Burrell wrestler Kelly ponders chasing Olympic dream

Bill West
| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 9:43 p.m.

With The Kiski School in his life's rearview mirror, Lower Burrell native Zach Kelly has come to a fork in the road to further wrestling stardom.

One path takes Kelly, who will be a senior, back to Burrell High School, where he won a WPIAL individual title as a freshman in 2011 before transferring to The Kiski School, the preparatory academy in Saltsburg that he attended the past three school years — Kelly reclassified as a freshman when he arrived there.

The other route heads west to Colorado, where the Olympic Training Center has offered Kelly a spot in its junior level developmental program. No more than six high school-age wrestlers from around the country will train from this August until next July at the Colorado Springs facility.

Kelly is torn between more immediate desires, namely pursuing WPIAL and PIAA titles alongside his childhood friends, and the long-term aspiration of becoming an Olympic-level athlete. But the WPIAL might remove Kelly's need to choose by making the call for him. The WPIAL Board of Control denied Kelly a fifth year of athletic eligibility in June. Kelly has an appeal hearing with the WPIAL scheduled for July 9, and if the WPIAL again says no, the wrestler can appeal to the PIAA.

If wrestling for Burrell isn't an option, then Kelly intends to train at the Olympic Training Center. He won't remain at Kiski School, which he said has become too expensive and too short on quality training partners.

“I think in the past year, my goals have went up to a whole other level,” said Kelly, who is ranked by Flowrestling as the second-best 160-pounder in country. “I want to be an Olympic champion and a world champion. That's what I'm training for. Those guys out there, that's what they do.”

Kelly's high school career already contains more twists and turns than most. As a freshman, he claimed the WPIAL Class AA 113-pound title and contributed to the Bucs' run to a WPIAL team title and third-place finish in the PIAA team tournament. Concerned about flagging study habits in the classroom, Kelly left for the more structured environment of The Kiski School.

His grades improved, as did his wrestling. He placed fourth and second in the National Prep championships in 2012 and 2013.

During the summer of 2013, Kelly committed to Bucknell. And with a string of strong performances in offseason tournaments, his confidence soared to an unprecedented high. But then came his shoulder injury, a torn labrum, in late October during the prestigious Super 32 tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

Kelly did not wrestle once during the 2013-14 high school season. That fact is at the crux of his argument for a fifth season. Whether that is compelling enough to trump PIAA bylaw article VIII, which limits athletic eligibility to four consecutive years following the start of freshman year, remains to be determined.

“I think all of us would like to see him at Burrell wrestling,” Tami Kelly, Zach's mother, said. “With Burrell wrestling, from youth on up, there are so many people who have helped him along the way.”

His heart might pull him toward the Bucs, but Kelly is hard-pressed to ignore the allure of the Olympic Training Center, a place he visited twice earlier this year, including for a two-week stay in June.

“Being around all those good guys, you just want to be better — even all of the other athletes that are there,” Kelly said. “Like when I was there, I saw Michael Phelps every day. It was just really cool to be out there around those guys.”

The Olympic Training Center would handle living and food expenses for Kelly. And in addition to working with the best of the best among Americans, he'd also go on training trips to Russia, Cuba and Turkey.

“This program, it's not for guys who just want to be maybe an NCAA champion and then move on to get a job,” said Brandon Slay, head wrestling coach at the Olympic Training Center and a gold medalist in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. “This is for guys who want to be an Olympic champ in 2020 in Tokyo.”

“We tell young men that if you really want to become the best in the world, we encourage you to leave home one year early and come train here.”

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