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Jeff Byers: Penn State Wrestlers Could be Shooting for Gold at Future Olympics

by on July 10, 2012 6:00 AM

Any kid who has played sports has imagined winning on the biggest stage.

Whether it’s winning the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, Wimbledon or The Masters, kids imagine being on the biggest stage while dreaming in backyards and school gyms.

But to win an Olympic gold medal is truly the ultimate.

It is a chance to represent your country in an event that is staged only once every four years in an idealistic convergence of all nations. The sports which are contested vary from Olympiad to Olympiad, but the spirit remains the same.

Some sports are shared throughout the world, others are fairly regional. Americans take pride in their Olympic athletes.

But the Olympic Games, which run from July 27-Aug. 12 in London, do take some adjusting for the typical American sports fan. There isn’t any football and there are varied versions of the games we play here, including hockey and basketball. But perhaps no athlete has more of an adjustment to international rules than a wrestler.

The rules for freestyle are significantly different than high school and college wrestling’s folkstyle. Think of the difference between soccer and rugby and you get the idea - there are some similarities to the sports but they are completely different sports with different skill sets. And the rules for Greco-Roman are even more insane (I mean, different).

At the the Olympic Games in London, the stories will be heartwarming and inspiring, heartbreaking and wondrous. A handful of images will be lasting and heroes for the world, for various countries and hometowns will be brought to the forefront.

Jake Varner (USA) and Franklin Gomez (Puerto Rico) will represent the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club in freestyle wrestling next month. Both have a chance to bring home medals. Both represent the best in the sport, both on and off the mat, and the Penn State community will rightfully be pulling for both to have success.

But Varner is an Iowa State grad and Gomez is a Michigan State grad. They did not cut their teeth in the Penn State wrestling room.

But it is the future that should have Penn State fans really excited. While the Nittany Lions have provided plenty of thrills while winning NCAA national championships the last two seasons, several current wrestlers could be representing the United States in four or eight years.

Matt Brown, David Taylor, Ed Ruth and Quentin Wright all competed in the Olympic Trials this year and all tasted victory along the way. Those four, along with several others, including Andrew and Dylan Alton, Morgan McIntosh and Nico Megaludis, could be major factors for the United States team down the road.

There have only been four Penn Staters to wrestle in the Olympics - Katsutoshi Naito won a bronze medal for Japan in 1924 and Sanshiro Abe also competed for Japan in 1996 while Ken Chertow (1996) and Kerry McCoy (1996 and 2000) competed for the United States.

The current roster could realistically produce four or five future Olympians and may very well provide Penn State with its first American Olympic medalist in the sport. The skills of Taylor, Ruth and Wright figure to translate well to the freestyle ranks once those wrestlers focus on training in that genre following their collegiate careers.

Even if fans don’t completely understand the seemingly ever-changing rules of freestyle wrestling, they do understand the significance of making the Olympic team and winning medals.

Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson captured a gold medal after completing the most brilliant career of any US collegiate wrestler. And he showed last year that he still has the skills to compete at the very highest level of the sport (he finished fifth at the World Championships after a seven-year hiatus from competitive wrestling).

So the current Nittany Lions couldn’t ask for a better mentor.

Sanderson has repeatedly asserted that Taylor, Ruth and Wright can “do whatever they set their mind to do” in the sport and he believes all three have the potential to represent the United States at the 2016 Games in Rio.

It is one thing to watch Olympians and hear their stories, it is another to know them and follow them closely over the course of their competitive careers.

Penn State fans may have a front row seat to a big part of the future of the sport here in the United States. Now, kids rolling around the mats can dream big, just like Sanderson used to do.

Cue up the alma mater and the national anthem.

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Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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