#ThrowbackThursday: 2000 Olympic champion Brandon Slay

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | March 14, 2019, 8:07 p.m. (ET)
Brandon Slay has his arm raised after winning the 2000 U.S. Open, defeating World Team member Joe Williams in the finals. USA Wrestling file photo.

When you are looking for an inspiring example of how an athlete can achieve greatness in a short period of time and against the supposed “odds,” all you need to do is look at the wrestling story of 2000 Olympic champion Brandon Slay of the United States.

There is no doubt that Brandon Slay had been very successful at every level of the sport. Yet Brandon Slay’s amazing 2000 season stands as one of the most remarkable in wrestling history. He was recognized as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016.

An Amarillo, Texas native, Slay was very successful in USA Wrestling's age-group programs, winning a Cadet National title and placing at the Junior Nationals a number of times. Slay also had considerable international experience at a young age, competing at both the Cadet World Championships and Junior World Championships while still in high school. As a Cadet, Slay won World silver and bronze medals in Greco-Roman. Yet Texas was not known as a wrestling state, so many did not know about Slay and his talent.

Click here for Brandon Slay’s Hall of Fame bio

Choosing an Ivy League school, the Univ. of Pennsylvania, for his collegiate career. Slay became a nationally known star there. Coached by Roger Reina, he helped build the Quaker program to national prominence and became one of the all-time greats at Penn, placing second at both the 1997 and 1998 NCAA Championships.

Slay had international wrestling dreams, and became a U.S. Olympic Training Center resident athlete, training under National Freestyle Resident Coach and 1992 Olympic champion Kevin Jackson in Colorado Springs. In his first season on the freestyle circuit, Slay placed sixth at the 1999 World Team Trials, making him a longshot to make the 2000 Olympic team.

Trivia Question: Name the legendary coach who worked with Brandon Slay when he was a youth and high school wrestler in Texas, who later coached an athlete who went on to win a World medal for Team USA in women’s freestyle wrestling? (Answer at the bottom of this story)

Entering the 2000 U.S. Nationals as the seventh seed, Slay's progress was quickly established. He qualified for the gold-medal finals, where he defeated 1999 World Team member Joe Williams in the championship finals. Slay was the top seed at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Dallas, in front of his Texas fans. Instead of facing Williams in the best-of-three finals, his coach and training partner Brian Dolph defeated Williams to earn the spot. Slay was able to beat his friend and mentor to qualify for the Olympics.

At the 2000 Olympics, the competitors were split into pools of three or four wrestlers. An athlete needed to win his pool in order to advance into the championship bracket. At 74 kg/163 pounds, Slay and Olympic and World champion Buvaisa Saitiev of ended up in the same pool, along with Plamen Paskalev of Bulgaria. Only one of the wrestlers would advance.

Slay opened the tournament with a victory over Paskalev, 4-1. Next came the match with Saitiev. Slay started it off with a takedown and a gut wrench turn to lead 3-0, but Saitiev rebounded to tie the score at 3-3 in regulation. The overtime would determine the winner. Slay scored the winning double leg takedown for the major upset win.

With Saitiev was out of the tournament, Slay won his next match with an overtime 2-2 decision over Gennady Laliyev of Kazakhstan followed by a 3-1 victory over 1999 World bronze medalist Adem Bereket of Turkey in the semifinals. His finals opponent was 1994 World champion Alexander Leipold of Germany, who beat Slay, 4-0. Slay returned home from Sydney with an Olympic silver medal.

Shortly after the Games, it was announced that Leipold tested positive for the steroid nandralone, and on Oct. 16, the IOC Medical Commission recommended stripping his medal. That gave Slay the Olympic gold medal at the weight class. Slay received his Olympic gold medal in New York City on live national television as part of NBC's Today Show.

Brandon Slay has continued to make a huge impact in wrestling. For a number of years, Slay pursued a career in business, but was very active with young athletes through his Greater than Gold project and in local clubs in the Dallas area. He joined USA Wrestling’s national staff as an Assistant National Freestyle Coach, working with both Senior and age-group athletes from 2009-2016, helping develop World medalist athletes for Team USA. He is currently the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center in Philadelphia, Pa., working with Olympic hopefuls on the Senior level and top young athletes from the region.

Slay’s victory over Saitiev in the 2000 Olympics continues to be one of the greatest matches in wrestling history. His impact on the sport has been great ever since, and he continues to make a difference.

Trivia Question Answer: Brandon Slay’s coach in Amarillo, Texas was Johnny Cobb, a legend in the Texas Panhandle area and around the nation. Later in his career, Cobb became the coach at Wayland Baptist University, where he coached women’s wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock, mentoring her not only in college but also as a coach with the Titan Mercury WC. Mensah-Stock won a 2018 World bronze medal in women’s freestyle.