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Wrestling with past

With a heavy heart, Daniel Cormier out for gold

By WAYNE COFFEY

DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

The sun is high and the sky is blue and Daniel Cormier is near the corner of Church and Cortlandt Streets, his thick, muscled body pressed against a chain-link fence at Ground Zero.

Cormier was in Colorado Springs, at the Olympic Training Center, when terrorists took down the towers. Now he's making his first visit to the city, wearing a red "I Love NY" hat, seeing the massive hole in person, identifying with the heartache in a way that only someone who's had his own can.

"It's sad, man," Cormier says. "So much suffering, so much loss." He pauses and looks away. "So much for the families to deal with."

Daniel Cormier, 24, of Layafette, La., is the national freestyle wrestling champion at 211-1/2 pounds. Beginning tomorrow at the Garden, he will go after his first international title at the World Championships of Freestyle Wrestling.

Should he win the gold medal Sunday night, it will come exactly three months after his 3-1/2-month-old daughter, Kaedyn Imri Cormier, died in an automobile accident in central Texas. It happened on Interstate 35, north of Austin, on the afternoon of June 14, the Honda Accord the baby was in getting rear-ended by an 18-wheeler.

"I've dealt with a lot in my life," Cormier says. "But this is the worst thing in the world."

Cormier, indeed, has had more than his share of loss. His father, Joseph Cormier Jr., was shot to death on Thanksgiving Day, 1986, when Daniel was seven. During Daniel's junior year in high school a close friend and football teammate died in a car wreck on the way home from a game. A year later a cousin died in another automobile accident.

Cormier moved to Stillwater, Okla., and became a standout wrestler for Oklahoma State.

In his senior year, 2001, his good friend, Daniel Lawson, was among the victims in the plane crash involving the Oklahoma State basketball team.

Still, nothing could prepare Cormier for the anguish that has overtaken him this summer.

Kaedyn Imri was born March 6 to Carolyn Flowers, a former Oklahoma State track and field athlete, and Cormier's ex-girlfriend. Heading from Austin to her family home in Killeen, Tex., Flowers was driving a car with a malfunctioning air conditioner. She decided to let the baby ride in the Honda being driven by a friend, who was accompanied by another friend.

The baby was strapped in a car seat, facing backward - the proper installation for an infant. The two cars were traveling together, but were briefly separated and Flowers had to stop for gas. It was early afternoon. Flowers called her friend's cell phone.

There was no answer. She kept calling. Nothing. Several hours passed. Flowers called Cormier and told him she was worried. He tried to reassure her. She kept waiting.

Finally a state police officer pulled into the station. Carolyn Flowers asked him for help. When she told him her name, the officer said, "We've been looking for you."

Her two friends suffered significant injuries in the accident, but nothing critical. The impact was violent. The child had no chance.

Cormier, who had been training for the world team trials and the Pan Am Games, spent the next six days in Killeen. He asked USA Wrestling officials to be excused from the world trials the following week. After three weeks away, he wanted to get back on the mat. He thought it would be good for him. He resumed training and defeated Dean Morrison, of Copiague, L.I., in a special wrestle-off to determine who would represent the U.S. at 211½ at the Pan Am Games in Santo Domingo, and at the world championships here.

John Smith was Cormier's coach at Oklahoma State, and continues to work with him.

"It has been his will to do something special, and maybe even to do something special for his daughter, that has helped him get through this," Smith says. "For him to be here, and to have an opportunity to win a world championship is a credit to him."

Cormier says he has never succumbed to self-pity, never asked, "Why me?" What would that accomplish? He immerses himself in training, pulling weight, working on his lower-body attacks, keeping to his wrestling rituals.

"There was nothing anyone could say or do to make him feel better," says Jamill Kelly, a close friend and former Oklahoma State teammate who will be competing at 145½ pounds this weekend. "He mourned, and he did what he had to do, but he also knew what he had to do for himself."

Cormier was an all-state linebacker with 4.5 speed and a scholarship offer from LSU coming out of high school, but preferred wrestling because he likes relying on himself, being independent, having to come through on his own. The tragedy has brought a new depth to his perspective.

"It makes you open your eyes," he says. "Wrestling is a hard sport, but it's only a sport. Nothing I do in wrestling can be as hard as the last three months of my life."

Cormier's wife, Robin, and mother, Audrey, will fly in today and root him on in the worlds, which were going to be at the Garden in September, 2001, until the planes hit the World Trade Center, two years ago today. He says they've given him much strength and that it will be great to have them here.

Sitting on a bus carrying a dozen U.S. wrestlers back uptown from Ground Zero, Daniel Cormier looks out the window for awhile. He talks about how much it would mean to win a gold medal this weekend. He feels fit and strong, and when he takes the Garden mat, Daniel Cormier knows he will not be alone.

"My little girl's in heaven," he says. "She's my angel, and I can draw from that."

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