PISCATAWAY, N.J. — His senior year, Zain Retherford was stressed.
It might not have seemed like it, but after Retherford became just the second three-time NCAA champion in Penn State history he didn't feel the usual elation or thrill that normally comes with having just solidified oneself in the annals of history.
Instead, Retherford felt relieved — a state of being that is generally a byproduct of previous stress or worry — to have won his third NCAA title.
The stress, Retherford said, was brought upon by himself after he made it his mission to bring another NCAA trophy back to Rec Hall.
"I had a lot of stress and I felt a lot of pressure for some reason my senior year. I think it was more team related — I wanted to win a team title and Ohio State had a great team and it was like 'I need to perform,'" Retherford said.
Retherford admitted this wasn't a normal reaction and in his mind it was cause for concern and served as both the precursor and catalyst to his stepping away from wrestling competitively for nearly a year.
"Looking back, I was more relieved when I won the national title that year than I was feeling good about it. So in my mind it was like 'wow it's time to take a break,'" Retherford said.
The time away allowed Retherford to clear his head and focus on his goals.
But perhaps more importantly, it got Retherford, affectionately known as "The Zain Train," excited to compete again and to let the train out of the station, which has led him to this point.
Back on the mat and competing once again, the Benton, Pennsylvania, native is slated to take on two-time defending NCAA champion and Cornell junior Yianni Diakomihalis at Final X as Retherford looks to make his second United States World Team.
In Retherford's mind, it's all because of a vision he had nearly 20 years ago.
"When I did finally start competing again, I was really excited to do it. I'm here right now because of a goal I had when I was six years old, that's pretty cool that I still get to do this. That's what's carried me forward into this year."
This year has seen Retherford knock off a fellow former Nittany Lion and Olympian Frank Molinaro and former two-time NCAA champion Jordan Oliver, neither of whom Retherford had ever beaten.
But it was his match against Diakomihalis in the finals of the U.S. Open where Retherford met his match.
Diakomihalis came away with a 6-4 decision and earned an automatic berth to this year's Final X tournament by winning the Open, but he also got to size up Retherford in the process.
And after having sized Retherford up while also heaping praise on the former accomplished collegiate wrestler, Diakomihalis went on to make a bold assertion about the outcome of Saturday night's event.
"As we all know, Zain's gonna come out, he's gonna wrestle hard and bring the heat to you," Diakomihalis said Friday before the event. "For me, nothing changes — if I'm perfect, I won't lose. For me, it's just about making sure I'm in the best shape of my life and wrestling the best I've wrestled ever and for me I think that is the case."
For as brash as that comment may seem, the young Diakomihalis recognizes the magnitude of the situation and the impact his opponent has had on wrestling.
And it's because of that mutual respect that Diakomihalis feels he'll be pushed to rise to the occasion and supplant Retherford as the preeminent force to be reckoned with at 65 kg.
"I don't treat it like it's another match. I understand I'm wrestling one of the best wrestlers in the United States at 65 kilos and that's exciting for me," Diakomihalis said. "Some people might be afraid of all of the things Zain has accomplished but for me it's an opportunity to wrestle someone great and try to be greater. I don't try to diminish what he's accomplished as much as I take it as an opportunity to wrestle someone who is a great wrestler."
Ultimately, Retherford is focused on what he can control and using his previous experience, both against Diakomihalis and on the freestyle stage, as a guide for making his second U.S. World Team.
"Yianni wrestles a very interesting style and it's very unpredictable. That benefits him, obviously. But I think the fact that it is unpredictable, I've just got to keep my effort high," Retherford said. "I'd wrestle more strategically than I normally would in a match. I'm just looking forward to letting it fly and not worrying about the unpredictability."
Now, back from a year off and on the cusp of a second World team berth, Retherford said he's just ultimately excited to be competing again.
"That was why I took the time off; just to get excited about competing, and I am," Retherford said. "It's awesome."