Bryant: Competitive fire still burns in Kolat

Updated: April 19, 2011

By Jason Bryant, WIN columnist

I only briefly saw Cary Kolat wrestle in the prime of his career. Getting into wrestling in the mid-1990s, I was unaware of wrestling outside of the Virginia bubble.

As I stepped on the mat for the first time as a junior at Poquoson High School, I watched much of the 1996 Olympic Games from a hospital waiting room in Norfolk, Va. Sadly, the memories of watching my first Olympic wrestling championships on television was marred by the death of my neighbor and high school teammate Mike Green.

The 37-year-old Cary Kolat appeared in his fourth U.S. Open, the first since 2000. (photo by John Sachs)

It was Mike’s passing that really thrust me into wrestling, more than just being a kid who came out for the team. I started to put some extra time in, hit up some camps, even tried wrestling in the off-season. But by that time it was too late for me to have ever really made an impact on the sport of wrestling by performing on the mat.

It wasn’t until the following year, watching television that I saw Kolat wrestle for the first time. The video wasn’t spectacular and I really didn’t know much about him. Two years later, two friends started attending Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. They raved about Kolat and his abilities, not surprised by his quickness, agility and drive.

Being still relatively new to wrestling, I never got to experience first-hand the wrestler Kolat was. Since, I’ve gotten to know Kolat a little bit. He’s more of an acquaintance than a friend. We’d chat on occasion, usually talking wrestling on a general level in Fargo or at a college tournament. Now back at North Carolina as an assistant coach, Kolat entered the U.S. Open at 66kg.

When FILA dropped freestyle to seven weights, Kolat has struggled to find a home. Even at age 37, he’s stuck between 60K (121 pounds) and 66K (145.5). His 63K (138.5) weight class has long been eliminated.

Kolat last stepped on the mat competitively at the 2008 Olympic Trials, losing to Chris Bono before bowing out of the tournament. I didn’t watch him much that year. I didn’t have the chance.

Kolat’s known in wrestling lore as the guy who had it taken away from him rather than the guy who should have been a two or three-time World champion. Some remember him for one bad match at the All-Star Classic, rather than the undefeated high schooler who placed at the Midlands or who finished his college career as a two-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American.

I watched intently as he won a few matches in the mini-tournament to qualify for the main portion of the U.S. Open freestyle bracket. He then upended third-seeded Joe Johnston, then got past Justin Perch of the Army. In the semis, he battled Josh Churella, a three-time All-American from Michigan.

It was his match with Churella that I saw the Kolat, at least in spurts, which made people remember his greatness.

Time after time, Churella got in on Kolat’s leg, only to have a rubber knee kick away. It was difficult for Churella to finish. Some things never change.

Kolat might be a step slower than he was 14 years ago when his gold medal was taken from him at the 1997 World Championships, but even if he’s not in his prime, fans at Public Hall in Cleveland got to watch him.

Adeline Gray and Erin Clodgo wrestled right after Kolat’s finals loss against Teyon Ware. When Kolat won the 1989 Cadet World Championship, Gray and Clodgo were toddlers. Ware, ten years younger than Kolat, was five.

There’s a generation of young wrestlers and fans who never got a chance to see Kolat wrestle. They had that chance in Cleveland. It was like a time machine. It wasn’t some old battered body out there trying to compete again, just for kicks.

Kolat’s competitive fire was burning. He got after it, much to the delight of my own two eyes.

I came along far too late to see some of our sport’s greats rise to the highest levels. When I sat in that hospital waiting room and watched Kendall Cross win a gold medal in 1996, I only had that window into who Cross was as a wrestler. Years later, Cross’ comeback got wrestling people talking, but he wasn’t the same. I never personally saw Cross win a match after his 1996 gold.

Kolat, who finished a disappointing ninth at the 2000 Olympics, didn’t generate much talk in 2008. But in 2011, he was the talk of the tournament.

The rules are different and so is Kolat. He started one of the most successful private training clubs in Maryland and has had a ton of success with his video series and on-line clinics. He’s doing just fine as it relates to teaching and coaching.

Kolat last won the U.S. Open in 2000, he was pretty close in 2011, but whether he won or lost, it didn’t matter.

I think I speak for many when I say it was truly a treat to watch him wrestle again, for the first time.