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Katie Downing overcomes obstacles to become World medalist

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Most people would call it adversity.

Twice winning the U.S. World Team Trials, but not receiving an opportunity to compete in the World Championships after losing in a special wrestle-off.

Having to knock off a wrestler who is a seven-time World freestyle medalist and two-time World champion just to make the American team.

But not Katie Downing. Not after all she's been through.

Adversity is what Downing experienced a dozen years ago as a nave, 14-year-old freshman on the Pendleton Heights (Ind.) High School wrestling team.

All eyes were on the only girl on the team during the first week of practice. Would she break? Could she handle the pressure of being the only female on the team and could she cope with the demanding, grueling workouts associated with the sport?

Downing provided a definitive answer on her very first day of practice. During the middle of a morning conditioning drill called max-relax (alternating sprinting and jogging on the whistle), Downing began to feel sick. The breakfast she decided to eat before practice wound up in a trash can.

"My coaches weren't necessarily trying to make me quit, but I'm sure part of them felt like their lives would be easier if I did," Downing said of her early days on the high school team. "After I threw up, I felt much better and I didn't know what else to do, so I kept running. I finished the practice and I think I won over a few doubters."

Downing continued to win over the doubters. She eventually became good enough to wrestle a few varsity matches and won the National Girls High School Championship in 1998. Her persistence and perseverance was evident as she eventually developed into one of the World's best wrestlers.

The 26-year-old Downing finally broke through last year to make her first U.S. World Team. She beat American women's freestyle legend Kristie Marano, the seven-time World medalist whom she had lost to in a special wrestle-off after Downing won the 2002 and 2003 World Team Trials. Now Downing will take the No. 1 seed into the World Team Trials for women on June 30 in Colorado Springs.

Downing lost to Marano in the 67 kg/147.5 pound finals of the 2005 U.S. Nationals, but rebounded to sweep her in two straight matches at the World Team Trials in Ames, Iowa. Finally, Downing had made a World Team.

"I was probably thinking too much about who my opponent was when I wrestled Kristie," Downing said. "The thing that changed for me was I decided that everything I had in my arsenal was good enough and I just wrestled harder."

Downing capitalized on her opportunity to wrestle on one of the sport's biggest stages when she captured a bronze medal at the 2005 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

"Since I started wrestling in 1994, that was the moment I dreamed about," she said of competing in the World meet. "It was exactly what I imagined it would feel like. I had every intention of winning the whole thing and it was hard to settle for a bronze. I've been around and I've wrestled a lot of those girls before in international competitions and had success against them. I knew I could do it."

So did her coach.

"Sometimes you get to the point where you don't want to be No. 2 anymore and I think that's what happened with Katie," said Terry Steiner, the National Women's Coach for USA Wrestling. "It was just a matter of putting it all together and believing in yourself. It would have been easy for her to walk away after 2004, but she kept following her dream and kept putting the time in. Now she's proven she's one of the best in the World."

So what has made Downing so successful?

"Katie's work ethic and her attitude have gotten her to where she's at," Steiner said. "She is very good technically, she's strong, she has good endurance and she's just a workhorse. Her style is not real flashy, it's very straightforward, but she's very good at what she does."

Downing will receive a bye into the best-of-3 finals at the 2006 World Team Trials by virtue of winning April's U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas. Marano bumped up a weight class and won at 72 kg/158.5 pounds in Vegas. Reigning World champion Iris Smith may be back at 158.5 for the World Team Trials after missing the U.S. Nationals with an injury.

Randi Miller placed second to Downing in Vegas.

"I'm pretty sure Kristie will stay up a weight class, but there's always a chance she will move back down, so I have to really be ready for her," Downing said. "Randi Miller also is wrestling tough. It's always close when we wrestle."

Downing likes the fact that she won't have to go through the Challenge Tournament to make the finals at the World Team Trials.

"I have all day to watch the other matches and get ready to compete," she said. "It can work both ways, but I enjoy having that time to prepare."

Downing, who competes for the Sunkist Kids, attended the University of Minnesota at Morris and was coached by Doug Reese. She earned degrees in history and social science.

Being an elite wrestler at the top level for women has allowed her to travel around the world on international tours.

"I'm a history student, so when I go to an old Russian Bloc country I've studied Communism and the effects of it," she said. "When you're there, and you can see what you read about, it's a pretty unique experience. It expands your view on everything. It would be pretty cool to go to China this year for the World Championships and see what that country is like."

The American women are eager to improve on their performance from last month's trip to the World Cup in Japan. The American team won the bronze medal, dropping 6 of 7 matches in their first dual against the powerful Japanese team that features six World champions in their lineup. Downing was the only American who didn't face a World champ and the only American to earn a win in the dual.

"The World Cup was kind of a wake-up call for us," Downing said. "The girls from Japan are very regimented and very disciplined. They are the team to beat. Wrestling them did us some good because we know what we have to work on now. We are on a mission to be at the top."

Downing has been a resident-athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center since graduating from college. For now, she is set on competing through 2008 and hoping to finish her career with a trip to the Olympics in Beijing, China. Wrestling became an Olympic sport for women in 2004.

"Every day, I think about the 2008 Olympics," Downing said. "I am pouring everything I have into making that team."

She hopes to coach, preferably at the collegiate level, when she's done competing.

When people hear she is a wrestler, Downing said the inevitable question typically follows. Why would a woman want to wrestle?

"I was involved with judo and softball and band, but wrestling answers something in me and fulfills something in me that nothing else can," she said. "Nothing can challenge a person in every single way - mentally, physically and emotionally - the way wrestling can. I love the fact that exactly what you put into the sport is exactly what you get out of it."

Downing's loyalty to the coaches from her first days as a wrestler was evident when she won her World bronze medal. She presented her medal to one of her high school coaches, Eric Kriebel, who still trains with Downing when she returns home to Indiana. The medal is hanging on a wall in Kriebel's home.

Kriebel suffered a stroke a couple years ago, but Downing said he was back on the mat wrestling her just a few weeks later. Downing said Kriebel is the coach who helped her become involved in freestyle wrestling.

Kriebel planned to travel to the World Championships to watch Downing compete last year in Hungary, but was unable to attend because of difficulties obtaining a passport. He was in the process of obtaining his passport through an office in New Orleans, but all the information was lost during Hurricane Katrina. He then tried to obtain another passport, but was unable to get one in time for the event.

"Krieb has been with me since the first day I stepped on the mat in 1994," Downing said. "He's basically like family to me - we're very close. He's had a huge impact on my career. A huge part of that medal is very much his."

Downing is hoping to bring home a different color medal from this year's World Championships, scheduled for Sept. 26-Oct. 2 in Guangzhou, China.

"I feel like I have some momentum now after winning a bronze medal and I need to keep building on that," she said. "I'm not going to be satisfied until I'm on top."
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