U.S. Wrestling Team Heads to Tourney in Iran

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

Early yesterday morning, 12 wrestlers woke up and finished packing for what they regarded as a standard business trip. They flew individually to Washington, where they met at the U.S. State Department for an extended debriefing. After dark, the men flew to Germany, where they expected to endure another long layover and then depart for Dubai. They planned to spend two days there, training and acclimating to the time change, before flying to their final destination: Iran.

For any other team, this politically significant trip to the Middle East might create some distraction. For USA Wrestling, itineraries like this have practically become routine.

The twelve athletes and eight administrators who left for the prestigious Takhti Cup in southern Iran said yesterday that they considered their trip neither momentous nor risky. In the last decade, USA Wrestling has competed in Iran six times. It's a competitive necessity, wrestlers said.

"To be the best, you have to wrestle the best -- and a lot of the best guys in the world are over there," said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. "We want to go in there and win. That's it. That's the goal."

Late yesterday afternoon, the top wrestlers in the United States sat around a long wooden table at the State Department and tried to assess their competition at the Takhti Cup. They knew they would wrestle top talent from Russia and Iran. But who, exactly? Had Iran's guy at 60-kilos retired? Was their 80-kilo star still hurt?

"Honestly, we don't really know who we're going to be getting," said Terry Brands, the national coach. "We're going over there to find out."

The United States placed third, behind Russia and Iran, at the 2006 World Championships in September; USA Wrestling hasn't seen Iranian grapplers since. The two countries, long-time wrestling rivals, expect to compete for gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but they're relatively unfamiliar with one another. This trip to the Takhti Cup will function partly as a scouting mission, Brands said.

The two countries are evenly matched because each has mastered a distinctive style. Iranian wrestlers are technicians who like to work slowly. They wait for opponents to flail toward them and then capitalize on mistakes. Americans, meanwhile, move frenetically. For the Takhti Cup, Brands selected a team of wrestlers who will push the action and rely on aerobic stamina to outlast opponents.

"They're smarter than us," Brands said. "We're more on them, using our conditioning, our good old work ethic. That's our philosophy and we believe in it. . . . This is a great chance for us to see how it goes against them, get the video, break it down and make a good plan for 2008."

USA Wrestling finalized this trip just two weeks ago, and it only publicly released its plans yesterday. Two wrestlers on the team -- Ramico Blackmon and Andy Hrovat -- have already competed once in Iran. Blackmon told his teammates during the last two weeks that, in Iran, wrestlers are treated well and guarded safely. "It's great," Blackmon said. "There's nothing for you to worry about except wrestling."

Jared Frayer's family was less single-minded. Frayer, who wrestles at 66 kilos, warned his parents that he might travel to Iran last month. Since then, Frayer said, his mother has "just been praying and worrying. Praying a lot."

Frayer explained to his parents that he felt it was a career necessity to wrestle in Iran. Fans pack the country's large arenas for tournaments, and wrestling is considered the national sport. Even American grapplers are treated like stars, Frayer said.

"I told them I had to go," Frayer said. "I think now they're happy for me. I mean, it's Iran! That's the place I've always wanted to go."

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