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Cooper back, better than ever after brief retirement

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Marcel Cooper peeled off his wrestling shoes, placed them on the center of the mat at the RCA Dome and said goodbye.

After nearly three decades of wrestling, Cooper decided to retire after placing third in Greco-Roman at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis.

He walked away with no regrets.

"I thought it would be more emotional than it was," Cooper said. "But when I retired I was satisfied with my career. I had made a World team (in 2001) and I had won my final match of the Olympic Trials to make the National team. It was more of a relief than anything to be done. My body was pretty beat up and I was ready for it to be over."

But as many elite wrestlers know, walking away from a sport you dedicate so much time and effort to can be difficult.

After four months off, Cooper was back on the mat. After 13 years with the U.S. Marines, Cooper returned to competition early last year with the U.S. Army. He placed second in the U.S. Nationals in 2005 before taking fourth at the World Team Trials.

Now 35 years old, Cooper is poised for another strong season in 2006. He's off to a promising start after capturing his second U.S. Nationals championship last month in Las Vegas. Cooper will take the No. 1 seed at 66 kg/145.5 pounds into the U.S. World Team Trials on May 27-28 in Sioux City, Iowa.

The winner in each weight class in Sioux City will represent the U.S. at the World Championships on Sept. 26-Oct. 2 in Guangzhou, China.

"At the time I quit, I was 100 percent sure it was the right decision," he said. "During the time I sat out, my body healed and my desire to compete came back. I'm feeling real good, real healthy and real confident right now. Winning at Vegas gave me a big boost."

Cooper's toughest challenge at the Trials likely will be knocking off 2005 World team member Harry Lester, who sat out the U.S. Nationals with an injury.

"There are some real tough guys at my weight class," Cooper said. "Nobody is really dominant at that weight, so it should be a real good battle at the Trials just like it was in Vegas. Anyone in the top eight has a chance to win it."

Cooper credits the daily practices he takes part in at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for much of his success.

A staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, Cooper said he plans to stay in the military until he is eligible to retire after 20 years of service. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native has thrived in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.

"I have five years to go before I finish out my time in the military," he said. "The transition to the Army has gone real well. I have no regrets about my time with the Marines. They treated me well."

Cooper has been wrestling since he was 5 years old, but he didn't start wrestling Greco-Roman until he joined the Marines.

"I love Greco - I think it's real exciting with all the throws and spectacular moves you can do," he said. "I love these new rules where you use the reverse lift. I've used the reverse lift most of my career so that fits right into my style of wrestling."

U.S. Army coach Shon Lewis, Cooper's coach, said his disciple has an opportunity to do something special this year.

"Marcel definitely has the potential to win a World medal," Lewis said. "He probably has the best par terre defense in the country in that weight class. He's very tough to score on, meaning he always has a chance to win. He also is very good with that reverse lift. These new rules definitely play to his strengths."

The influence of Lewis, who used to compete against Cooper, has paid dividends.

"He's one of the best coaches that I've ever had," Cooper said, "if not the best coach I've ever had. He's taught me a lot and everything has worked out great with him."

Cooper said he's not sure how long he will wrestle.

"I used to take it year by year when I was younger, but now that I'm one of the older guys on the team I just take it day by day," he said. "The (2008) Olympics are too far down the road to even think about."

His sole focus right now is on making his second World team.

"I would love another opportunity to be on a World team," he said. "Maybe I can bring a medal back home this time. That would be a good way to end my wrestling career."
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