STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State junior Ed Ruth had these ambitions in mind for his budding wrestling career: All-American, NCAA champion, world champion and Olympic medalist.
It might be time to re-think that last goal.
The International Olympic Committee's decision Tuesday to drop wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games suddenly snatched away the ultimate objective for any young wrestler, but especially top performers like Ruth hoping to use college success as a springboard to international glory.
"I go to college to learn what I could for four years, and there's nothing I can really put it towards," Ruth said in talking about a worst-case scenario of no Olympic wrestling. "But you know, it depends on how everybody wants to take it."
As of now, wrestling's time is set to expire at the Olympics in seven years.
Wrestling has been on the Olympic program since the modern games began in 1896. The sport must now join seven other sports in applying for inclusion in 2020.
The others are a combined bid from baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding and wushu. The IOC executive board will meet in Russia in May to decide which sport or sports to propose for 2020 inclusion, with a final vote by an IOC session or general assembly expected in September in Argentina.
Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson, a 2004 gold medalist, isn't giving up on wrestling Olympic without a fight.
"I'll absolutely do everything in my power to make sure that the decision doesn't go through and it isn't finalized in the fall. This is a big deal," he said. "You're talking about your kids having that dream of winning a gold medal. It inspires you to be better, to work hard, to set goals."
That blue-collar, hardscrabble image is perhaps what resonates in small towns and communities across Pennsylvania, which boasts a loyal wrestling fan base. Top-ranked Penn State is the two-time NCAA defending champion and looks strong again heading into the final six weeks of the season.
Mitchell Myers, a senior from Blue Mountain High in Schuylkill County, said he loves wresting because "it's one of the only sports you can go out there and legally beat up on somebody." The 170-pounder is headed to George Mason next year to wrestle.
"Everybody needs to try it, I think, just to have a sense of it. If they cut that, then obviously kids who are younger aren't going to have anything to look forward to," Myers said. "It'll be harder to get interest at the younger levels."
His coach, J.J. Fasnacht, also worries the sport might suffer because kids won't have Olympic heroes like Sanderson, a gold medalist, to look up to.
Fasnacht's 7-year-old son wrestles, and "I want to be able to tell him that, 'Hey, maybe someday you can go to the Olympics.' But if it's not there, those kids aren't going to get that same opportunity. It's a tough pill to swallow."
Like Sanderson, Lehigh coach Pat Santoro is pressing everyone involved with wrestling to unite to do "everything that we can to keep this sport ... this will hurt wrestling from top-down."
He pointed to former Mountain Hawk Zach Rey as an example of a wrestler whose hard work may not pay off into getting multiple shots to make the Olympics. The 2011 NCAA heavyweight champion Rey graduated last year and still trains at Lehigh.
"We don't have pro sports, so that's the dream — every kid wants to be an Olympic champion," Santoro said. "Zach Rey, he's training for the Olympics. Now if that's taken away — that's tough."
Wrestling does have world championships every year held by its governing body. Winning at that level is enough incentive even if wrestling doesn't return to the 2020 Olympics lineup, said Penn State senior Quentin Wright, a 2011 NCAA champion.
But the worlds just don't have the same panache for talented wrestlers like Wright and Ruth, a 2012 NCAAA champion. They want the Olympics — the medals, the flags, the national pride, the national anthem, the national spotlight.
"In wrestling, that's the ultimate goal. That's the ultimate platform to show your expertise," Wright said. "It's kind of like soccer has the World Cup every four years. With wrestling, the Olympics are every four years. It makes it that much more special."
Ruth said he understands why the Olympics dropped wrestling in part by watching television coverage of the 2012 Summer Games in London. While swimming, gymnastics and water polo received extensive air time, wrestling was compressed into the last 15 minutes of coverage, Ruth said. But he isn't giving up just yet and plans to join in on email and letter-writing campaigns to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
"Sometimes, something like this can make (the popularity) blow up because people will see that the next level of wrestling can actually lead into something else," Ruth said. "Or maybe it will go down because people will say, 'What's going to happen to wrestling? What's going to happen after this?"
That's a good question.
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Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam contributed to this report from Schuylkill County, Pa.; AP freelance writer Andy Elder contributed to this story from State College.