For Jared Frayer, the Olympic dream kept him going.
A skilled wrestler at Countryside High in the 1990s, Frayer kept at the sport into adulthood, finally making the U.S. Olympic team at age 33 and competing last summer in London.
But soon that Olympian goal that kept Frayer on the mat all those years will be snuffed out. The International Olympic Committee executive board voted Tuesday to eliminate wrestling — part of the modern Games since 1896 and the ancient games before that — beginning with the 2020 Games.
"It's pretty wild, pretty disheartening," Frayer said. "It's tough because the Olympics was the one thing that was really keeping the sport alive past college. It was the one thing that gave it notoriety and respect on a world stage. Growing up in Florida, in a sport with no college wrestling (in the state), my biggest dream was to represent the USA in the Olympics. … I can only imagine what kids in high school or even younger are thinking right now."
The IOC decision was a surprise to many Olympic observers, who thought modern pentathlon — a sport that combines fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting — was most likely to be dropped in a review of the 26 Olympic sports. Wrestling will try to reclaim its spot, competing against softball, baseball, wakeboarding and wushu (a Chinese form of martial arts) in coming months.
The 15-member board gave no reason for its decision.
"This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It's not a case of what's wrong with wrestling; it is what's right with the 25 core sports."
According to IOC documents obtained by the Associated Press, wrestling ranked low in several of the areas evaluated, including popularity with the public at the London Games. Wrestling sold 113,851 tickets in London out of 116,854 available.
Wrestling also ranked low in global TV audience with a maximum of 58.5 million viewers and an average of 23 million, the documents show. Internet hits and news coverage were also ranked as low.
The United States has had much success in Olympic wrestling, winning 113 medals in freestyle competition, more than any other country. U.S. athletes have more wrestling medals than any sport other than swimming and track and field, which offer more medal opportunities.
Longtime Brandon High coach Russ Cozart, familiar with the international politics of sports and Olympic lobbying, said the world's governing body for wrestling has been criticized for mismanagement. Other sports, including equestrian, have had better lobbying efforts and will carry on in the Olympics, with significant impact on the sport and its future.
"The world organization for freestyle and Greco-Roman has kind of dropped the ball, and it has been well-noted," said Cozart, who has spent more than a decade on the U.S. Olympic coaching staff, working with wrestlers of various age levels. "There are huge ramifications if wrestling is kept out of the Olympics. … You don't need an Olympic Training Center in America if you're not in the Olympics. Hopefully, maybe them being kicked out of the Olympics for a while will force them to reorganize and present a better (product)."
With moments such as Rulon Gardner's historic upset for gold in the 2000 Olympics, the Olympics have represented the pinnacle of competition beyond college for generations of wrestlers. Former Hernando High wrestler Charley Combs, who made a comeback effort last year for the U.S. Olympic Trials, said it's unfair to point to metrics such as TV ratings because even medal competitions in wrestling aren't given the opportunity for audiences.
"It's an appalling decision," Combs said. "It deflates the interest in the sport because it's more difficult to aim for something. In every facet of life, you have to have goals, and this just takes away some of those goals. Your average high school or college wrestler couldn't tell you who won the 2011 world championship in any weight class, but the Olympics are prestigious."
While wrestling advocates can hope to regain an Olympic spot, the consensus is that significant damage is being done to the motivations of more than 100,000 young wrestlers across the country.
"I'm hopeful, but any halt is detrimental," Cozart said.
Frayer points back to the sport's fundamental traits of toughness and resilience: "I know there's a lot of people in the sport that won't let this decision go down without a fight."
Some of the sport's most successful and well-known leaders took to social media and mainstream news outlets Tuesday, expressing their frustration and hope that a solution still exists for wrestling's Olympic future.
"I do think wrestling people are the strongest in the world, and they're resilient. And we'll come out of whatever happens. But short term, yeah, it's sad," 2004 gold medalist Cael Sanderson, now head coach at Penn State, told AP. "I just think of the kids in our program that dream of being Olympic champions. And to think that now that's no longer an opportunity just so the IOC can stay fresh and continue to rotate sports and whatever their plan is — it's tough to think about."
Times staff writers Greg Auman, Joey Knight and Bob Putnam and correspondent Derek J. LaRiviere contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.