This story appeared in the Metro St. Louis edition of the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
If you ever see a Drake Houdashelt wrestling match, don't expect a beauty pageant. When the Fort Zumwalt West (O'Fallon, Mo.) senior tangles with an opponent, no one comes out looking good.
But Houdashelt usually comes out a winner.
And while his style may not be pretty, it's certainly worked for him. Houdashelt went 38-3 last year and won the Class 4 state championship at 140 pounds, so it's no wonder he's embraced the art of the ugly victory.
"It's not about style or style points," says Houdashelt. "You don't get points with that. I'm not concerned with that. It's just about doing what it takes to win."
With an approach that's more tenacity than technique, Houdashelt has become one of the country's top wrestlers. He's rated the nation's No. 48 recruit from the Class of 2010 by InterMat, and W.I.N. Magazine has him at No. 9 in his weight class. Next year, he'll continue his career at NCAA powerhouse Missouri.
"He just has a unique style about him," says Fort Zumwalt West coach Dan Hayes. "He's a decent athlete and his technique is pretty good, but he makes you work for everything. You really have to hit a great shot or do something special to score on Drake."
While Houdashelt may look a bit unrefined on the mat, it's actually taken him more than a decade of hard work to perfect his craft. He started as a 6-year-old taking after his older brothers, and he soon found himself immersed in wrestling.
"I just loved it," Houdashelt says. "I loved being in your face and really getting after it. It was awesome."
It wasn't long before he dropped football and soccer and concentrated solely on wrestling. Good results followed, as Houdashelt started performing well at youth tournaments. At age 8, he began training with coach Nick Purler, a local authority on the sport.
Along the way, Houdashelt developed his own style, which can appear a bit odd even to lifelong wrestlers. Seemingly uncoordinated on his feet and boasting an array of herky-jerky movements, he makes it hard for opponents to get a clear shot at him or defend against his unpredictable attacks. And above all, Houdashelt has the toughness to stick it out and will himself to victory if need be.
"I'm never stopping," says Houdashelt, describing his approach on the mat. "No matter what, I'm wrestling 100 percent. I'm really tough on my feet and pretty good on bottom, but I'm at my best when I'm scrambling. I'm not giving anything away."
That approach has suited him well. Houdashelt may not be textbook, but it works to his advantage.
"With Drake, it's all intangibles," says Hayes. "To pinpoint a go-to move or something like that, he doesn't really have one. He's really good on the mat, and his tenacity is overwhelming."
When he reached high school, Houdashelt had high hopes. As a freshman at Zumwalt West, he expected to win a state title and defend it successfully three times before graduating. It didn't go down as planned, however, as he dropped a tough quarterfinal match in his first appearance at state and finished fifth.
Realizing he had plenty of room for improvement, Houdashelt spent the offseason wrestling nonstop, traveling the country to participate in tournaments against the best competition. He came back as a sophomore determined to win a state title, but once again fell short.
This time, Houdashelt made it to the finals before losing. The runner-up finish was hard to take, but his mental toughness eventually pulled him through.
"In high school wrestling, there's so much wear and tear on your body," says Houdashelt. "You're going against older guys, guys with more muscle, and it's a totally different level of wrestling. It was disappointing (to finish second), but mentally I just had to keep coming back and getting better."
Last year, Houdashelt focused on improving his footwork and his physical strength. But when push came to shove, it was his willpower and drive that allowed him to win the biggest match of the season.
In the state semifinals, Houdashelt was matched up with Howell Central senior Kyle Bradley, a personal rival. Bradley had already beaten him twice that season (Houdashelt's only losses to an in-state opponent), including the conference championship match just weeks earlier.
As the match went to overtime, Houdashelt reached back for something extra.
"The first two times there was doubt in my mind, and he beat me by one point in really close matches," he says. "But in the tournament, I didn't have any doubt. My mindset was that I was going to win, and that was the only option."
Houdashelt won the match in OT and went on to an easy victory in the finals. As usual, it wasn't pretty, but Houdashelt had his long-awaited state championship.
"You could see it last year, the confidence Drake had in himself," says Hayes. "Even against [Bradley], he never wavered. He really earned it."
Now that Houdashelt has proven himself at the high school level, he's still looking for challenges. He's moving up in weight and plans to wrestle at 160 pounds this season. The transition will be tough, but that's never been a problem before.
"I've been pushing myself every day to get ready," says Houdashelt. "Wrestling is probably about 50 percent technique, and the other 50 percent is just how mentally tough you are and how much you're willing to give. I think that's one of my strengths."
And that's how a kid with "decent" athleticism and "pretty good" technique has become one of the nation's elite wrestlers. It's never going to be pretty, but Houdashelt doesn't mind. He's fine with winning.