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Tragedies consume Cormier

8/19/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- The wrestling mat always was the place for
U.S. Olympian Daniel Cormier to burn off aggression and transform a
not-always-easy life.

More times than he liked, it also was a refuge for releasing
sorrow.

At 25, Cormier has known an uncommon amount of tragedy,
including the death of his infant daughter in an auto accident last
year.

The adversity didn't prevent him from reaching the Olympics -- at
times, he turned it into motivation. But it took a lot of joy out
of the journey.

When he was 7, his father, Joseph, was shot to death on
Thanksgiving Day 1986 during an argument with an in-law. A few
years later, a close friend was killed in a car accident, and so
was a cousin. In college, he lost roommate Daniel Lawson and
several other friends in the plane crash that killed 10 members of
the Oklahoma State basketball team's traveling party.

"Sometimes I get way too emotional," said Cormier, the
211½-pounder on the U.S. freestyle team. "You have to get back on
the mat to concentrate."

But when a tractor-trailer plowed into the back of the car
carrying 3½-month-old daughter Kaedyn Imri, killing her instantly
14 months ago, not even wrestling could ease Cormier's sorrow.

For weeks, he hid behind closed doors and drawn curtains,
missing the U.S. world team trials, unable to rid himself of the
sadness or find the motivation to resume training.

Finally, after the trials ended, he requested and won a
wrestle-off with trials winner Dean Morrison to make the U.S. team.
He followed with a gold medal at the Pan Am Games, a fifth-place
finish in the world championships and a victory at the U.S. Olympic
trials.

Cormier is glad the Olympics are in Greece, not close to home.
When the world championships were in New York, friends and family
gathered to celebrate what they hoped would be a medal and to
grieve Kaedyn's death.

"I let my off-the-mat experience seep into my wrestling, and
while everything else was going on, I let my emotions run away,"
Cormier said. "Here, I don't have the pressure to do so well,
we're not on our home turf and everybody will be against us."

Cormier, a former NCAA runnerup at Oklahoma State, tuned up for
the Olympics two months ago by outscoring his two international
opponents 21-1 in the Titan Games in Atlanta. Before leaving for
Athens, he was presented the keys to the city of his hometown
Lafayette, La., a ceremony he calls the proudest moment of his life
outside of wrestling.

Cormier's career began there when his high school coach, Stephen
"Tank" Lotief, saw him fighting on the school lawn and invited
him to channel his strength and emotions onto the mat. He did,
becoming a three-time state wrestling champion and a star
linebacker at Northside High.

U.S. national team coach Kevin Jackson has been one of Cormier's
biggest supporters and is certain Cormier has the talent to win a
medal -- he's beaten two of the four men who finished above him in
the world championships.

"He has the ability to win a gold medal," said Zeke Jones, one
of the U.S. coaches.

In Athens, Cormier's main competition should come from two-time
defending world champion Eldari Kurtanidze, who took bronze medals
in different classes at the last two Olympics; former Iranian world
champion Ali Reza Heidari, who lost to Kurtanidze in the last two
world finals, and 2000 Olympic silver medalist Islam Baraimukov of
Kazakhstan.

"It's been easier for me this year," said Cormier, who is
joined by former Oklahoma State teammates Jamill Kelly and Eric Guerrero on the Olympic team. "I haven't had to deal with all the
stuff I had to deal with off the mat. I could concentrate on
wrestling and the areas where I need to get better, and I've gotten
better as the year has gone on."