Roger Reina has his work cut out for him. Fresh off the plane from Sydney, still adjusting to the 15-hour time difference, the man who rebuilt the Penn wrestling program has an overflowing inbox to sift through. "I got back very late last night, and [I'm] just trying to get through the e-mails -- I had over 150 of them," Reina said yesterday. Still, Reina couldn't be happier. That's because his former wrestler, 1998 Wharton grad Brandon Slay, knocked off a handful of the world's most talented and decorated wrestlers last week in Sydney. The Americans may have been disheartened with their team performance at the Games, failing to take home a single gold, but Slay himself did anything but disappoint, taking home the silver medal in his first Olympics. And the congratulatory e-mails have been pouring in. "It's been very encouraging. Through the e-mails and all the electronic communication, it's been great to know how many people were so closely tied in with what was going on Down Under," Reina said. "We actually had a very strong contingent of Penn people down in Sydney, including many alumni and former wrestlers who made the trip, so there was a great deal of support down there." Fourteen years ago, e-mails were a techie pipedream, Reina was a wet-behind-the-ears coach hoping to right a program just trying to stay alive, and the only Penn people in Sydney were there to study abroad. The idea that the Quakers could rise to the uppermost echelon of college wrestling by the turn of the century was inconceivable. "In 1986, we were a little more focused on just building our program to a level where we could be competitive within the Ivy League," Reina said. "I can't say that [having an Olympic wrestler someday] isn't something that I expected -- it wasn't something that I was even focused on at the time." That's because Penn wasn't exactly a model of wrestling success in the decade before Reina's hiring as head coach. They went 6-47-1 in Ivy League dual meets in that stretch. Flash forward to today. Penn is the Horatio Alger success story of the wrestling world, and the Ivy dual meet is far from the be all and end all for the Penn season. Sure, the 33-1-1 Ivy mark and six league titles in the last seven years are nice, but the crux of it has been Penn's steady rise on the national ladder. Last year, the Quakers finished No. 15 in the national dual meet rankings. They placed ninth in the team standings at the NCAA championships. That's just two notches behind Penn's finish in the Ivy League standings in Reina's first year as coach. Reina has built a model program on a foundation of talented student-athletes, drawing with the lure of both academic and athletic excellence; his squads consistently rank near the top nationally in team GPA. And the key to Penn's rise has unquestionably been recruiting, as Reina lands nationally ranked incoming classes despite the obvious Ivy absence of scholarships. Nothing is a better recruiting tool than winning -- except, perhaps, exposure. Exposure like Slay's back-to-back NCAA finals appearances in 1997-98, becoming the first Penn finalist since World War II. Exposure like Andrei Rodzianko's win at the grueling Midlands Tournament in 1998. Exposure like Brett Matter's NCAA title last March. And without question, exposure like Slay's Olympic ride. In '97, Slay's hard-fought loss to Oklahoma State's Mark Branch aired on ESPN2, late night, after the fact. Last week, albeit tape-delayed, Slay's Olympic performance was beamed into millions of American homes. "It's exposure we haven't had before," Reina said. "I think it's going to have a pretty significant impact." Yoshi Nakamura, a Penn 157-pounder with two years of eligibility remaining, raved similarly. "I think it's fantastic for the program," Nakamura said. "It shows where Penn wrestling has come from and where it's going." The most promising aspect of Slay's performance is that it had Penn written all over it. He still relies on Penn strength and fitness coach Rob Wagner for his training regimen. And of course, he owes a tremendous amount of gratitude to Penn assistant Brian Dolph. Dolph, a former NCAA champ at Indiana, was a front-runner for the '92 and '96 Games but was sidelined by injury. This past summer, he battled all the way to the 167.5-pound Olympic Trials finals -- where the mentor lost to the pupil, Slay, for the first time. Slay is a representative of everything Reina strives for with the Penn program. Compare this with another Ivy League medalist at Sydney, bronze-winning swimmer Cristina Teuscher, who also won gold in Atlanta as a teenager and picked Columbia for academic reasons; she's leagues ahead of her Lions teammates, an Ivy League anomaly. Slay is the Penn model. Nakamura, an integral part of the recruiting class that entered in the fall of '97 ranked No. 11 by Amateur Wrestling News, explained why Slay's exposure in Sydney is the perfect sell for the Penn system. "[This] is really going to benefit our program. Kids are really going to start turning their heads to see that the combination of academics here with a great wrestling program is going to be beneficial in their future," said Nakamura, an accomplished offseason freestyle wrestler who dreams of medaling in Athens in 2004. "Brandon's a great example of that. He chose to postpone his life to accomplish his goals in the Olympics. But he also has the option now of going to work for any investment bank he wants to." Slay's future is up in the air. A newcomer on the world scene, he may set his sights on Athens and the gold. Or the part-time Charles Schwab employee may start using his Wharton degree full-time. It's no secret that Slay is disappointed with the end result in Sydney, that he was not pleased with the officiating in the gold medal match. Still, while Slay may have lost the bout to Germany's Alexander Leipold, when he took the stand for the silver, it was Penn wrestling's biggest win yet.Comments powered by Disqus
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