The dream is still alive.
And, local wrestling enthusiasts couldn’t be happier that their beloved sport has found itself back on the agenda for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I was pretty excited,” said Jake Marlin, four-time state champion from Creston, now a freshman at the University of Iowa.
Marlin grew up watching Americans like Cael Sanderson, Henry Cejudo and Jordan Burroughs win Olympic gold medals in wrestling. He was practicing with visions in his head of standing atop that medal stand and listening to the National Anthem.
A vote against wrestling, he said, would have been devastating.
“It would have ruined the sport,” Marlin said. “Maybe not as much here, but in a lot of countries, that’s the only thing they have to look forward to. I figured we’d get it back, because it’s so important, not even just in our country.”
Wrestling’s fate in upcoming Olympic Games starting in 2020 was determined at Sunday’s 125th Session of the International Olympic Committee from Buenos Aires, Argentina. At that meeting, the IOC announced wrestling earned the 28th and final spot on the 2020 and 2024 Olympic programme.
Wrestling received 49 of 95 votes during the first tally, getting just enough to avoid a second ballot. Baseball/softball had 24 and squash 22.
Former University of Iowa coaching legend and Olympic champion Dan Gable and several other national leaders of the sport had been working feverishly since the IOC Executive Board suggested removing wrestling from the Olympics’ 25 core sports in February. It was said to be looking to “modernize” the event with a new sport.
Sunday’s vote followed presentations from a baseball/softball coalition and squash, competing for the last provisional status. A panel of five international wrestling leaders, consisting of three men and two women, gave about a 30-minute presentation, answering questions and concerns from IOC members.
They mentioned that wrestling has transformed dramatically since the earlier recommendation. It changed leadership, forcing Raphael Martinetti out as president of International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) and replacing him with Serbian Nanad Lalovic, who led Sunday’s presentation.
The scoring system and competition structure have also been changed since the February announcement. And, IOC has recently approved adding two women’s weight classes for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Matt Pfiffner, former News Advertiser sports editor and longtime co-owner of The Predicament, an Iowa-based wrestling newspaper, said wrestling has become a better sport in recent months, as it strives to return to Olympic core-sport status.
“This put enough of a scare into the wrestling world that they will do everything they can to follow through on rule changes and try to continue making it better,” said Pfiffner, now a copy editor/paginator with the Citrus County Chronicle in Crystal River, Fla.
“They brought enough big wrestling names into this, that they won’t let it get stale again,” Pfiffner said. “They’ll keep pushing forward.”
Some of the new scoring changes include two points for a takedown, similar to folkstyle wrestling in high school and college, and cumulative scoring through two periods. In the past, the match went to the winner of two of the three periods.
“In the old format, you could win the first period 10-0, but if you lost the next two 1-0 and 1-0, you lost the match,” Pfiffner said. “Now, the score carries over to the next period. It will cut down on stalling when guys tried to sit on that 1-0 lead to win the period.”
Two local high school wrestling standouts remember growing up with the Olympic dream. Like Marlin, they were relieved to hear Sunday’s news, so the sport will continue to thrive.
“I was pretty young, but I watched Cael Sanderson win it,” said Creston High School senior Trevor Frain, a two-time state qualifier who placed fourth last year. “I got the Wheaties box, signed by him. Now, my goal is to be state champ. But if I wrestled in college, it would be to be national champ, and then what would you have to look forward to if they voted against it? College is great and all, but it’s not like being an Olympic champion at your weight class.”
Freshman Chase Shiltz has won six state AAU championships and competed in national competitions as a young wrestler. Sunday’s news was an emotional boost for a kid who’s been dreaming big for years.
“You have to think that way in order to get there, you know?” Shiltz said. “I was pretty excited. Your dream is to go to the Olympics since there’s not a professional sport for it. I think the popularity of the sport would have gone down if there was nothing outside of college.”
Chase’s father, John Shiltz, has been involved in coaching state all-star teams in national competitions. He was pleased with Sunday’s vote, but he said work remains.
“We have to make sure we’re not at the bottom of the list,” John Shiltz said. “I think we only got six weight classes, and we need to get that up to eight or nine in the Olympics. We have to promote it more. It’s good that ESPN (3) is doing every (NCAA Championships) match this year at Oklahoma City. We’re getting more people aware of how wrestling is scored now. Most kids grow up with that Olympic dream.”
Television coverage has shown less wrestling in prime-time viewing hours in recent Olympic Games, Shiltz noted, as sports like swimming and gymnastics have dominated the prime network hours.
Creston/O-M coach Darrell Frain said the February announcement was a “wake up call” for leaders to recharge their sport and make it viable for IOC consideration.
“I’m definitely excited, because that’s the ultimate goal for wrestling,” Frain said. “It’s not like the other sports where you have a professional league. The vote makes you excited for everybody to have that opportunity. That’s what little kids are shooting for.”
As the father of a successful college softball pitcher, however, Frain said he had some misgivings that softball had to face the chopping block in the vote. Likewise for Teri Keeler, Creston assistant softball coach with young daughters (ages 11 and 8) who enjoy the sport.
“I have a daughter who started to really like softball when Jennie Finch and that team won the gold medal,” Keeler said. “I have very mixed feelings. Wrestling is a huge sport and I love wrestling. But I’m disappointed they were on the same ballot.”
Softball was originally exiled from the Olympics in 2005, along with baseball. Softball tried to regain status for 2016 and failed, then joined forces with baseball in 2011 for an appeal for 2020.
The IOC executive board voted out wrestling in February when it was reported that one board member was successful in swaying opinion to not kill modern pentathlon.
Keeler said a softball girl’s dreams are limited.
“There is a national fast pitch association,” she said, “but there are only six or eight teams in that. A lot of players go international to keep playing.”