By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Since first grappling on the wrestling mat, Windsor High’s Perez Perez has dreamed of Olympic gold.
Unless he can make the 2016 Games, Perez — already one of California’s top prep wrestlers at 106 pounds — may not have a shot at wrestling’s greatest competition.
“My dream is to train with the best and go to the Olympics. If you want to be the best, the Olympics is pretty much it,” Perez said following practice Wednesday.
An Olympic sport since the inaugural modern games more than a century ago, wrestling faces elimination under an International Olympic Committee decision to drop the sport from the 2020 Games.
Supporters worldwide are scrambling to keep the ancient sport in the Olympics. Wrestling now is among a handful to be considered for one open spot in the 2020 Games.
“It’s a wakeup call,” said SRJC wrestling coach Jake Fitzpatrick, who received an email from USA Wrestling vowing to keep the sport in the Olympics.
“The Olympics is a dream for wrestlers,” Fitzpatrick said. “High school and college programs are the feeder to the Olympic team. These athletes want to be the best and that is the Olympics.”
Coaches and athletes were stunned by the decision. Wrestling is as popular as ever in the United States, and a revered sport in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, they contend.
Yet wrestling does not garner primetime TV coverage at the Olympics. Factors considered by the IOC executive board in dropping wrestling included TV ratings, ticket sales, doping concerns, global participation and popularity.
“You always know it’s political. It really comes down to television ratings and what they can make money on,” said Healdsburg coach Scott Weidemier. “You would think wrestling would be sacred.”
Wrestling indeed is a hallowed sport for those who train to become, pound-for-pound, the toughest athletes and their equally demanding coaches.
“We’re the hardest-working athletes out there,” said Healdsburg High’s Dominic Merlo, one of the North Coast Section’s top 160 pound wrestlers. “You really become proud of the success you get from hard work.”
For Empire prep wrestlers, months of training will reach a peak in coming weeks, beginning with league meets this weekend. The NCS finals follow with the California Interscholastic Federation championships capping the season.
“The thing about wrestling is that anybody can do as well as they want,” said Windsor coach Rich Carnation. “The (IOC’s) decision is discouraging because the Olympics is an avenue for athletes to say they’re the best of the best.”
Following college wrestlers on Facebook and watching webcasts of college meets, Merlo is aware of their desire to reach the Olympics.
“They’re always talking about the Olympics and always trying for the games,” he said.
Despite disappointment in the decision to drop wrestling from the Olympics, Empire prep wrestlers remain driven to keep the sport alive in the region’s practice rooms and gyms.
“I know I have to train a lot more to reach the Olympics. It starts right here in this room,” said Logan Fore, a top section wrestler at 126 pounds for Windsor.
Looking to continue wrestling at SRJC next year, Fore, like many Empire grapplers, began in one of the region’s high school-based clubs. More than a decade later, his passion for the sport is deep.
“What keeps you going is there’s always someone better than you,” Fore said.
After going winless at the state meet last season, Perez aims for a top finish this year. Only a junior, he could be one of the Empire’s best ever.
“I look forward to wrestling in college and the Olympics; the Olympics is like the pros,” Perez said. “When you think of wrestling in the Olympics, it’s been around forever.”