Team Excel honors Brandon Slay and celebrates another wrestling year

By Gary Abbott | Jan. 04, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
Team Excel, the national wrestling organization based in Colorado, honored 2000 Olympic Champion Brandon Slay during its annual tribute dinner, held at the Raintree Plaza Conference Center in Longmont, Colo., January 3. Slay received Excel Wrestling's "Hall of Heroes" award, its second annual award winner. Last year, 2000 Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner was presented with the "Hall of Heroes" award. Team Excel, founded by wrestling coach Steve Knight, is an unique wrestling club. Not only does Team Excel support Senior-level Olympic wrestlers, but it also has a complete youth wrestling program designed to develop excellence in young wrestlers. The program has created a strong tradition of success, helping strengthen the sport in Colorado and the region. Among the athletes who have competed for Team Excel on the Olympic level are USA Wrestling National Freestyle Coach Kevin Jackson and current star and 2001 U.S. Nationals champion Ramico Blackmon. Among the results of the Excel youth programs has been 48 state high school champions and over two dozen athletes competing on the college level. Last season, 13 Team Excel wrestlers made the Colorado state high school finals. The wrestlers in the Kids program placed 52 times in major national youth events last season. This annual fundraising dinner provides Team Excel with a chance to enjoy a good meal, recognize a wrestling hero and celebrate the success of Excel athletes at all levels. In an often emotional address, Knight spoke about the development of the club and the achievements of its members. "Looking back, I guess what has kept me in wrestling are the great relationships and friendships I developed," said Knight. ""It has been exciting to see these kids through their high school years. It has been fun watching the kids grow up and do great things on the mat and in life." Knight got a bit choked up when recognizing and introducing his older brother Mike, who was a major influence in his career as a national caliber wrestler and coach. Mike Knight, a former college wrestling coach, came all the way from Iowa to attend the function. "When I was growing up in Iowa, we had such a bond with my brothers," said Steve Knight. "Sometimes, wrestling is the hardest thing. If my brothers didn't do it, I might have bailed out. There were so many hardships in high school and college, so much to overcome. If I didn't have a few older brothers helping me, I wouldn't have made it." Slay was the keynote speaker, and provided a number of lessons that he learned from his career that he hoped would help the young athletes and their families who seek wrestling excellence. Slay opened by thanking many people in the room who were there to support him during his career, and thanked all of the parents for everything they do to support their young athletes. "For the parents, I have realized that when you are helping your son or daughter in wrestling, it is important to understand that it is their battle," said Slay. "They have to do it for themselves." Slay encouraged the young athletes to stay with wrestling, even during the tough times. He noted that he had a 0-20 record his first year on the mat, but decided to go forward because it was fun for him. "Don't give up so soon," said Slay. "Youth today want things right away. You just have to stick with it. The important thing is you will be a greater man." He also issued a challenge for the wrestlers in attendance. "Dream big," he said. "Don't set your goals low. Set them high." Slay explained his five ingredients for success in wrestling and life. They are: 1. Time and Commitment 2. Hard Work 3. Believe in Yourself 4. Make Good Decisions 5. Use the Gifts God Gives You to Your Fullest Ability Within the speech, Slay told some interesting stories about his relationship with Kevin Jackson, the USA Wrestling coach that helped him become an Olympic champion. Slay explained how when he joined the U.S. Olympic Training Center program, Jackson, then the National Resident Coach, had a talk with him. Jackson said that he expected Slay to become a national champion and an Olympic champion. He then asked Slay if he had any doubts. Slay explained that he was never able to win the NCAA Div. I Championships, which gave him doubts about his ability on the Olympic level. Jackson immediately challenged Slay. "Kevin said, 'That's ridiculous. I never won an NCAA title and I was an Olympic Champion. If I can do it, then you can do it.' When Kevin told me that, I believed him. If Kevin could do it, then I could do it," Slay said. Slay also told the story of the last moments with Jackson prior to Slay's Olympic Games match against World and Olympic champion Bouvaisa Saitiev of Russia. The two athletes were warming up right before their match in the holding area, only a few feet apart. Slay, competing in his first Olympics, was about to face the athlete recognized as the world's best wrestler. "Kevin comes up and says, 'Brandon, are you going to win this match?' I'm thinking, Kevin, the dude is right there! Kevin made a point to me that who cares? I said yeah. Then Kevin starts pointing at the guy. 'Are you stronger?' I said yeah. 'Are you faster?' I said yeah. You may think that is pretty arrogant and cocky, but I believed it. Plus, I thought that this guy from Russia didn't speak English," said Slay. Slay went on to defeat Saitiev in one of wrestling's greatest upsets, advancing to the Olympic finals and ultimately to the Olympic gold medal. Slay also reminded the audience that winning isn't everything, but doing your best is the most important thing. "If you make a mistake and fail, learn from it," said Slay. "Fail forward." Slay wrapped up his address with encouragement for the young athletes. "Take those ingredients and make them your own," said Slay. "Stir it up. Mix it with a big dream. Then, your chances to become successful are sky-high. The only person who can stop you is yourself." Before presenting Slay with his award, master of ceremonies Mike McArthur said," Brandon Slay is the kind of man that we desire for you young men to be like. You can become men of integrity, people we can count on to do the right thing." Knight closed the night by recognizing a few more people, including the USA Wrestling staff in attendance. He also gave special thanks to Arno Niemand of Body Bar Systems, a successful businessman who has helped Team Excel to develop, grow and impact the lives of so many people. Slay signed autographs and posed for pictures with many of the young people and their families. By sharing a special evening with Slay and the local wrestling community, Team Excel kicked off the 2003 year with renewed energy and inspiration.