big 10 championship while wrestling for Penn State, joked: “Damn him. Thanks to that guy, nobody remembers me.”
Before Jantzen graduated from high school, though, he had some final business to attend to, a national tournament in Pittsburgh.
In a tournament that Don Jantzen said included a who’s who of top wrestlers, his son pinned every one of his opponents to win it.
Jantzen’s career high school record was a remarkable 221-3, placing him second on Suffolk’s all-time win list behind Stephen Dutton, who accumulated 226 wins for Rocky Point and Hauppauge before graduating in 2010. Jantzen was named the 2000 Asics National High School Wrestler of the Year, and also became a junior national champion that year.
When it came time to select a college, Jantzen picked Harvard. Aside from the school’s outstanding academic reputation, one of the factors that influenced Jantzen’s decision was Andy McNerney, a friend, Shoreham graduate and former Harvard wrestler who was serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the Crimson as the time.
As with all freshmen wrestlers, the college level was an adjustment for Jantzen, but he soon adapted to life in Cambridge, Mass., and was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. After four seasons at Harvard, Jantzen had become the most decorated wrestler in school history. He capped his senior season in 2004 by winning the NCAA title at 149 pounds and being named the NCAA Most Outstanding Wrestler and the Ivy League Wrestler of the Year, with a 38-1 record. It was also the third straight year in which he was honored as an all-American. Along the way, Jantzen was a three-time conference champion and made the all-Ivy League first team in each of his four years.
Jantzen became Harvard’s first national champion in 66 years. With John Harkness, who was a national champion for Harvard in 1938, in the crowd at the Saavis Center in St. Louis, cheering him on, the top-seeded Jantzen finally achieved the NCAA title that had eluded him the previous three years. He defeated Oklahoma State sophomore Zach Esposito, 9-3, and was named the tournament’s most outstanding wrestler. When the match was over, Jantzen threw off his headgear and held up his arms in triumphant fashion.
“It feels incredible,” Jantzen, who went 131-13 in college, told ESPN2 after the match. “My whole four years, it’s been my goal. … Taking third twice, it’s been tough on me. It’s been kind of a burden, and this was my year.”
Jantzen didn’t lose a match at 149 pounds that entire season. His only loss came when he moved up a class to 157 against Alex Tirapelle of Illinois.
After graduating from Harvard, Jantzen looked ahead to a wrestling future that he hoped would land him in the Olympics. He concentrated on freestyle wrestling and trained for several years at Harvard while serving as an assistant coach for the Crimson.
In 2005, Jantzen took fourth place in the World Team Trials and sixth place in the U.S. Senior National Championships. He also competed for the New York Outrage team in the first season of RealPro Wrestling.
But possibly the most significant triumph of his career also came that year when he won a gold medal at the World University Games in Turkey. In the prestigious tournament, which is open to wrestlers under the age of 28, Jantzen defeated Kelaxsaev Berding of Russia, 4-0, 2-0, in the finals, becoming only the third American to finish first in the tournament. He was impressive.
Not only did Jantzen not lose a single period in the entire tournament, but he shut out his opponents in seven of 10 periods.
Then, after the World University Games, Jantzen suffered a huge setback, tearing a ligament in his right foot. The injury was misdiagnosed, Jantzen said, and kept him out of wrestling for about a year and a half. “It ended up being a little bit of a debacle,” he said.
When Jantzen came back, he pursued his Olympic dream. However, not only did the foot injury set him back, but he came down with food poisoning a week before the Olympic Trials in Las Vegas.
“I looked like [garbage], for lack of a better word,” he said. “My body was hurting. I was vomiting and everything.”
Not surprisingly, considering the condition he was in, Jantzen didn’t make the team. He believes that on his best day, he could have been an Olympian.
That marked the end of competitive wrestling for Jantzen.
“It was difficult,” he said. “I’m sure I spent a couple of days sobbing like a little baby, but there’s a lot of worse things that can happen.”
Torriero said: “That foot injury threw a major monkey wrench into the plans. It was devastating for all of us.”
Eventually, Jantzen traded in his wrestling singlet for a business suit. He now lives and works in New York City, working for a hedge fund.
Torriero said it was tough for Jantzen to walk away from wrestling.
“I think he lost a part of his identity,” Torriero said. “It’s like being a dragon slayer and there are no more dragons to slay.”
Jantzen still maintains a connection to wrestling, though. He goes to camps and works out with his younger brother, Corey, who himself is a two-time state champion entering his senior year as a Harvard wrestler. (The Jantzen brothers aren’t the only athletes in the family. One sister, Doni-Melissa, was a two-time field hockey All-American for Hofstra University. Another sister, Debi-Michelle, who will enter her senior year at Shoreham-Wading River High School next month, is a member of the junior national field hockey team.) But Jesse Jantzen said his real passion now is wakeboarding.
Aside from his absolute dominance in wrestling, some also remember Jesse Jantzen best for his sportsmanship and respectful manner.
“He had a lot of success,” Torriero said. “He definitely could have let that have gone to his head and be arrogant and cocky and brash, and he didn’t. He treated everybody the same. Whether you were a two-win junior varsity wrestler or a state champion, he treated you the same.”
Jantzen said he doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on what he did in wrestling.
“I appreciate the time that I had to have fun and compete in the sport that I love,” he said. “When you look back, I guess you do realize it was a lot fun.”