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February 14, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Turnbull taken aback by IOC’s move

MORGANTOWN — Craig Turnbull had enough on his mind as he arose the other morning, his West Virginia University wrestling team being pinned with a far more difficult season than he ever could have imagined, but he was about to be blindsided again.

His son, Kyle, himself a former wrestler, called and excitedly informed him that the sport of wrestling had been dropped from the Olympic Games.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach,” Craig Turnbull would say later in the day.

On so many levels this was wrong to him.

Forget for a moment that wrestling went back to the start of the modern Olympic Games, all the way back to 1896. Forget, even, that it went back to the days in Greece itself when the original Olympic Games were conceived.

That made the decision unthinkable, but wrestling was more than a sport to Turnbull.

It was a way of life, something he had known as far back as he could remember.

True, family came first, and West Virginia University had grown to be up there with family, considering that Turnbull had spent the past 34 years building the program into one of national prominence after having graduated as an All-America wrestler at Clarion in 1973.

He had spent three years coaching in high school before coming to WVU as an assistant under Franck Liechti for a year before becoming the seventh head coach in the school’s history.

He won the Eastern Wrestling League Coach of the Year honor four times, had coached five individual national champions including the incomparable Greg Jones, now his top assistant, had coached 26 of the program’s 29 All-Americans and had sent more than 160 wrestlers into the NCAA Championships.

What’s more, he’d overseen the program’s growth from a small office and wrestling room into a modern Wrestling Pavilion of which he was the driving force.

His life was tied to wrestling, and now it had somehow been devalued and demeaned in a sneak attack that no one saw coming.

“It appears our people didn’t see it coming and get their lobby in advance,” he said.

Indeed, the move was done in a veil of secrecy, and Turnbull has trouble understanding how it could have transpired.

“I think 75 countries participated in wrestling,” he said. “I think pentathlon had 21 countries and some of the other sports they kept had similar numbers.”

The world, however, revolves in strange ways and, as Turnbull would note, the son of a former IOC chairman was a pentathlete, which added to the political pressure and, in the Olympics, history bears out that politics always has come before sanity.

But the effects of this decision hit far too close to home for all of us, wrestling being a varsity sport at WVU and an important sport at many state high schools. WVU’s ties to the Olympic Games are strong.

“We have a history of people here participating in the Olympic Games,” Turnbull said.

For example, in 1992, Zeke Jones, who would go on to become an assistant coach under Turnbull, won a silver medal at the Barcelona Games and 20 years later was head coach of the U.S. Freestyle Wrestling Team.

He had been preceded by Nate Carr, who won a bronze medal in Seoul, Korea, in 1988.

West Virginia even once served as host to the Sunkist Kids National Training Program for USA Wrestling, which was a training program aimed at preparing wrestlers for the Olympic Games.

And then one morning Turnbull awoke and wrestling had been erased from the Olympic Games.

Why?

How?

Turnbull was having a problem comprehending it all.

“Wrestling has been growing. The NCAA championships are among the most popular of the championship,” he said. “I’ve watched some of the sports they are adding and it’s just jumping on a trampoline. Some of them you wonder how they even call them sports.”

Not sports ... Olympic sports.

“It’s very frustrating,” Turnbull admitted. “Hopefully, it’s not final. There’s a final vote going to be taken in Russia where it’s very popular and they will be very passionate about it.”

But the tea leaves don’t seem to be pointing toward a prominent future for wrestling in the Olympics, although the USA group along with other countries’ wrestling federations will go to work on it as soon as they can.

Meanwhile, what of the kids who are wrestling now in high school, middle school, even lower and, of course, those who are just beginning college careers with their own dreams?

Will this impact wrestling on those levels throughout the country and the world?

“When you are a young wrestler you maybe write down goals to be a national champion or an Olympic champion. There may be some impact, but I don’t think there’s any way to have a handle on that,” Turnbull said. “It’s unfortunate when you are one of the top collegiate wrestlers and one of your goals becomes — if it wasn’t already — to see what I can do at the international level. I’d like to medal in the World or Olympic championships.”

And then poof!

It’s taken away from you.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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