Posts tagged "Conor Hockett"
By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
In 2008, Jared Frayer decided to give up the sport of wrestling—his Olympic dream was dead.
After he finished serving as a training partner for the US Olympic wrestling team in Beijing, Frayer was heading back home to teach and coach high school wrestling in Florida.
Helping others get ready for their matches was the closest he’d get to the Olympic Games, and Frayer accepted that.
But it all changed when, just before leaving China, Frayer received a strange job offer for someone who graduated from the University of Oklahoma.
“As crazy as it was, the University of Iowa is what brought me back (into wrestling),” Frayer said. “They offered me a job in Beijing, and I took it. I went half a year (at Iowa) and then asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I wrestle these guys every day and I should still compete. That brought me right back into it.”
At the 2012 Olympic Trials in April, nearly four years had passed since Frayer had taken the assistant coaching position at Iowa, a rival for Oklahoma in college wrestling.
Frayer was back in Iowa City, Iowa, but not as a coach. He had just beaten Brent Metcalf in the 66kg weight class in freestyle wrestling to qualify for his first Olympic Games.
“Physically I was there, but mentally I wasn’t ready to make that (the Olympic) step (earlier in my career),” Frayer said. “I don’t know whether it was becoming a father or just growing up a little bit, but I made that jump mentally and that allowed me the confidence and ability to make the team.”
At 33 years old, Frayer’s journey to London wasn’t ideal. But after his daughter, Khloe, was born with Down syndrome, Frayer used her struggle to inspire himself, his teammates and a teenager from Florida to never give up on their dreams.
A Wrestling Background
With a dad, David, who wrestled in college and coached after, Frayer was born into the sport. Ever since he was a baby, Frayer said he followed his dad to practices and always wanted to get involved.
“In Florida, wrestling isn’t as big,” Frayer said. “When I was young the sport wasn’t where it is now. So I had to do about everything—go all over the country (to wrestle). I was blessed with a father who was able to do that. Summer times were filled with traveling, and you wrestled as many tournaments as you could.”
David coached Frayer at Countryside High School in Florida where he won three state championships before heading to Oklahoma.
Frayer was a two-time All-American at Oklahoma and finished as the 2002 NCAA runner-up at 149 lbs. After graduating, all his efforts turned toward making the Olympic team.
Before qualifying in 2012, Frayer’s career resembled a journeyman—countless clubs and teams throughout the US and even a few stints overseas.
Wrestling in Iran, Frayer said he remembers fans heckling him about his high school record. Training sessions in India and tournaments in Cuba were the norm. He’d seen and done just about everything in the sport of wrestling.
He was always good enough to stick around, but was missing the big breakthrough into the Games.
In 2010, after losing to Metcalf in the World Team Trials, Frayer decided he was done finishing second. He’d made a career of it after finishing runner-up at the 2006 and 2009 US World Team Trials along with not qualifying for the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.
The loss was a turning point in his career. He took a year off to have Khloe and that’s when everything changed. He found a new motivation and mental edge through watching his daughter.
“Now that I look back at it, I think it (having Khloe) played a huge part,” Frayer said. “I think being able to take that year to focus on her and focus on the family really allowed me to grow up and mature a little bit. I think it played a major part in me being able to lay it on the line and get the victory (to qualify).”
Six months into the pregnancy, Frayer and his wife, Nicole, found out Khloe would be born with Down syndrome. It was a shock to both of them, but he said they tried to just learn as much as they could about the disease.
“It’ll make a man look inside himself and find out what he’s all about,” Frayer said. “I remember where I was when it was 100 percent. You think you’re the only guy in the world (dealing with it). But you find out it’s a situation people go through and they grow from. You hear more good things about children with Down syndrome than you do anything bad. It’s just an awesome experience.”
It was an experience that, mathematically, he and his wife were destined to go through.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Development, the odds of having a child with Down syndrome are 1 in 1,250 (.08 percent). Frayer said the blood tests from he and Nicole were higher than normal. Khloe had a seven percent chance of being born with the disease and, if they had a second child, the chances were five percent.
It was a risk Frayer doesn’t regret taking.
“Khloe is just a ball fire,” Frayer said. “I love hearing her in the background when I’m talking to my wife—love Skyping her. She’s nonstop smiling. She struggles, but she has her own way and I think that’s going to be her whole life. She’s so easy to love—just a joy.”
Frayer said Khloe is delayed in her speech and movements, but is now walking. Despite her limitations, he and Nicole decided to have a second child.
“I think everybody takes that (the odds) into consideration after having a firstborn that has Down syndrome,” Frayer said. “It’s out of our hands. My wife and I have a pretty strong spiritual background. The Lord blessed us with Khloe, and if we had another one (child with down syndrome), we were going to love her just the same.”
Blessing in Disguise
Since Khloe was born, however, everything seems to be going Frayer’s way. Nicole gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Beckett Olivia, two weeks ago. She was due during the Games, but was born during a three-day period between Frayer’s training camp and his trip to London.
“She (Beckett) is just so little and so precious,” Frayer said. “She was (delivered) five weeks earlier than Khloe was. I got less than two days with her, and I just can’t wait to get back to her. It was definitely a blessing. The Lord had us under his watch, and we were able to sneak her in there.”
Khloe is 19 months old now and Beckett is a perfectly healthy baby. Being the spiritual man he is, Frayer said something has been on his side.
Frayer’s good fortune through a life of struggles has inspired teammates to train even harder.
“Our stories are a lot alike,” Sam Hazewinkel said, the US’s 55kg wrestler. “We both wrestled in Florida, both wrestled at OU. It’s an inspiration to me to watch him fight through. Seeing what he goes through and training with him is awesome. When everything is going on and I start thinking things are going hard for me, I just think, how can I complain? This guy is fighting through all of this and has the best attitude in the world.”
Frayer’s road to the Olympic Games may be the hardest and longest on the team, but it doesn’t take away from the respect other wrestlers have for him.
“My first tour with him in ’08, he was telling me about how he felt like the old guy,” Jake Herbert said, the US’s 84kg wrestler. “Here we are four years later and he’s still going at it. He’s knowledgeable, he’s experienced and Jared is an all-around great guy. It (Frayer’s journey) show’s me this isn’t it for me.”
This hope for others comes because Frayer is the oldest guy on the team by five years. Hazewinkel said the guys don’t give him grief because he’s as dangerous as anyone.
“I’m calling it right now—the dude is gonna crush some people,” Hazewinkel said. “Mark my words, he’s getting some hardware. Would not surprise me at all if that guy comes away with gold. Of the whole team, he’s looked the best the last two weeks. I didn’t think I’d say that with Jordan Burroughs on the team, but he’s been amazing. In simulation matches, Frayer was pinning them (opponents), teching them—just making it look easy.”
Frayer said the visible improvement stems from the recent time devoted to his individual wrestling.
“All these years, I’ve been worried about other guy getting the medal when I’m the training partner,” Frayer said. “Now the last two months have been just me. It hasn’t been since I was probably in college that I focused on just me. I’ve made so much gain in the last month and a half. There’s no reason I’m not turning that outcome around (into something).”
Although his teammates think differently, Frayer acknowledges he’s not the favorite to win a medal. Mehdi Sadegh Taghavi Kermani of Iran has won two of the last three World Championships (2009, 2011) and will be his toughest test.
None of that fazes him though.
To win the Olympic Trials, Frayer had to defeat Metcalf, the same person who beat him at the World Trials in 2010, and the same man he coached for a brief time at Iowa.
“I just had the belief I could beat him because I have in the past,” Frayer said. “I had the approach that it was my match and I was going to take it from him.”
A Wish Granted
It’s that kind of attitude which comes out in Frayer’s wrestling. That’s why Blake Chandler, a 19 year old from just outside Tampa, Fla., has been a fan for years.
Chandler is a wrestler himself, but his situation is different. He is limited to grappling with one leg after a vicious bone cancer forced an amputation of his left leg.
Diagnosed with osteosarcoma March 29, 2011, Chandler managed to fight the disease for nearly a year before losing his leg.
As part of the Make A Wish Foundation, Chandler was allowed to visit the US Olympic wrestling camp on August 7 to meet with all the athletes.
But the one wrestler he wanted to meet more than any other was Frayer.
“I’ve been watching him since I was a freshman,” Chandler said. “I watch his moves and he’s just an amazing wrestler. When I was granted the wish to come here, his parents came to see me and gave me T-shirts and presented me with most of the stuff he has as well. His parents have been awesome to me.”
A handful of US coaches also went down to Florida to present Chandler with tickets and gear at his high school. He was flown to London and was allowed to watch practice and get invaluable instruction.
“I’m having a blast,” Chandler said at the practice session. “I feel very privileged just to be standing in the training room with everybody.”
His journey isn’t stopping there. Two weeks after his amputation, Chandler said he was back on the mat. He hopes to wrestle adult leagues in Florida and have fun with it.
“It’s pretty weird going from wrestling two legs to one,” Chandler said. “It’s going to be all technique and I love it. Learning how to shoot and defend my one leg is pretty hard. Defending on one, I have only one leg to worry about. They’re only going to attack my one leg, so it’s a bonus in a lot of different ways.”
It’s easy to see why Chandler is attracted to Frayer. Their personalities are positive and infectious. Despite each other’s limitations at home or on the mat, they’ve overcome every obstacle.
The Olympic obstacle is the last for Frayer. He’s going into his second year as an assistant coach at Oklahoma and said he looks forward to getting back to recruiting. After all his travels and relocations due to wrestling, he is finally at home back in his college town.
“I was there for six years right out of high school,” Frayer said. “There are so many people around the program that I’m so close with. There’s nothing like flying into TIA (Tampa International Airport) and going back home. But, definitely, Norman, Oklahoma, is my second home and a place I feel really comfortable in.”
The underdog role is another thing Frayer finds comfort in. When he competes on Sunday, likely in his last Olympic Games, it’s exactly the situation Frayer will find himself in.
“I’ve done my best wrestling when I wasn’t supposed to win,” Frayer said. “I don’t think there’s a journalist or a wrestling historian that gives me a shot and that’s exciting to me.”
As I walked out of Westfield Shopping Centre near the grounds of Olympic Park, I was awestruck by the view.
The biggest set of Olympic rings I’d ever seen were right in front of me, plastered on the northeast wall of the Aquatics Centre.
There were countless fences and security tents to get through before I reached the massive building, but the sheer size of it made it look close enough to touch.
Unfortunately, the whole scene was just a tease for two and a half hours because I was denied access with my guest pass.
The whole park was on lockdown, but when I was finally escorted through, all the frustration became worth the wait.
Every direction I looked, there were thousands upon thousands of people walking around the venues and fighting their way into shops. It was the never-ending madhouse that usually gets me annoyed and angry, but this time it was different. The row of stadiums made me feel like I was at the heart of Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago sports all at once.
It was then I had my first real moment of disbelief—these were the Olympic Games and I was actually there.
Connor Hockett | Sports Reporter
By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
At the Beijing Olympics, hurdler Dawn Harper was the self-proclaimed baby of the U.S. team at 24 years old. She was in her first Olympic Games and wasn’t followed by the flash of a camera or crazed Americans hoping for an autograph as she hung out with family and flew under the radar.
Then she ran the race.
In just 12.54 seconds, Harper managed to turn every head and lens her direction as she won a gold medal in the 100m hurdles.
Now 28 and at her second Olympic Games in London, Harper isn’t fooling anybody. The pressure of being a marked woman is finally catching up to her.
“It didn’t quite hit me until two days ago the real pressure that there was [on me],” Harper said. “Because you have to make the team, then, all the sudden, can you do it again? Now that it (the pressure) has hit me, I just try to think about things like, stay in your lane. Stay focused. I tell myself repeatedly, you’ve done the 100 hurdles a million times. The only thing that’s going to change is just how I see it.”
The women’s final is Tuesday, and Harper isn’t letting anyone into her mental zone. When a reporter questioned Harper about Sally Pearson, the Australian 2011 World Champion, she was quick to say everything is in her control.
“I know that my training is there and I know that I’m ready,” Harper said. “I refuse to go to this race and just not execute. That’s the only time I would be really disappointed in myself—if I let it (the moment) get to me.”
For fellow teammate and hurdler Jason Richardson, the moment is very similar to Harper’s in 2008.
Despite winning the 2011 World Outdoor gold medal, Richardson doesn’t have the pressure to perform draped over him like a wet blanket. He is calm and well spoken—relaxed enough to rattle of most of his iPod’s playlist at Tuesday’s press conference.
Richardson finished second in the Olympic Trials behind teammate Aries Merritt in the 110m hurdles. Merritt is the reigning US Indoor Champion and World Indoor Champion in the 60m hurdles. That means most of the tough questions and expectations fall off Richardson’s shoulders.
It is a role Richardson relishes. His 2011 world title was won under similar circumstances and, like Harper back in 2008, Richardson doesn’t see any reason why the Olympic crown can’t go to someone who’s face isn’t plastered on a billboard.
“For myself, I acknowledge and am completely in tune with reality that you have (in the race) a current world record holder, a former world record holder and another American (Merritt) who is about to tag 12.9 because he’s running so much,” Richardson said. “I’m again, much like last year, just the guy who’s going to come in here and try and pull off another upset. I definitely like it (the underdog role). It’s comfy, it’s familiar and it’s just another thing that will add to some great twitter content once the race is over.”
By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
Joseph Diaz Jr. couldn’t get inside Cuba’s Lazaro Alvarez Estrada’s reach to cause significant damage in the round of 16 match at bantamweight (56 kg) Wednesday.
Alvarez, the No. 1 seeded boxer from Cuba, took all three rounds and won 21-15 to reach the quarterfinals.
“Unfortunately I didn’t get the W, but I gave everyone the show they wanted to see,” Diaz said. “I’m glad I gave everyone a really good show. Everyone was chering and that’s what I came here to do.”
The first round was close as Diaz staggered Alvarez momentarily with a 1-2 combination, but the Cuban’s aggressive, punch-heavy style gave him a 7-6 advantage.
Diaz tried to up the tempo in rounds two and three, but Alvarez used a stiff jab to keep him out of range. Alvarez took the final two rounds 7-4 and 7-5 in a fight that was much closer than the score suggests.
“I thought the scoring should have been closer, but the judges didn’t see that unfortunately,” Diaz said. “Lazaro (is) a really great fighter. I’m not going to give him a downgrade or anything; he’s a really great fighter. He’s a good boxer, a great puncher, and it just wasn’t my day for the judges”
At the 2011 World Championships, Alvarez beat Diaz 19-10 in the quarterfinals on his way to the world title.
U.S. boxing has four men left in medal contention: Rau’Shee Warren at 52 kg, Jose Ramirez at 60 kg, Errol Spence Jr. at 69 kg and Terrell Gausha at 75 kg.
By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
When Ben Provisor was a freshman on the wrestling team at Stevens Point High School in Wisconsin, goal cards were handed out to everyone during a practice.
Provisor kept his blank for a while as his teammates filled theirs out with aspirations for the season and state tournament. Finally, Provisor wrote down two words—2012 Olympian.
It may seem crazy for a 22-year-old who never finished higher than third in the Wisconsin Wrestling High School State Championship or won a collegiate wrestling title to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
But after defeating No. 1 seed Aaron Sieracki in the final of the Greco-Roman wrestling Olympic qualifying at 74 kg (163 lbs) in April, Provisor left the mat with his hand raised, a tattoo of a cross with angel wings only half visible under his singlet.
“I know if I wrestle to my full potential, I can beat everybody in the U.S. [at 74 kg],” Provisor said. “I wrestle all the guys [in my weight class] all the time so it was awesome to win it. I was expecting to win the whole time, but I don’t know if anyone else did.”
Making it to London took more than confidence. Years of training under a former great and a promise to a special mentor put Provisor on track for Olympic glory.
A helpful neighbor
With no other athletes in his immediate family, Provisor said his parents, Dennis and Tammy, signed him up for various sports to see what would catch. It turned out he was attracted to the more violent sports.
“I was a really physical kid when I was younger,” Provisor said. “I played a lot of football and was always a little rougher than normal. My mom went to a wrestling tournament one time and she thought I would be good at it. I signed up for wrestling the next day.”
Provisor started entering city tournaments when he was 6 years old but said it was just for fun. When he turned 9, he decided to get more serious and joined the World Gold Wrestling Club.
That’s where he met Dennis Hall.
Hall was a bit of a local hero. He was originally from Plover, Wis., about two hours south of Stevens Point, but had lived, trained and run the club in Stevens Point for years.
A Greco-Roman wrestler himself, Hall was a three-time Olympian (1992, 1996 silver medalist and 2004), 10-time U.S. National Champion, and 1995 World Champion.
Inducted into the 2011 National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Hall also turned out to be Provisor’s neighbor.
The two began working at the club, and it didn’t take long for Hall to recognize Olympic potential in his young pupil.
“First time I saw him, I knew he was somebody that could possibly get to that level [the Olympic Games]. It was what I saw inside him—his dedication, his heart and how he loved to compete. I think if you don’t have it in your heart, no matter how much training you do, it’s not going to get you there.”
With all the tools in place, Hall started making special arrangements for his young wrestler. When Provisor was in eighth grade, Hall brought over several training partners from Bulgaria. One of those training partners stayed with Provisor at his house and they became close.
Shortly after, an opportunity to train back in Bulgaria came up for Provisor. At age 13, he lived in Bulgaria for a year, repeating eighth grade and training with top-tier Greco-Roman wrestlers.
During his time in Bulgaria is when he first realized he could be an Olympian, Provisor said. His stay there was part of Hall’s plan to get him ready to be just that.
“I think the trip showed him that guys are doing the Greco-Roman part full-time,” Hall said. “If he wants to win at the world level, he’s got to train at that level more.”
When Provisor returned, he started showing significant strides as a wrestler. As a freshman in high school, Provisor remembers the first time he ever could go toe-to-toe with Hall on the mat.
“I was like 130 pounds the first time I scored on him,” Provisor said. “I was super happy, but then I got my ass whooped by him.”
Once Provisor got to be a junior in high school and weighed about 170 lbs, he said Hall could no longer beat him. Hall wrestled competitively at 121 lbs and 127 lbs, and Provisor said he was too big for him.
After high school, Provisor enrolled at Northern Michigan. He didn’t wrestle there, but the Olympic dream still burned inside him. He went to school for one year but then had to make a choice. It was going to be London or bust.
“The partners I wanted to train with and the people I wanted to be around left, so I came to Colorado with them,” Provisor said. “It was sort of a choice between school and wrestling, and I picked wrestling. That’s what I’ve been working for my whole life and that’s what really matters to me. Education is super important, but if I wanted to get better at wrestling, I had to come to Colorado Springs.”
As a mother, Tammy Provisor was hesitant to let her son walk away from higher education, but she saw the potential in Ben.
“I supported him and he obviously knew where he was in terms of his body and his mind,” Tammy Provisor said. “He made the right decision because all his hard work has paid off.”
At 20, Provisor left the Midwest behind and moved to Colorado Springs. It was the wrestling environment he wanted. Provisor said he tried to go to school at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs for a while, but when he won the U.S. Open Wrestling Championships in 2011, he got too busy.
Provisor has been training in Colorado Springs for two years now, but no matter how busy he gets, Hall is never out of the loop. Hall said the two talk about three to five times a week about not only wrestling but also attitude and approach.
“I try and help Ben with the mental side of the game,” Hall said. “If you go watch the Olympics this summer, everyone is chiseled—there’s not one guy who doesn’t look an Olympic athlete. The difference between the guys who win and who don’t is the mental focus they have.”
Back in Stevens Point, Hall was doing more than just long-distance coaching.
Hall hadn’t competed since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but something was drawing him back. It wasn’t the fact that Provisor was attempting to qualify—Hall had seen that coming for years. It was the desire to compete.
At age 41, Hall decided to try and qualify for the Olympic team at 132 lbs.
“I didn’t want any regrets,” Hall said. “Last year I was a training partner for the No. 1 guy in the country and I was going with him toe-to-toe. I was there to help him out, but I felt I could still compete. For me it was about not looking back 10 years from now saying, why didn’t I do it? Could I have made the team? I know the answer now.”
Back in Iowa City in April, both Hall and Provisor wrestled for their Olympic fate on the same day. Competitors wrestle lowest weight to highest, so Hall would go first. His bid for a fourth Olympic team fell short, but that didn’t stop him from cheering or Provisor from winning.
“Of course I was disappointed, but at the same time I was happy for Ben,” Hall said. “It’s a step in the right direction to winning an Olympic medal. I told Ben four or five years ago, if you don’t have more Olympic and world medals than I have at the end of your career, I’ll be disappointed. You have more potential than what I had. I knew he’d get there, I just didn’t know when or how.”
A wrestling family tragedy
For Provisor, it was always a question of when, not how.
Beyond Hall’s lessons in the mental game of wrestling, Provisor always had the motivation in his heart to make an Olympic team. He said his inner belief has always been strong, and it is fueled by a promise he made back when he was a teenager.
Provisor’s mom Tammy worked with a man named Art Cone at Culver’s in Stevens Point. Provisor also knew Cone through wrestling.
“Our families got very close, and his son was also a wrestler so we got very close,” Provisor said. “He taught me a lot about being a good person and what really matters in life. Things like who I am, what I should be and how to treat people.”
Hall said the wrestling community is unlike a lot of other sports. The same people travel to tournaments together and interact from a young age. It involves parents and kids alike.
The connection between Provisor and Cone was one of those special relationships that went beyond the sport. But Cone never got to see all that Provisor would turn out to be. He died when Provisor was a senior in high school.
“He was just a special guy to me,” Provisor said. “I wrote a letter to him to put in his casket. It was probably like three pages, but one of those things said, ‘I will be an Olympian and represent this country.’”
As the ref raised Provisor’s arm in victory back in April, two things were clear: Provisor never betrayed that promise and he never forgot Cone.
The tattoo partially covered under Provisor’s London-bound singlet pays tribute to his lost friend. Two passages accompany the cross and angel wings. The words ‘Carpe Diem’ are displayed atop the cross with ‘Rest in peace big papa’ along the bottom.
Although he won’t be there to watch the competition, Provisor made sure Cone would at least be part of the journey.
It’s been years since his promise to Cone and the Olympic declaration to his teammates, but Provisor said he doesn’t feel any different now that the dream is reality.
“I don’t think anything has changed yet [since qualifying],” Provisor said. “When I get to the Opening Ceremonies, I’m going to understand that it’s real. Right now, I’m just focused on training and making sure I’m 100 percent for my competition.”
For Provisor, that means doing anything and everything to make sure he doesn’t burn out in the opening rounds.
“My cardio is really good right now and I’ve been going to yoga to keep my body flexible,” Provisor said. “I’ve been trying to work on wrestling on my feet to score so I don’t have to go into the up-and-down position. I’ve just been trying to make every little thing a bit better. I know I’m not going to make everything perfect. I’m just trying to make everything I’m good at now as good as possible.”
He’s also been pouring over a booklet of notes on each wrestler in his 74 kg weight class. For over a month, Provisor has been studying the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of his opponents from all positions to prepare.
Provisor won’t know the exact opponent he’ll face until the day of weigh-ins. Until then, he and his mentor have a lot to talk about.
Although Hall hasn’t been in Colorado Springs over the past two years, he is coming to support Provisor in London along with a group 20-25 people.
Provisor’s mom Tammy said a strong supporting class from Stevens Point has been one of Ben’s driving forces since the beginning.
“I knew Ben was capable of winning. He just had to believe he could,” Tammy Provisor said. “We had 82 people from Stevens Point come [to qualifying], and I think that loyalty and love really inspired him. It just happened that day for him. He wrestled the best he’s ever wrestled—even his coach [Hall] said that. You have to have something going for you that day and he just did it.”
Since Provisor qualified in April, Hall has been giving advice about the competitive atmosphere in London.
“I said, ‘Ben you’ve got to understand the Olympic stage is different than a tournament in January,” Hall said. “In a tournament in January, guys are just wrestling to wrestle. When you get to the Olympic Games, you’ve got to expect a guy is willing to do almost anything to win an Olympic gold medal.’”
Getting out-willed doesn’t happen often to Provisor, and he doesn’t expect that to change. But through all his goal cards and promises that got him to this point, Provisor said he will be OK with just himself on the mat in London.
“I want to wrestle as hard as I can every single day [that I compete],” he said. “If I’m prepared the way I am now, I will have no regrets. I’m going to be calm and wrestle to my full potential. Hopefully I bring home a medal for the U.S.A. That’s the goal. Then I can start a long career in the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling.”
By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
Eating with a teammate in the Olympic Village dining hall back in 2008, Gerek Meinhardt watched in awe as Dwyane Wade sat down at his table 20 feet away.
More NBA players from the Olympic team slowly filed in until Chris Paul and Michael Redd took a seat next to Meinhardt.
Growing up in San Francisco, Meinhardt was a huge Golden State Warriors fan. His sister Katie played Division I basketball, and the sport remains one of his biggest passions.
Meinhardt met the Olympic basketball team during opening ceremonies and felt comfortable enough to talk to Redd and Paul. It wasn’t long before the topic of fencing came up.
“They were really nice and personable,” Meinhardt said. “They started joking about how they’ve tried to do the fencing squat before and it was terrible. It was all really funny.”
As the youngest male member on the entire U.S. team at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Meinhardt had a lot to take in. He turned 18 a month before the Games began and didn’t know what to expect.
“I’m looking forward to going to London because with one (Olympic) Games under my belt, I’m definitely going to appreciate it more,” Meinhardt said. “When I was there in Beijing, it was all kind of overwhelming—kind of a blur. I didn’t have a full grasp of what was going on. I plan on being more in the moment and appreciating things more this time.”
After qualifying for the London 2012 Olympic Games back in April, Meinhardt said he hopes for better results than his 10th place finish in 2008 after what was a grueling journey back to the top of fencing.
Predicting a prodigy
When Meinhardt was 9 years old, his parents, Kurt and Jane, signed him up for fencing lessons with a family friend named Greg Massialas. Massialas was a three-time U.S. Olympian (1980, 1984 and 1988 in foil) starting up his own fencing club.
While Meinhardt didn’t experience the early success of some of Massialas’ other pupils, his coach always knew he had something special.
“The difference was his work ethic,” Massialas said. “Other fencers were happy to fence and have fun doing it. Gerek would really take time to work on specific things. That made a huge difference. His drive, the creativity element in his fencing and his physical characteristics made him what he was. It allowed him to surpass others and make his big surge.”
As Meinhardt began to mature in his teens, he won tournaments and made the big surge predicted by his coach. Massialas saw the potential early in Meinhardt and developed a 10-year plan that they hoped would culminate in an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
Meinhardt continued to win tournaments as he got older, and the two started gearing everything toward the Beijing Olympic Games as the next part of the plan.
Back in 2008, there was no team competition in men’s foil, so only one individual could qualify from the U.S. Meinhardt improved enough under Massialas to become the youngest fencer by five years ever to compete in men’s foil at the Olympic Games.
Meinhardt said he won his first-round match easily before losing to a Chinese fencer named Zhu Jun, who finished fourth in Beijing. Meinhardt said he was disappointed with a 10th-place finish, but the loss was what he needed to improve in the future.
“I learned what it would take to one day get to that elite level,” Meinhardt said. “It (the loss) has really motivated me over the past four years and will continue to motivate me in the future.”
A giant setback
The future looked bright for Meinhardt after the Olympic Games. He balanced winning silver in individual men’s foil at the Pan American Championships in 2009 with two minor knee surgeries since Beijing.
Meinhardt enrolled at Notre Dame and took silver and gold, respectively, in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA Championships individual men’s foil events. He was an information-technology-management major enjoying life, and the meniscus on his right knee was feeling better every day.
In November 2010, Meinhardt emerged as a real international threat when he won the bronze medal at the World Championships. It was the first medal ever for a U.S. fencer in that event.
All the strain from an elite-level athlete’s training and competition, however, finally caught up to Meinhardt. His right meniscus, a disc in the knee used for balance, gave out during training and had to be surgically repaired in January 2011.
Meinhardt never considered quitting, but with 2012 Olympic qualifying starting in March, his recovery would need to start immediately.
Two months of no weight-bearing rehabilitation followed, with physical therapy throughout the week. It was grueling work, but Massialas never thought it would cost Meinhardt a chance to compete.
“Gerek has a really disciplined work ethic,” Massialas said. “He would do all the things he needed to do to get himself going. He’s very passionate about his fencing. I’ve always been confident in Gerek. So long as we had the green light, he would do all the work necessary to get back.”
Meinhardt recovered in time for qualifications, but he wasn’t the same. The meniscus was healed, but his mind was still recovering.
“Even when the doctors cleared me to fence physically, psychologically there is a lot of doubt in your security,” Meinhardt said. “You don’t feel comfortable going all out.”
That’s when Meinhardt’s ranking started to plummet. Matches he’d control most of the way turned into 15-14 losses.
“In the beginning of qualifying, I’d started to feel more confident physically, but I didn’t have that edge,” Meinhardt said. “I wasn’t feeling my fencing. I threw away a lot of opportunities in four out of the first nine international events.”
That tiny shred of doubt cost him dearly. Meinhardt missed qualifying top-three by eight points, a margin Massialas said is equivalent to about .0001 percent in the current system.
“The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Meinhardt said. “I’ve had to fence and fight from behind in a sense this whole season because of the surgery. It takes a lot to get back into form when you can’t walk for a few months. It’s been a long road back.”
A special relationship
Despite all his injuries, one advantage Meinhardt has over the other fencers is his familiarity with the U.S. coach.
After Massialas became the Olympic men’s foil coach back in 2008, he and Meinhardt have continued working together and bonding.
As the coach, Massialas can both watch and benefit from his pupil hopefully fulfilling the 10-year plan Massialas started all those years ago.
“When he was young, he’s a young kid and looks up to you and listens to what’s going on,” Massialas said. “He knew I was always supportive. I’m seeing the transition where he’s becoming a young adult now, so my relationship now is much more male-to-male relationship. That’s very different than years ago when it was adult-to-child. Since his fencing game is more mature as well, it’s more intellectual with the discussion we can have. He must now ingest more of what I’m thinking in his feelings and apply it on the strip.”
Sitting fourth on the team as the first substitute fencer, Meinhardt can enter the match with a much better idea of what Massialas is thinking.
Watching from the sidelines also gives Meinhardt a unique opportunity to help his teammates. Miles Chamley-Watson, the No. 2 ranked U.S. foil fencer and one of Meinhardt’s best friends, said Meinhardt is an extremely positive teammate.
“Gerek is the definition of lead by example,” Chamley-Watson said. “He works hard, is a smart fencer and is always there to give great advice. Even though we had to compete for the third spot and become enemies, we still kept our close bond. This is a quality that is extremely hard to find. He is a captain because everyone respects him for his character and for his fencing credentials. He has accomplished a lot at the age of 21.”
Massialas said naming Meinhardt a captain was a no-brainer based on the respect both he and the rest of the team has for him.
“On our men’s foil team, I think we have an exceptional chance to medal and potentially gold medal,” Massialas said. “He (Meinhardt) will be an integral part of that both in terms of his fencing on the strip and also as men’s foil team captain where he helps focus the energy of the group.”
To hone that focus before the Games, Meinhardt took a leave from absence from Notre Dame this year to go back and train in San Francisco with Massialas. Massialas said the camp has three of the top five U.S. fencers working out there.
Although qualifying was finished in April, Meinhardt is traveling to the Wakayama Grand Prix in Japan; a World Cup in Seoul, Korea; a Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Pan American Championships in Cancun Mexico; and another World Cup in Cuba before the Olympic Games begin in July. These are all team events that affect placement and team ranking going into the Olympic Games. It will also decide which country the U.S. fences in London.
“Quite honestly, if he didn’t have that last injury after the World Championships, it would be a different situation even right now,” Massialas said. “Part of my plan and goal, when we set up what we’re working on, was a gold medal in the 2012 men’s foil individual event. He was right on course for that—maybe even a little ahead. Had it not been for this one injury, everything else in this 10-year plan, each step he was right on plan. If he’s able to stay healthy, he can have a chance to prosper.”
Meinhardt takes the same positive approach as his coach about the injury. While he knows how much they cost him, Meinhardt said his greatest accomplishment to date is recovering from injuries he’s sustained both mentally and physically.
With the international fencing season in full swing, Meinhardt still has high hopes for his progress in 2012. He hopes to compete as a substitute in London but tries to keep his ambitions under control after recent obstacles in his life.
“I take it day-by-day, honestly,” Meinhardt said. “With my history of injuries, I’m not going to try and project it too far into the future. I’m looking forward to finishing the season out and heading to London. Hopefully, I have two more years at Notre Dame where I’ll be getting really great training. At that point, if fencing is still going well for me, I’ll shoot for 2016 in Rio.”
By Conor Hockett | BSU at the Games
Dan Seemiller knows what it’s like to be America’s best hope to dethrone the Asian dominance in table tennis.
When he was 18, Seemiller won the U.S. Team Trials and has been catapulted into the spotlight ever since.
Now 57, Seemiller is arguably one of the top three greatest U.S. table-tennis players of all time.
He’s a five-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion, a 12-time U.S. Men’s Doubles Champion, which included eight straight titles with his brother Rick, and a former No. 19 ranked player in the world back in 1977. He even invented his own grip, named the Seemiller.
“Dan’s impact on the sport has been multi-dimensional,” said Sean O’Neill, a 2007 USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee. “As a player he set our international standard for over two decades. As the president of the organization he implemented many innovations geared at adding professionalism and player support. He took kids from the basement and helped them become members of the Olympic team.”
Despite playing competitively on-and-off for more than 40 years, there is one thing he’s never accomplished: representing the U.S. team in the Olympic Games.
Table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988 when Seemiller was 34. He tried out in 1988 but didn’t qualify. In 1992 he won the U.S. qualifier, but players must compete with Canada to represent North America in the Olympic Games. Seemiller said he didn’t play well in the continental qualifier and failed to advance.
After that, Seemiller gave up his dream. He became the U.S. National Team Coach in 1999 and stayed on until 2009. He also coached the U.S. Olympic Team in 2000, 2004 and 2008, but that wasn’t enough.
Seemiller said he didn’t play much during his coaching days and the desire came back.
“That’s why I got out of it—I wanted to start playing again,” Seemiller said. “It’s great coaching, but it’s also great playing again too. Now I can do both.”
Seemiller coaches at the South Bend Table Tennis Center just outside his home in New Carlisle, Ind. For three days in February, however, he took a break to pursue his dream.
The U.S. Olympic Trials took place in Cary, N.C. from Feb. 10-12 to decide the eight spots—four men and four women—who would represent the U.S. in the North American Trials in April.
Seemiller said he won his first two rounds in the qualifying pretty easily, but it would all come down to his next match with Razvan Cretu. It was close, but Seemiller lost four games to three and was eliminated.
“If I could have won that, I would’ve had a really good chance (to qualify),” Seemiller said. “But that was the one I needed to get through. It was do or die and that’s the way it goes. If I would have won that I would’ve been in the final 12. In the final 12, I would’ve played pretty well because most of those are young kids. So it was kind of a lot of experience (I had) against them.”
Seemiller may have missed his chance to become the first American to medal in table tennis at the Olympic Games, but he hasn’t given up hope or the drive to keep trying.
“It’s my job,” Seemiller said. “I coach kids, I run the club here (in South Bend) and I’m always involved in tournaments, so I might as well keep playing.”