Local coaches encouraged by support to keep wrestling in Olympics

Michael Love
| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

Kurt Angle rose to local stardom on youth wrestling mats and later at Mt. Lebanon High School in the early to mid-80s.

He then gained national attention with his exploits at Clarion University, as he won two NCAA titles, earned one runner-up finish and was a three-time All-American.

Angle's wrestling legacy was cemented, however, when he won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. He battled through the affects of a severe neck injury suffered at the Olympic Trials.

Mike Supak, Plum's head wrestling coach, knows how much an impact Angle, local 2012 Olympic wrestlers Jake Herbert and Coleman Scott and others like them have on the youth wrestlers in the Pittsburgh region today.

“We would see guys like Angle at youth wrestling tournaments when I and others were learning how to wrestle,” Supak said.

“The kids will ask me if I know him or had talked to him. A lot of the same things we have the kids do today we did back then. It gives the kids a chance to relate to all of the big names they read about or see on TV. They can see it's not that far away.”

But earlier this year, the chance to see local wrestling standouts on the international stage was threatened with the announcement by the International Olympic Committee, based on a secret-ballot vote, that wrestling be dropped from the Olympics in 2020, ending a run that began when the modern Olympics started in 1896.

Angle, at the time, was one of many in the international wrestling community to express disappointment with the vote.

“We're going to fight this,” Angle said in an interview with Fox Sports just days after the ruling was announced.

“They can't just drop it. They're keeping badminton and that sport where you jump on a trampoline, and they're dropping wrestling. It's just crazy. I don't know what this world is coming to. Things are changing.”

Others such as 2000 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner tried to find reason for the decision, wondering if the IOC was trying to make the Olympics more mainstream and viewer-friendly instead of sticking with tradition.

The reaction was just as swift locally where people such as Gateway head coach R.J. Santilli made sure that the decision wouldn't be set in stone without a fight.

“I was shocked when I heard that wrestling was going to be eliminated from Olympic competition,” he said.

“I think that along with gymnastics, when you think of the Olympics, you think of wrestling.”

The groundswell of world reaction and support for wrestling was swift and unrelenting.

Santilli and others helped spread the message and urged people to visit www.change.org, a leading petition-based platform to have voices heard on all kinds of issues, both social and political.

Hopes grew that Olympic wrestling wouldn't go away after 2016 when the International Olympic Committee late last month selected three sports — wrestling included — to be on a ballot for a vote to see which sport to add to the program of the 2020 Olympic Games.

The other sports that will be considered are baseball/softball and squash.

“It was very positive to see there was such an outcry,” Santilli said.

“What was encouraging was to hear all of the support from people not associated with wrestling but enjoy the Olympics and sports in general.”

When one thinks of the U.S., Russia and Iran coupled in the same conversation, it sometimes leads to issues of political strife.

But with the decision to remove wrestling from the Olympics after 2016, the wrestling communities of the three countries united in a common bond for a mutual mission.

Wrestlers from the U.S., Iran and Russia gathered on May 15 at New York City's historic Grand Central Station in a show of international solidarity for “The Rumble on the Rails” wrestling event.

“It is an exciting opportunity for wrestling to show the world its ability to bring together nations of different political, cultural and geographic backgrounds,” said USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender in a USA Wrestling article right before the event.

The “Rumble on the Rails” was broadcast on the NBC network. Gardner did commentary for the broadcast, and Angle, as well as other top names in the sport, were in attendance.

“All three countries always have had strong teams,” Supak said.

“Every year, a U.S. team goes over to Iran and has an event there. Even though there are so many political differences, the love for the sport can bring them together. It has really united the world wrestling community. Countries like the U.S., Russia and Iran know that if they don't come together and support this cause, then who will?

“They are going to try to do more events like that around the world. Hopefully, with these events, wrestling can become more mainstream.”

Santilli knows the value of local wrestlers such as Herbert, a North Allegheny graduate, and Scott, a Waynesburg graduate, to keep the dream alive in the hearts and minds of up-and-coming youth competitors.

Scott won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic games in London.

“There is no such thing as professional wrestling, so after competing collegiately, the only option for an athlete to continue competitively in wrestling is to train for the Olympics,” Santilli said in an email crafted shortly after the IOC's February ruling.

“Needless to say, very few wrestlers ever come close.

“It's great for the high school kids and the younger kids to have someone to look up to that grew up in close proximity to them. They can say a guy made it to the Olympics who grew up only 15 miles from them. Now that it is summer, guys like Herbert and Scott are conducting local camps, and the young wrestlers can watch them instruct and see these guys as real people instead of just characters on TV, so to speak.”

Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at mlove@tribweb.com.

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