Ryan Kooiker has always been a leader on the mat as an accomplished high school wrestler. Now, he is becoming a leader in another arena: The United States Air Force.
Kooiker joined the Iowa Air National Guard right after high school and is now serving with the Security Forces Squadron at the 132nd Fighter Wing in Des Moines.
“I have always wanted to be in the military since I was a little kid,” Kooiker said.
Kooiker recently returned from Oman, a Middle Eastern country east of Saudi Arabia, where he served seven months in Security Forces.
Throughout all of his training in the military, Kooiker said discipline is the biggest life lesson he has learned and been able to apply to his everyday life.
However, life has not always been about the military for Kooiker. At the age of five, his stepdad introduced him to wrestling. Kooiker joined a children’s club team that met three times a week.
Kooiker continued to wrestle throughout middle school and high school, where he wrestled at 130, 145, 152 and 160 pounds. In sixth grade, Kooiker met the coach that would end up coaching him six out of the next seven years.
Troy Houge was a middle school wrestling coach at Collins-Maxwell-Baxter who would go on to be the high school wrestling coach during Kooiker’s eighth grade year. Houge knew that Kooiker would be a tough wrestler because of his work ethic.
“He has a phenomenal work ethic,” Houge said. “He pushed it to the limits. He was one of those guys who just kept coming at you, so there were very few kids who could ever outwork him in a match.”
During his senior year, Kooiker placed second at the Iowa state wrestling tournament at 160 pounds. Houge believed that because of his work ethic Kooiker would become a strong leader.
Kooiker was also introduced to the Iowa State wrestling club when he got to Ames. One of Kooiker’s friends introduced him to Zach Byrnes, who is the president and student coach for the Iowa State club team.
Byrnes helped start the wrestling club with a couple of buddies in 2010 and has been wrestling competitively for the last two years. In his situation, Byrnes said it is hard to be a full-time coach but Kooiker has helped ease those troubles.
“He is the facilitator and he tries to get things moving,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes said Kooiker not only attends every practice but also works out off the mat as well.
Byrnes also believes the discipline Kooiker learned in the military has translated to his life on the mat for the wrestling club, while he also has to balance his schoolwork.
Kooiker has performed well on the mat in competition in his two years with the club. Last year, Kooiker won an NAIA-level tournament at Buena Vista in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Kooiker qualified for nationals last year but could not participate due to his deployment to Oman.
After coming home from his deployment to Oman this past year, Kooiker wrestled in that same tournament at Buena Vista, bowing out to an NAIA national champion. He went on to finish in fourth place in the tournament.
Byrnes said Kooiker entered the tournament with no more than two days of practice under his belt since returning to the mat from deployment.
Kooiker tried to try out for the ISU varsity wrestling team, but was unable to make the deadline due to his employment. Byrnes still feels that Kooiker has the attitude and ability to someday wrestle at the NCAA level.
Kooiker currently wrestles at 184 pounds and continues to work hard while attending as many of the meets as possible. In his most recent tournament, the ISU club wrestling tournament at State Gym, Kooiker went 4-0 to take first at 184 pounds.
Byrnes also feels that this club has given Kooiker a chance to fulfill his own dreams in the sport of wrestling.
“I want to be a leader,” said Kooiker, whose hope one day is to be a leader in the Air Force as a commissioned officer.