If You Can't Beat 'Em, Hire 'Em USA Wrestling has tabbed two-time Olympic champ Sergei Beloglazov to coach Yanks in the Russian style

June 06, 2004

When he's not working in the wrestling room at the U.S. Olympic
Training Center in Colorado Springs, national freestyle coach
Sergei Beloglazov likes nothing better than to play pickup
basketball with some of his wrestlers in the gym next door. It's
a training method he's carried over from his brilliant
career--wrestling for the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the
Kaliningrad native dominated the 125 1/2-pound division
internationally, winning two Olympic gold medals and six world
championships. Beloglazov, 47, believes the hours he put in on
the court were a big factor in his success on the mat. "Here in
America, when you aren't wrestling, you lift weights three, four
times a week and get big and stiff," he says after a pickup game.
"In Russia we lifted only twice a week, and after practice we
played basketball or soccer all the time."

Beloglazov's basketball jones is typical of the aesthetic
approach to freestyle that USA Wrestling was looking for when it
hired him last November. Internationally, the reputation of
American wrestlers is of hulking brutes short on technical skill
who wear down their opponents by outworking them. In contrast,
the hallmark of the great Russian wrestlers--such as
Beloglazov--has always been their intelligent, artistic style.

"Against the Russians you want to be ready the first two to three
minutes of the match," says Joe Williams, the top U.S. wrestler
in the 163-pound division. "They're going to come out, try to
score a big move right away and get a three-point lead, then run
the rest of the match. A lot of technique is just defense, and
their technique is a lot better than ours."

Though the U.S., with 103 medals, is historically the most
successful Olympic freestyle program by far, it's been in a bit
of a slump recently. No American freestyler has won a world or
Olympic championship on the mat in five years. (Brandon Slay
earned gold at 167 1/2 pounds at the Sydney Games only after
Alexander Leipold of Germany failed a drug test and was stripped
of his medal.) Russian wrestlers have won 11 world and four
Olympic golds over the same span.

A major problem is that U.S. wrestlers have to switch from
folkstyle, or collegiate, wrestling to freestyle. That means most
of them begin their international careers relearning a sport they
thought they already knew. "U.S. wrestling is typically done on
the feet," says Rich Bender, the executive director of USA
Wrestling. "International wrestling is on the mat. It isn't a
skill wrestlers develop in college." While Beloglazov has
experience working with collegians--he was an assistant at Lehigh
for three seasons in the early 1990s--Jackson expects that
Beloglazov's impact on the team won't be felt much this summer or
even next year. Holding the official title of freestyle resident
coach, Beloglazov will work year-round in Colorado Springs with
wrestlers aiming for the Olympics of 2008 and 2012.

Beloglazov got off to a rough start after he joined the U.S. team
this winter, when he took several senior team members to
competitions in Siberia and Ukraine. Though he's an experienced
international coach, having previously led national programs in
Russia and Japan, he seemed unsure of his role and how to assert
himself matside as his wrestlers went up against Russians he was
friendly with. "He still has that connection to Russia," says
Jackson, "but we need him to share tactical and technical
knowledge about the guys we're wrestling against."

Beloglazov, who met with USA Wrestling officials in March to
discuss the matter, insists that his loyalty is no longer an
issue. Changing teams, he says, is just as much a part of
coaching in international wrestling as it is in the collegiate
ranks. "Some people misunderstood," he says of his actions during
the trip, "but it's O.K. So many Russian coaches work abroad now.
I don't want to change this program, I just want to give advice.
And I want to win."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BE NIMBLE U.S. wrestlers like to pump iron, but Beloglazov prepared for Seoul '88 by playing plenty of hoops and soccer. COLOR PHOTO: GARRETT W. ELLWOOD (INSET) [See caption above]

These four American wrestlers have the best shots at a men's
medal in Athens

Cael Sanderson, freestyle, 185 pounds
Most accomplished wrestler in NCAA history was runner-up at
worlds in 2003.

Daniel Cormier, freestyle, 211 1/2 pounds
Two-time defending national champion was fifth at worlds last year.

Rulon Gardner, Greco-Roman, 264 1/2 pounds
Reigning Olympic champ won't fly under radar this time; looks
strong despite losing toe.

Kerry McCoy, freestyle, 264 1/2 pounds
Has won last five heavyweight national titles and placed fifth
in Sydney.