A wrestler's quest
February 18, 2009
By Tim Hipps
After being eliminated from the quarterfinals of the Olympic Greco-Roman 120-kilogram wrestling tournament, Staff Sgt. Dremiel Byers vowed to continue his quest for the Olympic medal at the 2012 London Games.
"Today, I was supposed to be getting a medal for my grandfather," Byers said. "I guarantee if he was still alive, I would call him and tell him what happened today and he would probably say, 'Well, I won my bowling tournament,' whether he did it or not.
"I think about that. He wanted me to know one of us was winning, so I still owe him."
Byers opened the tournament in Beijing with a 1-0, 2-1 victory over Ukraine's Oleksandr Chernetskyi.
"I just came out and tried to work a few things and it worked out," Byers said. "I was able to score."
In his second match, Byers faced China's Deli Liu, who seemed even larger than a 6-foot-8 heavyweight with the support of the 'home crowd' packed inside the China Agricultural University Gymnasium.
"He was amped up," said Byers, who prevailed, 4-1, 1-1 and 1-1. "He's gotten a whole lot better. I think even bigger and stronger. His wrist is like the size of VCR tapes.
"It's his home country. A lot of honor is in your heart when you're wrestling in front of your people. You want to give them a medal because sometimes there are people out there who deserve it more than you. My hat's off to him. That's a tough loss for him and his home crowd. He brought it. He was really trying hard. I was just able to hold him off."
Sweden's Jalmar Sjoberg ended Byers' tournament with a 0-3, 1-1 and 1-1 victory that seemed to slip from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program Soldier's grasp.
"He came out real fast, so I was ready for it," Byers said. "I got out there and saw that he was feeling it just as much as I was. And my offense wasn't working for me in the end, like when I really needed to. I tried to hit that gut wrench as many times as I could, and it didn't pan out."
Byers, a Kings Mountain, N.C., native stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., quickly realized and admitted his shortcomings shortly after losing.
"In competitions like this, you're looking to see your soul out there gasping on the mat for air, and it didn't happen today," he said. "I walked off, I wasn't tired. I was like, 'Man, if I'm not tired, then I didn't do everything I should've done.'"
Late in both of the scoreless second and third periods between Byers and Sjoberg, coin flips determined which wrestler would start on top in par terre. The Swede benefited both times. Byers expended extra energy while defending from below. When he got his turn on top, Byers failed to turn Sjoberg, who scored one point on both occasions.
Byers, however, refused to use that as an excuse.
"If these rules were something that started last week, I would probably have a whole lot to say about it, but I've won some matches the same way," Byers said. "It's something we know. It's an occupational hazard, I guess, but we accept it the way it is."
Byers' working mantra for most of the past decade has been to "get my hand raised, and our song played" at international tournaments. He knows, however, that hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing on foreign soil while watching the Stars & Stripes getting hoisted to the rafters never comes easily.
Byers, a world champion in 2002, always has been one to successfully roll with the changes. He has wrestled out of the shadow of two-time heavyweight Olympic medalist Rulon Gardner, for whom Byers served as a training partner at the 2004 Athens Games.
"You've got to find something to keep you going," said Byers, a 6-foot-2 gentle giant off the mat who rarely complains.
"There's something in us that makes us keep going. It might be just drive, determination, American spirit, me and my background soldiering, I don't know, but there's just something in here that says it's never time to quit. We've got something we can accomplish here, so we're going to hit it hard these next four years and do everything we have to do."
Although he has been a contender for three U.S. Olympic teams, Byers, 33, was an Olympic rookie in Beijing. He learned a lot as the veteran wrestler on a young Team USA.
"Honestly, it's a lot smaller tournament than what I thought," Byers said. "And I could've brought a whole lot bigger fight. I'm kicking myself for that."
Even in defeat, Byers always maintains an uncanny sense of humor and commands utmost respect. He knows how to lose graciously, but he does not have to like it.
"You can't put a cap on the fight in an American's heart," Byers said. "We're just craving another chance now. This is just fuel for something bigger, and the only thing bigger is the next Olympics."
Tim Hipps works for FMWRC Public Affairs