WORLD CHAMPIONS!!!! U.S. completes historic day by winning Greco-Roman team title at World Championships
By Craig Sesker, USA Wrestling
BAKU, Azerbaijan – USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender was there when American heavyweight Rulon Gardner pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history in any sport when he beat Russian Alexander Karelin in 2000.
But Bender called what he witnessed Wednesday night at the Heydar Aliyev Sport and Exhibition Complex something even bigger for the organization.
The United States overcame an abundance of adversity to turn in a phenomenal performance in winning the Greco-Roman team title at the World Championships. It was the first World team title in the history of the American program.
And they did it in dramatic fashion in an action-packed, tension filled final night.
The historic night saw the U.S. overcome a 30-29 deficit when American heavyweight Dremiel Byers won his bronze-medal match and when Russian Khasan Baroev fell to Cuba’s Mijial Lopez in the gold-medal match. The U.S. gained two points for Byers’ win to capture the title 31-30.
“This is the greatest day in the history of U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling,” Bender said. “You asked me about Rulon’s victory, and obviously that was huge for our country and huge for our sport, but this obviously puts a stamp of legitimacy on USA Wrestling’s Greco-Roman program and the depth of our program. It’s a testament to all of our coaches and athletes and their commitment to this program. It’s unbelievably impressive what these guys did.
“This wasn’t going to be possible unless we, as an organization, made a huge commitment to the sport. We put a training program in place at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs (in 1993), we hired the best coaches that we could hire and made a huge commitment to the program. None of this would have been possible without our athletes buying into this and believing in the bottom of their hearts that they could be champions and they did it today.”
Once Lopez finished off Baroev, U.S. team members were spotted hugging, high-fiving and screaming in a corner of the arena floor near the medal stand during an emotional scene.
It was fitting that Byers, one of the leaders on a veteran, mature and seasoned U.S. team, put the finishing touches on a marvelous performance.
“This is a dream come true for me and our squad,” USA Wrestling National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser said. “We’ve been working for this for 12 years. We’ve come a long way. Dremiel really stepped up as a leader during the whole training process and he came through for us. Everybody on this team was on a mission. The bottom line is they wanted this and came together as a team of athletes, and we did it.”
The U.S. team wrestled without returning World champion Joe Warren, but never gave up on achieving its goal of winning the team title. The best previous finish by a U.S. Greco-Roman Team at the Worlds was third-place finishes in 2001 and 2006.
American Brad Vering (Colorado Springs, Colo./New York AC) won a World silver medal at 84 kg/185 lbs., Harry Lester (Akron, Ohio/Gator WC) won a World bronze medal at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. and Lindsey Durlacher (Colorado Springs, Colo./New York AC) placed fifth at 55 kg/121 lbs. before Byers delivered with a gutsy effort where he rallied to beat France’s Yannick Szczepaniak in the bronze-medal match at 120 kg/264.5 lbs.
Byers (Colorado Springs, Colo./U.S. Army) dropped the first period in the bronze-medal match with the Frenchman, but came back to win the next two periods and win his second World-level medal. Byers won a World title in 2002.
For Byers, it was sweet redemption from the 2006 Worlds when he had a chance to clinch the team title for the U.S. But he instead lost a controversial match where a questionable call went against him. This time, Byers made his own breaks with his determined effort.
“I’m really happy right now,” Byers said. “We worked real hard and we’ve got a great team. Everybody did their part. It feels great to get it done this time. Last year was bad and I was glad I could shake some of that off. We’re walking away with something special, real special.”
Lopez then swept Baroev, who had beat Lopez in the finals of the 2006 Worlds, in the 2007 finals.
Vering won his first World-level medal at age 30 after falling short of earning a medal in three previous World Championships and the 2004 Olympics.
“I only have one thing to say … New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys, this is America’s team right here,” the charismatic Vering said with a laugh. “All the trips, all the battles, all the tournaments, all the hard work … this makes it all worth it right here. It’s just unbelievable to be a part of. We have a team that stuck together, we busted our butts and everybody busted their butts. It’s a great feeling.”
Lester looked very impressive in winning his second straight World bronze medal on Monday and figures to be a prime candidate to win a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics along with a number of his teammates.
“This is better than the individual stuff – especially for the U.S. because we’re not typically known as a Greco champion,” Lester said. “We worked very hard and we finally put it all together. Dremiel was way overdue for a medal and to see him finish it off was great. I feel better about his medal than I do about mine, he did a great job. Dremiel’s been a great leader and he’s been there for me. He is the backbone of our Team and carried us to a World championship.”
Durlacher battled back from a third-round loss to eventual champion Hamid Sourian of Iran on Tuesday to win two matches en route to earning big team points in placing fifth.
“We knew we had a real strong team and we knew we could win this tournament,” Durlacher said. “To do it without Joe Warren was pretty amazing. We were all a little bit down when we lost him, but we regrouped and put together a pretty incredible performance here. This is awesome to be a part of this and make history.”
The U.S. World team, which also includes Joe Betterman, T.C. Dantzler and Justin Ruiz, did exactly that.
“This is an incredible feeling,” Dantzler said. “Back when we had the situation with Joe, everybody was second-guessing whether this team could still do it. Every great team goes through adversity. We went through adversity and we still got it done. I didn’t make the contribution to the winning that I wanted to, but I’m so proud to be on this team. It’s one of the highlights of my life. I’m on the best U.S. Greco team ever – ever.”
This team has certainly paid its dues with a veteran group who has been on countless overseas trips and endured long years of training to arrive at this day. And a group of guys who may not be in this game much longer, if at all, after 2008. Dantzler is 36, Byers 33, Durlacher 33, Vering 30, Ruiz 28, Lester 23 and Betterman 23.
“This is so awesome – to see our team pull together was pretty special,” Ruiz said. “Our guys just kept fighting and doing their part. We miss Joe Warren, but this is a good team and everybody picked up the slack.”
The U.S. team is coached by Fraser, Momir Petkovic, Anatoly Petrosyan, Rich Estrella, Jay Antonelli, Shon Lewis, Ivan Ivanov and Ike Anderson. The training partners for the new World champions are Spenser Mango, Willie Madison, Jake Fisher, Peter Hicks, Adam Wheeler and Phil Johnston.
“We have great coaches and great training partners – those guys made such a difference in helping this team win this,” Dantzler said. “It’s a great staff because the coaches understand us. They know when to pull the reins in and when to crack the whip. They did an excellent job preparing this team for this.”
Petkovic was a big part of that preparation with the work he does with the athletes at daily practices in the wresting room at the Olympic Training Center.
“I believe in these guys and this is a big reward for all of the years of commitment these guys have put in,” Petkovic said. “We have six World medalists now on our team and that’s pretty impressive. I’m very, very happy for everybody in our program. We need to keep this going so we can repeat this kind of performance next year in the Olympics.”
Fraser credited everybody in the U.S. Greco-Roman program.
“This was a total team effort by everybody,” Fraser said. “We owe it to a lot of people. The wrestlers of course, the coaches of course. Our executive director, Rich Bender, who supports us 110 percent. And (National Teams Director) Mitch Hull, who does everything possible to get us the tools and resources we need to prepare properly. John Bardis, our Team Leader, he’s just outstanding. John’s leadership the past few years has really helped us. The whole Greco family. All the volunteer coaches, training partners, I want to thank everybody.”
Building the program to this level didn’t happen overnight under the guidance of Fraser, a 1984 Olympic champion.
“The first thing it took was us really, truly deep down in our hearts believing we can be the best in the World,” Fraser said. “Once we started believing this as a whole Greco family – through a lot of aches and pains, adversity and a lot of times where we left the Worlds with our tail between our legs – it started to become possible.”
The men’s freestyle competition started on Wednesday. It was a rough start for the United States, as Henry Cejudo (Colorado Springs, Colo./Sunkist Kids) at 55 kg/121 lbs. and Mike Zadick (Solon, Iowa/Hawkeye WC) at 60 kg/132 lbs. both lost in the first round and failed to place in the top eight.
Men’s freestyle action continues Thursday with three more Americans set to compete. Taking the mat will be Doug Schwab (Iowa City, Iowa/Gator WC), Joe Heskett (Columbus, Ohio/Gator WC) and Joe Williams (Belvidere, Ill./Sunkist Kids). Schwab competes at 66 kg/145.5 lbs., Heskett at 74 kg/163 lbs. and Williams at 84 kg/185 lbs. Schwab and Heskett are first-time World Team members while Williams is a two-time World bronze medalist.
WORLD WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIPS
At Baku, Azerbaijain, Sept. 19
120 kg/264.5 lbs.
Gold – Mijain Lopez (Cuba)
Silver – Khassan Baroev (Russia)
Bronze – Dremiel Byers (United States)
Bronze – Youri Patrikeev (Armenia)
5th – Yannick Szczepaniak (France)
5th – Mihaly Deak Bardos (Hungary)
7th – Ioseb Chugoshvili (Belarus)
8th – Alexsandr Chernetskyy (Ukraine)
9th – Panagiotis Papadopoulos (Greece)
10th – Georgiy Tsurtsumia (Kazakhstan)
Greco-Roman Team Standings (top 20)
1 UNITED STATES, 31 pts.
2 RUSSIA, 30 pts.
3 GEORGIA, 28 pts.
4 IRAN, 26 pts.
5 SOUTH KOREA, 24 pts.
6 FRANCE, 23 pts.
7 KAZAKHSTAN, 21 pts.
8 HUNGARY, 19 pts.
9 BULGARIA, 18 pts.
10 LITHUANIA, 17 pts.
11 JAPAN, 15 pts.
12 ARMENIA, 14 pts.
12 ROMANIA, 14 pts.
14 CUBA, 12 pts.
14 DENMARK, 12 pts.
16 AZERBAIJAN, 11 pts.
16 BELARUS, 11 pts.
18 SERBIA, 10 pts.
19 UZBEKISTAN, 9 pts.
20 CZECH REPUBLIC, 8 pts.
U.S. Greco-Roman performances
120 kg/264.5 lbs. – Dremiel Byers (Colorado Springs, Colo./U.S. Army), 3rd
WIN Radomir Petkovic (Serbia), 3-1, 6-0
WIN Ivan Ivanov (Bulgaria), 1-1, 3-0, 3-0
WIN Panagiotis Papadopoulos (Greece), 7-0, 5-0
LOSS Khasan Baroev (Russia), 1-1, 0-4WIN Yannick Sczzepaniak (France), 1-1, 2-0, 2-1
55 kg/121 lbs.
Gold – Besik Kudukhov (Russia)
Silver – Naranbaatar Bayaraa (Mongolia)
Bronze – Andy Moreno (Cuba)
Bronze – Rizvan Gadshiev (Belarus)
5th – Sezer Akguel (Turkey)
5th – Dilshod Mansurov (Uzbekistan)
7th – Freddy Serrano (Colombia)
8th – Zhassulan Mukhtabekuly (Kazakhstan)
9th – Anil Kumar (India)
10th – Firas Alrifaei (Syria)
31st – Henry Cejudo (USA)
60 kg/132 lbs.
Gold – Mavlet Batirov (Russia)
Silver – Anatoli Guidea (Bulgaria)
Bronze – Bazar Bazarguruev (Kyrgyzstan)
Bronze – Sahit Prizreni (Albania)
5th – Tevfik Odabasi (Turkey)
5th – He Quin (China)
7th – Samat Khakupov (Kazakhstan)
8th – Murat Ramazanov (Macedonia)
9th – Themis Iakovidis (Greece)
10th – Vasil Fedorishyn (Ukraine)
27th – Mike Zadick (United States)
U.S. freestyle performances
55 kg/121 lbs. – Henry Cejudo (Colorado Springs, Colo./Sunkist Kids), dnp/31stLOSS Taghi Dadashi (Iran), 0-1, 0-4
60 kg/132 lbs. – Mike Zadick (Solon, Iowa/Gator WC), dnp/27thLOSS Sait Prizreni (Albania), 1-1, 0-1