The dream of Olympic gold didn’t end a week ago in Rio.
The quest for greatness continues just about everywhere you can imagine, from small gyms to community pools to the basement pingpong table.
For so-called club teams — where young athletes begin the journey to hone the skills necessary to compete on the high school or college level and possibly the national and world arena — the days after the Olympics are like Black Friday at Wal-Mart.
The calls and emails from parents hoping their son is the next Kyle Snyder or their daughter is the next Katie Ledecky are coming in as fast as Usain Bolt crossing the finish line.
The Olympics and its wall-to-wall coverage of a wide variety of sports on multiple channels is advertising that groups like the USA Wrestling Clubs in Ohio could never afford.
State director Chris Kallai, who is a teacher and coach at Wadsworth schools, said even before the Olympic flame was lit in Rio, there was already excitement about his sport.
There was enough interest to put together a state team of more than 100 wrestlers to attend a national competition this year — well above the usual number of young athletes looking to make a name on the national stage.
“The numbers are up,” he said. “It definitely helps.”
More kids are likely to come out to the regional wrestling clubs, like the one he helps out with in Stark County, this fall.
And having Helen Maroulis become the first U.S. female wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal will likely also have a profound impact. Kallai said this will likely spur discussion once again on the state high school level to create a separate female wrestling program. As it stands now, female wrestlers participate on the men’s teams.
Aside from watching Ohio State’s Snyder win Olympic gold, Kallai said the games brought some local pride as the sauna used by the U.S. wrestling team was created by his shop class students.
In his role as the state director and a member of the national board, Kallai said, he was approached by the U.S. team to use his carpentry skills and build the cedar-lined sauna to be used at nationals and by the Olympic team.
Kallai said a portable sauna would have cost the team as much as $12,000; by making it a project for students at Wadsworth High School, the cost was brought down to $3,000.
“It’s pretty neat to say we were part of Rio,” he said.
Feeling the HEAT
There was a time when sports like swimming were relegated to obscure channels or just snippets of highlights shown in prime time.
With this being Michael Phelps’ last record-shattering performance at the Olympic Games, Matt Davis, coach of Hudson High School’s swim team and the competitive Hudson Explorers Aquatic Team (HEAT), said competitive swimming has become mainstream.
After the Olympics, it is often a full pool at competitions as young athletes try to make waves in the sport. Davis said he anticipates a crowd when HEAT holds its tryouts later this month.
While a kid may swim like a fish in the backyard pool or pond, he said, there is a definite “learning curve” to become a competitive swimmer.
“The problem is a lot of these kids don’t know the mechanics,” he said.
And it is not just the skills that have to be perfected, Davis said. His club swimmers, ranging from age 6 to college, practice a lot — try six days a week, often two times a day for a total of 16 to 20 hours a week.
But that’s not to say someone can’t be successful at a later age.
Davis said he had one natural athlete who started in high school and went on to be one of the top swimmers in the state and an All-American.
The publicity for the sport by the likes of Phelps and Ledecky is a great recruiting tool, too.
“We are getting kids who are choosing to swim over football or basketball,” he said.
Ryan Johnson, who now swims for Cleveland State, said he’s seen this change of attitude firsthand in his years competing with HEAT.
He said his friends used to tease him about swimming competitively, but once they learned how much time is spent practicing and saw the sport rise in popularity, that has all changed.
“It’s also how crazy how much faster swimmers are now,” said Johnson, 20, who is studying history when he’s not in the pool.
Fellow HEAT swimmer Macy Trattner, a senior at Hudson High School, has been competing since age 7.
Having traveled to many meets over the years, Trattner knows Ohio is a “really competitive” state for the sport.
With all the coverage of swimming events this year at the Olympics and two marquee athletes, Trattner said, more and more kids will likely dip their toes in the sport.
“It’s been awesome that the swimmers got so much coverage this year,” she said. “I don’t remember this much in the past.
“It’s cool to be a part of the sport.”
One sport that remains somewhat in the shadows in this country is table tennis.
But folks like Samson Dubina, who runs the Table Tennis Academy in Akron and organizes regional competitions, is hoping to change that.
A competitive table tennis player since age 12, Dubina was a training partner for Canada’s Olympic team and is now the coach of the U.S. National Team.
The problem is, Dubina said, there is just not enough financial support in the U.S. for the sport.
In other countries, particularly in Asia, Dubina said, it is the athlete’s full-time job to play table tennis, unlike in the U.S. where players have to hold a full-time job to support a dream of being competitive on the Olympic stage.
Table tennis remains one of the gold medals that has proven elusive for U.S. athletes.
But Dubina said he helping to lead an effort on the national level to look at ways to improve the training and practice regimen for future Olympic teams.
“We need to be able to train as much as the rest of the world or train more effectively,” he said.
But each Thursday evening at the Shaw Jewish Community Center on White Pond Drive in Akron, Dubina and other lovers of the sport gather to hone their skills and practice for tournaments like one he is organizing for the Labor Day weekend.
“Pingpong players are celebrities in China,” he said. But here, names like Jiaqi Zheng and Sharon Alguetti — both members of the U.S. Olympic team — are not exactly household names.
“This sport is definitely on the rise,” he said. “We are doing our best to grow the sport.”
Craig Webb, whose Olympic dream was shattered when potato chip eating was not recognized as a real sport, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3547.