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Cowboy up: Stillwater's three of a kind

By Jon Ackerman, NBCOlympics.com

When Eric Guerrero saunters into the auxiliary wrestling room in Oklahoma State's Gallagher-Iba Arena, he knows hours of daunting training await. Sure, another hour of sleep would have been nice, but Olympic glory doesn't find the lazy. Now, all he needs is a partner to share in the pain.

Soon enough, one arrives. And shortly thereafter, so does another. Then, in walks a two-time Olympic gold medalist who calls himself Coach.

That's the beauty of training for an Olympic wrestling competition as a graduate of Oklahoma State University: You're not alone.

Guerrero, Jamill Kelly and Daniel Cormier comprise three-sevenths of the men's freestyle team the U.S. will send to Athens this summer. All three still reside near the OSU campus in Stillwater, Okla., which is also home to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. And when not training with the rest of the U.S. team, they work with a familiar taskmaster -- OSU coach John Smith, a 2000 U.S. Olympic coach and one of the school's many Olympic gold medal-winners (1988 and '92).

Smith even has Guerrero, Kelly and Cormier helping him coach the Cowboys wrestling program, which owns more national titles (32) than any school in any other Division I sport.

Why? Success is infectious.

As Duke manufactures NBA players, and Miami produces NFL stars, OSU molds Olympic wrestlers. Since 1924, OSU has had a wrestler or coach in every Olympic Games. Of the 51 countries with Olympic wrestling medals, Oklahoma State -- with 12 golds, two silvers, and one bronze -- has a higher medal count than 33 of them.

"Instead of going off to training camp and seeing all new guys, you see Olympic guys everyday," says Cormier. "We train together every day, whereas Kerry (McCoy, the U.S. freestyle heavyweight) or anybody else, they may train with real good wrestlers. But not two other members of the Olympic team."

No place like Stillwater

Unlike Kelly and Cormier, who transferred to OSU, Guerrero was recruited by Smith out of high school. Guerrero had no doubts about grappling for OSU. The most decorated of the trio, he placed fifth at the NCAA Championships as a freshman before winning three consecutive titles at 133 lbs. from 1997-99.

"At the time (OSU coaches recruited me), they had 30 national titles," says the San Jose native, who will wrestle in Athens at 60 kg (132 lbs). "It's hard to compete with that. And it's hard to compete with the fact that John Smith was the head coach. I just knew it was the place for me."

It still is. Guerrero just completed his third season as OSU's strength and conditioning coach. While obtaining a degree in secondary education at the school, Guerrero met his wife Malia, whom he married in December 1999. The couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn.

And after Athens, Guerrero will return for his fourth year of coaching.

"(OSU) put me in a place I didn't necessarily expect to be," he says.

That place is Stillwater, not the Olympics. Because once a wrestler pulls on an OSU wrestling uniform, the Olympics don't seem so far-fetched.

"I don't think it was a big shock," says Kelly, referring to the large Cowboy presence on the U.S. freestyle team. "We just always get nervous because you don't want to be that one who doesn't make it. You would think bad luck would fall upon one of us, but we've all been blessed to have this opportunity."

Kelly, who competes at 66kg (145.5 lbs), spent two years at Lassen Community College in northern California before catching Smith's eye. In 1996, his second year at Lassen, Kelly finished second at the Junior College Nationals. The Atwater, Calif., native has prospered since.

"The style I wrestle and try to emulate was the same as our coach, John Smith's," says Kelly. "It was kind of like a basketball player getting to play for Michael Jordan."

Cormier, born in Lafayette, La., also took the junior college route. The U.S. representative at 96kg (211.5 lbs), Cormier spent two years at Colby (Kan.) Junior College before transferring to Stillwater.

"Knowing that I wanted to wrestle after I got done with college," Cormier says, "and wanting the best opportunity to win a title in college, Oklahoma State was the place that I needed to go."

Cormier may not have won that title in college -- he was second in 2001 at 184 lbs. -- but training at OSU put him in prime position to claim a bigger honor: an Olympic medal. Cormier finished fifth at the 2003 World Championships, close enough to the medals to drive him.

And it wouldn't be a shock of Rulon Gardner-esque proportions if Guerrero or Kelly secures a medal in Athens, either. Regardless of what happens this summer, though, they all credit one place for getting them on an Olympic wrestling mat.

"Oklahoma State has had a great tradition of Olympians, and Olympic gold medalists," says Guerrero. "Right now, we're just trying to keep that tradition going. It's expected of the program."

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