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August 29, 2004 12:47 pm

Medal try slips away from wrestler Williams

By BRYCE MILLER

Gannett News Service

ATHENS, Greece - A split-second, edge-of-mat decision became the difference between Joe Williams stepping on the mat for a shot at an Olympic medal and leaving Athens empty-handed.

Williams lost to Kazakhstan's Gennadiy Laliyev 3-2 in overtime in a situation where the former University of Iowa wrestler was almost assured of the win.

``Any time you put in 22 years shooting for a goal, and you don't reach your goals - it's heartbreaking,'' Williams said.

Williams, a 29-year-old Iowa City resident from Harvey, Ill., was tied with Laliyev 2-2, and the match entered overtime because neither wrestler had compiled the minimum three points.

The competitors started overtime in ``the clinch," when the referee places opponents together, chest to chest, to lock hands on the back of the other.

The first wrestler to break his locked hands must make an immediate offensive move, or the other is awarded a point.

Laliyev, the eventual silver medalist, released his grip first, but he pushed and chased Williams off the edge of the mat - producing a point. If Williams had held his ground or done anything other than step off the mat, he would have earned the point, moved to the semifinals and guaranteed himself a shot at a medal.

``It was the right call,'' said U.S. assistant coach Tom Brands, a 1996 gold medalist who helped coach Williams at the University of Iowa. ``There's no excuses, and Joe knows that.''

U.S. freestyle coach Kevin Jackson agreed.

``It wasn't a bad call. It was a legitimate call,'' he said. ``Joe relaxed on the edge, was driven out of bounds once the clinch was broken, and he lost the match. We train to do those things ourselves, and we train to defend those things.

``He had a lapse in his concentration.''

Williams' loss and a bronze medal setback by 211.5-pound teammate Daniel Cormier dampened American spirits that had been raised a day earlier by Cael Sanderson's 185-pound gold medal and silvers from Stephen Abas (121) and Jamill Kelly (145.55).

Waiting in the semifinals was Cuba's Ivan Fundora, who Williams has beaten before.

``Obviously losing is not something you think about when you come into the Olympics, so this is definitely hard,'' Williams said.

NBC Olympic wrestling commentator Russ Hellickson said he initially thought Williams had won when the Kazakhstan opponent broke his lock.

Laliyev continued to chase, though, and stayed alive in the tournament because of it.

``It's difficult when three or four seconds decide who advances and who doesn't, who goes for a gold and who doesn't,'' said Hellickson, head coach at Ohio State. ``But the other guy wants to win, too, and we sometimes forget that.''

Williams, a 2001 world bronze medalist, was the third high-profile United States wrestler stopped by an opponent from Kazakhstan.

Rulon Gardner, a 2000 gold medalist in Greco-Roman, and 2003 world silver medalist Kerry McCoy also fell to competitors from that nation this week.

``This won't hit him hard until tomorrow, then the next day, and the next and the next and the next,'' Brands said. ``Right now it's bad, but the worst is the next day.''

Brands said Williams decided to return to the mat and get his hand raised for fifth place, even though many wrestlers leave the tournament after falling out of medal contention.

Murad Gaidarov of Belarus, who had been in an off-mat fistfight with eventual gold medalist Buvaysa Saytiev shortly after their match earlier Sunday, would have faced Williams for fifth place but did not show up.

Williams said the pain of a medal missed already had started to set in. ``The lows in our sport are definitely worse than the highs,'' he said.

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

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IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

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DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

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LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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