NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario - It almost goes without saying, but wrestlers, they're fighters. And after suffering a metaphorical near fall in the wake of the International Olympic Committee's February decision to strike wrestling from the 2020 Olympic program, grapplers of the planet have regrouped and are on the offensive, ready to win the battle to save the world's oldest sport.
Alex Conti, of course, is one of the many on the front lines.
"We're bringing public awareness to what's going on," Conti, the longtime Fredonia coach, said. "We're going to show the (International Olympic Committee) that wrestling is alive and well and strong throughout the world."
Following what was, to many, the shocking announcement from the IOC (which made the decision, it said, due to, among other things, declining fan attendance and popularity), the wrestling community and it's governing body, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), immediately sprang into action.
First, FILA elected a new president, Nenad Lalovic, who in turn pushed through a number of rules changes aimed at making the sport more spectator friendly. Next, it named May "World Wrestling Awareness" month, and encouraged each of its members (a group totalling some 177 countries) to organize events and activities to promote the sport and raise awareness of its impending doom.
One of those events is the upcoming "Battle at the Falls," a tri-meet that will pit some of the best female wrestlers from Canada, the United States and the Ukraine against one another. The free-admission event, which was devised by Wrestling Canada in conjunction with USA Wrestling and the Ukrainian Wrestling Association, is slated for Friday at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
It's one of the final major wrestling events before the IOC makes its decision, once and for all, on wrestling's 2020 fate in September, so when USA national women's coach Terry Steiner called Conti, who was Steiner's assistant at the 2012 Olympic games in London, and asked him to be his assistant coach, Conti jumped at the chance to help his beloved sport.
"I was honored because it's a very, very huge and important event," Conti said. "There's events like this going on all over the world and we're showing that wrestling crosses all boundaries. We reach out to all nations in the world, and when you (put together) an event like this, we're forming a united front for the sake of saving a sport as important as wrestling."
"You see, people don't understand that the world needs wrestling," he continued. "There are countries that don't have the luxury of other sports, and those athletes' entire dream is Olympic wrestling. (The IOC) has made a very unpopular decision - unpopular in the world's eyes - and they're making it, I believe, based on special interests. But they have to see it's not always about money, they need to see that the sport of wrestling is such an important one to so many countries, and to take it away is an absolute shame. It's an Olympic dream, it shouldn't come with an asterisk that says: if you can afford it."
"The Battle at the Falls" kicks off at 2 p.m., with a free two-hour wrestling clinic taught by, among others, three-time Olympic medalist Tonya Verbeek. Immediately following Team USA will square off against the Ukraine, and then over the next three hours Canada will do battle on the mat first with the Ukraine and then with the United States.
All three squads are bringing the best their country has to offer.
Among the U.S. Team members (all of whom are part of the national team) is 2012 World Champion, 2010 World Silver medalist and 2012 Olympian Elena Pirozhkova, who is ranked No. 2 in the world for the 63-kilogram weight class.
"We're bringing our No. 1's," Conti said. "All the girls that won at Las Vegas in our national tournament are going."
Also headlining are, from Canada, Jessica McDonald, a 2012 World Champion, and from the Ukraine, current European champion and two-time junior world champion Alina Stadnik-Makinya.
"All three (countries) are bringing very high-quality teams," Conti said.
And it's not just current wrestlers that will be attending - former stars will be throwing their weight behind the effort as well. Among them, Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic champion who won the 68 kg. class at the Munich Games without surrendering a single point. Gable also won a pair of NCAA titles at Iowa and later coached the Cyclones to a record 15 national team titles from 1977 to 1997.
"Hopefully we'll get people across the bridge to see it," Conti said. "I'm hoping it's a great crowd, for wrestling's sake."
In other words, it's time for spectators and fans to join the fight, because you can bet the IOC will be watching to see how it all turns out.
For more information on the event, visit battleatthefalls.blogspot.ca.