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Byers tries to keep US wrestling tradition going

Aug. 11, 2008, 8:15 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The big men have done the major lifting for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team since the 1980s, and Dremiel Byers doesn't want to be the guy who can't hold up his end.

Since Seoul in 1988, the super heavyweights have produced six medals for America. Bruce Baumgartner won four in freestyle - two gold - and Rulon Gardner took two in Greco-Roman, including his good-for-gold upset of the once-unbeatable Alexander Karelin in 2000.

Byers, a 2002 world champion who wasn't quite good enough to beat out Gardner to make the U.S. team in 2000 and 2004, finally gets his Olympic turn as Greco-Roman is the first of wrestling's three disciplines to get onto the mat in Beijing.

The Greco competition starts Tuesday and runs through Thursday, when Byers competes. The women wrestle Saturday and Sunday and freestyle finishes up Aug. 19-21.

Gardner, who returned from Athens with a bronze, will be in the building as NBC's analyst but he hasn't wrestled competitively since the 2004 games.

"Rulon did a lot of great things when he was wrestling, but he's gone now and this is Byers' journey," said Shon Lewis, Byers' coach.

First up in Greco are the 55-kilogram and 60-kilogram finals Tuesday, when 22-year-old Spenser Mango will be the only American competing. Mango is a major longshot at 55 kilograms, where Iran's Hamid Soryan is favored after winning the last three world championships and last two Asian titles.

Mango, a 2006 world university champion, meets Virgil Munteanu of Romania in the first round, with two-time world runner-up Park Eun-Choi possibly awaiting the winner.

The United States didn't qualify at 60 kilograms, where Bulgaria's Armen Nazarian tries at age 34 to win a fourth Olympic wrestling medal. Nazarian won in 1996 and 2000 and took the bronze in Athens, and he qualified for Beijing by finishing second in the European championships.

David Bedinadze of Georgia is the reigning world champion, while 2004 Olympic champion Jung Ji-Hyun of South Korea is coming off a third-place finish in the worlds. Jung, still in his prime at age 25, defeated Nazarian in the semifinals in Athens.

Byers, a U.S. Army staff sergeant who has been one of the top U.S. heavyweights since 1999, was badly disappointed after losing to Gardner in the 2004 Olympic trials but still accompanied him to Athens as his training partner.

Byers said the experience he gained then proved invaluable, so he brought trials runner-up Tim Taylor with him to Beijing.

"It's time," Byers said. "I'm going to go out here and do nothing but what I'm good at."

While the 33-year-old Byers has long leaned on Gardner for advice, he also gained considerable motivation by working recently with Baumgartner at the two-time gold medalist's summer camp in Edinboro, Pa.

"You'll be sitting there talking to him and he'll have his medals sitting out, and you'll realize, 'Hey, that's Bruce Baumgartner,' He talks with me and tells me good stuff," Byers said. "He can pass on a lot of wisdom about what we're doing."

Byers is among four of five heavyweights who, depending on which wrestler is locked in Thursday, are given the best chance of unseating returning gold medalist Khasan Baroev of Russia.

Thanks to the scouting videos Byers loads onto his iPod, he is certain he won't be surprised by anything he sees.

"I've been looking at that iPod so much, if I pass one of those kids in the village, I might give them a nod, but it's like, 'He gut wrenches to the right, he lifts to the left, he does this on his feet,' " Byers said. "I'll go through the whole breakdown. I have the plan, I just want to see it happen."

On Wednesday, the United States will be represented by an 18-year-old just out of high school, 145½-pounder Jake Deitchler, and a twice-as-old T.C. Dantzler, who made his first Olympics at age 37. The 163-pound Dantzler owns a 29-employee software business in Colorado.