The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

May 20, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- Henson has felt wrestling’s highs and lows

MORGANTOWN — Winning and losing.

In the end, that’s what athletics are about and, to an even larger degree, it is what life is about.

But there are ways to win and ways to lose, right ways and wrong ways, and in each there are lessons.

Sammie Henson, West Virginia’s new wrestling coach, knows both and has experienced it on the highest levels in his sport.

He won a world championship at 121 pounds in freestyle for the United States in the FILA Wrestling World Championships in Tehran, Iran. The high could not be duplicated, especially as it played out for Henson, then just 27 years old.

After his introductory press conference had ended, he was pulled off to the side and asked just what it is like to compete at that level.

“It’s the greatest,” he answered. “I was in Iran; that’s where I won my world title. It’s like the NBA Final.”

He remembered thinking back then to a time when he was a child, too young to know what was ahead of him yet somehow sensing what was in store.

“When I was 8 years old I told my dad I was going to be a world champion,” he recalled.

And he made it.

“That I had won the world championship wasn’t in my mind at that moment there,” he said, indicating it was far more complicated, far more all-encompassing than just the glory of the moment.

“In my mind it wasn’t the moment there. It was all the moments building up to it ... that’s what you think about. When you actually win, you are like, ‘Man, how much sacrifice went into this?’ It’s just like this job. This job was a lot of sacrifice for me and my wife to get here. It makes it special when you finally win.”

And win he did, experiencing a feeling few Americans ever have felt, being adopted as a fan favorite in Iran.

“They chanted my name,” he said. “What happened was I was wrestling Namig Abdullayev and he had beaten an Iranian in the semis, so all these fans loved me. I mean, they were throwing flowers at me. I had 13,000 fans there.”

But those who win also lose, sometimes unjustly, sometimes at the wrong moment.

Sometimes not even of their own doing.

Take Game 6 of the 1985 World Series when umpire Don Denkinger called Jorge Orta safe at first, a blown call that cost the St. Louis Cardinals a World Series. Or take Detroit’s Armando Gallaraga having retired the first 26 batters against the Cleveland Indians only to have umpire Jim Joyce blow a call at first base to cost him the perfect game.

Sammie Henson knows the feeling.

It happened to him, on an even bigger world stage, in the Olympics of 2000 in Sydney, Australia. Oddly, the opponent was the same Abdullayev, the two squaring off in the Olympic final.

Henson thought he had won. Nearly everyone thought he had won, except the match must have been judged by Denkinger and Joyce, for when they announced the winner it was Abdullayev.

Sports Illustrated felt it was worth a story, and this is how Jack McCallum started that story, which was titled “The Saddest Loss”:

“SYDNEY, Australia — I rode in an automobile with Len Bias’ younger brother two days after the basketball star died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, so I’m not going to say what happened in Olympic freestyle wrestling tonight was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”

But, boy, it was close.

It was that kind of match, a match Henson had waited his life for, a match he knew he had won ... and he snapped.

Again, McCallum:

“He ran yelling and screaming down a hallway. All the hours of sweat and toil, all the dreams, all the mental pictures in which he saw himself on the top step of that magic pedestal. All gone. And Henson lost it. Lost it like nobody I’ve ever seen lose it.

“As his yells reverberated through one section of the arena, a few reporters, a handful of fans and several venue volunteers looked around to find out where the noise was coming from. Suddenly, Henson came bolting by, running at full-speed for the locker room with several of the volunteers in pursuit. They must have been thinking the same thing I was thinking: He’s going to hurt himself. Or he’s going to run out into the early evening air of Sydney and do something crazy or collapse somewhere. Henson continued yelling and screaming for at least five minutes, pounding his hand against a wall outside of the locker room until he finally collapsed on the floor. Now all we could hear was his agonized sobbing.

“It wasn’t a show. It wasn’t an act. He didn’t know there were reporters around. It wasn’t his way of demonstrating that he thought he got screwed. Finally, U.S. national team coaches Bruce Burnett and John Smith reached Henson’s side, pulled him to his feet and led him away from the stunned onlookers.”

He recalled reading the story. He recalled his actions and he was more than ready to explain them.

“Here’s what happened,” he said. “I was always taught to shake the guy’s hand, and I did. I ran in the back and thought I was by myself, but the reporters followed me where they weren’t supposed to follow.

“Out of respect for everyone I handled myself with dignity, but they followed me into the locker room.”

Think, though, of what he was going through inside. Think of the feelings he had winning the World Championship, being so close to grabbing the Olympic medal.

It hurt.

“Looking back now, it’s a moment in time where you never get over it,” he said.

So much so that he doesn’t display the silver medal he won at the Olympics at home.

“It’s in a sock drawer,” he said. “I take it to places because, the bottom line is, it’s pretty cool. A lot of people don’t have Olympic medals. It was just the way the match went. If I lose — and I lost — if it’s 8-0 you say, ‘Hey,’ but when you lose like that it burns a little bit more.”

Wins and losses ... lessons in each, and he is using them today.

“It’s helped me as a father with my sons, handling yourself with dignity. I had to learn the hard way with a lot of things, act like you’ve been there. My dad was a heavy equipment operator. Now, being a coach, understanding social awareness, losing the match and winning the match helped me both ways. You know what? I think you find out more about a guy when he wins than when he loses,” he said.

“A lot people say it’s the other way, but when you win, it comes down to how much class you have, how much dignity do you have, you show it winning?

“Losing, you have to take something from that, too,” he continued. “Losing that match, I took that moment didn’t define me. That’s huge.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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