Conversation: Former HLO/L star Chad Kraft inducted into Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame
Kraft was a three-time state champion while competing for Heron Lake-Okabena/Lakefield. He went on to become a four-time All-American at the University of Minnesota, posting a record of 115-23.
(Editor’s Note: Chad Kraft is one of the most successful high school and collegiate wrestlers in Minnesota history and on Saturday, April 29, in Benson will be inducted into the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Chad was a three-time state champion (125 pounds, 140 and 145) while competing for Heron Lake-Okabena/Lakefield, compiling a prep record of 192-18-1. He went on to become a four-time All-American at the University of Minnesota, posting a record of 115-23. Chad lives with his family in the Twin Cities, where we caught up with him recently for our latest Conversation With Scott).
Question: Congratulations on the Hall of Fame ceremony this weekend.
Answer: I appreciate you reaching out to me and thank you. It’s definitely an honor to be a part of that group.
Q: I know you’re a commercial pilot these days, isn’t that right?
A: Yes, I’ve been at Delta Airlines about 16 years now. It’s been a great journey. After I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1999 — I was a kinesiology/sports administration major — I had always had the passion to fly and I ended up getting involved with a local commercial aviation school here in St. Paul and the next thing you know I worked my way up the ranks and got hired at Delta in 2007.
Q: That’s fantastic. Do you live in the Cities, Chad?
A: Yes. We live in Eagan. Been here the last eight years. Prior to that we were in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota area. After I graduated from college I started investing into real estate and now I actually have a little portfolio of student housing at the university that I’ve overseen here the last 20 years or so.
Q: Tell me about your family, Chad.
A: My wife is Tami and we’ve got three children. Two are boys, the youngest is Colton. He’s 12. Another boy is 13, that’s Jaxon. And we have a daughter who is a freshman at Eagan High, and that’s Madeline Kraft.
Q: Is Tami from the Heron Lake-Okabena or Lakefield area?
A: No, she’s from the Tracy-Milroy area. Her maiden name is Trulock. She comes from a wrestling family. I met her after college at a University of Minnesota social event for wrestling. A dual against Oklahoma State.
Q: I have a lot of friends from the Heron Lake-Okabena area. Which town did you grow up in?
A: I’m from good old Lakefield, Minnesota. We merged with Heron Lake-Okabena about my freshman year. Now the (Lakefield) school is Jackson County Central. It was a great experience to grow up in a small town. The culture and the work ethic and the genuine people — it all helped mold me into the person I am today. It gave me a great opportunity to get out into the right world. It’s been one day at a time up here in the Twin Cities, but it’s been a helluva journey to this point. (Pauses) It’s a nice reminder when you get inducted into an association like this (the Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame), and the group of people who are involved, it’s just an honor to be listed with those types of people. Life goes fast, right?
Q: Yes it does, Chad. Are your folks still in Lakefield? What did your father do when you were growing up?
A: My dad, Dan Kraft, was a truck driver for 15 years and then he got on with the Jackson County highway department. He’s been there for about 40 or 45 years. He’s actually retiring this year, so that’s an exciting moment for him. My mom, Brenda, is a nurse anesthetist and has been practicing in Spirit Lake, Iowa, for the last 25 years. They live now in Spirit Lake.
Q: I wondered if you were a farm boy or grew up around construction as a young man. How did you get to be so tough and what made you such a great wrestler?
A: Well, you know what, it comes down to leadership and I was blessed to have Randy Baker as a part of my youth development. With my father being a truck driver those 15 years he was gone two or three weeks at a time, and I had great leadership from Randy Baker and other teachers in the school district. The values you take from great leadership are important. It just happened to be that wrestling was a sport I started to take a grip with and had a pretty good feel for it. Then you taste a little success and things grow from there. I would have to attribute my success to the people that were involved in my development, which would be a lot of parents in the community and obviously Randy Baker. He’s developed many state champions and state championship teams. (Note: Randy Baker , a member of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, is a former wrestling coach at Lakefield, Heron Lake-Okabena, Jackson County Central and Minnesota West. From 1984-2018, his JCC teams won seven state championships.)
Q: I’ll bet you were a good football player too, Chad.
A: Not too bad. We grinded it out and had some success at times. I was a quarterback my sophomore and junior year, and after I had signed at the University of Minnesota I took my senior year off to focus on the Junior Nationals (wrestling competition) and get ready for the next level of wrestling.
Q: Are there still several Lakefield kids in the JCC wrestling program?
A: Yes, Lakefield is still a very strong community. (John) Thorn is helping out. Troy Schultz was a wrestler back in my day and is there. That culture that was developed 30 years ago is still there. I know Randy still helps with youth practices. So if you’ve got a legend like that (working with) kids and helping develop them, that’s what the sport’s all about. I certainly wouldn’t be where I’m at in sports right now without the sport of wrestling. It teaches you the grit and values that translate over into life. It’s been an honor to be a part of that sport.
Q: You didn’t lose any matches your last three years in high school, isn’t that right?
A: I lost one time. It was at a Christmas tournament. But other than that, yes. (Note: Chad won his last 80 high school matches.) And then I was a Junior Nationals champ coming out after my senior year. So some great experiences and accomplishments. Then I was able to wrestle for J Robinson at the University of Minnesota. Some of my best friends today are guys I developed relationships with in high school and college.
Q: I covered many, many Montana state high school wrestling championships and saw Brandon Eggum (current UM Gopher head coach) wrestle several times for Sidney (Montana) High. I’m sure the Gopher program is still very close to your heart, is that correct?
A: Yes. Once a Gopher always a Gopher. We have a lot of great people and great accomplishments under J Robinson and now under Brandon Eggum, who is a very, very close friend of mine. I think he’s going to make it to (Benson) for the (Hall of Fame) ceremony. We’ve had our ups and downs (with UM wrestling) and right now there are some real challenges out there. Things are changing for student-athletes (with NIL money and the transfer portal) at the NCAA level. But I know we have the right staff and I believe there’s a lot of success in the future for that program.
Q: Who were your top wrestling rivals back in high school and in college?
A: Back in the day, Troy Marr of Forest Lake and I wrestled back and forth. Matt Skattum was a big rival; he was a Luverne boy. I wrestled TJ Friederichs of Mound-Westonka. He was a guy through junior high and senior high who was at an elite level back in the day and always a guy I looked up to from a talent perspective. He was someone I always really, really wanted to be like and wanted to be able to compete at his level … I had some battles. I wrestled Mark Ironside in Iowa as an eighth-grader. Jeff McGinness (Iowa three-time All-American), Chris Bono (Iowa State three-time All-American) and then Lincoln McIlravy (Iowa three-time NCAA champion and Olympic medalist) in the NCAA semifinals. So many great wrestlers that I’ve been able to compete with over the years. It’s kind of fun going to the NCAA tournament every year and see those guys walking around.
Q: I know about all those great college wrestlers. Lincoln McIlravy, my goodness, one of the greatest of all-time, right?
A: Yep. I always had a great deal of respect for the way he approached the matches. The way he held himself and the style he implemented in every match. It was a great opportunity to compete against him. The sport humbles you very quickly. Preparation and execution … it’s all laid out there for everyone to see. It’s been an honor to be a part of the sport.
Q: Tell me about those matches against McIlvray.
A: He beat me three times. Beat me up really bad the first time, like 12-2, in the Big Ten tournament. Then I narrowed the gap in a National Dual match when it was 3-2. He was two years older, and he beat me in the NCAA Tournament semifinals when I was a sophomore, 8-4 or 8-5.
Q: Did you go on and wrestle internationally, Chad?
A: Not very much, about a year. I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2000 … I was 24 years old and had a new passion of aviation. I made the decision if I was going to go down that path I would focus on it and accelerate through that. So I retired after one year (after graduation). That commitment to go to the next level of wrestling was just not in the schedule of being an airline pilot, so I made that decision and I think I made the right one.
Q: Dalen Wasmund told me you’re good friends with Gable Steveson (former Apple Valley High and University of Minnesota superstar wrestler who won a gold medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics).
A: Yes, I’ve gotten to know his family well. I’ve done a lot of business work with his father Robert. I’m a big fan of Gable. He’s got a great journey ahead of him. It’s an honor to have him be a part of the University of Minnesota. To be an Olympic champion — that’s the pinnacle of our sport — and to see him do it at such a young age (20) was a pretty amazing moment.
Q: Did I see the other day that Gable is going to compete again pretty soon as an amateur?
A: Gable is one of a kind. He’s taking about a year off. He’s still been in the room training. But obviously with his venture of WWE, he hasn’t really been about to compete in the last year and a half. But he is competing at the U.S. Open in Vegas (the weekend of April 27-28-29-30). I think he still has some ambitions to wrestle internationally and try to get another gold here in 2024.
Q: Chad, how does a great wrestler like yourself replace the competitiveness and hunger for victory when you’re no longer competing on the mat?
A: You know, that grit and drive that you’re talking about comes from the mind and the heart. Unfortunately our bodies break down, although the heart’s still there and mind’s still there. But you bring the grit that wrestling gives you, you bring it day in and day out. And you start implementing that in other parts of your life. With me it’s been aviation. Now I’m trying to figure out the sport of golf. So you bring out that drive and passion in different ways and through different things, whether it’s being a husband, a father or other things. That drive just never goes away.
Q: Are your kids athletes?
A: Yes, my boys are wrestling. My seventh-grader got some varsity action at St. Thomas Academy this year. My sixth-grader is also wrestling and doing well. They’re on their own journey. They’re both wrestlers and football players, like I was. And my daughter is a volleyball player. She was on the varsity as a freshman libero at Eagan High.
Q: Hopefully your job doesn’t prohibit you from watching your kids’ activities too much, Chad.
A: It’s a challenge. You have to manage your schedule. I’ve been very, very fortunate to have the real estate side and aviation which has allowed me to be flexible. My family definitely comes first. But as we all know this world moves fast and we have bills to pay. So you’ve got to find that balance.
Q: Congratulations one more time on this great honor, Chad. If you had one thing to say to all the folks back home in Lakefield that have followed your career what would that be?
A: You know what, I value that community and all the people who have touched me in one way or another in my life. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else.
Q: It’s an honor to talk to you, sir. Thank you.
A: You bet, Scott.
Scott Mansch can be reached at