Updated Fri, Nov 1, 2013 11:48 am
Tim Jackson is a filmmaker studying film at Ohio University. His thesis project is a film called Wrestling With Iowa, which follows Jake Marlin and Brandon Sorensen - two high school wrestlers in Iowa who were searching four their fourth-straight state championship, a feat that has only been accomplished 19 times before.
WOUB called Jackson to talk about his project and what he learned from an amazingly intense base of wrestling fans and families.
WOUB: First, when did this project start?
Tim Jackson: This is my thesis project. It started originally as a photography book project in 2005. At that point I wanted to do a sports photography book, kind of matching a sport and a state, and I was really interested in the history of wrestling and the dominance of wrestling in the national and international communities. Pretty much everybody in the world knows Iowa and wrestling. Looked at it back then, things didn't quite work out, and I put it on the shelf...when I got into graduate school, I was looking for a project for my thesis, and there on my list was "Wrestling With Iowa." So I started to do the research about two years ago in December and discovered that all the pieces could fall into place.
WOUB: Did you have any previous ties to Iowa?
TJ: I lived there when I was a kid for 18 months, we lived down in Keokuk, but was not connected with the wrestling scene at all...really I got into sports photography and did a lot of major league sports. You hear about this great wrestling tournament and how it is sold out again in Des Moines. So it was always there, just on the periphery.
WOUB: Did you have any sports and states you looked at for the original photography book?
TJ: Iowa and wrestling was the first one on the list.
WOUB: How long have you been in production?
TJ: I moved to Iowa in September of last year and was there until the first week of March...over the course of preseason and wrestling season.
WOUB: When is the project going to be screened?
TJ: The first week of December is the thesis screening date at the Athena. I just locked that in today, it's Dec. 3.
WOUB: You were there for six months, what did you learn by being there that you couldn't find out through research?
TJ: What surprised me was how tight the community of wrestling is in the state. It's inter-generational. Dan McCool published a book of everyone who has ever qualified for the state wrestling tournament. We were picking through it, and the father of one of the wrestlers I was following was a state champion, and he could name everyone he's ever beaten at the state tournament. He recognizes those family names, so when his son is wrestling those people, it's like, 'Oh yeah, I beat your dad or your uncle or I wrestled your dad or your uncle 20 years ago.' So the way they can remember these things is amazing.
Tim Jackson (photo: ousof.com)
WOUB: The two wrestlers you followed - Brandon Sorensen and Jake Marlin - was there anything that stood out to you specifically about those two kids or were they prototypical Iowa wrestlers?
TJ: Their talent level is head and shoulders above the rest. To win four state championships, to go undefeated in a season...these guys have the ability to step on the mat and be so much better than everybody else. Honestly they'd go into some matches saying, "Well I need a little bit of a workout, so I'm going to play with this kid for two minutes and then I'm going to pin him." It was never that arrogant, but it was definitely...they had a hard time finding quality competition. Part of it was that the state kind of cleared a path for them - not throwing them the JV kids, but some of the good, quality guys got out of the way. [They would say] well I'm going to go up a weight class or down a weight class and try to give myself a chance at a state championship.
WOUB: So the guys in Marlin and Sorensen's weight classes realized they weren't going to win there, so they might as well move around and try to win at another class?
TJ: There was one kid specifically that lost to both of them...he specifically went up to the 150-pound weight class to get away from both of them.
WOUB: Did he end up winning there?
TJ: In the end, he ends up winning his weight class...he kind of made that choice mid-January that he had a better chance at a higher weight class. (Note: That wrestler was Union's Logan Thompson.) He was one of like 12 wrestlers. Just kind of like, 'We're going to stay out of the way." It's funny though because these guys know who these people are, especially when they've wrestled forever. Jake and Brandon started when they were four or five. These guys have been wrestling for 13 years. Now they're wrestling at the University of Iowa and getting their butts kicked. This year at the University of Iowa wrestling room, there are four Iowa four-timers, there's one four-time second place finisher, and there's two national champions and three all-Americans. It's a state tournament Monday through Friday. I went to their wrestle-offs, and they had two sessions, and they had like 400 at the first session and 700 at the second session...and this is hanging out in the Iowa wrestling room. There's a sign on the door that says, "Take your shoes off," and people take their shoes off. You're walking on hallowed ground. And then Dan Gable shows up and watches, and he's a nice guy, and it's kind of weird but it's kind of cool.
WOUB: We loved in the trailer that you talked to a lot of the 4-time state champions...
TJ: I talked to all of them. That was fun in itself, because there's a 50-year gap between the oldest and the youngest. It was interesting to hear what wrestling has done for them. All of them have gone on to be successful people. I just think that's a testament to work ethic of wrestling.
WOUB: When you started this, did you know that your focus was going to be Marlin and Sorensen?
TJ: Yeah, actually I went to the state tournament in 2012 to do research, and shot and met the kids and the coaches and the parents. I was hoping that they'd win their thirds. You can't win four without winning a third. If one of them had lost it would have been a different project. If both of them had lost, maybe it's not such a good plan, maybe I go to a backup plan. I'm really glad it happened that way. Both families were amazing. The access I got was....it's "Iowa Nice" at its peak. I went five and a half months without a hotel room. I always had a place to stay.
WOUB: No way...
TJ: I had an apartment in Marshalltown and I was there two or three nights a week doing other stuff halfway between Denver and Creston. When I was in Creston I stayed with the family, when I was in Denver I stayed with the grandparents. If I left to go catch these 21 previous champions, I had a place to stay in New York, I had a place to stay in Chicago. I stayed with the Steenladges in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. I just had these pockets of friends that just happened to be near the people I needed to interview.
WOUB: One of the things that stuck out was the fact that the whole building knows who's going for their fourth straight state title, and when they win it, the whole building gives that wrestler a standing ovation.
TJ: Yeah, every state champion since (Bob) Steenlage has gotten a standing ovation. That's a huge tradition. You give them a standing ovation. I asked them what they remember about it; some remember, some don't, it happens right after you're done wrestling. It's a mixture of emotions when you get to that point. Most remember it because you get another standing ovation when you get to the podium. I think that's just special. That's respect and everybody understands what these guys went through.
WOUB: Normally at sporting events you get big roars for each team, but with wrestling you get little pockets of family and friends and fans, but then for the whole place to rise as one is really special.
TJ: And it's not like they announce that here's a guy going for his fourth...these people know. They know who these people are. They follow them, they read The Predicament, and they follow online, and so-and-so used to wrestle against so-and-so. The standing ovation is not prompted...it's prompted by 50 years of tradition.
For more information about Wrestling with Iowa, visit www.wrestlingwithiowa.com.