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US Men's Freestyle Wrestlers Optimistic About Medal Chances

The Olympic men's freestyle wrestling competition begins Tuesday. VOA Sports Editor Parke Brewer reports from Beijing that the United States has a young team, but is optimistic for good results.

The United States is hoping it can improve on its results of only one bronze medal in men's Greco-Roman wrestling (no holds below the waist) and one bronze in women's freestyle wrestling at these Olympics.

The Americans qualified athletes in six of the seven weight categories in men's freestyle wrestling, but got a break when a Bulgarian got injured in the 60-kilogram division. U.S. wrestler Mike Zadick, a silver medalist at the World Championships two years ago, was awarded the spot.

U.S. coach Kevin Jackson, a former Olympic champion, told VOA Sports his team is young - with only one member from the 2004 team - but he does not see that as a disadvantage.

"The thing about it is we always perform better the first time when we're at the world championships or Olympic Games," Jackson said. "We've had more world or Olympic champions in their first time in international competitions like this, and so this team is going to be exciting to watch. I know they're going to go out there and wrestle hard. I know they're going to go out there and scrap. The key is, are they able to perform in certain situations when that performance is needed?"

Jackson added that he truly believes his team is good enough to win medals in every weight class because they have previously competed against the world's top wrestlers in other international events.

"They're not just saying that they're capable just to say it," Jackson. "They've seen it. They've experienced it. They've wrestled against the best guys. Now it's up to them to capitalize on those must-win positions."

Coach Jackson said there is no doubt that, overall, the Russian team is the favorite. He knows them well, and they know him well.

"The Russians, they have a sense of arrogance about them," Jackson noted. "I mean they had six world champions last year and they walk with their head above the clouds and their shoulders thrust back. And they really want to stick it in your face in a sense. And I've spent a lot of time with them, going overseas, from competing with them to coaching in events. And they put us in a tough situation, because they'll actually come up to me and say, 'where is your gold medal going to come from?' Who's going to win a gold medal for the United States?'"

Jackson said Iran should also have a strong team.

He also told VOA he enjoys taking his team for meets in Iran because of how popular the sport is there.

"One time an Iranian told me that, 'our country, we focus on wrestling, and our number-one sport is wrestling," he said. "Soccer is number two, and it's huge, but wrestling is our heart and our passion. And we don't wrestle for the medal, we wrestle for the man.' And what that told me is that the honor comes in the competition or the training, or everything that wrestlers have to go through to be the best, as opposed to winning the medal."

Besides the United States, Russia and Iran, the other countries that qualified freestyle wrestlers in all seven Olympic weight classes are Azerbaijan, Cuba and Turkey.