2004 Olympic Trials 5/23/03

Part One

Article by Mark Plamer, Photos by Al

From the 2004 Olympic Team Trials,
Wrestlers Discover Roads Leading to Athens…
Or Retirement… Or “Maybe Next Time”

The state of Indiana’s slogan is “Crossroads of America.” Its capital city, Indianapolis, sits at the crossroads of four major interstate highways, leading out of the city in every direction.

Finding themselves at a crossroads were the nearly two hundred wrestlers participating at the 2004 US Olympic Team Trials at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis May 20-23…
• A truly blessed seventeen competitors would leave Indy on the road to the 2004 Olympics, keeping the dreams of earning a gold medal in Athens alive.
• However, the vast majority would leave disappointed, with Olympic dreams deferred… but perhaps further along the road to future competitions and the promise of “maybe next time” – next time being the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.
• Sadly, still others would find themselves at the end of a road, and make clear their intention to retire from the sport that had brought them so far.

The final journey to Athens began Friday morning, with all but the defending 2004 US National Championship wrestlers working their way through their brackets in the Challenge Tournament with the hope of winning Saturday evening’s Challenge Finals. Winners of the Challenge Finals then faced the US Nationals champs in a best-of-three series on Sunday to determine who would represent the United States at the summer Olympics in August.

On Their Way to Athens

When the final match was completed Sunday evening, seven men’s freestyle wrestlers, six men’s Greco-Roman grapplers, and four women’s freestyle competitors had earned a place on the 2004 US Olympic wrestling team.

At the 2004 Olympics, for the first time there will four weight classes in women’s freestyle – the only new sport added to the roster in Athens – along with competitions for seven weight classes each in men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman. There will be no US representative in the Olympics at the 74 kg Greco-Roman weight class because the US did not qualify a wrestler at that weight. However, Keith Sieracki and Darryl Christian still competed in the finals in order to set members of the United States national team, with Christian winning.
A handful of the members of Team USA have taken this Olympic path before. In fact, three of the members of the US Greco-Roman team are already Olympic medallists: 2000 Olympic champion Rulon Gardner (120 kg/264.5 lbs), 2000 Olympic silver medallist Dennis Hall at 55 kg/121 lbs, and 2000 Olympic bronze medallist Garrett Lowney at 96 kg/211.25 lbs. Two others qualified for their second straight Olympics: men’s freestyle heavyweight Kerry McCoy at 120 kg/264.5 lbs, and men’s Greco-Roman grappler James Gruenwald at 60 kg/132 lbs.

The first women’s US Olympic team. Among those making their very first journey to an Olympics are the four women athletes claiming their Olympic weight divisions. Three of the athletes are past World silver medallists:

• Patricia Miranda at 48 kg/105.5 lbs, defeating Clarissa Chun in two straight finals matches -- the second by tech fall;

• Sara McMann at 63 kg/138.75 lbs, beating Alaina Berube twice by technical fall in the finals;

• Toccara Montgomery at 76 kg/158.5 lbs, twice overcoming seven-time world championship medallist Kristie Marano. Marano, who had moved up a weight class after failing to make weight at 63 kg, held a 6-5 edge in past match-ups with Montgomery, and won when the two last met in December. But Montgomery rallied from a 6-3 deficit in the final minute of Sunday's first match to beat Marano -- a gold medallist in last year's world championship -- 9-6 in overtime. She then won 4-3 in the second match.

The fourth, Tela O'Donnell, is a relative newcomer to senior-level competition. The twenty-one-year old avenged a loss to Tina George at this year's US Nationals by pinning her in two straight finals matches on Sunday to be the US women’s team member at 55 kg/121 lbs.

An especially long and winding road for Dennis Hall. The championship match to determine who would represent the US in Greco-Roman at 55 kg/121 lbs was an epic-length battle that would rank as one of the most dramatic – if not longest – bouts in recent Olympic qualifying history. It pitted two 1996 Olympic silver medallists, Dennis Hall and Brandon Paulson, who were vying for the same title because of consolidation of weight classes since the Atlanta Games. To make things even more bittersweet, Hall and Paulson are long-time friends and regular training partners.

Hall won the first match of the finals series by the score of 3-2 in overtime , and Paulson won the second in regulation 3-1. The third and deciding match was tied at the conclusion of overtime at 3-3, and with all criteria equal, the match went into an unlimited sudden death overtime. Both wrestlers pummeled each other continuously; at 16 minutes and 54 seconds, Hall got a takedown near the edge of the mat, scoring one point, and breaking the deadlock. After winning the match 4-3, an elated Dennis Hall embraced Paulson for long, long time… then, eventually ran up into the stands to share his victory.

The Hall-Paulson bout may rank as one of the longest wrestling matches in US amateur wrestling history; however, according to the event announcers, a match for true third place between Brian Keck and Corey Farkas at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Dallas lasted approximately twenty minutes. (In the early 1900s, one Olympic match went on for eight hours… another for approximately eleven!)

Two more friends vie for the same crown. Yet another finals match-up in Greco forced two more long-time buddies and training partners to face each other again for the same prize: champion at 120kg/264.5 lbs. 2002 World Champion Dremiel Byers, the defending US Nationals champ, was challenged by 2000 Olympic gold medallist Rulon Gardner. In a demonstration of their friendship and religious faith, before their first finals bout, the two titans knelt together at the center of the mat in prayer. Gardner won the spot on the US team in two straight matches, both by 2-1 overtime referee decisions.

Gardner became an American hero at the Sydney Olympics by upsetting three-time Olympic gold medallist Alexander Karelin of Russia, arguably the best Greco-Roman wrestler in modern Olympic history. Since bringing home the gold, Gardner has suffered a series of setbacks, including a near-fatal 2002 snowmobile accident that cost him a toe, a motorcycle accident earlier this year that sent him flying over the hood of a car, and, only recently, a hand/wrist injury during a pick-up basketball game.

Two fierce rivals battle for a place on the team. One of the most anticipated match-ups of the entire event became reality as 2003 World silver medallist Cael Sanderson faced off against 2004 US Nationals champ Lee Fullhart in the freestyle finals at 84 kg/185 lbs. Sanderson, who only two years ago completed a perfect 159-0 college career at Iowa State with four NCAA titles, had to wrestle his way through the Challenge Tournament for the right to tangle with Fullhart, a four-time All-American and 1997 NCAA champ at University of Iowa, who had drawn a bye after beating Sanderson in the US championship finals in Las Vegas a few weeks earlier.

Since college, these two warriors have had some intense mat battles. In addition to the 2003 and 2004 US Nationals finals, Fullhart and Sanderson have wrestled each other in the finals of the 2002 and 2003 World Team Trials.

In the first match of the finals, Sanderson beat Fullhart 3-1, but Fullhart came back to take the second bout in a 2-2 overtime referee decision. In the deciding third match that was not for the squeamish (Fullhart received a gash near his right eye; Sanderson ripped open a hole in his ear), Sanderson stopped Fullhart 4-1 to earn a trip to Athens.
Comeback kids. In addition to Rulon Gardner, two other Greco veterans overcame what many assumed to be career-ending injuries to earn yet another trip to the Olympics. Jim Gruenwald, who placed sixth at the 2000 Olympic Games, came back from major shoulder surgery to sweep his finals series with Joe Warren in two straight bouts, 5-3 and 3-0, at 60 kg/132 lbs. Garrett Lowney returned to action after suffering a neck injury a year ago that forced him to miss the World Championships. After having surgery that fused two vertebrae, the 2000 Olympic bronze medallist defeated Justin Ruiz in two straight matches, a 1-1 overtime referee’s decision and a 2-0 overtime referee’s decision. Ruiz was the defending champion, having beaten Lowney in US Nationals finals earlier this year.


For one US National champion, a major roadblock to Athens. A few days before the start of the 2004 Olympic Trials, Faruk Sahin, defending US National Greco-Roman champion at 66 kg/145.5 lbs, accepted a provisional suspension from USADA for a positive doping test. Oscar Wood, who was runner-up in Las Vegas, was put in the championship position and defended it successfully against 2000 Olympic veteran Kevin Bracken in two straight matches (the first by pin).

Sent Home… With a Hope of “Maybe Next Time”

Making the 2004 US Olympic team was pretty much a one-in-eleven shot for the wrestlers competing in Indianapolis. Most of those who won the right to wrestle in Athens in August are long-time veterans of international competition. However, there were a number of up-and-coming competitors who made a very impressive showing at the Olympic Trials, and could be on the way to representing the US in future international competition, with the ultimate goal of wrestling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


One wrestler in this group is 2003 NCAA heavyweight champion Steve Mocco. He took an Olympic redshirt year from the Iowa Hawkeyes with the goal of being the big man on the US freestyle team in Athens. Many fans were salivating at the thought of a rematch finals series between the 22-year-old Mocco and the man who beat him in the finals at the 2004 US Nationals, 2003 World silver medallist Kerry McCoy. It was not to be; Mocco was eliminated in the Challenge Tournament finals by veteran Tolly Thompson 3-1.

Mocco is a young heavyweight who has shown lots of promise as a freestyle wrestler. Other young guns who may well be on their way to great international mat careers include Ali Bernard, Sam Hazewinkel, Eric Larkin, Jared Lawrence, Matt Lackey, Ryan Lewis, Cole Konrad, Tommy Rowlands and Jon Trenge, among others.

Taking the Road to Retirement

Among all the emotional moments during the 2004 Olympic Trials, perhaps none were more moving than the on-the-mat retirement ceremonies for some familiar faces. A number of wrestlers signaled their retirement by placing their shoes in the center of the mat, earning a standing ovation from the crowd. Among the veterans who announced that Indianapolis was the end of the road: Dominic Black, Glenn Nieradka, Marcel Cooper, and Dan Hicks.

Of special note was Melvin Douglas, the 40-year-old veteran of past Olympics who, after a nearly three-year layoff after competing in Sydney, had made something of a major comeback at the 2003 Sunkist Kids tournament by giving 2003 NCAA heavyweight champ Steve Mocco all he could handle in the finals.

The Challenge Finals

All wrestlers except the defending US National champions had to wrestle their way through the grueling two-day Challenge Tournament, culminating in the Challenge Finals held Saturday evening. Here are the results:

US Men’s Freestyle
55 kg/121 lbs: Sammie Henson (Sunkist Kids) dec. Teague Moore (Gator Wrestling Club), 6-3
60 kg/132 lbs: Mike Zadick (Hawkeye Wrestling Club) dec. Danny Felix (Sunkist Kids), 2-1
66 kg/145.5 lbs: Jared Lawrence (Minnesota Storm) dec. Eric Larkin (Sunkist Kids), 4-3, OT
74 kg/163 lbs: Joe Heskett (Gator WC) dec. Ramico Blackmon (Excel), 2-0
84 kg/185 lbs: Cael Sanderson (Sunkist Kids) dec. Muhammed Lawal (Gator), 7-2
96 kg/211.5 lbs: Tim Hartung (Minnesota Storm) dec. Tommy Rowlands (Dave Schultz Wrestling Club), 2-2, criteria
120 kg/264 lbs: Tolly Thompson (Sunkist Kids) dec. Steve Mocco (New York Athletic Club), 3-1

US Men’s Greco-Roman
55 kg/121 lbs: Dennis Hall (Sunkist Kids) dec. Lindsey Durlacher (New York AC), 3-1
60 kg/132 lbs: Joe Warren (New York AC), dec. Glenn Nieradka (Army), 3-0
66 kg/145.5 lbs: Kevin Bracken (New York AC), dec. Glenn Garrison (Army), 6-0
74 kg/163 lbs: Keith Sieracki (Army), dec. Steve Woods (Air Force), 9-0
84 kg/185 lbs: Jacob Clark (US Marines) dec. Aaron Sieracki (Air Force), 2-0, OT
96 kg/211.5 lbs: Garrett Lowney (Minnesota Storm) dec. Dan Hicks (US Marines), 3-0 OT
120 kg/264 lbs: Rulon Gardner (Sunkist Kids) dec. Paul Devlin (Army), 5-0

US Women’s Freestyle
48 kg/105.5 lbs: Clarissa Chun (Gator WC) dec. Sara Fulp-Allen (Menlo), 5-3
55 kg/121 lbs: Tela O’Donnell (Dave Schultz WC) dec. Jenny Wong (Sunkist Kids), 5-2
63 kg/138.75 lbs: Alaina Berube (New York AC) dec. Stefanie Shaw (NE Elite), 5-4
72 kg/158.5 lbs: Kristie Marano (New York AC) pin Stephany Lee (Missouri Valley), 3:34

Go to Part Two

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