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U.S. Olympian must wrestle with emotions -- and tragedy

By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer August 19, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The wrestling mat always was the place for U.S. Olympian Daniel Cormier to burn off aggression and transform a not-always-easy life.

More times than he liked, it also was a refuge for releasing sorrow.

At 25, Cormier has known an uncommon amount of tragedy, including the death of his infant daughter in an auto accident last year.

The adversity didn't prevent him from reaching the Olympics -- at times, he turned it into motivation. But it took a lot of joy out of the journey.

When he was 7, his father, Joseph, was shot to death on Thanksgiving Day 1986 during an argument with an in-law. A few years later, a close friend was killed in a car accident, and so was a cousin. In college, he lost roommate Daniel Lawson and several other friends in the plane crash that killed 10 members of the Oklahoma State basketball team's traveling party.

``Sometimes I get way too emotional,'' said Cormier, the 211 1/2 -pounder on the U.S. freestyle team. ``You have to get back on the mat to concentrate.''

But when a tractor-trailer plowed into the back of the car carrying 3 1/2 -month-old daughter Kaedyn Imri, killing her instantly 14 months ago, not even wrestling could ease Cormier's sorrow.

For weeks, he hid behind closed doors and drawn curtains, missing the U.S. world team trials, unable to rid himself of the sadness or find the motivation to resume training.

Finally, after the trials ended, he requested and won a wrestle-off with trials winner Dean Morrison to make the U.S. team. He followed with a gold medal at the Pan Am Games, a fifth-place finish in the world championships and a victory at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Cormier is glad the Olympics are in Greece, not close to home. When the world championships were in New York, friends and family gathered to celebrate what they hoped would be a medal and to grieve Kaedyn's death.

``I let my off-the-mat experience seep into my wrestling, and while everything else was going on, I let my emotions run away,'' Cormier said. ``Here, I don't have the pressure to do so well, we're not on our home turf and everybody will be against us.''

Cormier, a former NCAA runnerup at Oklahoma State, tuned up for the Olympics two months ago by outscoring his two international opponents 21-1 in the Titan Games in Atlanta. Before leaving for Athens, he was presented the keys to the city of his hometown Lafayette, La., a ceremony he calls the proudest moment of his life outside of wrestling.

Cormier's career began there when his high school coach, Stephen ``Tank'' Lotief, saw him fighting on the school lawn and invited him to channel his strength and emotions onto the mat. He did, becoming a three-time state wrestling champion and a star linebacker at Northside High.

U.S. national team coach Kevin Jackson has been one of Cormier's biggest supporters and is certain Cormier has the talent to win a medal -- he's beaten two of the four men who finished above him in the world championships.

``He has the ability to win a gold medal,'' said Zeke Jones, one of the U.S. coaches.

In Athens, Cormier's main competition should come from two-time defending world champion Eldari Kurtanidze, who took bronze medals in different classes at the last two Olympics; former Iranian world champion Ali Reza Heidari, who lost to Kurtanidze in the last two world finals, and 2000 Olympic silver medalist Islam Baraimukov of Kazakhstan.

``It's been easier for me this year,'' said Cormier, who is joined by former Oklahoma State teammates Jamill Kelly and Eric Guerrero on the Olympic team. ``I haven't had to deal with all the stuff I had to deal with off the mat. I could concentrate on wrestling and the areas where I need to get better, and I've gotten better as the year has gone on.''

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