Each sport has its pinnacle, a mountaintop every young athlete aspires to reach.
Football players dream of holding the Lombardi Trophy, basketball players envision winning the NBA Finals and baseball players strive to hoist the World Series trophy.
Wrestlers don’t have those same apexes, though. There’s no professional league considered to be the zenith of the sport. Instead, all of their hard work, commitment, grit and determination is geared toward representing their country at the Olympic Games.
But on Feb. 12, that dream was ripped away. The 15-member International Olympic Committee executive board recommended the sport — which made its first appearance at the Olympic Games in 708 B.C. — be dropped for the 2020 Games.
In the blink of an eye, the crowning achievement in the sport of wrestling ceased to exist. For coach Kerry McCoy and members of the Terrapins wrestling team, that idea was tough to swallow.
“I didn’t believe it,” said fifth-year senior Josh Asper, who is a two-time All-American and ACC champion. “I thought that it was completely ridiculous. Wrestling has been a part of the Olympics since the Olympics were made. But then I read up and understand that it was actually a real thing.”
McCoy had a similar reaction, only the announcement hit a little closer to home for him.
The fifth-year coach is among the world’s elite athletes who can call themselves Olympians. McCoy made two Olympic appearances at 286 pounds, taking fifth place at the 2000 Games in Sydney and seventh place at the 2004 Games in Athens.
“It was a disappointing announcement,” McCoy said. “There was shock. There was awe. But then right after that it was about ‘what are we going to do about it? They made their recommendation, and we can’t change that. Now, we have to move forward.’”
And McCoy is in a position to make some noise on a national and global scale about the removal of the sport that has become his life.
He has a hand in virtually every level of wrestling across the country. Not only does McCoy coach the Terps, but he also runs summer camps in College Park teaching wrestlers aging from 5 to 18 years old. And in September, McCoy was voted to the USA Wrestling Board of Directors, where he serves as the board’s only active Division I head coach.
“I am going to do everything I can with all of my resources to make sure that wrestling stays in the Olympics,” McCoy said. “I will influence. I will educate. And we’re trying to get in touch with as many people, international federations and media members and really sing the praises of why wrestling is important.”
As a staple in U.S. wrestling — he’s been competing for U.S. national teams since 1990 — McCoy understands better than anyone the immense positive influence Olympic wrestling has on the sport’s youth programs and its popularity.
“Everything is trickle-down from the Olympics in our sport,” he said. “All of the funding to USA Wrestling is based off of Olympic medals. And if there are no medals to be won, then that funding will be decreased. That minimizes the opportunity for these guys to have exposure at the highest level. Whether or not you want to be an Olympic champion growing up, the Olympic champions are the ones who set the bar for your teammate, your coach or your mentor.”
All hope is not lost, though. The Olympic Committee could reverse its decision in May, when it will consider a 26th sport to add for the 2020 Games. The wrestling community must introduce its sport as a contender for that 26th spot, and a final decision will be made in September.
Until then, it’s all about publicity. A petition to save wrestling as an Olympic sport on change.org has more than 60,000 signatures and a “Keep Wrestling in the Olympics” Facebook page created by USA Wrestling has almost 100,000 “likes.”
But the possibility still exists that young wrestlers around the world will no longer have an ultimate prize to call their own.
“I don’t think it will be eliminated, and I certainly hope it doesn’t,” Asper said. “But there’s still a chance that it could be. And that would be absolutely terrible.”
The wrestling community has McCoy on its side, though.
And if the International Olympic Committee thinks the two-time Olympian will simply step back and watch his sport die, then they must not know much about wrestling.
Because wrestlers will scratch, claw, battle and fight until the clock shows triple zeros.
“It’s bigger than wrestling in the United States. It’s bigger than an NCAA championship. It’s bigger than a state championship,” McCoy said. “Because wrestling at the Olympic stage has opened the door for all those other things.”