Olympic Trials: Wrestling becomes human in Iowa City


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Wrestling is sometimes perceived as an emotionless sport. Sweaty men beat up on each other until one is pinned to the ground — that's a widespread opinion.

But this year, the U.S. Olympic trials were held in Iowa City — the town in which die-hard fans understand that wrestling is beautiful. They understand wrestling is a sport of human power, confidence, and overcoming limits. The challenge in wrestling is its complete dedication, and fans in Iowa understand the Olympic hopefuls have invested their entire lives toward the outcome of this tournament.

Kelsey Campbell and Helen Maroulis both collapsed on the mat after the women's 55-kilogram championship on April 21. Campbell clapped her hands and tears streamed down her face because she had just earned a ticket to London for the Olympic Games. Maroulis buried her face in the mat, crushed by despair that she came so close.

I watched Campbell cry through her post-match interviews. I could almost feel her tears — her complete joy — as I watched them mix with the sweat on her face. I could feel her smile, her laugh, her quivering voice as she whispered, "I can't believe this."

Dan Gable lingered in the opening of the tunnel, watching Campbell from afar. His eyes got a little wider, and he smiled.

"I'm just sitting here watching this young lady cry," Gable said. "She won. It's such a big dream for people … A lot of people have to struggle really big time to win, and it's emotional for me to see this."

Glenn Garrison, a 38-year-old Greco-Roman wrestler, lost in the third-place match of the 66-kilogram bracket. He sat down in the middle of the mat and slowly pulled off his shoes. He placed them in the center of the mat and walked off the raised stage, a traditional symbol marking retirement from competitive wrestling.

Garrison embraced his coach and two grown men sobbed on the shoulders of another. His shoes sat in the center of the mat, untied and alone.

Henry Cejudo was a child of impoverished Mexican immigrants but also of wrestling. At 21 years old, he became the youngest American to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling.

He retired after the 2008 Olympics but came out of retirement to try to earn a second Olympic berth. Why? His mother was tangled up in citizenship issues and couldn't travel to Beijing to see him wrap an American flag around his shoulders with a gold medal on his neck four years ago.

But he lost in the semifinals. He, too, sat down in the center of the mat and untied his Henry Cejudo Vaporspeed Adidas. He then held them up, then calmly threw each shoe into the stands of Carver-Hawkeye Arena to a standing ovation.

Cejudo sat down in front of the media in the press room under the arena. He took a deep breath. And another. He put his head down on the table and cried.

"This sport has given me everything," he said, between more heavy sighs. "Do I need wrestling? No. I think what I do need is people. People that need help; that's what motivates me. That's what inspired me to come back to wrestling. And I'll stick to it. I didn't come back to the sport to be the best; I came to the sport to be the best person alive."

Cejudo spoke of his plans after wrestling. He wants to help the 55-kilogram Olympic trials champ prepare for London, so he can achieve his dream of a gold. He wants to be a father and name his first daughter America. He wants to change an impoverished inner-city kid's life. He wants to go home, hug his mom, and eat her home cooking.

By the end of Cejudo's talk — where it became clear that he understands life at a level higher than many of us — I was the one taking some deep breaths to keep my emotions in check.

That's when Henry Cejudo looked at me and told me to smile.

Wrestling isn't emotionless. Emotion is everywhere. I could feel it in the smiles the little kids Cael Sanderson signed autographs for; in the fists I saw pound into the mat after losses; in the eyes of Rulon Gardner's wife when he, too, announced his retirement.

It's impossible not to embrace the emotion in this sport.

America needs to witness that side of wrestling, and Iowa City showed it this weekend.

Follow DI Olympic wrestling reporter Molly Irene Olmstead on Twitter.

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