MISSOULA — Each time Gunnar Smith takes the mat, there are two people he specifically has in mind for whom he wrestles for.
His parents Rustin and CaSandra.
"I’ve been wrestling since I was 4 years old and I’d give a lot of the credit to both my dad and mom, they’ve been super helpful," Smith told MTN Sports. "They paid for a lot of the trips, I’ve been out of state to wrestle and they’ve been super big and super awesome to my wrestling career and just everywhere I’ve gone and everything I’ve done. They’ve been a real big part of that.
"I really like to show up for my parents. They mean a lot to me and they've done a lot for me. It's pretty easy to just wrestle for them."
Those sacrifices and support mean a lot to the Eureka senior and, for him, are a big reason why he's one of just two wrestlers in Montana who is chasing the coveted four-peat this season. If he accomplishes that, Smith will be the first wrestler from Eureka to join the four-time state champion club.
There's pressure, but Smith welcomes it.
"It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little guy," Smith said. "I’ve always wanted to shoot for a four-time state champion and I feel really blessed. It’s something pretty cool. I like the pressure, I like where I’m at, I like to know that I have a target on my back and that kids want to beat me. I like that pressure, I like the feel of it."
Smith is 8-0 to start the season with each win coming by pin. Overall, his record sits at 77-8 with 57 pins to his name.
Injuries have played their part in Smith's career. After winning the state title as a freshman at 113 pounds, Smith was able to wrestle only seven matches as a sophomore but still found a way to win the 120-pound title.
Last season, injury struck again as Smith missed the first part of the season, but he went on to compete in 23 matches and win the 126-pound championship to make it three in a row.
This season, Smith has fluctuated between 132 and 138 pounds, saying he's still undecided where he's going to focus at. But whichever he chooses, he knows people will be gunning for him, but he feels up to the challenge.
"I feel it occasionally and I get a rush of excitement. I like it, I like the feeling that people are gunning for me, I kind of like that," Smith said. "It's a good feeling. But I don't mind chasing other people either. I like to wrestle good wrestlers. To be the best you've got to beat the best, that's something I've been told my whole life."
Eureka coach Danny Lemer said Smith has been one of the toughest athletes mentally he's ever coached, and that is a big reason why he's been able to find himself on the cusp of making history and handling that pressure.
"It’s huge, the pressure, being in the spotlight, having everybody looking up to you or toward you," Lemer said. "It’s very demanding and the pressure is huge so having that mental attitude is key.
"He wants to win, he wants to face the best. He's not scared to wrestle whoever. He has a mind that is very tough. Back in junior high I could tell he was a special breed."
Smith, who was an all-state football player in the fall, spent most of the summer weight lifting and working on cardio with wrestling camps and tournaments canceled due to COVID-19. Escapes, control when on top, speed and finesse are areas Smith has seen himself grow the most over the years and continues to focus on as his high school career winds to a close.
He wants to wrestle in college and is still undecided on a school, but at the moment Smith -- along with many other high school athletes -- is just happy to be playing sports right now. Along with chasing a fourth title, Smith and Eureka are looking for their first team state championship since 2017, the school's lone first-place finish. Last season the Lions finished third.
"I'm lucky that we have a season at all so you just take it one tournament and match at a time," Smith said. "I was so nervous that I wouldn't be able to have my senior season of wrestling and that would've been a heartbreaker so I just feel really blessed that we're doing it this year. Even with all of the precautions, I'm glad that we can just go out there and wrestle and try to have as much of a normal season as we can."