Broken Dreams and Broken Hearts: MMA’s Olympians Try to Save Wrestling

February 14, 2013

Courtesy of Damon Martin and official content partner Bleacher Report.

Daniel Cormier - Strikeforce Grand Prix ChampionDiego Diaz wants to be an Olympian.

At least he wanted to be an Olympian until 15 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted on Tuesday to drop wrestling from the Games starting in 2020.

Who is Diego Diaz?

He’s a nine-year-old boy who trains under 2008 Olympic team captain and Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion Daniel Cormier in Cormier’s youth wrestling program. After Tuesday’s news, the former Olympian isn’t sure what to tell young Diego.

“This kid last year hardly won any matches, but he stayed all summer, he wrestled his butt off,” Comier told me in an interview for Bleacher Report.

“Just last weekend, we’re at one of the tougher tournaments here in California, and he’s in the finals. I said, ‘Come on, Diego, let’s sit down and get some food and talk to me.’ And he just kind of started talking. You know what he said?  He goes, ‘At first, coach, I didn’t know if wrestling was for me, but I stuck with it. Coach, I want to go to the Olympics for wrestling.'”

It’s heartbreaking to think that at nine years of age, Diego Diaz had his dream snatched away from him before he ever had a chance to reach for it. With wrestling removed from the Olympic Games after 2016, there are a lot of gyms filled with a lot of sad kids right now.

2008 Olympian and former NCAA champion Ben Askren, who currently holds the Bellator welterweight title, joined Cormier in his confusion over the IOC’s decision to remove a sport that has been a part of the modern Olympics since its beginning in 1896.

Like Cormier, Askren runs a youth wrestling program, instilling in children the same work ethic that earned him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. On Tuesday night, he had to figure out a way to break the news that they had to reach for new goals because the Olympics may no longer be an option.

“I’m figuring out what I want to say to all the kids tonight,” Askren explained to me. “We preach to them that the Olympics can be a long-term goal in their lives.”

The job of wrestling coach has suddenly become a lot tougher on former Olympians like Askren and Cormier. Those two, and others like them, have worked tirelessly to raise the next generation of grapplers whose ultimate goal is to hit the mats of the Olympic Games and represent their country with pride.

Cormier’s group of kids includes children as young as seven, and they already talk about reaching for the stars. For them, the sky was always full of Olympic gold.

“What do I tell these kids now?” Cormier asks. “Hey guys, there are no more Olympics. You can be an NCAA champion, you can be a World Champion, which is an honor most people don’t attain, but you can never be an Olympic champ. You can never stand at the Olympic Games and hear your national anthem played. How do I tell that to seven-, eight- and nine-year-old kids who have dreams of becoming Olympic champions?”

 The Youth of a Nation

Mark Coleman at UFC 100

When you listen to wrestlers talk about their long path to the Olympics, you hear that training starts at a very young age. Rarely will any top wrestler just pick it up once they get to high school or college. It’s a lifetime of work that goes into becoming a top wrestler, and even more effort to come close to making an Olympic team.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman knows how the hard work pays off.

An athlete his whole life, Coleman found a passion for wrestling that took him all the way to the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain. He admits that because of wrestling and the dream of being an Olympian, he avoided many of life’s pitfalls and stayed focused on one day being a champion.

“Wrestlers start at five years old, and they embrace the grind, it’s not just a one-season grind,” said Coleman. “It was 27 years of my life. The intensity picked up every year. Maybe at five I wanted to be the best in the world at a lot of things, but by high school I was starting to think about winning an Olympic gold medal. I was always thinking about that gold.

“It kept me out of trouble, it gave me focus, it gave me a little bit of swagger,” Coleman continued. “It was something I could look forward to. It was a huge, huge part of my life.”

As it turns out, Coleman didn’t medal in the Olympics. He finished seventh overall, but his good friend and teammate Kevin Jackson did win a gold medal that year. Regardless of his own accomplishments in mixed martial arts, Coleman still points to the moment he made the Olympic team as the proudest achievement in his entire athletic career.

“Just making the Olympic team, to this day it’s probably the highlight of my athletic career. Even though I won the UFC belt, I won the Pride Grand Prix, but I remember that day and my emotions were overwhelming when I won that match to make the Olympic team. I’m emotional today,” said Coleman.

Sara McMannNewly minted UFC fighter and 2004 silver medalist in wrestling Sara McMann says her experience competing in the Olympics is something that isn’t quantifiable by any standard measure. It wasn’t about financial gain or a greater business purpose. It was about achieving something special that only a few people will ever experience in their lifetime.

“It’s something that changes your life completely,” McMann said about her Olympic experience. “It’s the pinnacle of what you can reach in an amateur sport. To go and represent your country on the biggest stage possible with your entire country pulling for you, it’s the most tremendous thing you can do in the sport that you love.”

Daniel Cormier still sports a tattoo representing his time in the Olympics. It’s a permanent piece of art on his body, but he doesn’t need a tattoo to remind him of being a part of the Olympics. It’s ingrained on his soul, something he will hold with pride until the day he dies.

“Once you’re an Olympian, you’re always an Olympian,” said Cormier. “Now the next generation of our wrestlers will not have that opportunity. Listen, it is a badge of honor. It’s something I carry with me every day in everything I do. I love the fact that I was an Olympian and got the chance to compete and represent our country. If they drop this sport, realistically that takes away the ultimate goal in wrestling.”

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