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|Travis Lee overcomes obstacles to become top contender in freestyle|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - When you talk about the strongest freestyle weight class in the United States you typically start with 66 kilograms.
The 145.5-pound division traditionally has been one of the best in this country and continues to be with reigning World champion Bill Zadick leading the way.
But you could make a legitimate case for 60 kg/132 pounds being just as tough. You start with World silver medalist Mike Zadick and then add 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kendall Cross, who recently came out of retirement after a 10-year layoff.
But nobody in that division better look past bright young prospect Travis Lee of the New York Athletic Club.
Sidelined a majority of the past two seasons by injuries and ailments, the past two-time NCAA champion from Cornell University has made a statement that he is back in a very big way.
Lee placed second at the New York AC International in November before winning the rugged Dave Schultz Memorial International on Feb. 10 in Colorado Springs, Colo. None of Lee's five wins went beyond two periods. He swept all five opponents in the best-of-3 period format.
"It was a very strong weight class," Lee said. "I try not to think about all the guys who were in my class, I just focus on the match at hand and slowly work my way through the tournament. I am usually a slow starter in my matches, so it was good for me to win all my matches in two periods. It was nice to win a tournament after all I've been through."
What Lee has been through would have broken many wrestlers.
Not long after he won his second NCAA title as a Cornell senior in 2005, Lee was sidelined with a hernia injury.
Lee placed second in the Sunkist Kids International Open in October 2005 before winning the New York AC tournament a month later. He placed fourth in the 2006 Dave Schultz Memorial last February, but suffered an elbow injury in that event and was sidelined for seven months.
"I fractured my left elbow," Lee said. "I went in for a throw and landed in a funny position. It was an avulsion fracture, which is typically where a ligament or tendon pulls off a piece of the bone it's attached to. I was out for a long time, but I'm back pretty close to 100 percent now."
A year after his injury in Colorado, Lee earned a gold medal in his return to the Schultz event last weekend. He is now ranked third nationally at 60 kg/132 pounds behind Mike Zadick and 2005 U.S. World Team member Michael Lightner, who placed second to Zadick at the 2006 World Team Trials.
The slick, athletic, 5-foot-5 Lee beat Sahit Prizreni of the New York AC 1-1, 6-1 in the finals at the 2007 Schultz event. Prizreni is a native of Albania. Cross finished third at the Schultz, but did not face Lee after Cross lost to Angel Cejudo in the quarterfinals.
Lee beat 2006 U.S. Nationals champion Zach Roberson 1-1, 2-1 in the semifinal round at the Schultz.
The 23-year-old Lee, a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, won three state high school titles and received national attention as a Junior Nationals double champion. He was a four-time All-American in college. A combination of wrestling folkstyle in college and being sidelined with injuries has prevented him from competing much in freestyle in recent years.
"There is still a ton of improvement for me to make," Lee said. "I just need mat time and I'm trying to get on the mat as much as possible. I'm still learning the new rules and the mindset I need to have to compete with them. It's been really frustrating not being able to compete much the last couple of years. Winning at Schultz is a good boost for me and a good confidence-builder, but it's just a start for me."
Lee not only is chasing his Olympic dream, he finds time to work part-time for Kionix, Inc., a company based in Ithaca, N.Y., that makes electro-mechanical systems and devices. He studied engineering at Cornell, an Ivy League school.
Lee doesn't have to look far to find a quality workout partner. Among the wrestlers he trains with is Chris Fleeger, a past Purdue All-American who won the Sunkist Kids International in October. He also works out with a pair of top young Cornell wrestlers - NCAA runner-up Troy Nickerson (125) and third-ranked Adam Frey (133). Nickerson, ranked second, is a sophomore and Frey is a freshman.
"Nickerson and Frey were both very good technically coming out of high school," Lee said. "They both have a great work ethic. They outwork everybody they compete against."
Lee already has shifted his focus toward preparing for the U.S. Nationals on April 4-7 in Las Vegas. The U.S. World Team Trials are June 8-10 in Las Vegas with the World Championships set for Sept. 18-23 in Baku, Azerbaijan.
"It was a good win for me at Schultz, but I'm not going to celebrate much for winning that tournament," Lee said. "I want to be the best in the World, and I'm focused on getting ready for the U.S. Nationals and the World Team Trials. Doing well there can really set me up for 2008.
"I know everybody is training hard now to try and make the World Team this year. I'm just trying to get back in the groove. I know there is always room to get better."