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Wrestling thrown to mat

CHAMPAIGN – Jacob Hey knows what it's like to absorb a body blow when it comes to wrestling.

He was a state champion during his days as a Dixon Duke back in the early 1990s. He wrestled for the Air Force Academy after that, and got so good at the sport that three times he advanced to the United States Olympic Trials.

He lost in the semifinals of those Trials, first in 2000 in Dallas; then in 2004 in Indianapolis; and finally in 2008 in Las Vegas.

That's why he was particularly hard hit when news broke earlier this week that wrestling might be on the chopping block when the 2020 Olympic Games are held at a yet-to-be-determined city. Wrestling can still apply to be included, but will now be competing for a spot with other sports that include baseball/softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wake boarding and wushu, a martial art.

"I was pretty much devastated when I heard the news they're taking away man's oldest sport out of the Olympics," Hey said. "It just doesn't make any sense to me. It really hurt to know kids nowadays are not going to have the same opportunity I had to try to accomplish your ultimate goal as a wrestler – to be an Olympian."

The 38-year-old Hey, now the coach at Belleville Althoff, noted the wrestling community is not taking the news lying down. He described the wrestling community as "family," and said coaches, competitors and fans have been flooding the Internet to make their thoughts on the subject known. 

"Everybody's coming together," Hey said. "You compete against guys your entire life, but when it comes down to it, you've got each other's back."

When asked why wrestling was getting the hook, Hey spoke of the Olympics' desire to find a sport that's "cooler" to younger kids. 

Sterling assistant coach Kevin Heller, who was one of many area wrestling fans to follow Hey's Olympic quest in person, acknowledged the sport could make itself more viewer-friendly to those who don't follow it as closely as others. He offered up a solution.

"I get that, because Greco-Roman is a discipline that is very boring," Heller said. "There's not much happening. If I was to talk to the advisory board, I would say go to freestyle and folkstyle. Now you've got action. Now you've got something you can watch on TV.

"The popularity of the sport within the family of wrestling is there all over the world."

The question is, will wrestling have a once-every-4-years platform to show the world what it's all about on the biggest stage? Or will nights like Saturday night, when the Assembly Hall is all decked out and throaty students and adults are wishing and hoping and praying their favorites can grab state tournament hardware, be the pinnacle?

Hey just hopes those wrestlers who want something more, like he did, will have that opportunity.

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