From Shadow to Spotlight

Aug. 05, 2008, 11:37 a.m. (ET)

 He was arguably the second-best Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler in the world.

Yet, when it was time to pack bags for the world championships and the last two Olympics, he was the one who had to stay home. Only one wrestler could qualify in each weight class.

For seven years, Dremiel Byers wrestled in Rulon Gardner's giant shadow.

"That's the nature of the beast," said Byers, who balances his wrestling career with his duties as a U.S. Army supply sergeant. "We knew that's the way it was and still is. There can be only one. That makes it that much more of an honor when you earn the spot to walk out there and represent your country.

"Being a soldier, I'm able to serve and represent my country. I consider myself very fortunate. You think about that in your training. You think about that as you approach each day and each competition when you dissect your competitors. You don't want to be the guy who walks off the mat and didn't get his hand raised.

For seven years, Gardner was the one who usually had his hand raised. Now, Byers is.

Gardner retired four years ago in that special sports moment at the Athens Olympics where he untied his wrestling shoes, left them on the mat and walked off in tears after winning the bronze medal. Four years
later, it's Byers' turn to wrestle in the Olympics after seeing Gardner carry U.S. hopes in Athens with his bronze medal and Sydney where he won the gold.

Training partners in the wrestling room, Byers and Gardner were best friends away from the gym, and they still are.

"We definitely pushed each other," said Byers, 2002 world champion and bronze medalist last year.  "Our friendship meant a lot. It's a value to have someone like that in your corner giving you advice. Just to be there for him was an honor.

"Not many guys could have pushed me as hard as he did, and not many guys could have pushed him as hard as I did. We both benefitted from training together and hanging out together.  That's one of the good things about USA Wrestling and the room we came out of."

Three years after Gardner's retirement, Byers and his teammates have won something Gardner never did. Last year, Byers and the American team won its first world championship in Baku, Azerbaijan, beating Russia by a single point.

"A lot of people worked many, many years to get us that medal," said U.S. national team coach Steve Fraser, who won America's first Greco-Roman Olympic championship in 1984. "It gives us the confidence that we need going into this Olympics.  We've got a nice mix of veterans and some so-called rookies.

"I truly believe that each of one our six athletes competing has the potential to win a medal, if not the gold medal."

Except for two-time world bronze medalist Harry Lester, the U.S. team that won the world championship emerged after training with a proven champion or a veteran who retired. Lester was upset in this year's Olympic Trials by Jake Deitchler, only 18 years old.

Long before then, Byers had escaped from Gardner's shadow after watching him win the gold medal in Sydney on his television set at home.

"I've said many times," Byers said. "That guy (Gardner) got in front of the cameras after he got his medal, and he made no doubt about it. He said he's not the only guy from the United States that can win this thing. And I was listening."

Two years later, Byers won his world championship medal. In 2004, he went to Athens with Gardner as his training partner after losing to the former Olympic champion in the U.S. Trials.

"I told him as we walked off the mat, 'If there's anything you need from me, I'll be there for you.' That's the way we were," Byers said.

"Selfless service is part of it. It's us against them.  I went to Athens with him, and I watched and I learned. Now, it's my turn."

 

Tommy Hine is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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