Olympic Trials: Ellis Coleman adds 'Olympian' to high-flying résumé

BY CODY GOODWIN | APRIL 24, 2012 6:30 AM

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To hell with a high-school state championship. Ellis Coleman is going to the Olympics.

The New York Athletic Club's flying squirrel was never able to pin down an Illinois prep state wrestling championship, but only surrendered 3 points en route to the Greco-Roman Olympic team.

It wasn't surprising that Coleman reached Sunday night's finals against Joe Betterman. He was regarded as a contender before the brackets were released, and was the fan favorite when he first stepped on the mat Sunday morning for the Greco-Roman 60-kilogram quarterfinals.

He said wrestling wasn't fun and games anymore after his semifinal win, a 2-0, 2-0 decision over second-seeded Jeremiah Davis (Army).

"I watched Henry Cejudo win four years ago [in Beijing]," he said as he tried to catch his breath. "He was 21, and he won gold. I'm 20. Why can't I?"

A quick turnaround

Coleman became famous for his flying squirrel toss against Iran's Mehdi Zidvand less than a year ago. Coleman was losing the first period of the match, 5-0, before the explosive move scored him 3 points. Coleman lost the period, but came back to win the match and advance to the semifinals at the 66-kilo weight class of the FILA Junior World Greco-Roman Championships.

Coleman continued to wrestle at 66 kilograms as the year progressed. Once he turned the corner and entered 2012, he made the decision — with some persuasion from his coaches — to drop to 60 kilos.

"I kicked off with a burst and was beating everybody," he said. "As soon as it started, I told myself that this is my team to make, this is my chance."

Coleman has yet to lose to anybody from America since making the drop, which equates to 132 pounds. He was dominant, and said his quick success is because he had been wrestling at 66 kilos for majority of his senior-level career.

"I was a small 66," he said. "I got better from wrestling 66. And now, being bigger all year, it's a matter of staying focused and making that drop."

The weight-cutting was a challenge in itself — he dropped six kilograms (13.2 pounds) on April 21, the day before he was set to wrestle. But with a new weight came new competition.

And the toughest competition was more familiar than most people might think.

Facing an old hero

Joe Betterman had been the top dog in the 60-kilo U.S. Greco-Roman scene since he took control of the weight by dethroning Jim Gruenwald in 2007. He has since been to two Greco-Roman World Championships and has been a finalist in five-straight national championships.

But Betterman also made time for clinics and camps where he helped young athletes learn the Greco-Roman discipline. It was his way to give back to the wrestling community.

Coleman was an attendee at several of these camps.

"He used to coach me a bit, so it was kind of odd," Coleman said. "I never thought I'd be here — me and him in the finals."

Coleman didn't need a flying squirrel to win; he used two gut-wrenches. He claimed the first match by a 1-0, 2-0 decision, cranking out a 2-point gut-wrench in the second period after managing to win a defensive struggle in the first.

The second match saw more fireworks but the same result, with Coleman winning by way of a 0-2, 5-0, 1-0 decision. Betterman was able to catch Coleman in a weak moment during the par terre position of period one before Coleman pulled off a flurry of points in the second.

The third period saw the same result of the first match: Coleman cranked out another gut-wrench to win the match and the Olympic spot.

But the charismatic Coleman showed nothing but respect for his former coach.

"I love Joe to death," he said. "He's really tough."

Greco over Freestyle

Coleman was a nationally-feared wrestler when he grappled for Oak Park-River Forest (Ill.) High. He excelled in all three disciplines practiced in the U.S.: Folkstyle, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman.

But he saw much more potential in Greco-Roman than in the other disciplines while still in high school, and this early sighting caused Coleman to chase his dreams and pursue the legless style.

"I never gave Freestyle a chance," he said. "It was always one or the other, but not two together. Most people who did two together got burnt out quickly, and I didn't want that."

Coleman found quick success in Greco-Roman, winning national championships at both the Cadet and Junior competition levels. Those accolades led Coleman to the FILA Junior World Team Trials, where we qualified to represent the U.S. at the world level. The result was a bronze medal in 2010 in Budapest, Hungary and another in 2011 in Bucharest, Romania.

All the while, Coleman was being pushed by his coaches to continue to work because they knew he could make a difference.

"They kept pushing me and saying, 'You're the guy,' " he said with a smile. "They were like, 'You're going to be the guy. You're 18 years old, and you're already up there with the top guys, so be ready.' "

U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling head coach Steve Fraser was one of the coaches who pushed Coleman, and he was glad he did — Fraser said he saw Coleman's potential the moment he stepped on the mat at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"He's not afraid of anything," Fraser said. "It didn't take a lot of convincing to get him to wrestle at the Senior level. His competitive spirit is awesome to watch. We're all very proud of him."

A new nickname

Almost everybody in Carver-Hawkeye Arena anticipated one thing from Coleman: The flying squirrel move.

He didn't use it. He said he only uses the move when he's losing, and Coleman was only put in a losing situation once on Sunday.

But his presence was the spark to over 13,000 cheering fans, who screamed his name followed by five claps in a two-three set — a chant not often heard at wrestling meets.

"I heard it, yeah, and it was pumping me up," he said. "It was like one of those things the crowd does to pump up a football team. It felt like one of those moments … Everybody cheering, it felt good."

Returning 2008 55-kilo Olympian Spenser Mango was with Coleman in Florida a month ago when they both qualified their weights for the U.S. at the Pan-American Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Both wrestlers placed second to qualify their weights.

Mango remembered sitting in Kissimmee, Fla., with Coleman, talking about the then-upcoming Olympic trials.

"Last month, [we] were happy that we qualified the weight," Mango said after his finals win on April 21. "But none of that would've meant anything if we didn't win today."

Coleman agreed, and smiled at his new name. He's no longer the 'Flying Squirrel.'

He's an Olympian.

"It's awesome," he said. "I love that move, but I love that I have [being an Olympian] to back it up."

Follow DI reporter Cody Goodwin on Twitter.

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