Approximately 480,000 Division I student athletes play collegiate sports, according to the NCAA.
In Division I wrestling, only the top eight finishers in each weight class at the NCAA Tournament will become All-Americans.
Lehigh’s Laike Gardner could be one.
Gardner, a mechanical engineering major from Biglerville, Pennsylvania, is a senior captain on the wrestling team, which is ranked 10th in the nation.
Gardner is the 12th-ranked wrestler in the country in the 149-pound weight class and owns a 17-7 record this season.
Four of his seven losses have come against opponents ranked in the top 10.
After years of training approximately 20 hours a week, Gardner has placed himself in a prime position for success during his senior year at the EIWA and NCAA championships.
As a freshman, Gardner recorded six wins and six losses. He recalled having numerous grueling battles against senior teammate Randy Cruz in attempts to earn the starting spot at 133 pounds. Gardner beat out Cruz for the spot in the fall, but had difficulty keeping his weight down.
“By the Midlands Championships that December, I was really struggling with my weight,” Gardner said. “I was nine pounds over at the end of the first day of that tournament, and I had to stay up really late to work it all off. It was not a fun experience.”
The following day, Cruz defeated Gardner 14-0, and Gardner lost the starting spot for the rest of the year.
In his sophomore season, Gardner happily embraced a new opportunity to move up to the 141-pound weight class, put together a 17-10 campaign and qualified for the NCAA Championships. After discussions with his coaches in the postseason, Gardner decided it would be beneficial to make another change. He deferred a year of eligibility in the 2014-15 season to move up to the 149-pound weight class.
“I am really glad that I had the redshirt year to make that adjustment,” Gardner said. “That year I was pretty undersized, but put in a lot of hard work in the weight room, lifting three to four times a week to get that size on.”
The hard work paid off for Gardner, who compiled a 22-11 record, placed third at the EIWA Championships and again qualified for the NCAA Tournament as a junior. He cited taking the time during his redshirt year to become a student of the sport and open up his mind as the reason for the marked improvement.
Coach Pat Santoro credits Gardner’s persistent work ethic for the improvement he’s seen over the course of Gardner’s five years.
“(Gardner) attacks practice,” Santoro said. “Some guys think they’re just going to get better by getting older, and it’s not like high school where you can get by on talent alone. (Gardner) really comes in wanting to get the most out of practice every day and genuinely improve.”
Gardner’s work ethic has also captured his teammates’ attention. That, along with his character and willingness to invest time in his teammates, has led to Gardner being voted captain two years in a row.
Junior Drew Longo is one of Gardner’s co-captains this season and said his leadership and devotion to the team are vital components of the team’s success. Longo said what sets Gardner apart is his ability to connect with teammates one-on-one.
“His leadership and character transcend the mat,” Longo said. “He gets past the wrestling and works hard to get down to how people are doing and what they’re feeling. He’s such a genuine guy.”
Gardner said he enjoys making personal connections with his teammates. His individual goal of becoming an All-American does not supersede his goals for his team. He is hoping to see the team place in the top four at the NCAA Championships. Gardner knows achieving these goals will require each wrestler performing at his peak, and he has taken the time to get to know how to motivate each one.
“My message to Ryan Preisch, who likes to hear things straight, is going to be completely different than to a freshman, where the conversation will probably require more time and explanation,” Gardner said.
During championship season, Gardner will be responsible for helping his teammates get in a frame of mind that helps them wrestle at their highest level while also preparing himself for one final chance to become an All-American.
Santoro said Gardner’s talent level is unquestionably there. What he hopes to see from Gardner in the last month of the senior’s career is a focus on performing to his abilities, rather than getting too caught up in winning or losing, which can cause nerves and tightness.
Regardless of how his journey ends, Gardner is in a position to obtain an honor so prestigious that for countless other competitive athletes, it is nothing but a passing dream, quick to be dismissed.
For Gardner, that dream is in his grasps of becoming reality.