Commentary

Not even Coleman impervious to pain

Updated: August 6, 2012, 4:19 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

LONDON -- They teach us not to cheer in sports writer school. Cub reporters are constantly reminded that they are unbiased observers, not fans. When someone does jump out of a press box seat to yell after a home run or touchdown, they're often greeted with dirty looks and shaking heads.

But at the same time, we're human beings. People bring a natural bias to every single thing they do. Ask most sports writers and they will tell you -- when we're working, we don't cheer for people or teams. We cheer for stories. That's the exact place I found myself Monday afternoon at the ExCeL center watching the second day of Greco-Roman wrestling competition.

Since the U.S. Olympic trials in Iowa City a few months ago, I've been drawn to the story of Ellis Coleman. At first it was amazement over his now legendary "Flying Squirrel" move. But after talking with Coleman and his high school coach, Mike Powell, I realized this story was so much more than the 4 million YouTube hits.

[+] EnlargeEllis Coleman
Harry E. Walker/MCTEllis Coleman lost swiftly on the mat Monday, but he has come a long way from a childhood that did him no favors.

Coleman, just 20, was a kid who a decade ago had no business going to the Olympics, certainly not in the Eastern bloc-dominated sport of Greco-Roman wrestling. He had grown up on the West Side of Chicago with next to nothing. His dad wasn't around. His stepfather, Coleman and others said, did more harm than good. His friends were into drugs, fighting and gangs. And here was this hyper, excitable kid who had no outlet for his endless amounts of pent-up competitive energy.

Enter Powell. And the sport of wrestling. As Chris Ballard so beautifully profiled in Sports Illustrated, Powell had built a state power at Oak Park River Forest High School just outside of Chicago, using wrestling to teach kids life's most important lessons and to keep them off the street. Coleman was one of his ultimate projects.

Only one problem: The kid felt so indebted to Powell for helping save his life that every time he got into a meaningful match in the Illinois state high school championships, he would crumble under the pressure. His body would shake. He'd vomit uncontrollably. His muscles would tense. He would completely lose control of himself. Then on the mat he would lose to someone he had no business losing to.

"It was because of Coach Powell and everything he did for me," Coleman told me last week. "Deep in my heart, I wanted to give it all back to him by getting a medal or whatever. Like he would love me more or something."

Coleman also said that his rough childhood and abusive stepfather contributed to his nerves.

"Whenever I lost he made me feel like crap," Coleman said. "'You're weak. You're a chump.' Whatever. It messed me up. I feel like I had to win. Win and I was a great person, everybody was happy, the house was peaceful. Lose and it sucked. I was dumb, stupid, I didn't deserve to be where I was, whatever."

Though the panic attacks seemed to dissipate after high school, they returned in May at the Olympic trials. One day, freaking out, Coleman called Powell's cellphone 13 times seeking help. For two hours, they talked. They read an essay about gratitude written by a paraplegic. Coleman relaxed. Later that night, he became the U.S. Olympic trials champion, numbing Powell in the process.

"I haven't had many tears of joy the past few years," Powell said that night. "But this was worth the wait."

So with all this swirling around in my head, I sat in my seat in the press area Monday afternoon hoping that Ellis Coleman would make some sort of a run in the 60-kilogram Greco-Roman tournament. I knew it wouldn't be easy. In the random draw before the tournament, Ellis was sent to the corner of the bracket with world bronze medalist Ivo Angelov of Bulgaria and reigning world champion Omid Noroozi from Iran.

But boy, if he could figure out a way to get past those two, I would have quite the story to tell about this 20-year-old who overcame his rocky childhood and vicious panic attacks to upset a pair of Greco stars and shove his way to an Olympic medal.

When Coleman came out of the tunnel for his first match, the scene was perfect. American flags flying proudly in the stands, chants of "USA, USA" filling the air. But then the wrestling started. And things didn't go as well.

Coleman came out sluggish, and before he knew it, the first period was over and he lost it 1-0. In the second period, he trailed 3-0 before scoring his first point to make it 3-1. Then in a move of desperation in the closing seconds, he tried to Flying Squirrel his way over Angelov, who was clearly prepared for the trick move. The Bulgarian then stood up as Coleman catapulted over him, sending the American to his back in a "danger position" and rewarding the Bulgarian with three more points. Final score: Angelov 1-0, 7-1.

In four minutes, it was all over.

"I was hoping for victory instead of going out there and taking victory," Coleman said afterward, his head down. "It sucks."

Outside the interview room, Powell just shook his head. "That wasn't pretty," he said. He struggled to explain his emotions. On one hand, he was angry. Frustrated. Disappointed. He wondered if Coleman was prepared as well as he should have been. Maybe he cut too much weight. Maybe a series of concussions, which Coleman said happened during training, hampered him. Maybe the Bulgarian was too experienced. Or maybe the nerves bubbled back to the surface, and this time Powell wasn't there to help.

"I'm not sure what happened," Powell said. "But that's not the Ellis I know."

Yet for all the disappointment, he was still incredibly proud. After all, how many 10-year-old boys smoking cigarettes on the streets of Chicago end up turning their lives around and competing on the biggest sports stage in the world? Without the sport of wrestling taking Coleman, everyone knows where his life probably would have ended up.

"He'd be locked up, for sure," Powell said. "Ellis is an extreme personality. I've never met a person with a higher pain threshold in my life. He's just tough on another level. Those type of guys usually become presidents or run prisons -- from the inside."

But on this day, all that toughness couldn't numb the pain. Coleman said last week that nothing he would face at the Olympics would be more painful than the upset loss he suffered during the Illinois state tournament his senior year of high school. But now his tournament had ended in less than 250 seconds, his opinion changed. He spoke of the 40-plus people who had come from back home to watch him; many of them were traveling outside the United States for the first time and were able to fly to London only because of a fundraiser Powell engineered back home.

As he tried to explain his four minutes of frustration, Coleman talked about those people, and others who didn't make the trip. He felt as if he had let all of them down. And it hurt.

"I busted my balls this whole year," Coleman said. "I went as hard as I can. I worked as hard as I can. I don't know. Maybe it just wasn't in God's plan for me to win."

Perhaps it wasn't. Just as perhaps it was never in the plans for me to write about Ellis Coleman.