Photo: Staff Sgt. Dremiel Byers defeats U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program teammate Spc. Tim Taylor in the finals of the 264.5-pound Greco-Roman division of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team wrestling trials June 15, 2008, in Las Vegas. Byers won the best-of-three series, 2-1, and earned a berth in the Summer Olympics, scheduled for Aug. 8-24 in Beijing. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command
Three other soldiers reached the finals of their respective weight classes but fell short of earning spots on the U.S. Olympic Team during the three-day tournament at the University of Nevada Las Vegas' Thomas and Mack Center.
Byers, the 2002 Greco-Roman heavyweight world champion, defeated Taylor in their first match, 1-1, 4-0, but lost the second bout of their best-of-three series, 2-5, 2-1, 1-1.
"Taylor is pretty good at being a wall when he wants to," said Byers, 33, a native of Kings Mountain, N.C., who is stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., where he trains daily with Taylor. "I really don't have any tricks for him. He knows what I'm going to do every time.
"He's a fast learner, a quick study, and his body's coming together," Byers said of Taylor, a 2007 armed forces champion who finished second in the U.S. nationals and third in the U.S. World Team trials last year. "That first match, I saw it. And in that second match, I really saw it – this guy is coming, and he's defending hard. I knew it was time to take it up a notch and do what I'm supposed to do."
In the decisive third match, Byers dominated the first period, 4-0. In the second period, he scored five points with a high-amplitude throw of Taylor that ended the match and tournament in dramatic fashion.
"I just felt that if I worked my under hooks it would pay off, and right there in a clutch moment, it paid off – just like I had hoped," said Byers, who was interviewed by his former training partner and archrival, MSNBC wrestling analyst Rulon Gardner, who struck Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games and bronze in the 2004 Athens Games.
"It's been a long road. It's been a real long road," said Byers, who thanked a long list of supporters -- including All-Army coach Staff Sgt. Shon Lewis -- who helped him along the way. "Some of it was luck, and a lot of it was hard work. I'm very fortunate to be here right now. I think life starts now."
Byers said he plans to fulfill the promise of winning an Olympic medal for his late grandfather, Theodore, in Beijing in August.
"He probably would have asked me why I lost that one match," said Byers, who won his spot on the Olympic team on Father's Day. "Coming out that tunnel, and every time I looked up, I said, 'I know you're watching. I know you're watching.' I wish he could be here."
Taylor made sure soldiers would be represented on the U.S. Olympic Team by reaching the 264.5-pound finals against Byers with a 3-0, 0-3, 1-1 victory over Russ Davie of New York Athletic Club.
"I knew whoever won the first period was winning the match, regardless of what happened," said Taylor, 25. "I had to get the first period -- got the first period. Tried to stand up in the second period and he kept me down, so I just stopped moving. Third period, same situation: if I don't get turned, I win.
"Coach has been always saying that you have to have heart with 30 seconds left to win the match," said Taylor, a proud, new father of 3-month-old Makyla Aleece Taylor. "Being Father's Day, I was thinking about her. Reached down, thought about her, stood up -- and once I stood up, there was no way he was getting a point."
Several other soldiers competed gamely in the Olympic Trials.
The World Class Athlete Program's Spc. Aaron Sieracki wrestled through longtime nemesis Jacob Clark, a former Marine, and WCAP teammate Sgt. Brad Ahearn, who grappled with a broken hand, before losing 6-0, 3-0 in the 84-kilogram Greco-Roman finals to New York Athletic Club's Brad Vering, a two-time Olympian and four-time World Team member.
"I wrestled well, overall -- just wish I had stepped it up a little more for the finals," Sieracki said. "I just made a couple of mistakes, and if you make a mistake here, it's going to cost you."
Nothing stung Sieracki, however, quite like seeing his older brother, Keith, leave his boots on the mat, signaling the end of a brilliant Army wrestling career.
"Wow, that's tough to talk about," said Aaron, who buried his head in his sweatshirt to absorb the tears of disbelief. "He's the one who drove me. He's why I'm where I'm at. I can't believe he's retiring. It just won't be the same without him."
Staff Sgt. Keith Sieracki, an Olympic Trials winner in 2000 and 2004, lost to New York Athletic Club's Cheney Haight in the 74-kilogram Greco finale of the challenge tournament. Walking off the mat for the final time gave Sieracki a bittersweet sense of relief.
"I was hoping to do it at the Olympics, but I knew this was my last go-around," Keith said. "If you don't have the fire, mentally, it's hard -- you're on auto-pilot. I gave it everything I had. I just didn't have anything left. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to make the Olympic team, but when it's all said and done, I've been in the top two [in the United States] for the last 13 years.
"The Army has given me the opportunity to wrestle this long. I can't say enough good things about the Army. I never in my life thought I would get such a privilege. I get to be a soldier and I get to wrestle for the Army and honor these guys. It's amazing."
Sieracki lost his 2000 Olympic spot in a legal battle with Matt Lindland, whom Keith defeated on the mat in the U.S. Olympic Trials at Reunion Arena in Dallas. He also made the 2004 team that failed to qualify the weight class for the Athens Games.
"Yep, I'm [the answer to] a trivia question," said Sieracki, 36, an 18-year Army veteran who will be remembered as a two-time U.S. Olympic Team member who never graced a mat in the Games. "But now the pressure is gone. I'm so tired of carrying that weight on my shoulders, of hearing, 'This is your year.'"
World Class Athlete Staff Sgt. Glenn Garrison made it to the 60-kilogram Greco-Roman finals, but lost back-to-back matches to New York Athletic Club's Joe Betterman.
"I feel like I wrestled good in my last match -- thought I took it to him," said Garrison, 34, a five-time armed forces champion from Portland, Ore. "In my first match, I made a couple of mistakes that really cost me. I just didn't come out hard enough."
WCAP's Pfc. Jeremiah Davis finished third in the same weight class with a 6-4, 6-0 consolation victory over C.C. Fisher.
WCAP's Spc. Faruk Sahin, 32, a two-time Turkish national champion, lost 2-3, 7-5, 3-0 to Minnesota Storm's Jake Deitchler in the 66-kilogram Greco finals. Sahin was leading 5-0 in the second period before the bottom fell out.
"I guess I wasn't pumped up enough to win, but that was a great match," Sahin said. "He just goes, goes, goes, goes -- that's his advantage -- but I did my best. I'm happy with my performance. Now, I'll get ready for the CISM World Championships." The International Military Sports Council is known by its French acronym, CISM.
En route to his Olympic Trials finale, Sahin eliminated 2004 Olympian and All-Army teammate Sgt. Oscar Wood from the challenge tournament semifinals.
"He is the epitome of a warrior," Lewis said of Wood, who defeated Deitchler, 8-0, 8-0, earlier this year at the Sunkist Invitational. "He just leaves it all on the mat. We have a little saying that some people wrestle to the death and some people are scared to death. He's definitely a wrestle-to-the-death kind of guy. Every single time, he brings it, and I don't know what it is about the Olympic Trials, but he wrestled his butt off. I was getting excited for him to be a back-to-back finalist in the Olympic Trials."
WCAP's Staff Sgt. Marcel Cooper, 37, also left his boots on the mat after losing to Gator Wrestling Club's Harry Lester in a Greco-Roman 66-kilo consolation bout. This was Cooper's second retirement from the sport.
"I left my shoes out there four years ago at this same tournament," said Cooper, who then was wrestling for the Marines. "I just have too many injuries. My body can't hold up any more. I've been doing this for a long time. Guys are just younger and stronger. I just can't compete at that level no more. That's not the way I wanted to go out, but I have no excuses. I had a good career.
"It's time to let it go," added Cooper, who began wrestling at age 5. "I have a bunch of surgeries I've got to get. My body was really telling me four years ago to let it go. But I have no complaints. I'd do it all over again. I gave it my best, but I want to be able to walk after all this is over."
Lewis, a 13-time armed forces champion on the mat, paid Cooper an ultimate compliment.
"We went at it several times, and I always had utmost respect for him because he was one of the only guys I knew in the United States who could stop my gut wrench," Lewis said.
Three soldiers competed in the women's freestyle tournament.
Sunkist Kids' 17-year-old Tatiana Padilla pinned WCAP's 1st Lt. Leigh Jaynes with 14 seconds remaining in a 55-kilogram freestyle semifinal.
"I just made a technical error," Jaynes said. "You need to be on your game at all times, and she stuck me in the last 20 seconds. It's heartbreaking, but she's a fighter, and I knew better to tie up with somebody who didn't have anything to lose at that point."
In the same weight class, 2nd Lt. Tina George, a two-time world silver medalist and seven-time U.S. World Team member, lost to Gator Wrestling Club's Sally Roberts in the semifinals before wrestling back to take third place with a consolation victory over GWC's Sharon Jacobson.
WCAP's Sgt. Iris Smith, a 2005 world champion and four-time U.S. Nationals champ, lost 1-0, 0-2, 3-0 in the women's 72-kilo challenge tournament semis to NYAC's Kristie Marano, a two-time world champ and nine-time world medalist, the most among U.S. women. Marano prevailed with a takedown in the final 20 seconds of the match.
"Iris definitely had the momentum going, and Kristie was tired," Lewis said. "That takedown really was a tough one for me. I expect my world champions to get it done, but when you lose, you can't say anything but we've got to get better."
Lewis said he realizes the end is near for a few more All-Army wrestlers.
"The gladiators are going to get moved out by the younger gladiators one day, and that's really what's happening," he said. "Over my 20-plus-year career in wrestling, I have never seen so many people retire at the same tournament. It's a changing of the guard, and that's the way it's supposed to be."
Author Tim Hipps works in the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command Public Affairs Office.