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Face of Defense: Soldier to Wrestle for World Crown

By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service

ALEXANDRIA, Va., Sept. 1, 2009 – In the Army’s celebratory Year of the Noncommissioned Officer, Dremiel Byers stands out. Byers, who recently joined the ranks of the senior NCOs with his promotion to sergeant first class, will represent the Army on Team USA at the 2009 World Wrestling Championships.

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Army World Class Athlete Program Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler Sgt. 1st Class Dremiel Byers, left, a 2002 world champion, is scheduled to compete for Team USA at the 2009 World Wrestling Championships Sept. 27, 2009, in Herning, Denmark. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Byers is a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program as a Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler. He will compete in the world championships scheduled for Sept. 21-27 in Herning, Denmark.

“A senior NCO can really take the guys to a higher level on the military side,” said Staff Sgt. Shon Lewis, the program’s wrestling coach, who is among the U.S. contingent headed to Denmark. “As a staff sergeant, you can walk some things through. Of course, the more rank you get, the farther you can walk with it, so that’s going to be huge for the wrestling team.”

Byers has been walking the walk on wrestling mats for the past decade. He reiterated his primary purpose at so many international tournaments, a phrase that has become his personal working mantra: “Get my hand raised, and our song played,” he says.

A world champion in 2002, Byers helped Team USA win its only Greco-Roman team title in the history of amateur wrestling at the 2007 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. He knows the spine-tingling sensation of hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” being played on foreign soil while watching the Stars and Stripes get hoisted to the rafters. He intends to hear it again.

Byers has been wrestling in and out of the shadow of two-time Olympic medalist Rulon Gardner, who posted the wrestling upset of the century at the 2000 Sydney Games against Russian legend Alexandre Karaline, who had not lost a match in 13 years. Gardner also turned the tables on slightly favored Byers at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Indianapolis, which left Byers serving as Gardner’s training partner that summer in Athens, Greece.

“I benefitted from battling Rulon for so many years,” Byers said. “When I went with him to Athens to be his training partner, all the pressure was off of me. All I had to do was help him. I was watching and still learning. I saw how badly he wanted it and how badly I wanted it for him. He didn’t win a gold medal, but a bronze. He touched the podium, and I saw that.”

Three years later, Byers claimed Team USA’s Greco-Roman heavyweight spot for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he finished a disappointing seventh. Byers then vowed to continue wrestling toward London, where he fully expects in 2012 to honor a promise he made long ago to his late grandfather, Theodore.

“Not accomplishing something for someone you love is a thorn in your side,” Byers said. “It bothers you. I think about it every day. That’s something that has to happen, and that’s why I’m still going.”

In 2002, he beamed from atop the podium in Athens, where he captured a gold medal as the first African-American and fourth member of Team USA ever to win a Greco-Roman crown at the World Wrestling Championships.

“The whole year in itself led up to it,” Byers said of the best wrestling run of his life. “A lot of things changed in my wrestling. Rulon Gardner’s [snowmobiling] accident left the door open for me to get a whole lot more matches in. I had more world tours and had a great opportunity to see what was out there.”

Along the way, Byers kept landing atop podiums. “I stole a few moves from some little guys around the world, and by the time I showed up at the World Championships, there was nothing there I hadn’t already seen,” Byers said. “Once the wrestling started, I was totally in the zone and ready to go. Whenever someone would happen to score a point, it didn’t matter, because I knew there were too many areas for me to get it back. And it worked out.

“I got it back,” he said, “and we got our song played at the end.”

For his efforts, Byers earned the Army’s 2002 Male Athlete of the Year honors and received a similar award from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Byers defeated Hungary’s Deke Bardois in the 264.5-pound Greco-Roman finale of the 2002 World Wrestling Championships.

“Finally,” Byers thought as he climbed atop the podium in Greece. “Everything I’d been hearing about my wrestling ability and the potential people saw in me, maybe they were right. I really believe that it was something great that happened on the way to something better,” he said.

Seven years later, Byers, an eight-time national champion, is set to take on the best Greco-Roman heavyweights Sept. 27. At age 35, Byers will be the wily veteran on a U.S. team he expects will surprise wrestling aficionados around the globe.

“I’m getting older. It’s getting harder. But I still know that I can get it done,” Byers said. “Once you’re No. 1, you want to stay No. 1.”

Still, he said, the world championships are tough, with some 70 countries competing. “There’s a greater wild-card factor and a greater potential for all of the threats to be on one side,” he explained. “That happened in 2007. The Lithuanian came up to me, and he was laughing and saying, ‘Hey, all you good guys are on one side. Ha-ha.’ He was so happy with that. Then he got put out of the tournament, but the next year he wins a bronze medal at the Olympics.”

Byers said “something special happened” when he won the bronze medal at the 2007 championships. “I appreciate the fact that I was part of the first U.S. team ever to win a world championship, but it still hurts,” he said of another potential gold medal that slipped from his grasp. “If you’re not doing this to be No. 1, you’re just hoping and wishing.”

Byers said his days of hoping and wishing are history.

Byers said he’s gotten better at realizing his mistakes, as he did this summer in Baku, where he settled for a silver medal after losing to Iranian Masoud Hashemzadeh in the finals of the Heydar Aliyev Gold Grand Prix tournament. After waiting nearly four hours for his final match, Byers admittedly walked onto the mat lacking focus.

“I was a little lackadaisical and thinking, ‘This guy didn’t do anything in the tournament, so I’m going to be cool, calm and collected.’ Then, I’m like, ‘This guy is spinning off, so give him something and see what he does with it.’ And I gave him something, and this dude turned into a man all of a sudden – a real man. And then I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, I’m in a match now.’ And then he scores – with my move. I’m like, ‘Oh, no.’ Then, instead of just waking up and getting it, I’m like, ‘OK, yeah, that was my fault.’

In the end, he said, “The only story that’s going to be told is that you won.”

It is time for Byers to resort to his bone-crushing ways of the days when fellow soldiers chanted ‘Bam, bam, boom!’ every time he walked onto the mat. Byers said he wasn’t in the greatest of shape then, therefore he had a sense of urgency to end matches quickly, before he got winded. Now he’s wiser, and says he’s “found that lung I never had.”

Byers has been working out in Fort Carson, Colo., with German Nico Schmidt, a strong 30-year-old who reminded him that wrestling is a violent sport, that aggression is required, that no holds are barred, and that no opponents are friends.

“I have to go back to who I am and what I do,” Byers said. The key is to make every move count, and never let up, he added.

Skeptics wonder what makes Byers think he can remain atop the U.S. heavyweight division until the 2012 Olympics in London, when he will be 37.

“These young guys, I know that they are a different breed,” he said. “I will never knock them for who they are, their abilities, their performance or anything, because you never want to give a guy a reason. At the same time, I miss having a threat in practice. And if I can’t have that, then I’m going to be that. I am that. Eventually, they’ll get it.”

Byers is going to Denmark to get his, and he vows to keep coming back until someone in America knocks him off.

“There’s this thing about crawling back to the center and being ready to go out there and fight,” he said. “I’ve got to be that guy. Some people say take off and take it easy, but I’m always hungry for the competition. I can’t wait to get back to the competition.

“Generally, I don’t look back,” concluded Byers, who contends that he never will again. “I’m representing the Army, and my coaches do a good job of reminding me that people are counting on me to get it done, and why we’re doing this. I’ve got to stick around until the next Olympic Games. I feel like I can win that one.”

For this year, however, another world championship would suffice.

“I’m going to go back over there and get a medal,” Byers said. “And keep winning for the Army. I’m fortunate to be a part of the World Class Athlete Program. There are people out there with the same [military occupational specialty] that I have – 92 Yankee – and those guys are in Iraq and Afghanistan. The least I can do is win for them.”

(Tim Hipps works in the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command public affairs office.)

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U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy World Class Athlete Program Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestler Sgt. 1st Class Dremiel Byers, right, a 2002 world champion, is scheduled to compete for Team USA at the 2009 World Wrestling Championships Sept. 27, 2009, in Herning, Denmark. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps  
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