Self-confidence is a major part of what fuels a wrestler to succeed.
It helped University of Iowa wrestler and West High graduate Derek St. John become an NCAA champion, and it helped him cope with the uncertainty leading up to Sunday’s announcement that wrestling had survived the Olympic cutting block.
St. John, much like he approaches his own matches, just couldn’t bring himself to think that his beloved sport would lose the fight for Olympic survival to baseball, softball or squash.
“To be completely honest, I didn’t feel that worried about it because the Olympics is to wrestling like the Super Bowl is to football or the World Series to baseball, that kind of thing,” said St. John, who as a junior captured the NCAA title at 157 pounds this past season. “That’s huge. That’s as far as you can go.”
Fellow Iowa wrestler Thomas Gilman shared that confidence.
“It’s kind of silly that we’re in this situation to begin with,” said Gilman, who was redshirted as a freshman this past season.
Gilman has numerous goals he hopes to accomplish as a wrestler, from winning an NCAA title for the Hawkeyes to standing on the podium at the Olympics with a gold medal draped around his neck.
The Council Bluffs native compiled a 23-5 record while wrestling unattached at 125 pounds this past season and finished eighth at the FILA Junior World Championships.
“It really means everything,” Gilman said of wrestling in the Olympics. “Growing up, the ultimate goal is to be a world and Olympic champion. A world champion, that’s great. But an Olympic champion, that’s the epitome of the top.”
Gilman and St. John were among about a dozen current or former Hawkeye wrestlers who watched the International Olympic Committee announcement Sunday morning at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They all sat together, but said little as the vote drew near.
Former Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable, on the other hand, couldn’t sit still, pacing the room in the minutes leading up to the announcement.
As the good news was announced on one of the televisions in the press room, the former Olympic champion smiled slightly before turning to Iowa assistant coach Terry Brands to share in the event.
Brands was overcome by emotion after hearing the announcement. His said his desire to compete in the Olympics served as inspiration throughout his career, which included two NCAA titles at Iowa and a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics.
“It’s everything,” Brands said of wrestling. “It’s life. It’s God. It’s religion. It’s how I mission. When people ask why I wrestled so hard, I say because to bring on glory to God. That’s why. That’s why I competed. That’s why I coach. That’s why I live. This sport has been a major significant platform for me as a living being in this world.”
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands, Terry’s twin brother, is in Belarus coaching Team USA in preparation for the World Championships.
“We’re a better sport now than we were in February and I think the IOC recognized that with today’s decision,” said Tom Brands, who won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, in a statement Sunday. “I’m glad the vote turned out the way it did, and I credit our new governing body and the people who fought for inclusion for getting the job done. The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of our sport. I believe that, and the response from around the world confirmed it.”
For former Iowa wrestler Matt McDonough, Sunday’s announcement capped a stressful weekend.
“There were some butterflies in my stomach like I was competing again,” McDonough said. “I’m glad to hear the decision was made to keep it.
Terry Brands described Sunday as a turning point for his sport. He praised those who fought on behalf of wrestling, but was critical of some of the previous leadership in wrestling for damaging the sport.
“They should have seen it coming with all the shots that were fired across the bow these last couple years,” Terry Brands said. “It came down to this, and I think it’s going to be a thing that you’re going to remember and you’re going to know and you’re going to remember history. You’re going to learn from this history every day.
“And 300 years from now, we’re going to look back and realize that we potentially lost our sport because of pompous, corrupt, arrogant people. And that’s not what the world wants. They want people that have integrity.”
St. John said Sunday’s decision will have a trickle-down effect.
“It’s big for the future of wrestling, college level and all the way down to little kids,” St. John said. “It’s going to draw more attention to it. As long as we’re doing our job, it’s going to be feeding into what they’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish here, too.”
Terry Brands said the world benefited from Sunday’s vote to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
“It helps Russia,” Terry Brands said. “It helps India. It helps Cuba. It helps Argentina. It helps South Africa. It helps Australia. It helps New Guinea. It helps Japan. It helps Norway. It helps England. It helps Canada. It helps the University of Iowa the same way.”
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