Wrestling Is No Joke For Joe Rau, Even If A Lot Of His Life All About Laughing

by Alex Abrams

Joe Rau poses for a headshot during a USA Wrestling photoshoot on June 10, 2023. (Photo by USA Wrestling)

Joe Rau has to be quick on his feet and stay in the moment, especially since so many things could go horribly wrong in an instant.

He knows he can’t control the situation. All he can do is react to whatever the person standing across from him does and hope that the audience appreciates his performance.

For Rau, performing improv comedy several nights a week at CLASH on Clark in his hometown of Chicago is a lot like wrestling. He has a passion for both, and he has used comedy to help him find more balance in his life as he attempts to qualify for this summer’s Olympic Games Paris 2024.

Not many wrestlers have trained at both the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Second City in Chicago, where comedic actors Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Candy got their starts.

“I had one (wrestling) tournament last year where I did a show at Second City, I flew to Europe and I competed in Hungary, and then the day after the competition I flew back and I immediately got on stage and did a show,” Rau said, laughing.

Rau, 33, said he’s now able to find humor in things, which wasn’t the case following his controversial loss to John Stefanowicz in the Greco-Roman 87 kg. finals at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. He admitted he fell into a “bad place” afterward and carried a lot of animosity toward the sport.

After abruptly retiring from wrestling, Rau decided to make a comeback and attempt for a third time to qualify for the Olympics. He’ll compete in the Greco-Roman 97 kg. weight class at the Olympic trials, which will be held Friday and Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania.

“Of course, you want to win. If I lose and I don’t make the Olympic team, I don’t think there’s anybody else really thinking this way, but I’m like I’ll just move on with my life,” Rau said, laughing again.

“I’m 33, so I’m excited for every possible outcome. I want to go to the Olympics. It’s like my life dream, but I guess I’m ready to just accept whatever fate is out there for me and I’m excited to go see what that is.”

Rau, who wrestled at Elmhurst University in Illinois, won a pair of U.S. Open championships in 2016 and 2019 and then earned the gold medal at the 2020 Pan Am championships and Pan Am Olympic qualifier.

Not all of it was fun, though.

(right) Joe Rau competes during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 04, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by USA Wrestling)

Rau admitted he has been hard on himself throughout his wrestling career, even when it comes to things on the mat that were out of his control. He said he has worked with a sports psychologist to deal it, and he believes he has developed into a much smarter wrestler who’s more patient during a match.

“Being a veteran of the sport, this is my third trials, I definitely think I’m (in) a lot more of a calm state than I’ve ever been leading into a trials,” Rau said.

Rau was so nervous while competing at his first Olympic trials in 2016 at age 25 that he said he had trouble breathing. He joked that his wrestling coach thought Rau was out of shape, but he believes he was actually having panic attacks.

Five years later, Rau was the top seed at the 2021 Olympic trials and in position to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. He ended losing twice to Stefanowicz by one point each, and he disagreed so strongly with the officiating during the finals that he took his case to an arbitrator and lost.

“I was really done with the sport. To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with it,” said Rau, who served as an assistant wrestling coach at Northwestern in 2022. “When the head coach Matt Storniolo asked me to coach at Northwestern after retiring, the first thing I told him was no.”

Rau admitted he didn’t feel he would ever “forgive” the sport of wrestling enough to want to compete in it again. He was performing improv comedy with the Second City when U.S. national team coach Herb House asked Rau to return to wrestling.

Rau initially said no, but after doing some soul searching and getting his wife’s support, he decided to make a comeback. He said it would feel like vindication if he qualified for Paris, adding that it would get “the monkey” off his back and allow him to be more at peace.

“That’s really what I’m coming back for. I’m coming back just so that I could walk away,” Rau said. “If I can go to the Olympics, I think that’d be easier. But I walked away (once), and I wasn’t happy. I don’t want to be a grumpy guy the rest of my life having to explain why I didn’t go to the Olympics.”

Rau laughed again. He knows pain sometimes makes for great comedy.