Sailor Earns Olympic Wrestling Team Berth
By Chief Petty Officer Bill Johnson-Miles, USN
Special to American Forces Press Service
SAN DIEGO, Jul. 18, 2000 "Wrestling is a marathon," Petty Officer 1st class Steve Mays said in 1998 after finishing fourth in the Armed Forces Wrestling Tournament in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It's not how you start the race, it's how you finish. And hopefully, in 2000, I'll be the man. It's my dream."
Petty Officer 1st class Steve Mays (in red) throws his opponent so his back is exposed to the mat, scoring three points during the U.S.A. Greco-Roman Wrestling National Championships. Mays, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, finished second in the 119-pound weight class at the Nationals in April in Las Vegas and went on to win the Olympic Trials in Dallas in June. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd class Aaron Ansarov, USN.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Two years later, the sailor's dream has come true. On June 24, Mays swept two matches from Brandon Paulson at the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials in Dallas to earn a spot on the U.S. 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman team. Mays competes in the 54-kilogram weight class. Paulson, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist, had defeated Mays earlier in Las Vegas to win the 2000 U.S. Nationals finals.
Mays, 33, is an aviation boatswain's mate aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. His hometown is Kalamazoo, Mich., but he currently lives with his wife, Melanie, and three children in Pensacola, Fla.
A marathon is only 26 miles, but this Navy athlete's road to the Olympics seems a lot longer. Though he placed second at the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials, he didn't return to championship form until last year, when he won his class at the Armed Forces and U.S. Nationals tournaments and World Team trials. Mays last year also finished second at the Nordwest Cup in Norway and third at the Pan American Games.
He slipped earlier this year, placing fifth at an Olympic qualifier, second in the Armed Forces Tournament and the Nationals. After losing the Vegas match to Paulson, he was asked if he would still make the Olympic team.
"Yes, without a doubt, without a doubt. They do not allow me to have the time to come in second best," Mays said at the time. "I will not come home without the mission being complete."
In order to face Paulson again, he had to win the Olympic Trials Challenge Tournament June 22-23. He defeated Shawn Sheldon by decision in the finals -- in overtime.
Exhausted following his match against Sheldon, Mays looked forward confidently to his next-day matches with Paulson. "Win, I'm gonna win," he said. "I've put the work in and I'm going to go out and win. I need to control the tempo early, make him come after me."
There could be only one U.S. Olympic wrestler in the weight class in Sydney, Australia, come September, and it would be whoever won two matches first.
Mays' confidence carried him to a 3-0 win in his first match with Paulson. "One step closer, one step closer to the dream," he said after the match. "All I can do is rest and get ready for the next match. He's the champ and I will have to take the next match."
Mays won the second match 5-0 and realized a dream he has had since he was 9.
"Steve Mays is a pretty amazing story because not many people finally break through in their 30s," said Mitch Hull, USA Wrestling National Teams director. "It's hard and he's done that."
And he did it with a lot of hard work and dedication. "He's training seven days a week, almost gone two or three weeks out of a month," Melanie Mays said. "The dedication is there, and it takes dedication to strive and get to the top."
Mays' coach, Rob Hermann, is retired Navy, the service's head wrestling coach and an assistant coach for the U.S. 2000 Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team. Hermann said he was confident from the beginning in Mays' chances at making the Olympic team.
"He's done everything possible," the coach said. "He's been at all the National training camps, he's been training hard in Pensacola. It's been a year-round thing for him. He set his goals; he's been working on his mental skills. He started believing that he could beat the best."
And according to the coach, the Navy helped Mays become the best. "If it wasn't for Navy sports, and the Navy in general, his command aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, it wouldn't be possible," Hermann added. "They've given him the opportunity to do it full time, and his dream has finally come true."
"The Navy has supported us 100 percent," Melanie Mays agreed. "They're allowing him to train year-round. A lot of people think that it's easy, but he's doing hard work seven days a week. I mean, it's just like a deployment. He's actually doing a job and he's representing the Navy, and I think he's representing them well."
Mays now is looking forward to representing the Navy and the United States in Sydney, but Olympic wrestling is not an open tournament. The International Olympic Committee fixed the number of wrestlers at 20 in each weight class. Nations had to qualify, and the others who have in 54-kilograms are Australia, Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Czech Republic, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Iran, Kazakhstan, Korea, Krygyzstan, North Korea, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
It doesn't matter who he wrestles or what country they're from, because Mays has a great attitude about wrestling and about life. "There's always going to be setbacks," he said, "and if you let setbacks stop you then you'll never succeed in life, regardless of what it is, wrestling, on the job, family, whatever. You just have to keep fighting!"
So Petty Officer Steve Mays fought through his setbacks, made his dream a reality, and finished his wrestling marathon race as an Olympian. But now he has another dream, and it's painted Olympic gold.
(Chief Petty Officer Bill Johnson-Miles is assigned to the Naval Media Center in San Diego.)