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A steep climb up a Great Wall


BEIJING -- Dremiel Byers doesn't flinch easily. The man is an Army supply sergeant and was a world champion super heavyweight in Greco Roman wrestling in 2002. He is 6 feet, 264 pounds of guts and granite. But on Thursday, the man had met his match.

"Ain't doing all these stairs," Byers insisted. Give the man a pass. In 4,000 miles of slopes, valleys, cuts and edges, there are too many to count on the Great Wall of China, much less climb.

The U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team scaled, joshed and at times even grappled on the Great Wall here on Thursday. Even lifts and bumps and chest bumps against its belly couldn't shake its foundations. All day, the Great Wall got the better of the great athletes, whether they were in mid-workout or just snapping photos like other tourists. As one set of inclines revealed another, Byers created a mini-faucet by scrunching the bottom roll of his shirt to wring it out.

"How many people had to build this thing?" he asked. Teammates jumped in with guesses.

"A hundred thousand?" asked Spenser Mango, an Olympic rookie.

"More than a million," asserted Brad Vering, a team veteran.

From the sixth century B.C., more than two million men were said to have died building the Wall and more than one million patrolled its interior at once to fend off northern invaders. It has become a sort of group bonding tradition for many of the Olympic teams to break the training monotony with a day of sightseeing. If it has some sort of practical connection to the sport, so much the better.

"I used to think if we'd keep these guys isolated, they'd be better able to keep their focus," says Steve Fraser, the Greco head coach who in 1984 became the first U.S. wrestler to win Olympic gold in Greco. "But I see the benefits of something like this as long as they make it to bed on time, have their meals, get that good training in. It's good to get out, good for camaraderie and team spirit. It'll help us compete. And there's something about warriors protecting their land from the enemy that draws connections to wrestlers."

Fraser's team has been on a roll these last few years, winning the world team title in '07. It's hard to argue with his formula. Other bonding sites have included Dracula's Castle in Romania, the Coliseum in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens, but the snapshots from Thursday's trip were especially memorable.

As the wrestlers left their bus, they began passing the gauntlet of souvenir-hawkers at the base of one entrance, shouting their greetings. A large donkey trailed part of the group, staring up at Rulon Gardner, the 2000 Olympic champ who is now an NBC analyst. "That's a big ass, right there," said Gardner, who has had ample chance to use the line during his days as a Wyoming farm boy.

On one end of a walkway, Jake Deitchler was negotiating a better deal on a hand-woven bamboo horn hat. On another, Tim Taylor, Byers' primary training partner, was gingerly posing on the back of a camel. "Don't buck," Byers shouted. "I need him."

The wrestlers were clearly better suited for mats. Training partner WillieMadison played a game of hacky sack. T.C. Dantzler gave up after trying to catch a butterfly that insisted on fluttering just out of his grasp. "I'm a city kid," said Dantzler, who grew up outside Chicago. "What do I know about butterflies?" A smiley round gentleman asked Gardner and Byers to pose with him, as the team broke into chants of "Buddha" and "Butterbean."

It was a first trip for all of the squad's members, including coach Brandon Paulson. "It's been like a fantasy place to me, too," Paulson said. "Until you see it for yourself, you don't know what it will be like."

Start with this: It is steep. Wrestlers climb stairs at the end of workouts all the time. Coaches regularly try to faze their athletes by sending them to the tops of high school gyms and even university stadiums. This was different. Stairs on the wall alternate from steep and frequent to narrow and long. The terrain is sometimes straight, sometimes twisting.

Wrestlers who were accustomed to jogging up and down with a certain detached ease had to look at their feet and grab the wall's sides as they increased the pace. ShonLewis, the head coach of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program, was looking over the side. "The Mongols really think they'd attack this place?" he said, scanning the vastness.

Some wrestlers started grappling, mostly to snap photos, others to release energy. Gardner and Byers, longtime rivals and still friends, traded moves. Madison later one upped Mango and roared, "a reverse lift on the Great Wall" somewhere into Manchurian wilderness.

"The thing that gets me in a place like this is not just the warrior mind set, but the history," Vering said. "It's majestic. I think there could have been these great battles where we were standing today. Think about how this place broke men down and built them up. We're trying to do the same thing."