By Tim Hipps
IMCOM Public Affairs
SAN ANTONIO – Twenty-three Soldiers will compete for Olympic berths April 21-22 at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Nineteen of those Soldiers train in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. Three of them – SFC
Dremiel Byers, SGT Spenser Mango and SGT Oscar Wood – already are Olympians. The others will continue pursuit of their Olympic dreams this weekend.
U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program Spc. Harry Lester competes in the 2010 U.S. Open Wrestling Championships. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
“This is a pretty special Olympics because we went from putting one Soldier on the Olympic team back in 2008 to the potential of us putting between three and five Soldiers on the Olympic team from one program,” said Willie Wilson, chief of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. “If you look at USA Wrestling and the programs across the country, it’s pretty significant if a program can put one person on the Olympic team.
“With us having the opportunity of putting between three and five on the team from one program, that’s actually pretty special. I’m excited about the upcoming trials.”
Wilson also is impressed with the leadership of WCAP wrestling coach Shon Lewis and his staff at Fort Carson, Colo., home of U.S. Army wrestling.
Lewis will receive USA Wrestling’s Coach of the Year award for the fourth time on Friday night during a banquet in Iowa City, where SPC Justin Lester will be honored as 2011 Greco-Roman Wrestler of the Year.
Lester, 28, of Akron, Ohio, is a two-time bronze medalist at the World Championships while wrestling at 66-kilograms/145.5 pounds. A four-time U.S. national champion and five-time U.S. World Team member, Lester won the 74-kilogram/163-pound division at the 2012 U.S. Open, thus he must battle through the challenge tournament in Iowa to reach the finals at 66 kilos, a weight class he is expected to win despite undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Jan. 17.
Also at 66 kilos, WCAP SSG Glenn Garrison is a two-time national champion in search of his first Olympic berth. WCAP SPC Faruk Sahin, the U.S. World Team member in 2009 and 2010, should also fare well in the weight class. Sahin, a naturalized citizen born in Turkey, finished runner-up to Jake Deitchler at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.
SFC Dremiel Byers, 37, of Kings Mountain, N.C., is a 2002 world champion, a 2008 Olympian, and the only U.S. Greco-Roman wrestler to win gold, silver and bronze medals at the World Championships. He also is the lone American to win open and Military World Championships.
Byers is the only men’s Greco-Roman wrestler at the trials who gets to sit out the challenge tournament and await his opponent for a best-of-three matches at 120 kilograms/264.5 pounds.
WCAP teammate SPC Timothy Taylor, entered as a wild card because of injury last season, could be Byers’ opponent Saturday, as could two-time Olympic medalist Rulon Gardner, who came out of retirement after eight years away from the mat.
SGT Spenser Mango, 25, a 2008 Olympian from St. Louis, Mo., has competed in the past three World Championships for the United States. His best international finishes are eighth at the Beijing Olympics and ninth at the 2009 Worlds. He qualified the 55-kilogram/121-pound weight class for Team USA for London by winning a Pan American Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament March 23 in Kissimmee, Fla.
“I’ve seen all the top guys in the weight class and I’m right there with them,” Mango said. “I want to win the gold in London. To me, it’s all about getting medals.”
WCAP SPC Jermaine Hodge, 30, a 2009 U.S. national champion from Hillsborough, N.C., is one of the toughest opponents in Mango’s weight class. He struck silver at the 2012 Pan American Championships and gold at a 2011 Grand Prix tournament in Spain.
“If it’s going to be a year, it’s going to be this year,” Hodge said. “Regardless of the outcome, it’s going to be a dogfight to the end. … We’re so many steppingstones ahead of everybody in this weight class. I think Shon did the right thing by bringing Mango into the program. One of us is going to get it done at the Olympics.”
WCAP SPC Jeremiah Davis, 27, of San Diego, is a three-time U.S. national champion and two-time U.S. World Team member who must get past Joe Betterman, the 2012 U.S. Open champ and two-time World Team member at 60 kilograms/132 pounds.
“I’ve beaten Olympians and world placers plenty of times,” said Davis, who can’t remember how many times he has wrestled Betterman. “I feel like every time he’s beaten me, it was something I did to lose.”
WCAP SPC Marco Lara, the 2011 Armed Forces champ at 60 kilos, could play spoiler in the weight class.
Byers is confident about all those Soldiers.
“Those guys have so much talent and ability,” he said of Lester and Mango. “I know they’re ready. I know they’re focused. And Hodge is sitting right there, and Davis. Taylor is even trying to pick it up. I just pay attention to everything around me and feed off of it. I still steal moves from the little guys.”
WCAP SGT Aaron Sieracki, at 74 kilograms/163 pounds, could be the primary beneficiary of reigning national champion Lester returning to his original weight class. Lester could wrestle at 74 kilos and sit out the challenge tournament, but he is expected to take the hard road.
Sieracki, coincidentally, wrestled most of his career and finished second at the 2008 Olympic Trials at 84 kilograms/185 pounds. A two-time national runner-up, Sieracki, who dropped a weight class after his brother Keith retired (they refused to wrestle each other), will be the highest finisher from the 2012 U.S. Open at 74 kilograms/163 pounds. WCAP PFC Timothy Bleau and Army Reserve SGT Oscar Wood, a 2004 Olympian, also are entered in that weight class.
WCAP SGT Iris Smith, a 2005 world champion and five time U.S. national champ, will contend in the women’s 72-kilo/158.5-pound division. To make Team USA, she must defeat 2008 Olympian Ali Bernard, who not only qualified the U.S. to compete in London but earned a spot in the best-of-three finals at the Olympic Trials.
USA Wrestling and NBCOlympics.com partnered to provide a live webcast of all four mats of the challenge tournament on Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 9 a.m. CT each day. To view the webcast, go to http://www.nbcolympics.com/.
Each of the four mats streamed will feature live commentary by USA Wrestling’s Jason Bryant and Van Stokes, the deputy director of Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Fort Campbell, Ky., The Open Mat’s Willie Saylor, BadgerStateWrestling.com’s Shane Sparks and Ben Hupke of Hupke Wrestling Productions.
NBC Sports Network will present six hours of next-day coverage April 22 from 4 until 7 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network. Final-day coverage will air April 23 from 3 until 6 p.m.