The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Greco’s disappointment also showed how painful the Olympic experience can be
By Bryan Van Kley
It was a depressing end to a dreadful three-day Greco run at the 2012 Olympic Games. For the third straight year the U.S. Greco squad failed to win a medal. And it’s the first time since 1976 (not counting the 1980 boycott) that our U.S. Greco squad failed to win an Olympic medal at the Games.
As a writer here, it’s so disheartening. With wrestling being such a tight-knit family, you feel like you’re going through a small part of the pain and disappointment that the athletes and coaching staff are feeling.
That point was accentuated in the final Greco interview today with former two-time World bronze medalist Justin Lester. He’s a top-level guy, and was probably the U.S.’s top hope to bring home a medal from London in Greco. And he even had a good enough draw to make it a reality. But Lester wasn’t able to get it done. He just didn’t look himself on the mat. Greco coach Steve Fraser thought he looked “sluggish.” An emotional Lester admitted he just couldn’t ever get it going as tears filled his eyes as he talked to a handful of reporters after being eliminated one match shy of the bronze-medal match.
When I asked if he’ll be able to use the pain down the road to motivate him when he returns to the mat…. he basically broke down and was unable to answer. This is where the Olympics is such a different experience than any other wrestling championship you’ve ever been a part of. Most of the time, it literally is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these guys/gals. We all know the work they’ve put in just to make the U.S. team and for their shot at what usually is a child-hood dream.
And then it comes down to one day. One day to prove to yourself and the world that all the work you’ve put into a sport as tough as ours was worth it. Yeah, we all know it’s about more than the final goal. But you walk from the Olympic Games having fallen short, that means nothing.
London feels a whole lot like the 2008 Olympics for me. It, too, started very slow for the U.S. team as we were able to only get one bronze in women’s freestyle and Greco before Henry Cejudo struck gold and ended the event on a high note.
But when things go the other direction like they have these last three days in Greco, it really hurts. And you can see it in the eyes of everyone involved with Team USA, from head coach Steve Fraser, to the athletes, to those associated with the team. I think the pressure is as high as it’s been in some time for our teams to be successful. And this makes the sting of losing all the more painful.
With the U.S. winning the Greco team winning the team title in 2007, our Greco contingent expects to win and talks about frequently. We’re not just content any more to go to the Worlds and Olympics and win a medal here and there. Fraser and company want to be the top Greco nation in the world. And, unfortunately, we’re nowhere even close right now.
And the freesytlers have their own pressure and set of expectations to live up to. The recent revamping of the U.S. freestyle coaching staff, and entire system, has people talking and believing that we’re ascending back to where we should be as one of the top few freestyle powerhouse countries. As with Greco, when these expectations increase, so does the pressure.
Fraser, the first Greco Olympic champion and long-time Greco coach, talked about a need for big change in Greco and the emphasis put on it in the United States. He hit the nail on the head….however there’s not an easy answer with the way the U.S. wrestling system is set up right now. Fraser talked about the year-around folkstyle wrestling calendar, and how less and less kids are wrestling Greco. This further depletes our talent pool.
I’m sure USA Wrestling and our U.S. Greco contingent will go back to the drawing board after the Olympics.
But right now, you just leave the wrestling arena with a very bad taste in your mouth. Our women’s freestylers hit the mats tomorrow on Wednesday. A positive turn in momentum is needed in the worst way.