Walk into the wrestling room at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and it's obvious that wrestling is not a mainstream sport. The low-ceilinged windowless room filled with wrestling mats is in Sports Center 2 on the first floor - OK, let's say call it what it is, the basement - underneath the basketball courts and behind the weight room.
But the guys who train here bound into the room - smiling and joking - and immediately start warming up, jogging around the perimeter of the room and stretching. They have one goal in mind: To go to the Olympics, wrestling's Super Bowl. Winning an Olympic medal is the dream.
Unlike swimming and gymnastics Olympic medalists, the heroes and heroines of amateur wrestling are rarely household names, especially those who compete in the lighter weight classes.
Heavyweight Rulon Gardner is perhaps the best-known wrestler in recent history. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, his "miracle on the mat" defeat of three-time Olympic gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin, who until 1999 had not given up so much as a point in six years, made headlines and put Gardner's face in a "Got Milk?" ad.
But even sports aficionados will be hard pressed to remember Kurt Angle or Steve Fraser. Angle won gold at the 1996 Olympics as a heavyweight freestyle wrestler, then two years later signed a contract with the World Wrestling Federation (he currently works for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, which promotes professional wrestling). In 1984, Fraser won the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in Greco-Roman wrestling. Fraser has coached the U.S. Greco-Roman team since 1995.
This summer, 16 American male freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestlers will head to Beijing. Four women also made the U.S. Olympic team; the women compete in freestyle wrestling in four weight classes. If these wrestlers do win medals, chances are slim that they will be remembered outside the wrestling world for more than a few days or weeks.
So what is it about wrestling that keeps these guys hooked? On the eve of the Olympic Trials, a group of Greco-Roman wrestlers shared their thoughts.
"It's the most basic first sport that you do when you're a kid," says Brad Vering, who is the number-one ranked Greco-Roman wrestler in the U.S. in the 84 kg (185 lb.) weight class. "Your dad grabs you, you roll around with him. Your mom grabs you and plays around when you're a baby. First thing, little kids do is go up and grab each other. It's the most primal sport."
Vering, 30, began competing when he was five years old and by the time he graduated from high school, had three Nebraska state titles to his name. At the 2004 Olympics, he lost in the early elimination rounds and did not advance to the quarterfinals. But at the 2007 World Championships, he won the silver medal. He earned another trip to the Olympics at 2008 Olympic Trials.
"It's a great sport because it's mano-a-mano," he says. "Just like boxing or a match race, you don't have a team. You don't have anyone else on the mat who can help you. You're out there by yourself, and you have control. That's something that I really enjoy about it."
"You can't rely on anybody but yourself," adds Mark Rial, 20, the 2008 national champion in the 66 kg (145.5 lb.) weight class. "If you're not prepared, it'll show."
R.C. Johnson, a silver medalist at 2008 nationals and a former high school football player, signed up for wrestling his freshman year in high school after a "really big football player" cornered him in the locker room. "He's like, ‘You're going to wrestle,'" remembers Johnson, now 26 years old and pretty big himself (he wrestles in the 96 kg/211.5 lbs. weight class). "I'm like, uh, what?!"
But he loved it immediately. "Beat up people and not get in trouble for it? I'm there!" he says.
Willie Madison, 27, didn't love wrestling right away. He also started the sport his freshman year in high school after the P.E. teacher, who doubled as the wrestling coach, gave his gym classes "little wrestling challenges to see who could do what," says Madison.
"I was good at it right away," he says. "I had a lot of potential. But I didn't like it. It grew on me. It took some camps to see how all these guys on this level were living their lives, and I got addicted."
"You wrestle for the passion of it," adds Madison, ranked fourth overall in the U.S. in the 60 kg (132 lbs.) weight class.
Rial says the difficulty of wrestling is what often appeals to wrestlers. Or turns them off. "I've heard it from a lot of people who play other sports that wrestling is harder than any other sport they've done," he says.
"But it's one of the few sports that teaches discipline and hard work," he adds - a statement that athletes in many other sports would no doubt refute. "It prepares you for life after wrestling, and it makes you a better person."
With similar singular focus, 21-year-old Robbie Smith adds, "It's the only sport that keeps you true."
Smith wrestles in the 96kg (211.5 lbs.) weight class and finished fourth at 2008 nationals.
"You go out there and feel victory one match and then defeat the other," he continues. "You're on top of the world on you're way to winning the whole tournament one time. The next match, you're down, and you're in the dumps."
"Wrestling is hard to learn," he adds. "But once you learn it, it's fascinating. People when they learn it, they love it."
So why isn't wrestling more mainstream? Perhaps Rial says it best: "Because people don't want to do it because it's so damn hard, that's why."
2008 Olympic wrestling team
55 kg (121 lbs.): Spenser Mango
66 kg (145.5 lbs.): Jake Deitchler
74 kg (163 lbs.): T.C. Dantzler
84 kg (185 lbs.): Brad Vering
96 kg (211.5 lbs.): Adam Wheeler
120 kg (264.5 lbs.): Dremiel Byers
55 kg (121 lbs.): Henry Cejudo
66 kg (145.5 lbs.): Doug Schwab
74 kg (163 lbs.): Ben Askren
84 kg (185 lbs.): Andy Hrovat
96 kg (211.5 lbs.): Daniel Cormier
120 kg (264.5 lbs.): Steve Mocco
48 kg (105.5 lbs.): Clarissa Chun
55 kg (121 lbs.): Marcie Van Dusen
63 kg (138.5 lbs.): Randi Miller
72 kg (158.5 lbs.): Ali Bernard
Peggy Shinn 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.