By Mike Finn
In Zeke Jones’ mind, the 2012 Olympic competition this month means more than all roads leading to London, England.
It’s a crossroads for the World’s best teams.
“There was a time when Russia was 25 points better than everyone in the World but that gap has closed. I believe there are five teams in the World that have merged and what will come out of this tournament will show what will happen in the next cycle,” said U.S. Olympic coach Zeke Jones two weeks before his seven freestyle wrestlers take on Russia and the world in this year’s Games.
“It’s about what countries are ready to be consistent year in and year out. Is there a country ready to move ahead of Russia? A lot of those questions will get answered.”
Jones knows what it takes for the United States to be “the” place in the world for amateur wrestling. The 1991 World champion and 1992 Olympic silver medalist was also a bronze medalist on the 1995 U.S. freestyle team that also won the World team championship that year; nearly the last time the U.S. has held that honor.
But a lot has happened since Jones became the U.S. national coach in 2009, when all seven American freestylers were “first-timers.” And of that group, three — all medalists Jake Herbert, Jake Varner and Tervel Dlagnev — are part of the 2012 Olympic Team.
“They know inside and out the sport of freestyle, who is out there and who they have to beat, what it takes to win,” said Jones, adding that the U.S. has videotape on every possible opponent in London. They know exactly what it takes, while in 2009 they were guessing. “There is no one who will surprise us at the Olympic Games.”
There are also no more surprises to why the United States is trying to also catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to wrestling; be it men’s freestyle, Greco-Roman or women’s wrestling.
The reason is money … as in the U.S. is also trying to catch up with what other countries now pay for Olympic or World gold. Some European countries are reportedly paying a million dollars for a gold medal. The most an American champion in London can make is $250,000.
“Let’s take Azerbaijan, which has been doing great the last few years,” said Steve Fraser, who became America’s first gold medalist in Greco in 1984. He is now trying to lead the U.S. team back on top of the world, a place this country held after the 2007 World Championships. “The biggest difference is that they are pumping a lot of money in their wrestling program. They don’t have basketball or football. Their main sport is wrestling and pumping their oil money there.”
But Fraser believes there is enough American pride … and training opportunities … for his Greco team. It will need to be led by a pair of former World medalists in Justin Lester and Dremiel Byers to duplicate what the 2007 U.S. team did at the Worlds.
Fraser points to 132-pound Olympic rookies Ellis Coleman and Ben Provisor.
“Ellis is one great young man. He is hungry. He is coachable, competitive. He is a leader and he’s our future,” Fraser said. “Provisor is the same way. He is going to have a great career, a long career and must continue to be more coachable and expanding his horizon.”
This marks the third Olympics for women and U.S. coach Terry Steiner, who women’s freestyle team hopes to overtake perennial power Japan. Three of the four U.S. women — Clarissa Chun (gold), Elena Pirozhkova (silver) and Ali Bernard (bronze) — have won World medals.
But if the U.S. wants to become the world’s best in women’s wrestling, more opportunities must be created Steiner said.
“Take a look at a state like Iowa, which is renown as a wrestling state and we don’t have one wrestler on our national team from the state of Iowa,” said Steiner, a former Hawkeye and NCAA champion originally from North Dakota. “For me that’s a red flag. We have work to do.
“Wrestling rich states have very little participation from the high school level. That mind-set must change and invite more women in the sport.”
All three U.S. coaches believe their teams are on the verge of making something special happen in London.
But something else must happen.
“I don’t want to talk,” Fraser said. “I want to see action.”
Which direction will America’s best take in London?