Training partners sacrifice to help US Olympians

Aug. 11, 2008, 5:13 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) R.C. Johnson walked to the edge of the mat to catch his breath, drenched in sweat after a grueling workout with fellow Greco-Roman wrestler Adam Wheeler.

Johnson's chiseled frame, his air of confidence suggested he was ready for the Olympics. Yet, Johnson is in Beijing for only reason: to make sure Wheeler is prepared for the games.

The only time he'll see competition is when he watches Wheeler take the mat for the United States at 211½ pounds with a ticket provided by USA Wrestling. And while Wheeler experiences life at the Olympic village, Johnson stays at a Beijing Normal University dormitory a short distance from the U.S. training center.

In many ways, his Olympics - as with the rest of the training partners who made the around-the-world trip in various sports - stop at the campus gates. And like many of them, he's working to help the very same athlete who beat him out for a spot on the team.

"I can probably speak for all of them and say we all want to be out on the mat competing. We all want to be No. 1," Johnson said. "The thing is ... if you lose, you've got to be there to support the ones who won. It's an individual sport, but you can't do it alone."

There are about 50 U.S. training partners, primarily in so-called combat sports such as wrestling, boxing, taekwondo, judo and fencing. Each sport's national governing body pays for their trip to China and tries to get them tickets to the event - and possibly a pass to the training areas - since they are not accredited.

Sometimes, the partners are the up-and-comers who could benefit from a taste of the Olympics. Other times, they are the ones who barely missed out yet still feel responsible to help their friends accomplish the thing they once wanted so badly for themselves.

In many ways, it is a thankless task. Training partners are often relegated to obscure grunt work so that Olympians aren't beating each other up in workouts, a pride-swallowing way to end their determined pursuit to get here.

"Nobody's ever going to read about them in the paper," said Doug Ingram, the U.S. Olympic Committee's managing director of sport performance. "Back home (friends) are going, 'Hey, you're going to Beijing,' and it's like, 'Yeah, but I'm not an Olympian.' It's tough. To be able to say, 'OK, this is the guy that beat me, but I'm going to help him win the gold,' that takes a pretty special person."

Dremiel Byers certainly has an appreciation for what it takes to do the job. He worked as the training partner for two-time Greco-Roman wrestling medalist Rulon Gardner. Now, with Gardner retired, Byers gets his shot to compete at heavyweight while bringing along a close friend - Tim Taylor, the man he beat in the finals of the U.S. trials - to help him get ready.

As a training partner, Byers tried to emulate every move Gardner's opponents might make. By the time his friend took the mat, Byers felt just as invested in the outcome as if he was the one wrestling - so much so that Gardner gave him a portion of his bonus for winning the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics four years ago.

"You have to go witness the Olympic Games and really go see what it's about," Byers said. "That was the thing, to see these guys to out there and wrestle their hearts out. It chokes you up to know that you're a part of that. You are invested, because it is us against them."

That's not to say the role is glamorous. At a recent taekwondo practice, training partners Chris Martinez and Danielle Holmquist spent part of the time doing little more than wearing body pads so that Olympians Mark Lopez and Charlotte Craig could repeatedly kick them in the ribs and abdomen.

At the end of practice, coach Jean Lopez made a point to thank the team's eight training partners, who rotate around to work with the four Olympians.

"It's a very difficult process to go through," he said. "But the perspective I give them is it's all vital and this is where the team aspect comes in. Every medal we win, a piece of that is attributed to them."

Martinez, who works as a physical trainer in Houston, finished second at featherweight at the U.S. trials. After the initial sting wore off, he decided to put his personal life on hold and commit to helping his teammates get ready for the Olympics.

"You switch over," he said. "You're here for a job. You go from being selfish to selfless. If they're waking up at 7, I'm waking up at 6. I understand the stress they're under and the pressure. I want to make sure the energy is already felt as they walk in (to practice) and not have to create it on their own, so my job is to basically get the party started."

That's not to say there aren't some perks. While the Olympians focus on competition, the training partners are generally free to explore the city. Not to mention a paid-for trip to China.

It's not quite what they had envisioned when they first started preparing for Beijing, but that doesn't matter anymore.

"There's no point in looking back on things now. What's done is done and now you're here to do a job," Holmquist said. "If they want me to sweep the floor, I'll sweep the floor. Whatever they want me to do, because it's about getting them ready."