If not for wrestling, Mike Kelly never would have experienced his Rocky moment in 2010 in Krakow, Poland.
“Here I am at this tournament,” said Kelly, a five-time grappling world medal winner who lives in Hebron. “I’m 37 years old. I’m across the mat from a 22-year-old Russian. And we’re going to get after it. And I’m wrestling for Team USA.”
And Kelly was on Cloud Nine. No, make that Cloud 10.
“I wish all of my buddies from high school could have seen it,” said Kelly, now 39. “This was all of our dream. We played this out a million times.”
The old-guy American won, by the way.
Now, the entire world of wrestling needs to come together for its biggest match yet.
On Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the International Olympic Committee will meet to decide the future of wrestling. The IOC cut wrestling from its core sports in February, but this weekend’s meeting offers a second chance to save the pinnacle event of the age-old sport, which is competing with squash and a combined bid from baseball and softball for a single spot in the 2020 Games.
Almost 6,000 miles north in McHenry County, high school wrestlers and coaches will be waiting and hoping the IOC makes the right decision. Because if you take away Olympic wrestling, then colleges could cut funding to their wrestling programs. And if colleges cut funding to their wrestling programs, then high school wrestlers could be out of luck when it comes to scholarships and other opportunities.
“As far as the ramifications of it,” Harvard wrestling coach Tim Haak said, “there’s no question there would be a trickle-down effect.”
Richmond-Burton wrestling coach Bret Wojcik agreed.
“It’s a big decision,” Wojcik said. “It could affect a lot of people.”
The IOC’s initial decision sent shockwaves through the wrestling community. Politics were at play, and somehow wrestling was tossed aside while sports such as badminton, canoeing, handball, table tennis and archery made the list.
The decision not to include wrestling caught almost everyone off guard, including Dan Loprieno, an Algonquin resident and the head wrestling coach at Harper College. Loprieno said wrestling was more popular than ever at the youth level but would suffer a tremendous blow if the IOC did not reverse its decision.
“To be honest, it has really brought the wrestling community together,” Loprieno said. “It opened our eyes on the wrestling front that we need to do a little better job of getting the message out there. Because it is the truest form of the Olympic games.”
Besides, canoeing? Are you kidding?
“You go to Greece, and you see 1,000-year-old statues of guys grappling or wrestling,” Wojcik said. “You don’t see them playing ping pong.
“That’s what’s disheartening about this. It’s the world’s oldest sport, and they’re looking at shelving it for TV ratings.”
If that makes you angry and confused, imagine how Clay Guida feels. Before Guida became nationally known as a mixed martial artist in the UFC, he was a star wrestler for the Johnsburg Skyhawks.
“Sunday is make or break for the sport of wrestling, unfortunately,” Guida said. “It’s sad to say. It’s a disgrace that it would ever come down to this.”
How important was wrestling in Guida’s life?
Well, how much time do you have?
From his days as a young wrestler, Guida relishes every memory: The 5 a.m. alarm clocks buzzing in his ear. The two-hour trips downstate. The 8 a.m. weigh-ins. The tournaments that stretched for eight or nine hours as parents waited to cheer on those few precious matches featuring their kids.
Guida said the lessons from wrestling helped shape the rest of his life.
“Sometimes, life doesn’t go your way,” Guida said. “You’ve got to tough it out. Wrestling was that outlet for me, for my brother, for our friends. We could have gone down the wrong road.”
Kelly wrestled in the Marines before Guida helped to introduce him to grappling. Now, trophies from all over the world fill Kelly’s Hebron home.
In October, Kelly will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, to participate in the SportAccord World Combat Games. He hopes young wrestlers one day will have the opportunity to travel the world because of the sport, as he has had.
“It’s been my whole life,” Kelly said. “When you’ve done something your whole life, you don’t want to see it taken away. You want to see it advance.”
You want to see it in the Olympics, where it belongs.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.