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America’s other Olympians may win gold, not big glory

Athletes outside the most popular events – gymnastics, track and field, and swimming – win about one third of America’s Olympic medals.

By / July 29, 2008

Olympic Hopeful: Brad Vering led the US Greco-Roman wrestling team to its first world title last year.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP/File

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Brad Vering is not likely to appear on any Olympics collectors cups. He might frighten the children.

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On the wrestling mat, he is a mastodon, woolly, bearded, and massive. But as much as any statuesque sprinter or spring-limbed gymnast, he is one of America’s top medal hopefuls.

A year ago, he led America’s unheralded Greco-Roman wrestling team to the most improbable achievement in its history – a world team title, the United States’ first. The women’s eight rowing team was also world champions, though in its case for the second year running. Meanwhile, Steven Lopez has not lost a tae kwon do contest since 2000.

They are among America’s Other Olympians, exceptional yet often overlooked beside those from the Big Three – gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. They are, however, in some respects the key to American success in Beijing. With few more medals to wring from its core sports, America’s supporting cast could be decisive in attempting to counter China’s charge to the top of the gold medal table.

In 2004, it provided 38 of America’s 102 medals. That ratio has been relatively constant over the years, with sports outside the Big Three accounting for about one-third of America’s Olympic medals. Results from recent world championships suggest the trend will hold true in Beijing.

NBC has set up its coverage accordingly. It successfully lobbied Olympic organizers to alter the event schedule so gymnastics and swimming can air live during prime-time in the US. The finals of those events will now take place in the morning, Beijing time, as they did during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The Greco-Roman wrestlers, however, might be forgiven for thinking that they deserve at least a taste of prime-time. America’s team upset at the world championships in Azerbaijan last year – in a sport that American high schools don’t even offer – ranks as an victory worthy of slow-motion montages.

“No one thought it could be achieved,” says coach Momir Petkovic.

It was, and there was something particularly American in the achievement, team members say. Despite winning the team title, the Americans didn’t win a single gold, finishing first collectively by virtue of Vering’s silver, two bronzes, and a fifth. It was scrappy, yeomanly work.

“We’re known for beating other countries up,” says Olympian T.C. Dantzler, also a member of the world-champion team. “Technically, we’re not where other countries are, but by the time we wear them down, their technique goes out the window.”

Now, the Americans are beating up on each other. One of the bronze medalists and the fifth-place finisher failed even to qualify for the Olympics. The bronze medalist, touted as America’s best Greco-Roman wrestler, lost to a high schooler, Jake Deitchler, who becomes the first high schooler to make an American Olympic wrestling team in 22 years.

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