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Jaydin Eierman was a hometown wrestling star at Mizzou. Then he left for Iowa.

By Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register
Iowa wrestler Jaydin Eierman poses for a preseason photo shoot at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

FULTON — Thirty kids are scattered across the wrestling room here as Jaydin Eierman ties his shoes for another workout. It’s a Sunday morning in late December, five days before Christmas and four weeks before the top-ranked Iowa wrestling team’s season opener against Nebraska. He stands up and tells the kids to gather ‘round.

It’s the second of a two-day mini-camp hosted by Eierman Elite, an exceptional youth wrestling club in mid-Missouri. Eierman is the star clinician. These kids, some seniors in high school, some as young as 10, drove as far as two hours to come learn. He taught them a 2-on-1 series yesterday. Today, rear-standing defense.

“This always works for me,” says Eierman, Iowa’s starting 141-pounder.

Off to the side laughs Mike Eierman, the brainchild behind Eierman Elite.

“Yeah, for you,” he says, “but probably not them.”

As Eierman shows the technique, Mike tells the story of when everything changed.

In 2019, Eierman went to Budapest, Hungary, as part of USA Wrestling’s U23 men’s freestyle world team. It was his first experience on an age-level world team, but the trip was fruitless. Eierman went 1-1.

He was eliminated on the first day of a seven-day competition and spent the rest of the week in his head, seething over a lost opportunity.

Eierman thought about his career — three All-American finishes, but no national titles; an appearance in the U.S. Open finals in 2018, then a fifth-place finish the next year, and failing to place the year after; how he had beaten world champions Logan Stieber and Beka Lomtadze, but wasn’t consistent enough to win a world title himself.

Sometime on the 14-hour flight home, Mike says, Eierman finally spoke up.

“I’m done with Mizzou.”

‘He had to learn that lesson on his own’

Eierman Elite’s wrestling room is a converted two-car garage behind Mike’s home in rural Missouri, just outside Columbia on State Road J. Two yellow signs are at both entrances that read: Unless you want Coach Eierman to walk into your office tomorrow and tell you how to do your job… PLEASE no parents in the matroom.

“Gifts from my fiancée,” Mike says and laughs. 

The space is big enough for two full mats. The basketball hoop in the center seems out of place, but the concrete wall in the back is Mike's coaching résumé, full of signatures and accomplishments of the many wrestlers he helped train.

There’s Brock Mauller, an All-American for Missouri in 2019. There’s Grant Leeth, another All-American for the Tigers in 2018. There’s Ben Askren, a two-time NCAA champion and 2008 Olympian. There’s J’den Cox, a three-time national champ, two-time world champ and Olympic bronze medalist.

And there’s Jaydin Eierman, a four-time state champ at Father Tolton. He went 158-0, the second Missouri wrestler to complete an undefeated prep career. 

Tolton's Jaydin Eierman, then with the last name Clayton, was the second wrestler in state history to complete an undefeated high school career.

“I’m not sure 18-year-old Jaydin could’ve handled the Brands brothers,” Mike says now. “Mentally, I think 18-year-old Jaydin would’ve folded.”

Eierman understands the idea. He grew up admiring the Hawkeyes. He was in middle school when they won three straight NCAA championships from 2008-10. During his state title match his freshman year at Tolton, he wore black Iowa socks. He loved their toughness, but didn’t fully understand what that entailed.

Mike does. He grew up the second of four boys in Chicago’s south suburbs. He was an All-American as a true freshman for Nebraska in 1993. He later helped Terry Brands train for the 2000 Olympics. One day, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Mike was part of a 5-on-1 drill session with Brands.

Brands gassed them all out.

"I know (Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands) well enough to know if a student buys in, the moon is the limit, maybe more," Mike says. "But Jaydin wasn't mature enough or tough enough mentally to understand those mindsets and respond to it.

"At 18 years old, I don’t think he was ready for that kind of intensity. I don’t think he would’ve thrived."

The Budapest trip revealed a number of things, but it's clear that Jaydin Eierman went there one person and came back another. He's more determined now, focused on long-term goals. He's different now than the hometown boy who wrestled at Missouri.

And that's the point.

"He's grown up quite a bit since then," Mike continues, "but he had to learn that lesson on his own."

Missouri's Jaydin Eierman, left, wrestles during a match at the Hearnes Center. Eierman was a three-time All-American with the Tigers before transferring to Iowa for his final collegiate season.

‘It’s definitely his sport, I’m happy about that’

It’s time for live wrestling at the mini-camp, so Eierman grabs one of the biggest kids in the room for a match. He takes off his shirt to reveal his many tattoos. There are nine total and more planned, Eierman says, and they reveal the story of his family.

On his right bicep: Forever Loved.

On his left: Never Forgotten.

Below that: JCS.

His mother, Heather Thurston, was born and raised in mid-Missouri. She now lives in Columbia. One of her brothers, Jared Selsor, was a state medalist as a high school junior. In 1999, Selsor’s body was found beneath the Callaway County water tower. His obituary said the county sheriff ruled his death a suicide. He was 21.

Selsor’s gravestone reads: “In Memory Of A Caring Spirit Set Free, Forever Loved And Never Forgotten.”

Eierman was just 3, but Thurston says he loved Selsor. Thurston spent many weekends in high school gyms growing up, watching him wrestle. She also happened to be in the arena when Parkway Central’s Scott Schatzman became the first Missouri high-schooler to be a four-time, undefeated state champion in 1995.

So it was a no-brainer to get Eierman involved, too. He was an energetic child with a good sense of spatial awareness. He wrestled one tournament his first year. He spent most of the day on his back, but he smiled the whole time, she says.

“Jaydin learns by moving,” Thurston says. “I can still see him at 5 years old, thinking in his brain about the next moves, what’ll work, what won’t. It’s definitely his sport, for sure. I’m happy about that. I love it.”

On Eierman’s left forearm: Don’t forget those who were with you from the start.

He was born Jaydin Clayton on May 2, 1996, to Thurston and Shaun Clayton. But Shaun was not around often. At 10, Jaydin told his mom he didn’t need to see him any more, a decision Thurston supported because of what she called a “lifestyle difference.”

By then, Thurston and Mike were dating, so Mike assumed the father-figure role Jaydin lacked. They eventually broke up, but Mike maintained that role while coaching him. In addition to four state titles, Jaydin Eierman was a two-time Cadet freestyle All-American and the nation’s No. 39 overall recruit as a senior in high school.

When Jaydin signed with Missouri, he signed as Jaydin Clayton, but in January 2016, during his true freshman season, he legally changed his name to Jaydin Eierman, a nod to Mike. When Eierman talks about Mike, he refers to him as "Dad."

That same month, his birth father, Shaun, died at age 41.

“I don’t know where my life would be if not for him,” Eierman says of Mike. “He was that coach that took me to new levels for wrestling, and I don’t know where I would be without him and wrestling in my life.”

Many things are on his left shoulder: praying hands with a rosary; the words “Faith,” “Family” and “Strength” on banners; a dove; wrestling shoes with “EE” on the sides; and the date “8-21-18.”

Eierman’s grandfather, William Selsor, was a mid-Missouri lifer who painted and golfed. He had many nicknames, but Eierman called him "Hawk." For years, he worked as the pro shop manager at Arthur Hills Golf Course in the nearby town of Mexico. He sometimes brought Eierman lunch at school, and loved watching him wrestle.

“He was everything to me,” Eierman says.

Eierman Elite’s wrestling room is just 18 minutes from Tolton and 20 minutes from the University of Missouri campus. Much of his family lived nearby, too. Missouri’s 2018-19 roster featured 19 Show-Me State natives, including four from Columbia.

Brian Smith, Missouri's longtime wrestling coach, had a simple pitch: stay and wrestle for the hometown team.

So Eierman did.

“Mizzou was home for him, for sure,” Thurston says. “All his friends that he’s wrestled with since he was 5 are there. It was a good choice and the right fit at the time.”

Missouri's Jaydin Eierman, top, competes against Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis at the NCAA championships March 16, 2018, in Cleveland. Diakomihalis won the match.

'He's going to be world champ someday'

During the live match back in the wrestling room, Eierman pulls out a move he’s hit dozens of times before. The kid shoots and grabs hold of Eierman’s leg, but Eierman shimmies his hips and picks up the kid’s right leg. Eierman then crunches the kid’s head toward his knee and locks up a cradle and rolls him over for the pin.

It’s a unique move that has gained traction in college wrestling, and it speaks to Eierman’s unique wrestling style.

“I would say 'clever,'” Mike says when describing it. “Spontaneous. He’s very, very clever, and it’s very unique when you wrestle him.”

That style led Eierman to a sterling three-year run at Missouri.

He bumped up from 133 pounds to 141 midway through the 2016-17 season, which he parlayed into the first of three All-American finishes. He’s 89-12 overall with 38 pins and 60 total bonus-point wins entering the 2021 season.

Eierman loved wrestling the moment he started. He wanted to win state and national titles, then eventually world and Olympic gold. Mike helped him evolve on the mat, and Thurston helped him off it. She did not keep alcohol in the house, for example, because he's had family members who have struggled with alcoholism. 

When Eierman was 12, he told his mom that he would never drink. Thurston took it a step further.

“I go, ‘Jaydin, never is a very long time, but if you are successful and don’t drink, when you turn 21, I’ll give you $2,000,’” Thurston says now. “You can do it one time, and you’re hooked. He learned that at a young age.

“But I never told him not to do anything. I just wanted him to have the knowledge to make the choices.”

When Eierman turned 21, Thurston took him to Cabo to celebrate. He turned 24 last May. Still hasn’t drank.

A few weeks before he turned 22, in April 2018, Eierman stormed to the U.S. Open finals, the highlight coming in a 6-5 quarterfinal win over Logan Stieber, a four-time NCAA champ from Ohio State and 2016 world champ. 

Four months later, Hawk had a stroke. Eierman was in Kansas City at the time and rushed to meet the family at University Hospital in Columbia. Selsor smiled when Eierman walked in, and before a second stroke killed him at the age of 82, he pointed at Eierman and looked at the nurse.

“The last thing my father said,” Thurston remembers, “‘You see that guy over there? He’s going to be a world champ someday.’”

Jaydin Eierman walks out to the mat before a match during the USA Wrestling senior national championships Oct. 10 at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

'I needed ... something extra'

Eierman’s first chance to become a world champ came in Budapest, but a wild 13-13 loss — he stormed back from a 9-2 deficit to lead 12-9, but Akmataliev, from Kyrgyzstan, leveled the match and won on criteria — ruined that opportunity.

He spent the rest of the week thinking, about the match, about his training, about how he could get better. Mike could see it in his eyes.

“He started to plateau,” Mike says.

There’s some truth. Eierman has long been considered a top-tier wrestler, but 11 of his 12 career losses have come to the same five guys: Dean Heil, George DiCamillo, Bryce Meredith, Yianni Diakomihalis and Joey McKenna. He followed his U.S. Open finals appearance with a fifth-place finish.

Then came Budapest.

“I should’ve done a lot better, and that experience opened my eyes,” Eierman says. “Against Kyrgyzstan, I should’ve won that, but I gave up too many little points. If I had basic defense and fundamentals, I think I would’ve blown through that tournament.

“I needed something else, something extra. I really needed coaches who could coach me to where I needed to be. I needed coaches who could push me at every second and not let me say no.”

The tournament ran Oct. 28-Nov. 3. Eierman spoke up on the flight home, but Mike told him to wait. Sleep on it, he advised. Think it over. On Nov. 6, a Wednesday, back in Missouri, Eierman woke up and found Mike in the kitchen. It was time.

Call Brian Smith, Mike said. This is your decision.

The phone call lasted two minutes.

Eierman was in the transfer portal that morning. By noon, his phone flooded with texts and calls. But he knew exactly where he wanted to go.

Call Tom Brands, he told Mike.

Eierman announced his commitment to Iowa the next day, Nov. 7. The allure of the program's already-powerful lineup as well as the postgraduate opportunities with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club were enticing enough to pull the trigger. He ignored his constantly-pinging phone, determined to go where he felt he could achieve his goals.

He and Mike drove up to Iowa City that week. They watched the team's wrestle-offs and talked with Michael Kemerer, Spencer Lee and Cory Clark. They met with Brands and finalized the decision.

“He knew where he wanted to go,” Brands says. “That surprises a lot of people — and I’m saying that very, very sarcastically. This is a great place, and people don’t want to admit it. We don’t get them all, but he wasn’t looking anywhere else.

“We didn’t have to sell. We had already sold ourselves to him and didn’t even know it. It was a slam-dunk, a layup.”

From left, Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands talks with Mike Eierman, Jaydin Eierman and Ryan Morningstar during the first day of preseason Hawkeye wrestling matches Nov. 7, 2019, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

'I'm here to stay, I'm a Hawkeye now'

Eierman has been in Iowa City for close to a year now. He lives with Clark, Iowa's 2017 NCAA champion and Hawkeye Wrestling Club member. They play video games and talk wrestling and eat breakfast at The Dandy Lion on Dubuque Street. Eierman is still amazed by the wrestling fandom at Iowa compared with Missouri.

"You know as well as I do that these fans are rabid," Brands says. "Iowa Hawkeye wrestling fans are felt from afar, and he’s been feeling that. He wants to be the big man on campus. He thrives on that."

Their first chance to watch Eierman came in October, at the new Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa, at the 2020 U.S. Senior national championships. He finished fifth, but each time he stepped on the mat, the Iowa-heavy crowd came to its feet. 

A month later, at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown Open, Eierman added another signature win, knocking off Olympic champ Vladimer Khinchegashvili 4-1. He scored two takedowns of Khinchegashvili in the second period, but something felt different.

Eierman wrestled more calmly. He stayed in his stance and focused on the basics and fundamentals. He was employing the exact type of style he hoped to glean from the Iowa room. It was a result that reinforced his decision to transfer.

"Fundamentals and basics add to your style and what you already do well," Brands says. "If you’re a little unorthodox and funky, basics only make that better. If you’re flexible, basics and fundamentals make that flexibility work for you better. If you’re strong as a horse, basics and fundamentals make you stronger.

"There’s a lot of ways to win, and he’s certainly been successful without us. So it’s a matter of what he can pick up from us and what can we add to his style, and that’s really how we operate with all of our individuals."

One of the draws to Iowa, Eierman says, was the program's family-like atmosphere. He liked how the Hawkeye wrestlers always say "we" in interviews. He loves Tom Brands for his relatability and level-headedness, and Terry for his intensity. He rolls regularly with Lee and Austin DeSanto and Jesse Ybarra and so many others.

They talk often about winning this year's NCAA team title, which would be the program's first since that 2010 season. They also talk about even bigger goals, about winning Olympic gold, about becoming world champions.

"Our culture about winning is totally different," Alex Marinelli, Iowa's senior 165-pounder, says. "It’s just a standard. A national title is the standard. Jaydin Eierman likes that because he likes to win."

After beating Khinchegashvili, Eierman walked up to the camera inside Xtream Arena and delivered a message to the thousands watching from home.

"I just want to say, I’m here to stay," he said. "I’m a Hawkeye now, and these people are my people."

Hawkeye Wrestling Club advisor Terry Brands, left, slaps Jaydin Eierman before his semifinal match during the USA Wrestling senior national championships Oct. 10 at the Xtream Arena in Coralville, Iowa.

'There's a little fire burning'

Eierman did not shy away from Iowa's large expectations for this season.

The Hawkeyes are approaching 2021 as something of a redemption tour, with "unfinished business" after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out last season's NCAA championships. Eierman has adopted that same mindset. In each of his past two trips to the NCAA championships, he's lost in the semifinal round.

The NCAA's blanket waiver in response to COVID-19 gives Eierman two cracks at an NCAA title before he embarks on a freestyle career with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club — and he wants to take advantage of both of them.

"His demands for himself aren’t unique inside the walls of our wrestling room," Brands says. "It remains to be seen where this thing goes, but he’s got to show himself off a little bit. But inside, there’s a little fire burning."

Eierman still calls home every day, mostly to talk about wrestling. He tells Mike about the new moves he's learning, the new positions he's working through. Mike no longer hears a kid going through the motions. He hears someone who is genuinely excited about wrestling again.

"Practice isn’t about just working hard," Mike says. "It’s going in there every day and taking another step toward your goals. He wants to be an Olympic champion, but he needed to be surrounded by people that want that.

"Tom, Terry, Spencer, everybody, every day, they’re working to be the best in the world, not just an NCAA champion. He’s thriving. I don’t think the story is even half-written. He’s got a lot more to do, a lot more he wants to do. Where he’s at, it’s the perfect fit."

Remember those tattoos? One of his newer ones is on his left chest.

It's not where you start. It's where you finish.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network.