Kaleb Larkin epitomizes what it means to be an outlier. At six feet tall and weighing 149 lbs, the freshman wrestler has unprecedented strength, stamina and flexibility for his size while managing to encompass a high wrestling IQ and unorthodox style unheard of for his age.
When describing Larkin, having the full package isn't an understatement.
"Kaleb is definitely the future of the program," Wrestling head coach Zeke Jones said.
Wrestling fans who've fully contextualized Larkin's uniqueness wouldn't be surprised to hear coaches sing his praises exclusively. After all, he's turned heads every time he's competed during his short career at ASU.
In November, he took home the Bill Farrell Memorial International, effectively clinching a spot in the 2024 Olympic trials. In earning the chance to compete at the trials in April, Larkin also was awarded an extra year of eligibility. With the additional year of eligibility comes the unique title of "Redshirt Olympian."
Earlier this month, Larkin pinned Iowa State's Zach Redding in just 48 seconds. It was the first dual match of his collegiate career.
To understand how Larkin became a redshirt Olympian, it's necessary to see the full picture. Attributing his success toward one thing — physical attributes, mindset, love for the sport, drive, leadership, upbringing—would be a mistake. It's a beautiful collage of all these admirable traits that make Larkin the special talent he is.
There's absolutely no doubt that Larkin has top-tier athleticism. It's rare to be six feet and belong in the 149lb class simultaneously, and it's even rarer to have notable strength at that height and weight.
"What makes him unique is that he's really tall and skinny, but he's super strong and wiry," Jones said. "He's got good long-strength and surprisingly good speed for being a long guy. Those attributes make him special."
Larkin doesn't sacrifice speed or flexibility as a method of aspiring to such strength. In fact, every time he's wrestled against contemporaries in his class, his agility and maneuverability have stood out.
It would make sense for such a gifted athlete to be constantly leveraging and focusing on their physical capacities. But that’s exactly the opposite approach Larkin takes. For him, it's all mental. And his mentality, no doubt, was a huge factor in becoming a redshirt olympian.
Passion is what drives motivation. Accolades don't matter. Match outcomes don’t matter. The only thing that matters is his vehement feelings for the sport.
"I love wrestling," Larkin said. "My favorite part of the day is coming here, practicing and getting better at wrestling and perfecting whatever my short-term goal is for the day."
These feelings allow Larkin to take a process-driven approach. When asked if he had any future goals or expectations, there was no answer. The only things of importance to Larkin at any given time are this moment, this practice and his short-term goals.
"Every day, I tell myself that I'm going to work as hard as I can during practice while trying to get as tired as I can during this one practice," Larkin said. "If I do that for long enough, I'll be satisfied with whatever the outcome is in any match."
Assistant coach Frank Molinaro describes a challenge, perhaps the only challenge, of coaching Larkin: getting him tired.
"I've seen him do some of the hardest workouts ever, and it’s literally hard to get him tired," Molinaro said. "He has no breaking point. He’ll just continue to push through fatigue."
Beyond the insatiable drive on the mat lies an intelligent kid both in wrestling and in the classroom. Jones is impressed with Larkin’s efforts towards watching film and believes it’s already positively impacted his wrestling IQ. As a student, Larkin majors in engineering and has a 4.0 GPA, according to Molinaro.
Despite being a freshman, Larkin's leadership has shined around the Riches Wrestling Complex. When describing Larkin's character off the mat, Molinaro used two words: servant leader.
Molinaro recalls a moment a week back that exemplifies this leadership.
Kaleb had just worked out when he was asked to help another wrestler with technique sometime in the near future. Larkin immediately offered to drop everything and help the wrestler right now, to which Molainaro laughed—next practice would suffice.
"He's willing to do anything to help his teammates, his brothers and the kids he trained with at Valiant High School," Molinaro said.
But how did Larkin acquire the traits that made him a redshirt olympian? Where and when did wrestling begin for him? And who is responsible for Larkin’s ascent to such success?
Eric Larkin, four-time All-American, 2003 149 lb national champion, former ASU wrestler, and father of Kaleb, has an answer or two.
Due to his father's career, Kaleb has been surrounded by wrestling since the day he was born. Well, before that, actually. When Eric won the national championship in 2003, Kaleb was in attendance. His mom, Melissa, who was there watching Eric, was pregnant with Kaleb.
When raising his kids, Eric tried to take a hands-off approach regarding the topic of wrestling. He stored all his trophies in boxes and rarely talked about his accolades. Still, the curiosity of his kids prevailed. They asked to watch Dad's old matches and were constantly probing questions about his career. By the time his kids had reached the later stages of childhood, they desired to wrestle competitively.
"I tried to make it not a big deal to them, and I think it worked," Eric Larkin said.
Once Kaleb Larkin began to show such desire around age eight or nine, his promise was evident, even off the mat. Eric Larkin recalls how Kaleb would pick up hobbies, like skateboarding, and get fixated on them until he got it right.
"Ever since he was a little kid, he'd get stuck on one thing and try to master it," Larkin said.
When Kaleb turned 13, Eric started traveling with him to competitions nationally. The similarities between father and son began to show as Kaleb excelled.
Now, as Kaleb continues to win, those similarities are more prevalent than ever.
They both have similarly unorthodox wrestling styles due to their unique builds and fervent emphasis on technique. They both have weirdly flexible hips and are talented at filling from a number of different positions. Eric can’t help but expound on their resemblance.
"He uses a left underhook like I did," Larkin said. "He has a left leg lead like me. The scrambling positions (which) I was good at; he's really good in there. His scrambling reminds me a lot of myself."
Their mindsets are similar, as is their ASU connection. They both tend to apply discipline and consistency to everything they do. This is a Larkin quality that bonds the entire family beyond wrestling.
Kaleb Larkin knew as a freshman in high school that ASU was his top school, and he worked tirelessly in his adolescent years to become a Sun Devil. Both Eric and Kaleb attended ASU as wrestlers, and perhaps the strangest similarity of all is that both qualified for the Olympic trials in their first years as freshmen.
However, it's clear from his demeanor that Kaleb Larkin is not following in his dad's footsteps. He's blazing his own path. Although he doesn't mind such accusations, to overtly compare two supremely gifted and unique wrestlers in Eric and Kaleb Larkin would be a false equivalence.
They're both special beyond comparison to anyone, even beyond blood. As his first Olympic trials approach this Spring, Kaleb has the chance to take his incredible talent to Paris this Summer and find glory for ASU on the mat.
Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Walker Smith and Caera Learmonth.