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Byers' mentor just won't let go – literally

Kings Mountain native, a gold medal contender, takes on Gardner in an impromptu wrestling practice session.

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

BEIJING Dremiel Byers, the Greco-Roman wrestler from Kings Mountain, thought he was finished with Rulon Gardner.

Gardner was a surprise gold medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games when he upset legendary Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin. Then he retired following the 2004 Olympics. That helped clear the way for Byers to finally step out of Gardner's massive shadow and make his first Olympic team two months ago at age 33.

But there was Gardner on Thursday, rolling into the U.S. practice facility just after a team workout concluded and barking, “Byers!”

Byers was sitting down, but he heard the challenge in Gardner's voice and stood up immediately.

“Let's go,” Byers said, ending an interview, stripping off his red shirt and heading back out to the mat to face Gardner for a 10-minute, sweat-drenched session.

Although their practice workout was intense, it was also all in fun. Byers and Gardner are fast friends, so much so that Gardner brought Byers to the 2004 Olympics in Athens as his training partner after barely beating him in the Olympic trials. Then he gave Byers some of the bonus money he received for winning a bronze medal that year.

This time, it is Byers in the lead role and Gardner on the sidelines – not as his training partner but as the wrestling analyst for NBC.

“I wanted to look in Dremiel's eyes today,” Gardner said, still breathing hard after the two had finished wrestling. “With just a few days left before his competition, I wanted to see where he is, how his mental toughness is.”

And where is Byers?

Said Gardner: “He's the best in the world if he wrestles. Sometimes Dremiel relaxes too much. Sometimes he gets a little nervous, a little anxious, a little scared. But he can't do that here. This is his year. This is his pinnacle.”

Byers will compete Aug.14. In his heavyweight class, 20 wrestlers have qualified. Depending on the draw, Byers will have to win either four or five consecutive matches – all in one day, sometimes with no more than 20 to 30 minutes between – to win gold.

No one kept score during the impromptu practice session between Gardner and Byers, but it looked about even. Said Byers: “Rulon is still huge. And he's still got that barrel chest with about 12 extra lungs in it. He's tough.”

Gardner has also gained a lot of weight since he competed in Byers' heavyweight class four years ago. While Byers will wrestle at no more than 264.5 pounds when he competes here, Gardner said he now weighs about 340.

“I'll lose some weight here, though,” Gardner said, “if I keep doing this.”

While Gardner will provide NBC's analysis for all the Olympic wrestling matches in Beijing, his play-by-play man here will be Charlotte resident Matt Devlin.

Devlin was the TV play-by-play man for the Charlotte Bobcats' first three seasons before he and the team parted ways. Devlin, however, has secured a new full-time job as the TV play-by-play man for the Toronto Raptors.

“I get back from Beijing Aug.22 and we'll probably leave for Toronto on Aug. 24,” Devlin said.

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