Brad Vering is not likely to appear on any Olympics collectors cups. He might frighten the children.
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.
“A lot of the young guys step up and say, ‘I’m glad you all won, but I’m here,’ ”
says heavyweight Dremiel Byers, a 2007 world bronze medalist and 2002 world gold medalist. “These guys are going to fight you tooth and nail. I like that.”
Coach Petkovic agrees that this is what makes American wrestlers unique. “In Yugoslavia, you are used to there being things that you can’t get,” he says. “But here the mentality is, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ That gives us an advantage.”
Before the Olympics, recent world championship results are often read like tea leaves. From them, experts try to discern the medal tables to come.
Steven Roush, the US Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, says with some consternation that China “won more gold medals than any other country” at the world championships held in 2006.
But within Americans’ successes are also story lines for the month to come.
Jennie Reed, an elite cyclist for a decade, became a world champion for the first time this year, passing two competitors in the last turn of the women’s Keirin race. By contrast, Beezie Madden lost her gold medal on the last jump of the World Equestrian Games in 2006, settling for silver. It was only the second fault her horse had made in a week of competition.
By the measure of gold medals at world championships, however, America’s best return outside the Big Three comes from rowing, with three golds, a silver, and a bronze in 2007.
One of those gold medals came from the women’s eight, who also won in 2006. Its success is a curious alchemy of competition and teamwork.
“I think oftentimes people wonder how we do it, because most of the year we’re competing against each other, as well as with each other, to make the boat,” says Caryn Davies, who made the women’s eight boat for the Olympics, as well as the past two world championships. “But we’re very good at competing when it’s necessary, and as soon as we get on the dock, as soon as we get home, we’re friends again.”
It is this connection that gives her confidence, Ms. Davies says. “I remember the first year that I spent rowing with this group of women – I was in the 2006 women’s eight – and I remember sitting on the starting line and literally just thinking, there’s nobody else that I’d rather have in my boat.”
She adds: “I just felt so much trust for everybody in the boat, and I knew that everybody was going to give it her all, so I think that’s the most you can ask for, really, of your teammates. It’s great to be friends, but it’s really about the trust.”