Wrestlers compete for a chance at Olympic gold

In just under 10 minutes, a lifetime dream can be either achieved or broken. It all comes down to two three-minute periods and a possible third overtime period. And that’s it. As one organizer said, “All’s on the line; one loss and all Olympic dreams are gone.”

This past weekend, Indianapolis hosted the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials. This year the competition included two major changes: First, it will be the first time that women will compete in the sport; second, the number of wrestlers and weight classes will be reduced.

For wrestling insiders, this second change is hardly a positive one. This time wrestlers will compete in seven weight classes, as opposed to eight from the 2000 Olympics and 10 from the 1996 games. Cutting one division this year may not sound like much, but these classes span every weight from 121 to 264.5 pounds for men and from 105.5 to 158.5 pounds for women. For every weight class eliminated, wrestlers will have to “beef up” or cut their weight, neither of which is healthy.

For the 2000 Olympics’ bronze medallist Lincoln McIlravy, the reduction equaled retirement. Once his 152-pound weight division was eliminated, he had to cut to 145 or gain to 163 pounds. Neither was a realistic choice. Instead, he decided to retire.

On a more positive note, the increase in women participants has sparked new interest in the sport. In 1990, just 112 girls competed on the high school level; in 2003, the number was 3,769.

The goal is the goldFormer Hoosier Katie Downing, 24, is one of the women who hopes to represent the United States in Athens, in the 158-pound division. A graduate of University of Minnesota at Morris — the only college that had women’s wrestling — Downing moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., to be close to the Olympic training facility.

The goal, of course, is the gold. In 98 seconds, Downing easily defeated her first opponent, Randi Miller, by a technical fall, meaning she was ahead by 10 or more points. Next she was pitted against an unexpected foe, National Champion Kristie Marano, after Marano failed to make weight, forcing her to move up to Downing’s division. Downing couldn’t get on track in the bout. She dropped a 5-1 decision, stripping her of the chance to compete in Athens. To make matters worse, she then lost her consolation match.

Reflecting on her match with Marano, Downing said, “Once I realized that I was going to be wrestling her instead of Iris [Smith], I had to shift my thinking. They have completely different styles.” Asked if this is the biggest disappointment of her career, Downing answered quietly, “Yes, this is the worst.” Where does she go now? She paused, attempted a smile as tears came to her eyes, and said, “Back to the training room. I guess I showed that I have a lot to learn.”

Olympics — or retirementOn the other end of the spectrum is Melvin Douglas, 40, who is by far the oldest and most experienced of the wrestlers. Douglas, wrestling in the freestyle 211.5 weight division, is an eight-time Nationals Champion (1988, 1993-1998, 2000). He also was the 1993 World Champion and competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. In 1994, he was the USA Wrestling Athlete of the Year. And one other thing: His biggest victories occurred after having open-heart surgery, in the early 1980s.

Douglas defeated David Rechul, by a score of 9-8, but lost 3-0 to his next opponent, the third-ranked, 2003 World Cup Champion, Tim Hartung. After the bout, a gracious Douglas said, “I said that I’d leave here either celebrating my going to the Olympics or my retirement. Well, this was my last match. I began at 13 and I am 40 now. It’s time for me to move on and look at ways to better provide for my family.”

God is everythingJim Gruenwald, the current National Champion, is an energetic, outgoing man whose muscular frame makes you forget that he weighs only 132 pounds. As a Greco-Roman wrestler, Gruenwald is a two-time Pan American champion and competed in the 2000 Olympics. When not wrestling, he teaches math at Hilltop Baptist High School, in Colorado Springs.

He spoke quickly and gazed intently, like a man with a message. And, in fact, he has a message: “My faith comes first,” he said. “That’s an advantage that some of these guys don’t have. For some, wrestling is everything. For me, God is everything. I have a beautiful wife and two wonderful kids. But don’t get me wrong: I want to do what I didn’t do in Sydney — bring the gold back to the U.S.” He added, “But if I lose this weekend — guess what — I still have God, and I still have my family. So, it puts everything in perspective. Nothing will happen on the mat that will take that away.” Gruenwald smiled and said, “A lot of people are praying for me, at my school and my church.”

Because Gruenwald is the National Champion, he did not participate until Sunday, when he wrestled the finalist, who by then had wrestled several times. In a best of three match, Gruenwald defeated Joe Warren in the first two bouts, making the third unnecessary and leaving Warren in tears. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Gruenwald says with a smile. “My faith in Christ is my No. 1 priority, but this feels awfully good right now.”

After leaving Indianapolis, some wrestlers will return to the gym and try to resurrect the dream; others will retire and pursue another, perhaps a less glamorous or less challenging career; but the few, the champions, get an extension on their dream, a dream that they take with them to net Athens.

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