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Brandon wrestling phenom eyes Olympics

Eric Grajales' prematch routine is consistent.

He jogs a little, stretches some and drills with a teammate. Then, to get in the mood, Grajales turns on his iPod, sticks in his earphones and pumps music, typically songs from metal groups such as Five Finger Death Punch and Static-X, into his body.

"I like the really hard stuff," Grajales said.

It makes sense.

Much like his music of choice, Grajales is a ball of energy, wired like few others.

"He is full throttle," said the star's father, Cesar Grajales.

On the mat, Grajales has combined vigor with focus, skill and determination to become one of the country's top amateur wrestlers, and at age 18, the Brandon High rising senior sits on the cusp of greatness. Friday in Las Vegas, he will attempt to make the Olympic team when he competes at the trials in the men's 121-pound (55 kilogram) Greco-Roman division.

"Becoming an Olympic team member has always been an aspiration of mine," Grajales said.

Grajales' journey began early. He was wrestling by the time he was 4 and soon after began working under the watchful eye of legendary Brandon coach Russ Cozart with the Brandon Wrestling Club.

"Since I started (14 years ago), it has been almost a continuous thing," Grajales said. "I'd take a week or two off here or there but nothing else."

Grajales' love for the sport was immediate.

So was his success.

"I've always kind of known he was something special, ever since he was little," Cesar Grajales said. "He has pretty much won everything at every age group. Since he was 5 or 6, I think he has been a national champion at every division."

Wrestling is in the Grajales family's blood.

Grajales' father competed at Brandon in the early 1980s and was a member of Cozart's first state championship team in 1982. Cesar Anthony Grajales, Eric's older brother, also was a standout at Brandon — he won four state individual titles and recently completed his junior season at the University of Pennsylvania. An uncle wrestled at Largo.

Grajales has been unbeatable while competing for Brandon. As a junior, he earned his third state title, went 58-0 and set a state-record with 53 pins. His last loss in a prep match came in the state championship when he was an eighth-grader competing at Temple Heights Christian.

"He's always been a fierce competitor," Cozart said. "He has the desire to win. Even under uncomfortable circumstances, he still pushes forward."

Cozart has mentored dozens of state champions and numerous All-Americans, but Grajales has a chance to become his first Olympian. And the coach isn't the least bit surprised by the development.

"It's an exciting time," he said.

Grajales reached the trials by placing fifth at the national championships in Las Vegas. One of his defeats there came against the eventual winner, Spenser Mango. In that match, Mango won the first period, but Grajales led 4-0 in the second.

"He was two points from winning (the period)," Grajales' father said. "I think he got a little nervous and went for the gusto."

The result? Mango countered and eventually won the period to clinch the match.

Grajales nonetheless was encouraged by his performance. And by eliminating a mistake here and there, he thinks he can make a strong showing at the trials.

"Any given day, you can have a great day," Grajales said. "And you can do anything."

On the Web

See YouTube video of Eric Grajales in action at sports.tampabay.com.

Olympic wrestling trials

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Thomas & Mack Center, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Competition: Bouts are held in a combined 18 weight classes in the three Olympic styles (men's freestyle and Greco-Roman, women's freestyle).

Who advances: Each nation can send a maximum of 18 wrestlers to the Olympics, one for each weight class: seven in men's freestyle, seven in Greco-Roman and four in women's freestyle.

TV: noon June 22 (taped), MSNBC

Grappling in action

See YouTube video of Olympic hopeful Eric Grajales at sports.tampabay.com.

Brandon wrestling phenom eyes Olympics 06/11/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2008 7:43pm]

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