By Siafa Lewis, NBC Chicago
(NBC News) - It wasn’t long ago that wrestler Daniel Dennis gave up his sport and left his home to travel west with nothing but a pickup truck and a motorcycle.
Now, he’s headed to Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Dennis, an Ingleside native, powered his way to victory at the Olympic trials for wrestling earlier this year, becoming a serious gold medal contender in the 125-pound weight class.
“He is the epitome of what you want in a wrestler,” said his high school wrestling coach Ryan Geist.
As a two-time state runner-up at Grant Community High School in Fox Lake, and a national runner-up at the University of Iowa, Dennis has already been a serious contender, but never an individual champion.
“We have many, many second-place trophies and awards, many silver medals so that elusive gold medal is something he is really striving for,” said Dennis’ mother Jane Dennis.
Following the heartbreak of losing the NCAA Championships, and watching his father battle terminal brain cancer, Dennis decided to leave the sport that he had given so much to over the years.
“It is hard mentally, physically and emotionally,” Jane Dennis said.
In 2013, the wrestler headed west with nothing but his pick-up truck and a motorcycle, spending the next two years living a minimalistic life -- no TV, no internet, and no wrestling.
“I just think the lessons you can take away from situations like that can change people,” said his brother Charlie Dennis.
He eventually began helping to coach a high school wrestling team in California and with a renewed sense of clarity, decided to give the sport he loved one more chance.
“We were sitting playing cards one and I said, ‘What is next for you?’ and he said, ‘I am going to make the Olympic wrestling team,’” Jane Dennis said. “I said, ‘OK, you go for it.’”
In 2015, Dennis finished as the runner-up in the U.S. World Team Trials and fourth in the U.S. Open.
In 2016, he became a U.S. Olympic Team Trials champion and a U.S. Open champion, winning was undoubtedly the biggest wrestling match of his career and punching his ticket to Rio.
“I think he left something out there,” said Jane Dennis. “I think he always knew he had it in him. I think he came back at the urging of his friends and the fact that his dad would have been really proud.”
It was a victory that Dennis’ friends and family hope can lead to something even greater.
That Dennis can go from Olympic athlete to Olympic champion.
“He knows his dad wants him wrestling and he knows his dad is smiling down on him now,” Geist said.
"My dad would not be able to hold it together," Charlie Dennis said. "Happy tears all over the place. You know my dad was really emotional he loved watching Daniel."