October 25, 2002

Alumni Feature: Neal Rodak

When Egypt and the University of Chicago share a sentence, it is usually concerning archeology. But this past week, it was to the Chicago athletic department that everyone was referring. Former two-time All-American wrestler Neal Rodak, A.B. '98, competed at the 2002 Greco-Roman World Cup in Cairo on October 19 and 20. The U.S. team was one of five teams competing in dual meets over the two-day period.

Rodak is the only athlete in the modern era of Chicago athletics to compete on the international level.

The U.S. placed third in the competition for the second year in a row. On the first day of the tournament, the U.S. soundly defeated their first two opponents, China and Tunisia, 24-2 and 26-4, respectively, but lost to Turkey, 4-21. The next day, host country Egypt overcame the U.S., winning 18-8. Turkey would go on to win the tournament, Egypt garnering second.

It's been quite a trip for Rodak up to this point. "I was excited, it's my first U.S. team with many more to come I hope," Rodak said about the experience. "I was not expecting it. It was a great opportunity."

"My Greco career started in high school, but in high school I didn't really know what I was doing. Truth is, I'm still extremely green. I've got a lot to learn," Rodak explained.

In 1994, during his senior year at Oak Forest High School, Rodak competed in the Junior National Greco-Roman Championships. The three-year team captain finished fifth at the tournament, also placing fourth at the Illinois State Tournament that year and posting a 117-32 overall record.

Rodak, who was recruited to wrestle for the Maroons and entered the College in the fall of 1994, received a number of awards during his time at Chicago.

He was a four-time University Athletic Association champion in the 118 lb. weight class, three-time team MVP and captain, and a two-time Academic All-American. He traveled to the NCAA national championships three times, resulting in All-American finishes in 1996 (eighth place) and 1997 (third place).

"Neal turned himself into a great wrestler his senior year. He had terrific wins against Division I opponents and NAIA finalists," said Leo Kocher, U of C wrestling head coach. "He was a very hard worker and improved tremendously. A great wrestler."

During his fourth year, Rodak posted a 32-7 season record. Although Rodak had a good chance at reaching the 118 lb. weight class finals, he did not make it. "He got severe food poisoning two and a half weeks before the NCAAs," Kocher explained. "He lost ten pounds of lean body weight. He was just a shadow of what he was in season."

Rodak still qualified for the national championships but lost in the All-American round of the tournament. "He really had a crack at the national championship. It was a tough end to his career," Kocher said.

After graduation, Rodak attended law school at Arizona State University, during which time he coached wrestling at Dobson High School in Mesa and produced three state champions and one high school All-American.

"He continues to be a typical U [of] C athlete, not merely focusing on athletic competition to the exclusion of all else, but achieving remarkable success while succeeding in other areas too," U of C athletic director Tom Weingartner said about Rodak.

Passing the Arizona bar in February 2001, Rodak entered the Naval Justice School and has been working as a Navy JAG since July 2001. He currently holds the rank of lieutenant.

It was the Navy that gave Rodak an opportunity to wrestle again. "I got started with the Navy team when a co-worker forwarded me an e-mail about the team," Rodak explained. "I had really missed wrestling, the competitive side of it as an athlete, since college. Additionally, I was unhappy with the way my collegiate career ended.

"That was a tough blow psychologically. I don't deal well with things being taken out of my hands. And that's what I felt like happened. Anyway, that was my mindset when I contacted Rob Hermann, the All-Navy wrestling coach and 1996 head Olympic coach. I wanted to compete again, and when my career does end, I want it to be on my terms," he said.

After two months of practice, Rodak took sixth place at the U.S. Open national championships. He placed fourth several months later in July at the world trials.

The top two wrestlers chose at the last minute not to compete, allowing the coaches to select Rodak, ranked fourth in the U.S. at 55 kg (121 lb.), in late September. He trained for the tournament with Hermann and 2000 Olympian Steve Mayes, and also cross-trained, lifted, and implemented plyometric "jumps" that he picked up from his time under Kocher.

Upon arriving in Cairo on October 16, Rodak felt himself in unfamiliar territory. "The competition was tough. The atmosphere was different. I learned a lot on this trip overseas—it's not like wrestling here [in the U.S.]."

Rodak won his first two matches against opponents from China and Tunisia by decision, 5-1 and 4-2, respectively; however, he lost his next two by technical fall to Turkey and Egypt.

"I guess I am satisfied for the most part with my performance," Rodak said, "I wish I would have kept the match tighter with the Turk [Ercan Yildiz]… I was so upset about the fact that my opponent jumped that I let my defense down, and before I knew it the match was over.

"After this trip, I definitely feel like I can eventually become a world and/or an Olympic champion," Rodak said. "It won't happen tomorrow, but with continued hard work and improvement, I definitely believe I can make it happen." He will have his next opportunity starting in late November, when he leaves to train for two tournaments in Sweden and Finland.