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AS JAKE DEITCHLER led a troupe of 13 fellow Minnesotans into the Hard Rock Cafe on the Las Vegas strip last Saturday night, a waitress who goes by Big Deb spotted the bloody bandage on his left ear. "What's the matter, boy?" she asked. "Someone Mike Tyson your ass?"
Brandon Paulson, Deitchler's coach, explained that the 18-year-old had just made history at the Thomas & Mack Center by becoming the youngest Greco-Roman wrestler to make a U.S. Olympic team. "Attention, everyone," Big Deb roared, "baby Jacob here is going to the Olympics. Now one, two, three: Kick their butts! Kick their butts! Kick their butts!" Within seconds, the entire restaurant had joined the chorus.
The U.S. teams selected at the trials (in Greco-Roman and men's and women's freestyle) will try to live up to that chant in Beijing, but they will do so with many unfamiliar faces. Only two of the 16 team members have Olympic experience, and none of them is a past medalist.
No victor was more unlikely than Deitchler, who competes at 145.5 pounds and is the first high schooler to make the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in 28 years. Deitchler kept coming from behind to win at the trials. On Saturday he dropped the first period 5--0 to two-time world bronze medalist Harry Lester but bounced back with 5--2 and 5--3 victories in the last two, thanks to a key reverse lift turn in the closing seconds of the final period. A medal favorite for Beijing, Lester, 24, instead stunned the wrestling community by leaving his shoes on the center of the mat after his win in a third-place consolation bout, signaling his retirement. "I told myself I'd do that if I lost," Lester said. "This kid's not going anywhere."
In Saturday's best-of-three finals, Deitchler dropped the opening period of the first match to Faruk Sahin but rallied to win the next two. In the second match Deitchler fell behind again but wore the 32-year-old Sahin down, scoring with a reversal, a throw and a front headlock turn to pull out a victory. "I guess I'm too young and ignorant to know what I can't do," Deitchler said.
His win vindicated Paulson, who had retired from competition after losing an epic overtime match to Dennis Hall at the 2004 trials. When a dejected Paulson returned home to Minnesota, Todd Springer, the coach at Anoka (Minn.) High, was waiting in his driveway. "You have to see this [Deitchler] kid," he said. "There's never been anyone like him." Paulson had no intention of coaching. "What the heck can I do for him?" he asked. "Make him into a champion," Springer replied. "The next Brandon Paulson."
Paulson began supplementing Springer's team coaching of Deitchler at Anoka with individual workouts. And Deitchler's enthusiasm rekindled Paulson's competitive fire. Off the mat the pair engaged in marathon bouts of foosball, Ping-Pong, even contests to see who could sit in the sauna the longest. "He makes me a better coach," says Paulson. "I have to study so I always have something new for him."
Deitchler ran off a 111-match win streak in folk-style high school wrestling, which, unlike Greco-Roman, allows holds below the waist. He's versatile and a fast learner. He and Paulson began practicing a new front headlock last week for the first time, and Deitchler used one in his rally against Lester. "[Paulson] tells me the other guys will be stronger," says the comparatively wiry Deitchler, "but big muscles get tired faster."
At the junior worlds in Beijing last summer, Paulson stood at the Great Wall with Jake's father, Jason, a former Minnesota state champion wrestler. "Does Jake have a chance to make [the Olympic] team by 2012?" Jason asked. "He'd be [only] 22," Paulson replied. "It might be a while before he really makes noise."
The shouting has already begun.