It is tough enough taking on Russia, Turkey, Iran and Cuba in a sport those nations have long dominated internationally. Now the United States Olympic wrestling team finds itself headlocked by high expectations.
The 1992 U.S. freestyle team won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, and anything less on home soil in Atlanta would be a disappointment.
The problem is, such high hopes probably aren’t realistic for a team that has been deeply divided since the shooting death of former Olympic champion Dave Schultz in January. For years, U.S. amateur wrestling subsisted largely on the money provided by John E. du Pont, the eccentric millionaire charged in Schultz’s shooting.
As a result, the U.S. team is split between those who still receive money from du Pont and the wrestlers who despise any mention of the man’s name. USA Wrestling and the USOC granted funds to those who no longer receive du Pont’s aid, but 16 international-class wrestlers still do.
It is a potential problem that U.S. freestyle coach Joe Seay must solve as the team practices together in Phoenix before heading to Atlanta.
``I still get very sad when I think I’ll be in Atlanta but Dave won’t,″ said Kurt Angle, the U.S. 220-pounder and reigning world champion.
The United States has won 41 freestyle gold medals, but many came before the former Soviet Union’s 30-year domination of the sport. The USSR won every world championship from 1962-92.
The Soviet powerhouse has since splintered into teams representing Russia and the USSR’s former republics. And, despite the Soviet breakup, the United States has still not regained its stature as a world wrestling superpower.
``We have some strong points, but some of our guys don’t have much experience,″ said Kenny Monday, a three-time Olympian at 163 pounds.
As usual, the U.S. team begins with super heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner, the two-time Olympic champion who could become only the fifth American and the first wrestler to medal in four Olympics.
Seay’s problem is to make sure the U.S. team’s success doesn’t end with him, too.
Of the 10 freestyle team members, only Baumgartner and Monday (one gold, one silver) own Olympic medals. Only two others, Townsend Saunders (149 1/2 pounds) and Kendall Cross (125 1/2 pounds) even possess Olympic experience.
Coming off its most successful world championships since the Soviet breakup, the American team figured to be deeper and more experienced. But Cross, a 1992 Olympian, and 180 1/2-pounder Les Gutches each upset reigning world champions in the U.S. trials.
Two-time world champion Terry Brands lost to Cross. Gutches knocked off 1992 Olympic champion Kenny Jackson, a reigning world champion.
``I think we have an excellent team,″ Seay said. ``When you have two world champions fail to make the team, you know it’s deep.″
Deep, but also unpredictable.
Gutches, 23, owns no international medals. With a style that relies more on strength than technique, he could have a difficult time against experienced 180 1/2-pound wrestlers such as former world champions Lukman Jabrailov of Moldova, Sebahattin Oztruk of Turkey and Elmadi Jabrailov of Kazakhstan.
Baumgartner has long been the dominant wrestler in his class and hasn’t lost to an American in 15 years. But super heavyweights score so infrequently _ most matches are decided in overtime _ that one careless mistake or misjudgment can decide a medal.
Baumgartner has beaten all of his top competitors, but most have beaten him, too.
At 114 1/2 pounds, Lou Rosselli is a decided longshot at a weight dominated by seven-time world champion Valentin Jordanov of Bulgaria. Jordanov has won the last three world championships, but has never finished higher than third in the Olympics.
Angle, a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion at Clarion University who won the first world championships he entered last year, is a possible medalist at 220 pounds.
``It’s the biggest tournament of my life,″ Angle said.
Tom Brands, the twin brother of Terry, is the U.S. successor at 136 1/2 pounds to John Smith, who won six consecutive world or Olympic titles from 1987-92. His combative, straight-on style can be a liability against wrestlers just as strong but more technically skilled.
At 198 pounds, American Melvin Douglas is a former world champion, but competes in perhaps the toughest class. Makharbek Khadartsev of Russia is a seven-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion, but lost in the last two world finals to Rasul Khadem of Iran.
The U.S. hasn’t won an Olympics medal at 114 1/2 pounds since Bobby Weaver took a gold in 1984, and Rob Eiter finished seventh in last year’s world championships.
Freestyle wrestling is the better known of the two Olympic wrestling disciplines and closely resembles American high school and college wrestling. The U.S. has only two gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, which bars holds below the waist.
The former Soviet Union excelled in Greco-Roman, winning 208 medals in a format that features throwing, body slams and flurries of scoring. Super heavyweight Alexander Karelin of Russia may be the best Greco-Roman wrestler of all time.
Dennis Hall’s gold medal at 125 1/2 pounds in last year’s world championships, only the second won by an American, encouraged U.S. Greco-Roman coach Rob Hermann to set a goal of six Olympic medals.
``We want to set our goals high,″ he said. ``This is the Olympics, in our country. The fans are going to be behind us.″