This is the second in a series of four vignettes here this week while I take a short hiatus from work.
Every now and then, I’m asked to name the most-memorable sporting events I’ve ever covered.
Some that leap to mind: Zach Johnson winning the Masters, Kurt Warner’s Super Bowl win, the Minnesota Twins’ 1991 World Series win over the Atlanta Braves, certain Iowa football games and Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa basketball games — it’s a long list.
One I would never leave out is the day current Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands won the Olympic gold medal in freestyling wrestling at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
First, the video of that match. Then, my account from that August day in Atlanta:
ATLANTA – Tom Brands picked the best time of his career to do his career-best wrestling.
Brands finished a near-flawless Olympic Games tournament with a 7-0 mastery of South Korea’s Jang Jae-Sung in the 136.5-pound gold-medal match Friday afternoon. The 28-year-old from Sheldon, Iowa, powered through the final and his two days of competition as if it were nothing harder than the Big Ten tourneys he won for the University of Iowa every year from 1989 to 1992.
A pro-United States sellout crowd of about 7,000 in the Georgia World Congress Center had its fingernails fully intact after the match. Brands eliminated suspense and Jae-Sung with haste.
Brands scored a one-point takedown at the 25-second mark and another before the first minute had elapsed. At 2:50, the three-time NCAA champion turned and threw the South Korean for three points and a 5-0 advantage.
As the fans chanted “USA! USA!” and stomped the auditorium’s metal bleachers, Brands continued controlling his 21-year-old foe. This was Jae-Sung’s first appearance in a world-level tourney, but he engineered a savvy 3-1 quarterfinal upset of 1995 world champion Elbrus Tedeyev of Ukraine, who went on to win the bronze. However, he had no answers for Brands, the 1993 world champ.
“The USA player seemed to know all of my moves before I could execute them,” Jae-Sung said. “That’s why I couldn’t really attack him. I was kind of surprised about his quickness.”
Two more Brands takedowns closed the scoring. He drove Jae-Sung out of bounds with one second left, but didn’t score.
“I wish I could have gotten that single-leg (takedown) at the end,” Brands rued.
But instead of stewing in imperfection, he gradually began basking in contentment. Brands doesn’t just like to win, he likes to dominate. He was as dominant as any Olympic wrestler in 1996.
“People who know me know I don’t pat myself on the back,” he said. “I’m pretty much hard on myself. When I’m feeling good about myself is a rarity.
“I feel pretty good about myself.”
Dan Gable, the Iowa head wrestling coach who won a 1972 Olympic wrestling gold medal in Munich, was urged by U.S. National Freestyle Coach Bruce Burnett to leave his bleacher seat and come to matside late in Brands’ bout. Gable has been Brands’ mentor for eight years, and Brands has been one of Gable’s assistant coaches for the last four.
“He looked as good as I’ve ever seen him,” said Gable, still trembling with excitement well after the match ended.
Mike Duroe, a U.S. volunteer assistant who has worked at Gable’s summer camps for 20 years, was in Brands’ corner along with Burnett.
“I’ve never seen Tom more on,” Duroe said. “I’ve never seen him put together four matches like that.”
Brands appeared far more aggressive than he had in the 1995 World Championships, held in Atlanta last August. He lost twice in that event and finished ninth after failing to place altogether at the 1994 Worlds. He won the first Worlds he entered, in 1993.
“Everybody – my coaches, my friends, strangers, even my parents – told me to go back to my ’93 tapes,” Brands said. “I had to try to wrestle my style, and I think I did for the most part. Coach Gable said to make it a 5-minute match for ‘em. He said I can’t feel my way into a match any more. It was time to go when the whistle blows.”
Brands started slowly but posted a convincing 3-0 first-round win over Abbas Haji Kenari of Iran Thursday, then followed it with a 5-0 whipping of Sergey Small of Belarus. In Friday morning’s semifinals, Brands bounced 1994 world champ Magomed Azizov of Russia, 4-1.
Azizov and Brands engaged in a slap-fight in the opening moments of that contest, and Brands called a brief timeout.
“He was all greasy,” Brands said later.
He didn’t lose focus, using a takedown, a 2-point throw and another takedown for a 4-0 lead. He surrendered a takedown with 53 seconds left, the only point he allowed in the tourney. Thus, he barely missed matching his idol’s Olympic effort. Gable mowed through the 1972 Games without giving up a point.
With his gold medal by his side in a wooden carrying case at his post-match press conference, Brands said he was irked about Azizov scoring that point. Even that moment in the match, however, may have showed how sound Brands was thinking and wrestling.
“Azizov had a good move on and could have scored more points had Tom not given the leg up,” Duroe said.
After stopping Azizov, Brands showed uncharacteristic glee, pumping his fists and raising his arms high. After manhandling former world champions Smal and Azizov in succession over two days, maybe he knew he was just six hours from winning a gold medal.
“I kept gathering steam, I guess,” Brands said. “I ended with my best match. That’s the way I want to go out.”
He came to Atlanta just another contender, but Brands branded himself an Olympic champion.
ATLANTA – While his twin brother was on his way to winning an Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medal, Terry Brands pretty much stayed in the shadows.
Terry blended in the background as Tom Brands demolished Jang Jae-Sung of South Korea, 7-0, in Friday afternoon’s 136.5-pound championship match.
At times during the tournament, Terry would be in the top row of the Georgia World Congress Center bleachers with his mother and several other fans from the Brands’ Sheldon hometown.
At other times, he would be elsewhere in the auditorium watching matches with friends from the Iowa wrestling team.
Sometimes, you couldn’t find him at all. Like when fellow 125.5-pounder Kendall Cross won the gold medal Wednesday.
Cross beat Terry in a best-of-three U.S. Olympic Trials series in June that could easily have gone the other way. After winning 7-2 in their first match in Spokane, Wash., Brands then dropped 7-6 and 8-7 decisions to Cross. Brands had 11 takedowns to Cross’ one in the tourney, but takedowns are only worth one point in international wrestling, and Cross scored on throws and tilts worth several points.
Terry couldn’t bear seeing Cross win the gold medal that could have been his. But he was here for Tom. He scouted Tom’s potential opponents, then tried to copy them in workouts with his brother. Tom had never seen Jae-Sung before the two met, but Terry watched the South Korean win his semifinal contest Friday morning.
After Tom triumphed in overwhelming fashion, Jae-Sung said, “The USA player seemed to know all my moves before I could execute them.”
“Terry was great,” Tom said. “He was just like that guy (in practice). That gives me a good feeling. Terry could have taken the easy way out and stayed away in the stands.”
Though Tom denied it in the six weeks between the Trials and the Olympics, he was wrestling for his brother as well as himself and admitted as much afterward.
“He’s carrying around a lot,” Iowa Coach Dan Gable said before the gold-medal match.
The Tom-and-Terry tale doesn’t exactly parallel Cain and Abel. It’s been more like Cain and Cain II. The two have brawled with each other, screamed at each other, and pushed each other through walls and over small cliffs. That was on good days.
But a little spilled blood has never kept these blood brothers apart. Terry won the World Championships last year while Tom lost twice and finished ninth. Tom sat in the Omni arena stands and brooded while Terry mulled new offers to make good money competing abroad.
Tom didn’t seem to begrudge his brother anything then, and Terry has seemed bitter at no one but himself this summer.
“I think Terry is probably really happy for Tom,” said Tom Brands Sr. “After that loss in Spokane, Terry took a week off. He decided to go on wrestling. I’m sure in Sydney (at the 2000 Olympics) you may see him.”
(Note: Terry Brands won a bronze medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney.)
And if a Brands is wrestling in Australia four years from now, count on Gable being there. As always, Tom paid homage to his mentor Friday.
“I’m Gable-trained,” he said. “That means I’m trained by the best. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Tom Brands Sr. said something that Tom Brands II would have taken as the highest praise possible had he been in earshot.
“He wrestled like Dan Gable,” Tom Sr. proclaimed. “That was absolutely classic Gable. Get in your man’s face, throw him down and jump on him.”
The coach didn’t handle the pressure of the tournament nearly as well as did his fourth Hawkeye student (following Ed Banach, Lou Banach and Randy Lewis in 1984) to become an Olympic champion.
Gable hyperventilated during Tom’s 4-1 semifinal win over Russia’s Magomed Azizov Friday morning. He said it was nothing serious, but it frightened those near him.
The title match wasn’t close enough to overwork Gable’s nervous system.
“I knew I had to calm down tonight,” he said, “and I wanted Brands to keep me calm.”
While Gable has coached a multitude of NCAA champions and near-champs, a select few have really resembled him in the wrestling room or in competition. The Brands are among them.
“I preach a certain style,” Gable said. “(Tom) is one of the guys who believes in the style I preach. You can go out there and stand or you can go out there and work. He goes out and works.”
“I’ve thrived on everything he’s said,” Tom said. “There were things I didn’t agree with, but I did them anyway.”
As has Terry, a two-time World champion who will be a hornet for anyone trying to beat him in the 1997 U.S. World Team Trials.
“He’ll be back,” Tom said. “He’s a man, no doubt about it. He’ll come out of it OK.”
Terry’s words to Tom after winning the gold were a pride-filled, “You did it.”
“Before the match he reminded me what this means to us,” Tom said. “He said this was what we’ve worked our whole lives for. That’s what it boils down to for me, because wrestling is my life.”
After working at camps in Montana and Mason City this month, the Brands are headed for Alaska to go moose-hunting.
Don’t bet on the moose. One Brands boy is angry and the other is on a roll.