The U.S. wrestling team took a big step toward Olympic success this weekend by qualifying several more spots to the London Games. Wrestlers will now represent the U.S. in at least 16 of the 18 weight classes in freestyle and Greco-Roman styles at the Olympics. World champions Dremiel Byers and Clarissa Chun were among those who won gold medals at the FILA Pan American Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kissimmee, Fla. Byers defeated Andres Valenzuela of Chile, 2-0, 2-0, to win the 120-kg class. Chun defeated Argentina's Patricia Bermudez, 8-1, 6-0 in her final of the 48 kg class and outscored foes by a combined 43-3 edge during the meet.
Byers had a brilliant meet and did not allow his opponents to score a single a point on him in the entire tournament. At 37, the Army staff sergeant earned one more shot at Olympic medal after a lengthy and impressive career. In 2002, he was the world champion, and took bronze and silver at the world championships in 2007 and 2009, respectively. In his early wrestling stages, Byers often faced off with 2000 Olympic champion Rulon Gardner; Byers would have qualified for more tournaments had Gardner not been in the way. Byers went to Athens for the Olympics even though he wasn't competing to serve as Gardner's training partner.
Byers speaks quietly about a promise he made to win an Olympic medal for his late grandfather Theodore, a steelworker who spent 14 hours a day working at a mill. After his seventh place finish at the Beijing Olympics, he hasn't given up trying to make good on it.
On the women's side, Chun defeated Argentina's Patricia Bermudez, 8-1, 6-0 in her final of the 48 kg class and outscored competitors by a combined 43-3 edge during the meet. Her win qualified the final women's weight class for the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics. The versatile, 4'11" Chun, became the first Hawaiian-born wrestler to represent the country when she qualified for the 2008 Olympics, where she entered as one of the favorites but finished fifth. She also competed in judo as a prep athlete and qualified for state tournaments in swimming and bowling.
The U.S. team also earned silver medals in Greco-Roman classes at the meet from Spencer Mango (55 kg), Ellis Coleman (60 kg), Andrew Bisek (74 kg) and Chas Betts (84 kg). The four wrestlers each dropped bouts to Cuban opponents in their respective finals. While these athletes secured the place at the Games for the U.S. team, they still aren't assured of going to the Games themselves. The Olympic trials that determine those places will take place April 21 and 22 in Iowa City. The U.S. team can still secure places at the Games in the remaining weight classes at qualifying meets in China and Finland.
The retirement of gymnast Paul Hamm this week brought to a close a great career that endured a controversial highlight, a troubled ending and two comeback attempts. In 2004, Hamm won the all-around title at the Olympics in Athens, repeating the crown he had won at the world championships a year earlier. However, through no fault of Hamm's, the victory was called into doubt after it was found that judges had given too low a start value to Yang Tae-young, a Korean gymnast who could have beaten Hamm at the value been correctly assigned. After Hamm's victory in the gym in August, it took an arbitration hearing in September and a verdict in October before Hamm's gold medal was confirmed. By then some potential sponsors, including Wheaties, had lost interest in featuring him.
Hamm subsequently retired, but attempted a comeback in 2008 and won the American Cup competition in New York in March that year. But at the U.S. Championships two months later, he fractured a bone in his right hand, raising question as to whether or not he would compete at the Olympics. He was named to the 2008 Olympic team, but then relinquished his spot because of that injury to his hand and another to his left shoulder, which was damaged as he overcompensated for the sore hand. Hamm resumed training two summers ago in hopes of getting back into Olympic shape, but found that his body was breaking down. He underwent surgery in Jan. 2011 to fix a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his right arm.
He took a coaching job at Ohio State in June 2011, but lost it after an incident in September, when he was charged with assault and two misdemeanors after allegedly refusing to pay a taxi fare and assaulting the driver. He pleaded no contest to two charges and another was dismissed.
Age and injury accumulation were his ultimate nemeses. He simply couldn't train properly on every apparatus. Though Hamm was no longer in the running as an all-around gymnast this year, he would still have been considered for the five-man U.S. team because of his strength on certain individual events, including pommel horse; his absence makes this event the team's weak point. Had he made the squad, Hamm would have been two months shy of his 30th birthday, an advanced age for any gymnast. Another Olympic berth would have made for great headlines.
Instead, word of Hamm's arrest in early September and subsequent retirement six months later were released late in the afternoon, when afternoon news cycles had nearly finished. It was a way to release necessary information while avoiding extensive discussion. The headlines have been both good and bad for Hamm and most of that is not his fault. For now, look for him to lend his expertise to his teammates and to get back into coaching at some level. The next headline can still be a better one.
Winning a silver medal at Polish Open International Badminton Championships in Wroclaw, Poland, the U.S. doubles team of Eva Lee and Paula Lynn Obanana earned valuable Olympic qualifying points that moved them closer to the top ranking among teams from the Pan American region. Lee and Obanana are one spot behind Canadians Alex Bruce and Michelle Lee in the new international rankings released Thursday morning, with sisters Iris and Rena Wang of the U.S. not far behind. Olympic berths are limited to the top 16 teams on the international chart, although the region would receive at least one berth based on the rankings. The U.S. team of Howard Bach and Tony Gunawan are sitting comfortably in the region's top spot in men's doubles and should qualify for the London Games. The qualifying season ends on April 30.