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By Mike Finn
For Justin Lester, Justin Ruiz and Dremiel Byers, the end of their Greco-Roman careers are much closer to the end than the beginning as each qualified for at least their fifth World Team appearance by capturing titles at this year’s Trials in Oklahoma City, Okla., June 10-11.
And as much as they are aware that the clock is ticking on how long they will represent the United States in World-level competition — all three former World medal winners dominated the Championship Series at their weights — they are all aware of the American short-comings since all three were apart of the the 2007 World Team championship.
Since that historic moment in Baku, Azerbaijan, where the Americans captured three medals — including bronze medals by Lester, 27, and 2002 World champion Byers, 36 — to out-distance Russia by a 31-30 margin, the next three U.S. teams returned home with just two overall medals and last year’s team was shut out of World medals for the first time since 2003.
“It’s so competitive at the Worlds,” said Ruiz, 31, who earned a sixth World trip at 211.5 pounds. “In track, you are separating people by a hundreth of a second. It’s the same thing in wrestling, where it’s a couple positions here or there that are the difference between a medal and no medal.
“I think we are right there. It’s just a matter of putting everything together and then there is luck. At this level, getting good draws help and everyone peaking at the right time.”
With four wrestlers who were part of that 2007 U.S. team, back on the 2011 squad — 132-pound Joe Betterman also earned his second World appearance since also competing in 2007 — one can’t help but think the experience of 2007 will help the Americans this September in Istanbul, Turkey.
This also comes at a time when another member of the 2007 team — 36-year-old Lindsey Durlacher — lost his life June 2 at his home in Denver, Colo., while overcoming injuries he suffered in a snowmobile accident in February.
“He was always a competitor, the small guys firing up the bigger guys,” Ruiz said of the Durlacher, who finished fifth in 2007 as a 121-pounder. “I’d love to do something in the memory of Lindsay because he was a competitor and would get after it as a talented athlete.”
Bring up the memory of Durlacher — who appeared in three World Championships and won a bronze medal in 2006 — brought back either tears or smiles from many of the Greco-Roman wrestlers who were teammates of Durlacher. A number of them reflected on their relationship with the talented Greco veteran.
“It still hasn’t set in,” said Justin Lester, who went by the first name Harry when he captured bronze medals in 2006 and 2007 and earned a fifth World trip with a pair of victories over Glenn Garrison at 145.5 pounds. “I expect Lindsay to come in here and say something crazy and Lindsay-like. It was just a shocker. Everyone is still in shock about it. He was so young.
“He was a great guy to be around because he was always entertaining. He’s definitely going to be missed on the trips.”
Dremiel Byers, the 2002 World champion at 264.5 pounds, continues to be the largest of the American qualifiers — after he blanked a fellow U.S. Army wrestler Tim Taylor in the Cox Convention Center — but he like many was verbally challenged by Durlacher in the three Worlds in which they were on the U.S. team together.
“He was the juice. That’s what we called him,” said Byers, who has earned gold (2002), silver (2009) and bronze (2007) medals in nine previous World and Olympic competitions in the past decade. “He didn’t care about anything. He let you know exactly what he thought about you and the horse you road in on. You had to respect the little 121-pound guy who had the heart to say that to you.
“I give him his credit and truly miss him.”
While Byers, originally a native of Kings Mountain, N.C., is the most decorated of the 2011 Greco-Roman veterans, he still has long-time goals on his mind as he hopes to eventually make his second Olympic Team in 2012.
“I just want to get the medals that no one said that I could get, especially the one I promised my grandfather (Theodore Byers): an Olympic gold medal,” said Byers. “I made the promise years ago when I first started doing this in 1996. When I made my first Pan Am team, (his late grandfather who died in 2005) told me how important it was to him.”
“It’s been a long road and I’ve enjoyed the scenary along the way. I’m having a lot of fun with the young guys on my team and sparked new life in me. When the old dog gets a puppy in the house, he wants to play some more.”
So what kind of tricks can an old dog teach young pups like Cheyney Haight, who qualified for his first World Team at 185?
“Just my experience and a little military knowledge. When I think back to what I did wrong, I want to make sure they don’t make those same mistakes like taking off a couple years when you should have been training.
“I also remind them that this team needs to throw the punch.”
Perhaps no American Greco wrestler has a better perspective on competing at this level more than Lester, who did not compete last year. The native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, last appeared at the Worlds in 2009, but this was one year after he failed to make the 2008 Olympic Team at 145.5 pounds and felt more pressure than fun at competing on the international level.
“I feel like a step behind from where I used to be,” said Lester, who joined the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) in 2010.
“I don’t know if that’s taking the year off and age catching up. I have an explosive style that usually catches up with you.
“I still feel like I can wrestle and win a gold medal so I feel good heading into the World Championships.”