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Pinning hopes on sport's resurgence

Hosting Olympic wrestling trials way to spark interest in Manitoba

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The Canadian Wrestling Qualification Trials are designed to identify the cream of the wrestling crop in this country and many of those athletes will represent Canada at the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London.

Quietly, though, organizers hope the tournament will jump-start the sport in Manitoba.

With the trials at the University of Winnipeg Duckworth Centre opening this morning, getting the word out about wrestling -- the real, unscripted variety free of loud music and folding chairs -- is part of what Wrestling Canada and the Manitoba Amateur Wrestling Association hope to accomplish this weekend

The University of Winnipeg added a wrestling program to its stable of athletics this season (filling a void that was left when the University of Manitoba pulled out of the sport in 2004), so to host the biggest event on the national wrestling calendar should provide a boost to the interest levels in the province.

National team coach David McKay, a former Winnipegger who is a member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame for his efforts on the mat (he finished fifth in the 1988 Seoul Olympics), said the return of wrestling to the university level is the first step for a sport looking to muscle its way back into consideration.

"The need in this province is to get that base, return to that base," said McKay, who leads the wrestling program at Simon Fraser University in B.C. "Get the high school wrestling going. We're hoping for a top-down effect -- where there's a university team, a program and a professional approach to it where the athletes have a place to go."

Getting Keystone grapplers back into the national gym won't be easy.

Of the 100-plus wrestlers from across the country competing at the trials, only a few are from Manitoba. According to Adrian Bruce, event chairman, president of the MAWA and head coach of the Wesmen wrestling program, those names include Frank Deer, a one-time national wrestler who returns to the sport after a brief retirement, Wilson Lee, Yousef Soufi and Amber Philipchuk, a provincial champion on the women's side.

Bruce is optimistic the national exposure to the Wesmen program will pay off down the road.

"This is the most prestigious tournament that Wrestling Canada has," he said, adding Winnipeg beat out Calgary and Toronto for the qualification trials.

"For us here at the U of W, this event is a launching pad. Wrestling is one of our strongest sports for medal contention at the Summer Olympics. The last five games, Canada has won a medal, so we know the athletes are there."

Once the trials conclude Sunday, 14 men (seven in freestyle; seven from Greco-Roman) and four women (all freestyle) advance to the Pan-American Olympic qualifier competition in Kissimmee, Fla., next March, in hopes of meeting the international standards and securing a spot for London next summer.

Among the higher-profile athletes competing at the Duckworth Centre will be women's freestyle wrestlers Tonya Verbeek (a two-time Olympic medallist) and Carol Huynh, the defending gold-medal champion from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

On the men's side, Haislan Garcia, who finished fifth at the 2010 world championships, and 19-year-old Steven Takahashi, one of the top wrestlers in the CIS and the son of former Canadian Olympian Ray Takahashi, are both expected to participate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2011 C5

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