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Going for the Gold: Thompson, Ruiz, Downing talk about quests for World titles (Audio posted)

When Tolly Thompson was wrestling for the University of Nebraska in the early 1990s, then-Husker assistant coach Mark Cody always introduced him to people in the same manner.

"He used to introduce me as 'Tolly Thompson, he's going to be a national champion someday,'" Thompson said.

Cody's words resonated with his young heavyweight and someday arrived in 1995 when Thompson responded by winning an NCAA championship.

Now 11 years later, Thompson has USA National Freestyle Coach Kevin Jackson delivering a similar message to him as he prepares for the upcoming World Championships.

"Mentally, I've been telling myself I'm going to be a World Champion," Thompson said. "And I have people around me telling me I can do it. I told Coach Jackson I need to hear it twice every day. He believes I can do it and I believe I can do it. I don't think anybody in the World can take me down."

Two other athletes with the same belief, fellow World bronze medalists Justin Ruiz and Katie Downing, joined Thompson during a U.S. Olympic Committee Teleconference on Friday afternoon that served as a preview for the upcoming World Championships. The World meet is set for Sept. 25-Oct. 1 in Guangzhou, China.

Click here to listen to Friday's USOC Teleconference:

The 26-year-old Downing (Colorado Springs, Colo./Sunkist Kids) capitalized on her first trip to the World Championships in women's freestyle last year by bringing home a bronze medal. She competes at 67 kg/147.5 pounds.

"The experience from last year was exciting and it was great to finally have my shot at the gold," she said. "Last year set me up real well for this year. I have the same excitement to be going, but I'm really ready to get down to business now and I have a real clear idea what I need to do against each opponent. I won't be as starry-eyed."

The 27-year-old Ruiz (Colorado Springs, Colo./New York AC) earned a bronze medal in his second World meet in Greco-Roman last year. He replaced an injured Garrett Lowney on the U.S. World Team in 2003. Ruiz competes at 96 kg/211.5 pounds.

"I wouldn't say there's a whole lot more pressure on me this year," he said. "I'm going in with the same mindset - to wrestle hard, do my best and win a World Championship. This is a steppingstone to help me get ready for the Olympics. My wife actually told me to pretend like it's your last year of wrestling and give it everything you've got. If I go in with a mindset like that I think everything will work out."

The 33-year-old Thompson (Cedar Falls, Iowa/Sunkist Kids) won a bronze medal at the 2005 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, after spending years stuck behind World champion Stephen Neal and World silver medalist Kerry McCoy. It was Thompson's first World meet.

"People around the World always know America is going to have a strong heavyweight, no matter who is on the team," Thompson said. "They know we will be competitive. Bruce (Baumgartner) started that. You make the team in the U.S., you're going to win medals and win matches at the highest level - then eventually you should be a World champ or a Olympic champ."

Thompson is the lone returning American medalist from 2005 on a young United States freestyle team. Sammie Henson, a past World champion and Olympic silver medalist, is the only other World-level medalist on the team besides Thompson.

The U.S. has three newcomers to the World stage - Mike Zadick, Donny Pritzlaff and Andy Hrovat - on the 2006 freestyle team.

"The team is real tight and we've hung out together a lot more and gone out to eat more this year," Thompson said. "I'm ready to go to war with six other guys. I wouldn't pick six different guys in the World than the six guys I'm with.

"We want to see each other win and we feed off each other. If one guy gets on a roll, we can all get on a roll."

The group also enjoys their time together off the mat.

"We're constantly messing with each other," Thompson said. "We've got some characters on this team."

Thompson originally planned to wrestle through 2004, but those plans changed after he placed second to McCoy at the 2004 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. Now the Northern Iowa assistant coach is ready to make a run at the next Olympics. He competes at 120 kg/264.5 pounds.

"I'm taking it year by year, match by match," he said. "I'm obviously going through 2008, but who knows after that? You're only as old as you feel. And I feel like those college kids, like I'm 21 or 22. I feel great."

Thompson's biggest concern as an athlete isn't necessarily his age, it's the heavy time commitment it requires being away from his young family. He and his wife, Tracy, have three young daughters.

"My wife is real tired of being a single mom half the time," Thompson said. "I spend four or five months on the road each year."

He also balances competing with coaching at the college level.

"It's tough because we're on the road so much," he said. "My boss, Coach (Brad) Penrith, he is real lenient. He understands what it takes to compete at this level. He was a World silver medalist himself."

What Thompson may learn during a U.S. training camp likely is passed on to the wrestlers he coaches at UNI.

"It's great being able to share that with the guys in our room," he said. "They learn new techniques and new strategies that I may learn out in Colorado. They can benefit from what I learn."

Ruiz hopes to build on his performance from 2005.

"(Winning a medal) definitely helped to boost my confidence," he said. "Being able to perform at that level made me realize I can compete with the best guys and tells me I'm in the running for a championship."

Ruiz is part of a veteran American team that has six returning members from last year's World Team. But Ruiz was the only World medalist last year. Greco-Roman heavyweight Dremiel Byers won a World title in 2002.

"Everybody has been there and they know what to expect," Ruiz said. "Everybody wrestled well in the last tournament in Romania (last month) and put together some good matches. I think as a team we will do really well. Our guys realize they are capable of winning medals or being in the championship match."

Before she leaves for China on Sept. 22, Downing will return home to Pendleton, Ind., next week where she will be grand marshal of the Pendleton Heights High School homecoming parade.

Since her weight class isn't one of the four Olympic weights, Downing has a decision to make in the near-future. She said Friday she plans to drop down to 63 kg/138.75 pounds in 2008. She said she likely will compete some at the lower weight next year in preparation for 2008.

"I feel more comfortable wrestling the smaller girls," Downing said. "I feel like I can slow them down even though they are quicker."

Downing appreciates where she came from and the long road she followed in becoming a World medalist.

"I spent a lot of years real hungry for that shot to finally get to go," she said. "I had been competing internationally almost at the top for a long time. When I did break through I was ready. It didn't feel like a first-time experience for me because I was so ready to compete at the Worlds. Everything set up perfectly for me and I couldn't have been more ready."

The wrestlers agree the one-day format at the World Championships, that was introduced last year, benefits each of them.

"I think it really favors the American wrestlers because we've all had to wrestle through high school and college where we really emphasize conditioning and learn how to train," Ruiz said. "Some guys aren't really used to wrestling that many matches in one single day. You might have to wrestle five or six times in one day, depending on how many guys are in your weight class. It's definitely an advantage for the U.S. team."

Said Thompson: "The end of the day is real important. That's where you catch guys and take those guys out. Myself and Sammie Henson, we're older. I'm 33 years old. It would be hard for me to wrestle three straight days when you're stiff and sore the next morning. These new rules have prolonged careers."

Said Downing: "Personally, I like the single day. Your body is going to be fresh the whole day. It's good for Americans because we are conditioned to handle a lot of matches in a single day with less recovery."
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