Thursday February 14, 2013

ADAM SAMROV

Sports Editor

BENNINGTON -- Former Mount Anthony Union High School wrestler Steven Forrest won three Vermont state championships and two New England titles. After graduating from MAU in 2000 as one of the most decorated wrestlers in school history, he joined the military and began competing for the Marines in 2006.

Over the next six years, he won the Armed Forces championship twice, was runner-up twice at the World Team Trials and considered a top challenger to represent the United States in Greco-Roman at the 74-kilogram weight class at the 2012 London Olympics.

But under the latest plan from the International Olympic Committee, Forrest -- and any other world-class grappler -- would be shut out of any Olympic dreams past 2016.

The IOC shocked the wrestling world on Tuesday, voting to tentatively drop the sport from the 2020 Olympics.

"I felt surprise and disappointment, blindsided that this was happening," Forrest said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "This isn’t over by a long shot."

There will be two more sessions for wrestling to save itself. The IOC meets again in May in Russia, then makes a final decision in September.

"Kids that get into wrestling are taught at a young age that that’s the pinnacle of our sport, you can’t get any higher," said Forrest, who has competed in Cuba, Finland and Russia with the U.S. team. "What do you tell kids, that the highest level would be college? There’s no pro league like baseball or football."

Mount Anthony coach Scott Legacy said he, too, was stunned when he heard about the IOC’s decision.

"I couldn’t believe it and I still don’t believe it," Legacy said. "They will be in the fight of their life to take it away."

Wrestling has been in the Games since the beginning, one of nine events when the Olympics were officially re-started in 1896.

It was also part of the ancient Olympiad more than 2,000 years ago.

According to the U.S. Olympic website, athletes from 29 countries medaled at the London Olympics, including Americans Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner, who won golds in freestyle.

The effect of excluding wrestling could trickle down into the youth levels.

Right now, wrestling is one of the most popular youth sports in the U.S. The National Federation of State High School Associations says the sport was sixth among boys with nearly 275,000 competing in 2010-11. But Legacy said the concern is there.

"Speaking for myself, I worry about it having an impact at the local level," Legacy said. "There are still world championships, but what’s the message?"

Wrestling remains in the next games -- 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- but now joins seven other sports applying for inclusion in 2020. The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, a martial art, vying for a single opening in 2020.

"How are sports like squash financially viable?" Forrest said. "And where could you wakeboard in Vermont? You can get kids into a youth tournament for $10 or $15 and they get five matches."

Another Mount Anthony athlete with Olympic aspirations is junior Rachel Hale. Hale, the nation’s only two-time female state champion in co-ed wrestling, has won girls tournaments in Oklahoma, among others, and trained at the U.S. headquarters in Colorado last summer with bronze medalist Clarissa Chun.

Women’s wrestling was added at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

"In 2016, she’ll be a freshman in college, but 2020 would be the year for her," Legacy said. "She would be peaking at that time. It would be disappointing if [wrestling is dropped]."

The wrestling community has come out in full force to support keeping the sport on the Olympic roster. A Facebook page set up by USA Wrestling has nearly 70,000 likes after a day-and-a-half.

The Twitter hashtag #saveolympicwrestling was trending on Tuesday.

"My opinion is that if there’s enough outcry, the decision will be reconsidered," Legacy said. "There’s a hell of a tradition, even people not in the sport are shocked."