Dr. Takedown: Bohlken leaves Missouri as starting heavyweight, aspiring orthopedic surgeon

The Smithville, Mo. native claimed a spot in coach Brian Smith’s regular lineup and has been accepted into medical school.

Jake Bohlken stood in the lobby of Missouri's wrestling room during a standard weightlifting session in December after running down from the weight room to grab his phone. When the senior looked down at the screen, he saw the call he’d been waiting for throughout his four years in Columbia.

With his freshman teammate and brother Mitchell coincidentally standing beside him, Bohlken was accepted into medical school. As the voice on the other end of the line confirmed it, he broke into tears.

“It was just awesome,” Bohlken said. “Even being in the wrestling facility when I got that call was really special. Something I’ll never forget.”

A month later, Bohlken received another call from another school, the one he thought would best help him become an orthopedic surgeon: The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Louisiana-Monroe campus.

“Man, that’s like the coolest thing ever,” Dom Bradley, former All-American wrestler and current heavyweight coach said. “He could’ve gone to nationals and it still wouldn’t be cooler than that.”

Jake Bohlken knew he wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon a little over four years before he got the call. It started with a saga beginning with the day his high school football teammate and close friend went down with a torn ACL.

“He had surgery in June and was actually able to compete in our last game at the end of October,” Bohlken said. “Just seeing that process, how much hard work he put into that, and not knowing if he was going to be able to play football ever again [inspired me].”

“To be able to be a part of that process definitely struck a nerve in me.”

Bohlken knew his goals for after his collegiate wrestling career before he knew that he would have a collegiate wrestling career at all. As late as January of his senior year of high school in Smithville, Missouri., he aimed to play Division I baseball, but he wasn’t getting the offers that he would have preferred.

Bohlken always prioritized academics in high school, earning Academic All-State honors 10 times across all three of his sports, but he also aimed to continue his athletic career. His high school wrestling coach suggested that he give it a shot, and a month later he committed to Missouri right before his final state tournament at Hearnes Center.

“There was just something about Mizzou, and the way they cared about the entire process, but then the thought of being on an elite team in an elite program like this was definitely something that I wanted to strongly consider,” Bohlken said.

Bohlken’s focus on his studies and off-the-mat activities did not waver as the years went by in Columbia. The heavyweight met the grade requirements to be accepted into medical school, volunteered with a member of the Columbia Orthopedic Group, and led the team in community service.

He was able to strike a balance between his academic goals and his goals as a wrestler, meeting every day with Clay Rogers, Missouri Athletics’ director of academics for Olympic Sports. Rogers praised his ability to stay balanced.

“What probably Jacob does best, better than probably most people is he’s in the moment,” Rogers said. “When he is on the mat wrestling, whether in practice or a competition, that’s where his focus is, and then when he’s in academics, his focus is academics. When he’s at community service, his focus is on community service.”

However, as the season began with the application process in full swing, Bohlken hurt his knee. His coaches started to notice that that focus began to waver.

“I felt like he — not lost interest, he was still a leader on our team — but he wasn’t able to practice and do things, so I think he was starting to move on with his other life,” coach Brian Smith said.

When he received that phone call, though, a burden was lifted off of Bohlken’s back.

“I could put all of my time and focus into wrestling,” Bohlken said. “Not that I didn’t give it everything I had, but when you don’t have to worry about stuff like where you’re going to school next year it definitely became a little easier to focus some of that time in.”

“He was on cloud nine, he was so pumped up, and then it was just like his whole attitude changed,” Smith said. “Like, ‘My life’s in order now, I know I got that part settled, I can focus on what I’m doing.’ And wrestling became a big priority.”

Smith readily admitted that Bohlken was fourth out of four heavyweights on the depth chart going into the season. Redshirt junior Austin Myers injured his knee, and the incumbent starter, sophomore Zach Elam, took a redshirt year to train for the Olympics. That left Bohlken and Rodrigo Diaz, who won the job on opening day, to compete for the starting role.

Bohlken started splitting time with Diaz in December, shortly after the former bested the latter in a Cougar Clash tournament bout on Dec. 7. Beginning with the Central Michigan dual on Jan. 17, Smith made Bohlken the full-time starter. He would win only one of his eight regular-season matches as the unquestioned heavyweight, but Smith’s confidence never wavered.

“He was in every one of them to win it, and they were very, very competitive matches,” Smith said. “We just felt like in every match, he gave us an opportunity to get a win, and eventually he was gonna have that breakthrough. We just believed he was gonna step up and get wins.”

Bohlken agreed, crediting coaches Smith and Bradley for pushing him in practice and continuing to stick with him throughout the close losses.

“It was certainly frustrating, but I knew the gap wasn’t that far away,” Bohlken said. “I was really trusting the process of what [Bradley] was talking about. We knew what the game plan was, it was kind of getting the kinks out of not executing that.”

“He was getting his butt whooped in practice, but he just kept competing,” Bradley said. “You had Zach Elam, who was almost an All-American last year, competing against him in practice. We were in there, not destroying him, but competing hard. Eventually, he did start scoring against us in practice.”

He, Smith and Bohlken were right. When the Mid-American Conference tournament came, Bohlken won two matches and placed eighth after entering the tournament unranked. One of those wins came against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville’s Colton McKiernan, who had beaten him twice during the regular season.

The big MAC eighth-place-finisher’s contribution helped the Tigers win their ninth consecutive conference tournament championship, and eighth since they joined the MAC.

“He just believed,” Bradley said. “Believing is a big part of Tiger Style. He just refused to get out of the lineup.”

Bohlken’s medical school acceptance, the one that made his emotions get the best of him in the wrestling room lobby in December, did come with some bittersweet news. It spelled the end of his collegiate wrestling career, despite having one more year of eligibility left. Though Bohlken has cherished his time at Missouri, it was not a difficult decision to make.

“As far as wrestling goes, I mean, my record speaks for itself,” Bohlken said with a laugh. “It’s definitely something I wanted to do while I was in college, to compete at the Division I level. But once I got the call, I knew that that was what I was gonna do.”

When he leaves Columbia, Bohlken will be remembered as one of the Tigers’ best academic performers in years, as well as the 2019-20 winner of the Hap Whitney Coaches Award. He was given the honor on April 28 for “dedication, commitment, sacrifice and unselfishness to the team on a constant basis.”

“It’s tough that he’s leaving the team, but I know it’s the right decision,” Smith said. “I look at how hard he worked and how many extra things he did. I told him, ‘I don’t care what you’re doing, if you’re an orthopedic surgeon or a heart surgeon, I’m hoping you’ll be mine.’”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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