ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Army News Service, Sept. 1, 2009) -- Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler Dremiel Byers recently joined the ranks of senior NCOs with his promotion to sergeant first class, and is preparing to represent the Army on Team USA at the 2009 World Wrestling Championships, scheduled for Sept. 21-27 in Herning, Denmark.
"A senior NCO can really take the guys to a higher level on the military side," said the Army's World-Class Athlete Program wrestling coach Staff Sgt. Shon Lewis, who also is among the U.S. contingent headed to Denmark. "As a staff sergeant, you can walk some things through. Of course, the more rank you get, the farther you can walk with it, so that's going to be huge for the wrestling team."
Byers has been walking the walk on wrestling mats for the past decade. He reiterated his primary purpose at so many international tournaments that it has become his personal working mantra:
"Get my hand raised," Byers says, "and our song played."
A world champion in 2002, Byers helped Team USA win its only Greco-Roman team title in the history of amateur wrestling at the 2007 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. He knows the spine-tingling sensation of hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played on foreign soil while watching the Stars & Stripes get hoisted to the rafters. He intends to hear it again.
Byers has been wrestling in and out of the shadow of two-time Olympic medalist Rulon Gardner, who posted the wrestling upset of the century at the 2000 Sydney Games against Russian legend Alexandre Karaline, who had not lost a match in 13 years. Gardner also turned the tables on slightly-favored Byers at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Indianapolis, Ind., which left Byers serving as Gardner's training partner that summer in Athens, Greece.
"I benefited from battling Rulon for so many years," Byers said. "When I went with him to Athens to be his training partner, all the pressure was off of me. All I had to do was help him. I was watching and still learning. I saw how badly he wanted it and how badly I wanted it for him. He didn't win a gold medal, but a bronze. He touched the podium and I saw that."
Three years later, Byers claimed Team USA's Greco-Roman heavyweight spot for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he finished a disappointing seventh. Byers then vowed to continue wrestling toward London, where he fully expects in 2012 to honor a promise he made long ago to his late grandfather, Theodore.
"Not accomplishing something for someone you love is a thorn in your side," Byers said. "It bothers you. I think about it every day. That's something that has to happen, and that's why I'm still going."
In 2002, he beamed from atop the podium in Athens, Greece, where he captured a gold medal as the first African-American and fourth member of Team USA ever to win a Greco-Roman crown at the World Wrestling Championships.
"The whole year in itself led up to it," Byers said of the best wrestling run of his life. "A lot of things changed in my wrestling. Rulon Gardner's (snowmobiling) accident left the door open for me to get a whole lot more matches in. I had more world tours and had a great opportunity to see what was out there."
Along the way, Byers kept landing atop podiums.
"I stole a few moves from some little guys around the world, and by the time I showed up at the World Championships, there was nothing there I hadn't already seen," Byers said. "Once the wrestling started, I was totally in the zone and ready to go. Whenever someone would happen to score a point, it didn't matter because I knew there were too many areas for me to get it back. And it worked out.
"I got it back, and we got our song played at the end."
For his efforts, Byers earned the Army's 2002 Male Athlete of the Year honors and received a similar award from the United States Olympic Committee.
Byers defeated Hungary's Deke Bardois in the 264.5-pound Greco-Roman finale of the 2002 World Wrestling Championships.
"Finally," Byers thought as he climbed atop the podium in Greece. "Everything I'd been hearing about my wrestling ability and the potential people saw in me, maybe they were right. I really believe that it was something great that happened on the way to something better."
Seven years later, Byers, an eight-time national champion, is set to take on the best Greco-Roman heavyweights Sept. 27 at the World Wrestling Championships. At age 35, Byers will be the wily veteran on a U.S. team he expects will surprise wrestling aficionados around the globe.
"I'm getting older. It's getting harder. But I still know that I can get it done," Byers said. "Once you're number one, you want to stay number one. You want to let them know, I'm number one, and this is what number one does, and this is what it feels like.
"Going to the Olympics opened my eyes. It is a small tournament and there's so much potential for a clash of styles. The guy I lost to, I don't remember him ever scoring. For things to play out that way, my hat's off to him, but I'm still looking at it like there's no room for mistakes. There's no room for me to wait until the last 25 seconds and then initiate my gut wrench. It's got to be, 'I'm here to do this. I'm attacking from the first whistle to the last.'
"On so many occasions, there's room to be the good guy and just wait for your opening. Nah, man, you've got to go get it. When there's a guy that you're evenly matched against, yeah, OK, you can be cautious, but in time - look what happened. Now I see. It's a really, really small tournament. There are only 20 countries there. I learned so much just from watching the number of people who showed up, who lost, who won, and what was really going on."
The world championships, on the other hand, are wide open.
"There are near 70 countries in most cases," Byers explained. "There's a greater wild-card factor and a greater potential for all of the threats to be on one side (of the bracket). That happened in 2007. The Lithuanian came up to me and he was laughing and saying, 'Hey, all you good guys are on one side. Ha-ha.' He was so happy with that. Then he got put out of the tournament, but the next year he wins a bronze medal at the Olympics.
"I ran into him in Slovenia this year and his chest was swollen and poked out and he's confident and doing arrogant stuff like putting his arm in the air and daring me to take a walk and stuff, and I thought: 'A bronze medal will do all that to you, huh'' Let me remind you who I am. That's another thing, I've got to remind them all who I am, and what I represent, and where I'm from..."
"Something special happened off what I did in Baku (struck bronze at the 2007 World Championships). I appreciate the fact that I was part of the first U.S. team ever to win a world championship, but it still hurts," Byers said of another potential gold medal that slipped from his grasp. "If you're not doing this to be number one, you're just hoping and wishing."
Byers said his days of hoping and wishing are history.
"Now, I've got to carry all those ifs," he said. "I'm going to stuff them all in my singlet - if, if, if - and I'm going to turn them into do. Just do it. That's the thing that gets me now because I can see it. The older I get, I can see the mistakes I make as I'm making them and I say, 'Why are you doing this' Wake up. Wake up.'"
Byers realized that again this summer in Baku, where he settled for a silver medal after losing to Iranian Masoud Hashemzadeh in the finals of the Heydar Aliyev Gold Grand Prix tournament. After waiting nearly four hours for his final match, Byers admittedly walked onto the mat lacking focus.
"I was a little lackadaisical and thinking 'this guy didn't do anything in the tournament so I'm going to be cool, calm and collective.' Then I'm like, 'this guy is spinning off, so give him something and see what he does with it.' And I gave him something, and this dude turned into a man all of a sudden - a real man. And then I'm like, 'Whoa, whoa, I'm in a match now.' And then he scores - with my move. I'm like, 'Oh, no.' Then instead of just waking up and getting it, I'm like, 'OK, yeah, that was my fault.'
"The next period, I go back into it, and the next thing you know, he gets another point. And I'm like, 'Ah, man, I'm in trouble here.' Then when I just go to get it, he gets on his skates and starts running. But there's a difference - he's running with a point while he's winning. You can look like any punk you want to on your own terms if you've got a point, and in the end, you get your hand raised. The only story that's going to be told is that you won.
"That's what I'm carrying on the mat with me now. I can't leave any wrongs for these guys because there are always these wild-card guys, just like in the Olympics and just like in Baku, who get through. I think I might be guilty of looking past these guys, but I'm ready for them now."
It is time for Byers to resort to his bone-crushing ways of the days when fellow Soldiers chanted 'Bam, bam, boom!' every time he walked onto the mat. Byers said he wasn't in the greatest of shape then, therefore he had a sense of urgency to end matches quickly, before he got winded. Now he's wiser, and says he's "found that lung I never had."
Byers has been working out at Fort Carson, Colo., with German Nico Schmidt, a big, strong 30-year-old who reminded him that wrestling is a violent sport, that aggression is required, that no holds are barred, and no opponents are friends.
"I have to go back to who I am and what I do," Byers said. "That crash gut wrench is the most violent thing that I have in my arsenal. ... A lot of these moves, when I do them, I want to see something happen to this guy when I execute it all the way through. When I split this guy in the chest with my head, I want to see my head come out his back - I want to go right through him. When I body-lock this guy, I want him to find the basement in the mat. When I lift and throw, I want to see him crawl up out of the mat.
"When I get back to executing moves that way - and that's what I'm thinking I'm doing when I'm doing it - it usually works. Sometimes, it's just a matter of this guy is going to find a way to let me win, I know it."
The key is to make every move count, and never let up.
"Yeah, just go do it," Byers agreed. "Do only what I'm good at."
Skeptics wonder what makes Byers think he can remain atop the U.S. heavyweight division until the 2012 Olympics in London, when he will be 37 years old.
"These young guys, I know that they are a different breed," he said. "I will never knock them for who they are, their abilities, their performance or anything, because you never want to give a guy a reason. At the same time, I miss having a threat in practice. And if I can't have that, then I'm going to be that. I am that. Eventually, they'll get it."
Byers is going to Denmark to get his, and he vows to keep coming back until someone in America knocks him off.
"There's this thing about crawling back to the center and being ready to go out there and fight," he said. "I've got to be that guy. Some people say take off and take it easy, but I'm always hungry for the competition. I can't wait to get back to the competition.
"Generally, I don't look back," concluded Byers, who contends that he never will again. "I'm representing the Army and my coaches do a good job of reminding me that people are counting on me to get it done, and why we're doing this. I've got to stick around until the next Olympic Games. I feel like I can win that one."
For this year, however, another world championship would suffice.
"I'm going to go back over there and get a medal," Byers said. "And keep winning for the Army. I'm fortunate to be a part of the World Class Athlete Program. There are people out there with the same MOS that I have - 92 Yankee - and those guys are in Iraq and Afghanistan. The least I can do is win for them."
(Tim Hipps writes for the Family and MWR Command.)