It wasn’t long ago that wrestler Daniel Dennis gave up his sport and left his home to travel west with nothing but a pickup truck and a motorcycle. Now, he's headed to Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Dennis, a native of Ingleside, Illinois, powered his way to victory at the Olympic trials earlier this year, becoming a serious gold medal contender in the 125-pound weight class.
"He is the epitome of what you want in a wrestler," said his high school wrestling coach, Ryan Geist.
As a two-time state runner-up at Grant Community High School in Fox Lake and national runner-up at the University of Iowa, Dennis has already been an athlete to watch, but never an individual champion.
"We have many, many second-place trophies and awards, many silver medals, so that elusive gold medal is something he is really striving for," said his mother, Jane Dennis.
Following the heartbreak of losing the NCAA Championships, and watching his father battle terminal brain cancer, Daniel Dennis decided to leave the sport to which he had given so much over the years.
"It is hard mentally, physically and emotionally," Jane Dennis explained.
In 2013, the wrestler headed west with nothing but his pickup truck and a motorcycle, spending the next two years living a minimalistic life — no TV, no Internet and no wrestling.
"I just think the lessons you can take away from situations like that can change people," said his brother, Charlie Dennis.
Daniel Dennis eventually began helping coach a high school wrestling team in California, and with a renewed sense of clarity, decided to give the sport he loved one more chance.
"We were sitting playing cards one and I said, 'What is next for you?’'and he said, 'I am going to make the Olympic wrestling team,'" Jane Dennis recalled. "I said, 'OK, you go for it.'"
In 2015, Dennis finished as the runner-up in the U.S. World Team Trials and fourth in the U.S. Open.
He became a U.S. Olympic Team Trials champion and U.S. Open champion in 2016, winning undoubtedly the biggest wrestling match of his career and punching his ticket to Rio.
"I think he left something out there," said Jane Dennis. "I think he always knew he had it in him. I think he came back at the urging of his friends and the fact that his dad would have been really proud."
It was a victory that Daniel Dennis' friends and family hope can lead to something even greater — that he can go from Olympic athlete to Olympic champion.
"He knows his dad wants him wrestling and he knows his dad is smiling down on him now," Geist said.
"My dad would not be able to hold it together," Charlie Dennis added. "Happy tears all over the place. You know, my dad was really emotional. He loved watching Daniel."