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TheMatside View by Gary Abbott: Remembering September 11, five years later



Today marks the five-year anniversary of the terrible and tragic attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. All across the nation and the world, people are taking time to think back on that memorable day, and to reflect on what it means to each of us.

September 11 stands out in my life, both on a personal level and as a professional serving the wrestling community. September 11 affected me directly in both areas, and had a profound impact at the time and ever since.

In a wrestling context, USA Wrestling was just days away from hosting the 2001 World Wrestling Championships in Madison Square Garden in New York City. The tournament was set for September 26-29. A total of 692 athletes from 82 nations around the world were ready to depart for New York, and the field of the tournament was expected to be the largest in history.

Where were you when you heard about the attack on the World Trade Center? I know where I was. I had driven to the Colorado Springs airport to purchase a ticket for my sister-in-law to visit my family from Arizona while I was away in New York assisting with the World Championships. My wife called my cell phone and told me about watching on the Today Show a video of an airplane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. It was hard for me to understand or believe, but I immediately turned on my car radio, listened to the frantic reports, and quickly was brought into the reality of the day.

When I reached the offices at USA Wrestling, people were also learning about the incident. The television was turned on, and all of us became immersed in following the news, just like everybody else in America. As the day unfolded, and we realized the tremendous impact of all of those horrible events, we also had to start working on what USA Wrestling and FILA would do about the World Championships, just a few days away.

There was also a very personal drama in my world that day. As a native New Yorker, the attack on the city of my birth was an attack on me, my family, my friends and my community. In addition, my older brother works in the Wall Street area and took the train from New Jersey every day to the World Trade Center. Nobody from my family had heard from my brother, and there were a few very stressful and frightening hours until he finally reached his wife on a borrowed cell phone, after escaping from Ground Zero, to let us know he was OK.

One of the things that stand out about that day was the story of Ed Gould, our USA Wrestling state chairperson for New York, who was in the Trade Towers that day and was able to escape by going down a flight of stairs after the plane crashed into his building. Ed let USA Wrestling know quite early on that he was safe and had gotten out of danger.

The national media started calling, fishing for stories from the sports community. A few journalists called, asking if any wrestling people had been involved. I shared Ed's story with them, and he actually conducted a few interviews with major publications telling the story of a day he will never forget.

The importance of the World Championships, something that had taken months of hard work to prepare, became very apparent as the magnitude of September 11 sunk in. Although the event was the most pressing thing on our plate at the time, what the people of New York City and the nation were going through at the time was of foremost concern. There were meetings and phone calls and discussions on what should be done in the most appropriate way.

USA Wrestling issued its first statement regarding the World Championships on the following day, September 12, when we basically explained to everybody that no information on the tournament was yet available. In that written statement, we noted: "The No. 1 priority is for the safety of the athletes, the foreign delegations, volunteers, fans and others involved with the Championships." We promised an update within between 24 and 48 hours. That really is all that could be done at that time.

On Friday, September 14, USA Wrestling issued a press release that our organization had formally requested from FILA, the international wrestling federation, that the World Championships be postponed. This was not a cancellation, as so many more things needed to be discussed and decided. Statements from USA Wrestling President Bruce Baumgartner and NYC2012 President Dan Doctoroff indicated that there was still a desire to host the tournament if it could still happen after a postponement.

On Monday, September 17, FILA announced in a letter to all international wrestling federations that the tournament had been postponed. The letter from FILA President Milan Ercegan said that it was postponed in respect for the families of the victims. The letter also noted that "the new place and date of the Championships will be decided at the end of September" and that "we foresee the Championship to be held in October or the beginning of November."

From the day of the attacks, USA Wrestling started receiving condolence letters from international wrestling federations, wrestling dignitaries and journalists from all across the world. Our FAX machine was getting filled with these messages, many that were amazingly touching and compelling. We decided to type up those letters, in order to share them with the U.S. wrestling community through our website and our publications.

To read those amazing letters, click the links below:

Letters from international federations

Letters from international journalists

During that time, we also started hearing stories of wrestling people who were killed during the 9-11 attacks, and were among the heroes of that tragic day. We received word that Chief Raymond Downey of Deer Park, N.Y., a parent of the talented Downey brother wrestlers from New York, was among those who perished that day. We also learned about Jeremy Glick, a high school wrestler and judo athlete, was on United Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania, and he was part of the effort by brave passengers to attempt to take back the plane from their hijackers.

I knew Chief Raymond Downey as the father of a wrestler who competed when I was in high school and was on the USA Wrestling event circuit in the Northeast. His son Joe Downey was a friend, and when I saw photos of his father as a younger man, I remembered him from the tournaments which we attended.

TheMat.com posted the following story on September 18, 2001 about Downey and Glick.

Remembering heroes Raymond Downey and Jeremy Glick

Later on, we heard about Mark Whitford, a former varsity wrestler for Seton Hall Univ., who was among the firemen who were killed in the line of duty on September 11. The following story from Newsday was posted on TheMat.com.

Wrestling champion Mark Whitford among firefighter heroes missing from World Trade Center

It was on October 11 that USA Wrestling made an announcement that FILA had selected new locations for the World Championships, with men's and women's freestyle going to Sofia, Bulgaria and Greco-Roman going to Patras, Greece. The 2001 World Championships would not happen in New York City for sure because of the September 11 attack.

Two college wrestlers who had qualified for the 2001 World meet, Cael Sanderson of Iowa State and Garrett Lowney of Minnesota, made decisions not to compete in the rescheduled championships due to their college obligations. USA Wrestling's teams went back into training, and all of us went back to our daily routines and responsibilities, clearly changed forever because of this day.

So much has happened in wrestling and in all of our lives since that day. The 2001 World Championships story did not end when they moved the tournaments to Europe. Leaders within USA Wrestling worked very hard to get the World Championships back, and the U.S. was able to secure the 2003 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships for both men and women to be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

That tournament was a smashing success, one of the highlights of American wrestling history, and a great testament to the memory of those who lost their lives two years earlier. Anybody who was able to take part in the 2003 World Championships in New York in any capacity was involved in rebuilding something that we can all be proud of. New York City, NYC2012 and USA Wrestling were able to host its World Championships, and the terrorists could not stop it from happening.

All three of the wrestling heroes that we reported on in those days after September 11 were honored by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame with their Medal of Courage Award. Raymond Downey, Jeremy Glick and Mark Whitford will forever be recognized by the wrestling community for their heroic sacrifice with a display on the walls of our Hall of Fame.

I have had an opportunity in recent years to get back acquainted with the Downey family. I spent time with them at the Hall of Fame inductions. I have since visited with Ray, the son, who has become very active and successful in USA Wrestling's Beach Wrestling program. The Downeys remain an important part of the wrestling family, now and in the future.

Throughout the day, all of us will be thinking back five years. Included in my thoughts are many wrestling memories, along with all of the other emotions that come with being an American citizen and a New York native. Let's spend some silent time today to honor the memory of those who lost their lives five years ago, and be grateful for all the blessings we receive as Americans.
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