By Robert Strauss
A Wrestler, a Rower and a Fencer Report on Victory, Defeat and Lessons Learned
Brandon Slay was in an emotional quandary as he lay on Bondi Beach in Sydney a couple of days after the Summer 2000 Olympics.
On the one hand, the 25-year-old Slay, W’98, had only days before won the silver medal in the freestyle wrestling 167 1/2-pound weight class, a wonderful culmination of a lifetime of sweating, pain and determination.
But the silver medal came with a lot of frustration. Slay felt he lost in the finals to Alexander Leipold of Germany, 4-0, because of a series of bad calls by officials. And when the referee grabbed for Slay’s hand at the end of the match, Slay refused to let him raise it in the usual Olympic salute. For that slight of sportsmanship, international competitors and coaches chided him, and the New York Times headline about the story read, “Forget the Close Calls: The U.S. Team Finds It Hard to Be Gracious in Defeat.”
“I have to admit I didn’t get over it initially,” says Slay, who spent the time after the Olympics with Brandon Brown, his best friend from his hometown of Amarillo, Texas. “My friend and I talked a lot and I asked God to help me figure out what I should learn from the experience.”
When Slay arrived back in Amarillo, there was a town parade down the main streets for him. High school bands and cheerleaders led the way.
“That was wonderful. That’s what showed me how true the support was in my hometown,” says Slay. “Even if I would have come back without a medal, that would have been there.”
And then an amazing thing happened. On Oct. 23, more than three weeks after he fought his final match, Leipold was declared ineligible because he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Slay was awarded the gold medal. Though Slay says he surely would have rather won the medal on the mat, he also saw positives in winning it this way.
“I get excited when I speak at high schools now,” says Slay. “This drug situation allows me to tell children that if you break the rules, you can lose your life, certainly. But short of that, you can also lose your life-long dream of being an Olympic champion. This man worked for 19 years, and then he lost his dream because he broke the rules.”
Two other men from Wharton also competed in the Sydney games, and while they didn’t come away with a medal, as Slay did, they says the experience was extraordinary. Garrett Miller, W’99, was part of the United States eight-man rowing boat, which came in fifth in the finals. Cliff Bayer, a Wharton senior from New York City, lost in the second round of the foil fencing competition to the eventual gold-medal winner, Kim Young Ho from South Korea.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” says Miller, who grew up in Erdenheim, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, and now lives in Princeton and works for Mount Lucas Management, a managed futures hedge fund. “I was expecting us to win and it can be pretty disappointing when it doesn’t work out. I guess we just all hit a slump at the worst time.”
Miller and the rest of the rowers on the team trained in Princeton with Olympic coach Mike Teti. Most of them had taken part-time jobs in the area so they could do several training sessions a day. At 23, Miller was one of the youngest on the team in a sport where primetime is in a competitor’s mid-to-late 20s. “Currently, I say I’m retired, but that could be an emotional decision,” he says. “At 23, I still could go on. I just need a little time to sort things out.”
Teti chose the Olympic eight team through a series of trials and physiological testing. Miller, who usually rowed in the middle seats – the strength positions – during his career at Penn, rowed in the seventh seat, the prime position for keeping the rhythm of the rowing for the rest of the boat, during the Olympics.
In reaching the finals, the Olympic eight won its second preliminary heat by a mere two-tenths of a second. But during the final race, the boat got off to a bad start, and after 500 meters of the 1,500-meter race was effectively out of it, finishing at least three seconds behind the medal-winning boats.
“Something just didn’t click,” says Miller. “It’s hard to pinpoint it, but the whole week, we just weren’t on. In an Olympic year, everyone turns it up a notch, so it was a inopportune time.”
Because the preliminary race was so close, Miller and his boat mates got more TV face time than the usual rowers.
“I think they replayed it a million times because it was so close,” he says. “But I wish they were able to get us on the air with a gold-medal win.”
Miller went to LaSalle High School in Philadelphia, where 150 of the 800 students in the school were rowers. “It was very big there. But after a while some kids drop out. I just fell in love with it,” he says. Early on in high school, Miller was also a cross-country runner, but in his junior year, he gained 50 pounds and grew several inches. “I went from 170 to 220, so that ended cross country. But it was great for rowing.” Miller’s brother rows for the United States Naval Academy and his sister was a varsity rower at Clemson University. “I’m not so sure she isn’t the best of us,” he says.
Miller tried not to let himself feel too down after the loss.
“We spent a week in Australia after it. Did all the usual tourist things,” he says. “My parents rented an apartment downtown and I moved in there. We went to an opera, to the Blue Mountains. I did have a really good time. But it still would have been nicer to win.”
Bayer had taken a year’s leave from Wharton to train for the Olympics. He traveled the world for major tournaments, as selection for the Olympic fencing competitions is based on accumulating points from world competitions the previous year.
Though he trained with his coaches at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan, Bayer also went to places like Cuba, China, France and Germany to compete. He went from 85th in the world foil rankings to as high as 8th, winning one gold medal in a tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, along the way. He was the only American to qualify for the foil competition at the Olympics, with only one other foil fencer, a Venezuelan, coming from the Western Hemisphere. “It was going to be difficult, but I thought I would do well,” says Bayer. But Kim was the one man he feared and when Bayer found out he would have to face him in the second round, he was a bit worried. “He has a different style. He is very quick. I only wish I could have faced him later, after a few other bouts. But he beat me and that is that.”
Bayer hopes his experience over the last year helps to improves the image of American fencing. “Before, they would say, ‘Well, Americans aren’t very good,’ ” he says. “Now, maybe they will say, ‘There is an American who could win a major tournament.'”
Like Miller, Bayer has a family legacy in wrestling, his brother having been on the Princeton team. Bayer is spending the rest of the year in New York, working for Convergence Advisors, a venture capital firm, and will return to Wharton this fall. And like Miller, he is retired – for now. “The Olympics is an amazing experience,” he says. “It’s not like tennis, where you have three or four major tournaments a year that everyone goes to. Basically, this is it – once every four years – and you have to work really hard to get up for it. We’ll just have to see about the future.”
Slay has the same sentiments.
“Right now, I’m leaning toward ending my wrestling career. But things are just moving around me so quickly and I’m just 25, so I don’t want to leap and cut off other things,” says Slay. He’s had job offers in San Francisco and is considering starting a business with Brown called More Than Gold that would focus, via camps and speaking engagements, on motivating children toward seemingly unreachable goals. He’s also had feelers from Hollywood for acting and writing possibilities.
“But I go back to those hours on Bondi Beach,” he says. “That’s when I started realizing that joy and happiness doesn’t have to come from winning and losing, but giving a complete effort to work toward a goal. I may have that gold medal now, but I didn’t then,” he says. “So it gave me a chance to know that losing only comes from missing out on that opportunity to learn and grow, which gives you the motivation to get that opportunity to succeed for future challenges. That is what it is all about.”