Longtime University High School of Spokane coach Don Owen said it felt like he had the wind knocked out of him when he heard the International Olympic Committee was planning to drop wrestling from the 2020 Games.
For defending state champion Chandler Rogers of Mead High School and Cadet freestyle national champion Ryan Christensen of Woodinville, the potential end of Olympic wrestling marked the end of a dream.
“It’s everybody’s dream to go to the Olympics,” said Rogers, a two-time state champion and three-time national Cadet Greco-Roman champ. “It’s crushing. That is what everybody works toward. Every school you go to, you hear kids tell you their main goal is to go the Olympics.”
While thousands of fans and more than 1,200 of the top high school wrestlers in the state descended on the Tacoma Dome on Friday for the first day of Mat Classic XXV, many were still grappling with the stunning news that one of the oldest sports in the world might no longer have a place in the Olympics.
“It hurt when I found out about it,” Christensen said. “It has always been one of my goals to wrestle at the Olympics and now that is gone. Now wrestling ends after college pretty much. This is something that affects the whole world. I think it will change people’s mindset. They will think wrestling is a lesser sport.”
For Owen, who grew up in Missoula, Mont., dreaming of one day wrestling in the Olympics was something that helped keep him on the mat. He said he was inspired by two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler and fellow Montana native Gene Davis whenever the 1976 bronze medal winner would work with his team.
“I remember as a kid thinking some day I was going to be like him and wrestle in the Olympics,” Owen said. “You’re young, but those kinds of dreams keep you going in a sport like this. Having that ultimate goal takes wrestling to another level, and to have that taken away was just a shot to the gut. The Olympics are the Super Bowl of wrestling.”
The IOC, citing declining popularity both on television and at the ticket office, announced Tuesday that wrestling would no longer be one of its 25 core Olympic sports beginning in 2020.
That doesn’t mean the sport is entirely eliminated, however. Wrestling organizations around the world have plans to lobby the IOC executive committee in May to try and gain entrance into the 2020 Games with a final decision coming in September.
Count Southwestern Oregon Community College wrestling coach Adam Whitlatch, who was at the Tacoma Dome on a recruiting trip, among the many who think we haven’t seen the end of Olympic wrestling. He said wrestling is thriving at the lower levels.
“What will the Olympics be without wrestling?” Whitlatch said. “The news was shocking in part because wrestling is growing. Numbers are up in high schools. We are adding college programs. There are things that are happening in the wrestling world that are good. This isn’t a final decision yet, so wrestling isn’t dead at the Olympic level. I’m not even going with the assumption that it is gone.”
While disbelief and denial has been a common refrain among people in the wrestling community, the other common bond shared is the desire to fight to keep the sport alive at the Olympic level.
No one, it seems, who has ever put on a singlet and stepped on the mat is ready to watch wrestling go the way of Olympic softball and baseball.
Efforts to save Olympic wrestling have already begun, Christensen said. He said several clubs have already taken to Twitter and Facebook to get their message out that wrestling should be saved. A large banner saying “Save Olympic Wrestling,” was hanging in the Tacoma Dome on Friday.
“I really believe in my heart that we have enough people on our side that we are going to change this,” Owen said. “There are too many people that feel too passionately about this to let it slide.
“I think you are going to see a groundswell that the IOC had never dreamed of.”