BILLINGS — Kai Stewart admits there were distractions.
There was too much chatter from people around him. Advice from the wrong direction. Temptation to do too much.
In honesty, the distractions were nothing new for the Great Falls CMR junior. A couple years back, Stewart won an opening-round match at the all-class state wrestling tournament as a freshman and nearly upset the No. 2 wrestler in the bracket in the quarterfinals. But consecutive losses sent Stewart home from Rimrock Auto Arena without a medal.
Last winter, Stewart shook off those distractions and stormed through the 138-pound bracket at the state tournament, qualifying for the state championship match. A heartbreaking loss in overtime stole what was supposed to be his moment.
“I was runner-up last year and it hurt too bad. I had to win it this year,” Stewart said Saturday.
Wrestling in the 138-pound division for the third straight state tournament, Stewart once again found a way to battle into the finale. A major decision in the opening round set up momentum for the 10-5 and 6-2 victories in the following two matches, pitting him against Missoula Big Sky’s Hunter Meinzen, one of the top athletes from the Western AA.
The duo dueled back and forth during all three periods, eventually leading to overtime, the second straight state title match with extra minutes for Stewart.
The additional periods were among the most exciting at the weekend’s state tournament, ending with an escape point from Stewart — officially scored as an ultimate tie-breaker for the Rustler.
“It feels amazing. No feeling, you can’t describe it in words, especially after the season I had,” he said. “This just makes it that much better. A lot of these kids were on top the whole season. I started at the bottom and had a rough start, but here we are, state champ.”
Standing atop the podium in Rimrock Auto Arena was a far cry from where Stewart began his junior campaign. Uncharacteristic errors, blown opportunities and eventual losses were disappointing. Stewart fell out of the rankings and appeared doubtful to be a state placer, let alone a finalist once again.
Luckily, Stewart recognized the distractions and tossed them aside, hellbent on proving doubters wrong and wrestling for the one person who mattered most — himself.
“I stopped doing it for other people,” he said. “I wanted to impress the crowd, do some funky stuff. I wrestled solid and look what happened, I won. I can’t describe it. A switch got turned on and here we are.”
Distraction free, with a gold medal around his neck.