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U.S. Wrestlers Vie for Olympics

July 26, 1999

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) _ Freestyle wrestling at the Pan American Games could very well preview the U.S. team that will compete in the Olympics next year.

Then again, it might not.

The United States will send its A team, minus two-time world champion Terry Brands, to the mat for the competition that starts Tuesday. But the same team might not go to Sydney in 2000.

No matter how well a wrestler does here, there’s no guarantee he’ll be on the Olympic team, which will be chosen in trials in Dallas next June. Regardless of how successful a wrestler has been in the past, if he doesn’t win his weight class at the trials, he doesn’t go to Australia.

And there will be a lot of experienced, outstanding wrestlers competing for those berths.

``These guys are really excited about what lies ahead of them _ the Pan Ams, the world championships and then ... the Olympics,″ U.S. coach John Smith said. ``The only disappointing thing is that you may not be working with the same guys next year. It’s that strong right now.

``Compared to last year’s world championships, there are five new faces out of eight wrestlers. That just tells you the quality of U.S. wrestling right now and the depth we have.″

Seven of the eight U.S. wrestlers in Winnipeg will compete in this year’s world championships Oct. 8-11 in Ankara, Turkey. The exception here is Eric Guerrero, who will replace two-time world champion Bands at 58 kilograms. Guerrero, the No. 2-ranked wrestler at that weight and a three-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma State, flew into Winnipeg on Sunday.

But Brands, who had to pull out at the last minute because of an illness and was returning home to Iowa City, Iowa, will go to worlds.

With Brands gone, Les Gutches is the only former world champion on the U.S. team. Also on the team is Lincoln McIlravy, who won a bronze medal at the 1998 world meet and has lost just once in the last two years.

``I think the thing about this team is there are quite a few young, hungry athletes that want a piece of the pie right now,″ said Smith, who was a gold medalist in the 1987 and 1991 Pan Ams.

``The nice thing about working with this particular team, it doesn’t take a lot of external push individually. These guys push themselves.″

Few push themselves harder than McIlravy, who still hasn’t gotten over his 3-2 loss to three-time world champion Arayik Gevorgian of Armenia in the first round of last year’s worlds.

``There’s been a burr under my saddle for almost 12 months now,″ said McIlravy, a three-time NCAA champion at Iowa and a five-time South Dakota state champion in high school. ``I want to make a serious run at the world championships this year and this is a great competition to see where we are.″

McIlravy, who wrestles at 69 kilograms, bounced back from his loss to Gevorgian to win seven straight matches and claim the bronze medal. He finished the year 27-1 and is 18-0 this year.

New faces on the team include super heavyweight Stephen Neal, who has made a quick transition from college to freestyle wrestling. Neal, 22, won his second straight NCAA championship in March, then won the U.S. nationals six weeks later.

His weight class includes world champion Alexis Rodriguez of Cuba.

``I don’t feel pressure,″ Neal said. ``I’ve got the Cuban who is the world champ, so I guess I’m an underdog. I just want to show the world who I am.″

Others who made the team by earning a No. 1 ranking for the first time are Eric Akin (54 kilograms), Joe Williams (76 kilograms) and Dominic Black (97 kilograms). Black, 29, who’s in the Army, is the oldest of the newcomers.

``I’ve had an exciting year so far and I’m excited to be part of the Pan Ams competition,″ said Black, who’s approaching the competition no differently than any other.

``You always prepare the same,″ he said. ``Make sure you sacrifice to be a champion.″

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