Looks can be deceiving.
Although often wearing a smile, when Katie Dutchak hits the mat, the look is replaced by one of intensity and determination.
“The more fun I have with it, the better I do,” Dutchak said. “So I try to stay light-hearted and fun and smiley in the room as much as I can. But I’m a competitive person and when we start to get on the mat, you definitely turn it back on.”
“Katie’s a gamer, she’s an aggressive wrestler,” Saskatchewan Huskies assistant head coach Shane Bradley said.
“She steps on the mat and then she goes out and really focuses on setting the pace in the match. She’s had a little bit of time off and I think that it’s helped her body heal a bit and now she’s just out there ready to go.”
Dutchak, a two-time Canada West champion and 2017 U Sports gold medallist, has returned to the mat for her fifth and final year of eligibility as a Huskie after a two-year hiatus following her graduation.
She has come back with a new outlook on the sport, one that’s helped her in her preparation for her first Olympic trials.
“Focusing on my career was what was best for me at that time,” Dutchak explained.
“It was really hard to step away from wrestling, but I truly believe everything happens for a reason, and taking those two years off, like I said, gave me a totally different perspective coming back into the room and one that I don’t think that I’d be able to compete with this year if I hadn’t done that. So, it’s been beneficial.”
Joining Dutchak at Olympic trials is another decorated women’s wrestler, Berit Johnson, who won silver in last year’s U Sports nationals. The third-year Huskie has benefited greatly from Dutchak’s return.
“She is a huge mentor, she has a great personality that she brings to the room,” Johnson said. “Her expertise and her technique, it’s just a different look at things. It’s great to have that energy and that person standing beside you.”
At just 20 years old, Johnson will be one of the youngest competitors at the trials. However, she sees being an underdog as advantageous.
“You have the best position out of anyone in the weight class, out of anyone in the bracket,” Johnson explained. “Even though you’re not seeded, everyone’s scared of you — they don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re looking for something to be taken away from them and I’m just going to be the one to take it.”
The two women aren’t the only athletes representing the Huskies at the Olympic trials. They’ll be joined Hunter Lee, who, like Johnson, won silver at the 2019 U Sports nationals, before taking home a junior world bronze in Estonia in August.
The third-year Huskie agrees with Johnson that coming in as a younger competitor is beneficial.
“I think that should be scary to the older guys because they know that I’m still improving, and I’m improving a lot faster than a lot of the older guys that have already gotten these experiences,” Lee said.
Beyond being a positive experience for the athletes, having three Huskies wrestlers compete in the national trials is extremely favourable for the program.
“A lot of these kids are homegrown, they’ve come through our development programs and it’s exciting to see them get to that top, where they’re competing for an Olympic placement,” Bradley said. “It’s exciting for our program, it’s exciting for the province.”
Despite being viewed as underdogs in their individual weight classes, this pack of Huskies will be supporting each other throughout the competition.
“To come with such a strong, big team, you can feel that energy, you can feel that build,” Dutchak said. “You want to do it for your teammates as much as you want to do it for yourself.”