Overcoming adversity on the road to Olympic glory

By Ted Witulski | Dec. 26, 2000, 12 a.m. (ET)
Following Brandon Slay's performance to become the America's 76 kg representative on the freestyle team a tough summer of training lay ahead for this wrestler from Amarillo, Texas. Slay threw himself into all aspects of preparing for this once in a lifetime opportunity; a quest for Olympic gold was his ultimate destination in Sydney. Before Slay would be crowned an Olympic Champion he had to overcome adversity even before he took his flight to Sydney. Late into the last Olympic training cycle Slay was forced to spend five days in the hospital for treatment of a serious staff infection. Even though the stay in the hospital undoubtedly was a sidetrack in his Olympic experience Slay showed a great deal of maturity with this ailment. In response to the hospitalization, Slay said, "Actually the time off improved my performance because I chose to look at the situation the right way. God was telling me that I needed some rest. So, I listened to him and used those five days to rest and relax." While Slay was resting and relaxing, the up-coming Olympics surely had to be on his mind. He knew that he was in one of the toughest freestyle weight classes and comparatively he was relatively inexperienced in the international scene. What had to be even more threatening to Slay was that there was a real possibility he would have to face one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the world in Russia's Bouvaisa Saitiev. Saitiev, the older of the two world champion brothers, had been an unstoppable wrestler internationally since 1995. He then won the Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996, followed by two more World Championships in 1997, and 1998. Saitiev seemed to be on a streak that even Alexander Kareline would approve of. The Russian at 76 kg was the clear-cut favorite to win the Olympics so Slay's summer of training obviously had the likes of Saitiev as the center of attention. Currently, the wrestling pooling system can put the best wrestlers together into one pool. It is really a matter of a blind draw. National Resident Program coach and Olympic Champion Kevin Jackson talked to Slay about this potential problem early on. Jackson wanted to prepare Slay for the possibility that he could be pooled with the likes of Saitiev and Alexander Leipold of Germany. These two were clear favorites. How a wrestler psychologically handles his draw really can affect his performance. Jackson put Slay in the frame of mind that it did not matter when he faced Saitiev, Slay knew he had to beat him to fulfill his Olympic dream. Despite that Slay admits that when he saw his draw his emotions briefly got the better of him. "My first reaction was, oh crap---I'm either going to be the Olympic Champ or the Olympic chump, but then I realized that all I can do is my best and let God do the rest." Coach Jackson when he saw the draw maintained his composure. As a coach he says he wants his wrestler to maintain the mindset, "That I am the bad draw." That brash confidence is a key for a wrestler to succeed. Jackson has always wrestled and now coached from the mindset that you have to be in it to win it. If your goal is less than being a champion, then it is time to reevaluate your thinking and your approach. Wrestlers need to believe that their opponents would prefer to not have to face them, "I am the bad draw." With that advice in mind Brandon Slay a native from Amarillo Texas, a wrestler who twice failed to win a NCAA National Title while wrestling at the University of Pennsylvania would face the most dominant freestyle wrestler in the world. Bouvaisa Saitiev had never lost on the international level and was the heavy favorite to win the Olympic Gold in Sydney. Few people would have called Brandon Slay anything but a long-shot to dethrone Saitiev. The Match The coaching staff prepared Slay for this "bad draw". His focus seemed to be that to be an Olympic Champ he had to beat Saitiiev anyway. Slay centered himself psychologically for this epic clash by saying to a friend, "Let's take him out early." Although Slay had not faced Saitiev on the mat he faced him thousands of times through intense video study. Each Olympic team member had two scout tapes of opponent's prepared by National Freestyle Coach Bruce Burnett. Burnett had already announced plans to take the Head Wrestling position for the Naval Academy but his focus throughout the summer was still on the preparation of his eight freestyle wrestlers. Burnett noted that he had never coached a wrestler who had improved so fast. Slay's constant study of his opponents, the endless hours of video preparation, obviously played a key role in his preparation. Further, Slay was joined in Colorado Springs by his former coaches from the University of Pennsylvania. Coach Roger Reina and Brian Dolph, Slay's opponent in the Olympic Trials Finals, spent a good part of the summer developing a tactical plan to combat the wily skills of the unbeaten Saitiev. Slay's focus in practices often came down to how to wrestle Saitiev. Dolph and a new resident at the Olympic Training Center, Casey Cunningham, from Central Michigan, did their best to mimic the movements of Saitiev. Saitiev's style would be hard for anyone to copy. Few wrestlers in the world have been able to establish the mat awareness and depth in a counter offense. Saitiev's physique, long and lanky, full of leverage is reminiscent of a collegiate wrestler that Slay unsuccessfully faced in the Division I finals in 1997. Mark Branch of Oklahoma State defeated Slay using an extensively long frame to his advantage. At one point in the match Slay was apparently headed for a takedown while battling past Branch's long arms. Branch who could best be described as unorthodox stepped clear over Slay for the decisive takedown in their championship match in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (View Branch's Takedown) Slay had wrestled this body-type before, but Slay during the summer drilled countless situations that he could face in order to beat Saitiev. By the time Slay left Colorado Springs he felt like he was ready to face Saitiev. As the zero hour approached, the jitters returned to Slay. He felt his legs had not recovered from the weight cut. He was nervous because he knew that in order to medal he had to make it out of his pool, something a loss keeps most wrestlers from doing. He was nervous having to face an unbeaten foe early in the competition. At difficult times like these, Slay returned to his spirituality, "I eliminated all negativity and gave everything up to God. I wanted to beat Saitiev and win the gold medal but knew that it wasn't up to me. All I could do is my best, and let God take care of the rest." As the two wrestlers faced off, Slay wore blue and Saitiev in Red, their physical differences were clear. Slay younger in age looked powerful with a thick chest built with thousands of pushups, Saitiev long and lanky was coiled and ready in his stance. The tactical plan developed over the summer was to keep a long hand on Saitiev and to make the Russian wrestle from a distance. Saitiev's strength according to Jackson was his ability to control an inside-tie. Saitiev likes to come with a hard right head-tie while driving in an under-hook. From this position Saitiev can hit a strong hi-c and crack his opponent to his hip. Even from a distance Saitiev is dangerous. The Russian can cover an amazing ground, while hitting a windmill hi-c from an open position. Slay's coaching staff decided that they would prefer Saitiev to hit the long shot as opposed to battling in tight control. Throughout the match the advice from the American coaches was to keep a hand on him---keep a hand in his face. Early in the match Slay seemed tentative but not for long. Slay returned to his signature move. A move that was perfected well before Slay's dominance on the wrestling mat was established. Slay had worked his way up through the amateur ranks relying mainly on one move, an overpowering double leg. Being from Texas, Slay had spent many nights on the f