Dremiel's Dream

The Greco-Roman wrestling gold may be in this heavyweight's grasp. But it's not a lock.

The obstacles to his dream are formidable. The U.S. Greco-Roman team (fourth at the Worlds) is deeper than ever -- but especially the heavyweights. Corey Farkas, Billy Pierce and Matt Lamb are all capable of qualifying for the one available U.S. Olympic spot at heavyweight, and Gardner's comeback after surgery now has him at 75 to 80 percent strength. The Russians have a new star in Youri Patreekov (whom Byers did not face in Moscow), and it would surprise no one if the biggest star of all -- Alexandre Kareline -- re-emerges for the 2004 Games. Byers calls Gardner a generous guy who's tirelessly helped him scout opponents, and a "friend," at least "until the whistle blows and we handle our business accordingly." He also says their goal is the same. "He and I share this: It doesn't matter who gets it done as long as America gets it done." The bigger shadow, Byers says, belongs to Kareline. "I would love it if he came back. I was one match away from him in 1999, and he retired in 2000. He's the one I would like to go for."

For now, it's tough to compete with Gardner's glowing public image. The easygoing Wyoming hero turns deft cartwheels in stadiums everywhere, carries his severed toe in a jar of formaldehyde for anyone who wants to see it and generally charms fans. But Byers's modest grace, and his Army uniform, are sure to be assets in today's political climate. Meanwhile, there's a chance no one will get a shot at Greco-Roman glory after 2004. The International Olympic Committee, a body long known more for its susceptibility to graft than for its wisdom, plans to eliminate up to four sports from the 2008 Beijing Games -- and Greco-Roman looks like one of the targets. The ironies are rich: An American wrestler provided the greatest upset of the 2000 Games, so losing the formerly obscure sport would hurt here. Meanwhile, the rest of the world knows that Greco-Roman -- as its antique name suggests -- has been part of the Olympics at least since 776 B.C. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a grappler, as was the fifth-century lyric poet Pindar -- although they had nothing on Milon of Crotona, who won the ancient Olympics six times. Dropping Greco-Roman would be a little like nixing the 200-meter dash. "Talk about basic sports," observes John Fuller, a spokesman for USA Wrestling. "Cavemen could either run away from bears, or wrestle them. If you wanted to survive, you could either be a track star or a wrestler. Those were the options. Do we want to lose that?"

Dremiel Byers doesn't. He pledges to wrestle until he's 49 -- a year longer than the legendary Marine Corps great Greg Gibson -- and if it means switching back to freestyle, he might do it. He wants the Olympic gold for his grandfather, simple as that. After he gets it, he says, he'll stop traveling and take his shot at the American Dream -- make staff sergeant, get married again, have kids, go back to school, "so I'll have something to put on the wall besides a medal." He also wants "a really, really big truck." Watch him grab it up and carry it home in his bare hands, like a chunk of pot roast.

Dremiel Byers worked hard to win the World Championships.
Dremiel Byers worked hard to win the World Championships.

But all that's in the future. For now, Byers remembers a recent day when a gaggle of schoolkids touring the U.S. Olympic Training Center were gawking at his sheer bulk and one of them piped up: "That's the guy who wants to take Rulon's Gold medal away." Byers shakes his head and smiles. "No, no," he said. "That's not it. I'm gonna get my own gold. If it's the last thing I do."

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