The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 13, 2013

Area wrestling community reeling from IOC decision

Eric Knopsnyder

JOHNSTOWN — Nick Roberts had his heart set on being an Olympic champion.

So did Cody Law.

Now it looks like both might be denied the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

The local wrestling community was in shock Tuesday after word spread that the International Olympic Committee had voted to drop wrestling from the 2020 games.

“It’s inconceivable,” said Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora, who has sent wrestlers to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I thought it was a joke at first, but I saw (Penn State coach Cael Sanderson) tweeting about it,” said Law, a Forest Hills senior who will wrestle for Sanderson’s Nittany Lions next year.

Law spent a week at the training center last year, which only strengthened his resolve to become an Olympian.

“Yeah, that’s the only thing I want to do with my life,” Law said Tuesday. “It sucks pretty bad.”

Roberts, a North Star graduate who is a freshman at Ohio State, already knows about performing on a global stage. He’s represented the U.S. twice in the junior world competition, but his initial response to the news wasn’t about his future.

“My first reaction was like ‘Wow! I don’t understand how they can do that to so many different people and countries,’ ” he said. “The end goal for wrestling is to be an Olympian, not to get a big contract or make it to the pros. They pretty much shattered that for everyone.”

A difficult morning quickly turned to thoughts of what could be done to save the sport’s spot in the Olympics. UPJ assistant Jody Strittmatter, who also coaches an untold number of wrestlers harboring Olympic dreams at his Young Guns club, is doing his best to remain positive.

“I really do want to be optimistic, but if they do cut it, it’s hard because we don’t have (a professional league like) the NFL or Major League Baseball,” Strittmatter said. “The Olympics is everything for wrestling. To take that dream – even if it is just a dream – to take that away, that hurts our sport a lot. It really does.”

Mike Moyer, who is president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, echoed those statements.

“Every young child needs to be able to dream about being an Olympic medalist, regardless of sport,” Moyer said. “To take away that dream is tragic.”

Moyer said that the decision, which was made by secret ballot over several rounds of voting by the IOC in Switzerland on Tuesday, came as a complete surprise to the top officials in the United States.

“What I can’t get my arms around is how the decision is made by the IOC executive committee without any knowledge of it by the USOC or our governing body,” Moyer said. “It’s beyond anything that I can understand.”

The move was one that many in the wrestling community – as evidenced by the response on social media – couldn’t understand either. The sport is one of the oldest Olympic competitions, dating back to the ancient games and it’s also been a staple of the modern games, with contestants competing for gold in 26 of the 27 Olympics.

It also has a global footprint, as 180 participating nations feature wrestling. Moyer said that the modern pentathlon – the sport that many felt would be dropped for 2020 – is in just 53 participating nations.

There is perception in the U.S. that wrestling is a dying sport, but Moyer disputed that, saying that over the past decade participation in high school wrestling has increased by 40,000 and that 95 colleges and universities have added teams during that time period.

Wrestling still has a sliver of hope of appearing in the 2020 games, as it will compete against seven other sports – a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, according to The Associated Press – for a single opening.

The sport’s fans, coaches and competitors were already gearing up for a fight.

“It’s everywhere today,” said Strittmatter, who climbed as high as third on the U.S. Olympic ladder before retiring from competition.

“Wrestling nation is coming together and is going to get everything in line and do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t get cut.”

The problem, as Moyer pointed out, is that it’s not just about what the U.S. can do. It must be a global effort.

“The challenge, of course, is we’re just one country,” he said. “We’re talking about mobilizing countries all over the world.”

If wrestling is eliminated from the 2020 games it could be difficult to ever get it back into the Olympics. And if it does, it could be too late for Roberts and Law, both of whom would be in their mid-20s, a prime age for elite-level wrestlers.

“That’s the problem,” Law said. “Even if they get it back after that, it’s going to be tough. 2020 is my year when I’ll be out of college and old enough to try to compete. That’s pretty much what I plan on doing for my life.”

Roberts also had his sights set on 2020.

“That would have been my year,” Roberts said before leaving the door open for a 2016 bid. “You never know – 2016 is a long way away.”