Days before his championship match, Matt Cover envisioned what he might do if he won a gold medal.

The 2019 Bay High School graduate wanted to win the heavyweight class at the Junior Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia, grab the American flag and take a lap around the mat with it fluttering behind him for everyone to see.

After scoring a 10-0 victory over Colombia’s Luis Orozco Cortez on Dec. 4, he did.

“Once I scored the point and went over and grabbed the flag, it was a really awesome moment,” he said. “It was an amazing feeling.”

The trip was a career-defining event for the former Rockets standout. The 20-year-old was added to Team USA over the summer – one day before the registration deadline – and had previously never left the country.

Despite some travel that could be considered brutal, he faced competition he’d likely never see in a new setting and gained once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Also a sophomore wrestler at Princeton University,

Cover competed in the men’s freestyle tournament, which took place Dec. 3-4. All athletes present were between the ages of 17-22.

It was a unique environment, featuring athletes from across the U.S, Cuba, Central and South America. Wrestling matches were held in a converted open-air hockey stadium called Hockey Miguel Calero Arena, where the daily high temperature surpassed 80 degrees. Spectators filled most of the stadium, and made more noise than Cover was used to hearing at competitions stateside, including the use of drums.

Besides the heat, humidity and loud local fans, he also had to contend with adjusting to a different style of wrestling. Colombia and Cuba wrestlers used more of a defensive style, allowing their opponent to dictate the pace and reading and reacting to each takedown attempt. Cover was able to maintain his strategy of using some aggression to pile up points, but did so with a degree of caution.

“It was almost like a chess match,” he said.

Still, he was able to navigate his bracket and win gold. He scored a 10-0 decision over Colombia’s Jhoan Ocoro, then picked up a win via fall against Yoan Robert Ramirez of Cuba before facing Orozco Cortez in the heavyweight (275 pounds) final.

It was a long way from competing in the tight quarters of the wrestling room at Bay High, and in the gyms surrounding where he grew up. As a Rocket, Cover was a three-time state qualifier and is the program’s all-time leader in wins with 171.

After taking a little time off for Christmas, Cover will wrestle his first matches of the season for Princeton on Dec. 29, when he competes at the Ken Kraft Midlands Championships at Northwestern University.

“I feel like I’ve come a long way in the sport, going from Bay to Princeton and now Team USA,” he said.

Contact this reporter at sports@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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