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Stephen Neal: "I'll Wrestle Again"



Even though the loss in Dallas had to pain him terribly, there's something about Stephen Neal that reassures you that he would handle the loss in stride. With the adrenaline from the biggest of big matches still pumping through his body, Neal was still able to take time to smile at an event staff-person and jokingly say, "I hope you'll still talk to me now that I'm not number one anymore." Of course a true competitor, like Stephen Neal, will use difficult losses to propel him to greater achievements. But, most wrestling fans wouldn't have expected Neal to have to deal with the disappointment and adversity so soon. Just a year ago he was the "King of the World" in free-style. And, now he is constantly deluged with questions about his future with wrestling. Stephen Neal had one of the most outstanding wrestling years an American amateur wrestler had ever put together in 1999. At the age of 23, young for an international heavyweight, Neal won his second straight NCAA title, followed by the U.S. Nationals championship in April, the World Team Trials Championships in June and the Pan-Am Games gold medal in July. For most wrestlers, that would mark an unbelievable year. But for Neal, he still had a major step left. In October of 1999, Neal astounded the world by winning the World Championships in Ankara, Turkey. He won in impressive fashion, and was the only American to capture a gold medal. To put the icing on this heavyweight's cake, Neal was named the Freestyle Wrestler of the Year by FILA, the sport's international governing body. Only one other American has ever earned that honor---John Smith. Neal took the accolades all in stride, saying: "I thought I could win the world title, but I wasn't planning on them thinking I was the best of all the world champions. That's pretty amazing with all those great wrestlers." That was 1999 for Neal, which must've made the year 2000 all the more disappointing. The American freestyle heavyweight cupboard was not bare by any means with departure of 1996 Olympian Bruce Baumgartner. Still in the hunt for an Olympic spot along with the 6-5, 260 pound Stephen Neal were NCAA Division I National Champions in 6-2, 250 pound, Kerry McCoy from Penn State, and third ranked Tolly Thompson a standout from Nebraska. These big men were vying to fulfill lifelong goals by going to the Olympics. The wrestler that stepped forward and dethroned Neal was Kerry McCoy. First McCoy was able to wrest the National Title from Neal in Vegas earning the automatic berth to the finals in Dallas. Then, in Dallas McCoy garnered the Olympic bid by defeating Neal in the much anticipated finals bout by the scores of 4-1 and 6-4. McCoy's victories were impressive considering the previous year Neal just completed. Neal handled the loss of the Olympic dream in stride, but it has left many wrestling fans wondering would he wrestle again? The answer to fans of titanic battles of heavyweights is yes, Neal plans to be back. Neal will continue to coach and work with his collegiate team at Cal-State Bakersfield, preparing his wrestlers to pursue dreams in the wrestling world. When asked if he thought there was decisive factor that led to McCoy gaining the Olympic spot over him, Neal answered unhesitatingly, "I need to get stronger. I'm rededicating myself in the weight room. Without question, there are areas of strength on my frame that I need to build, my back, my shoulders." The inevitable question is will Neal look to leave the wrestling world to make a name for himself in the NFL. The answer there is not yet. Neal says he will wrestle in tournaments next year and compete in the U.S. National Championships. The outcome of that tournament will surely help him decide his future. Another U.S. National Title may move him back towards a second run at a World Title. A loss in Vegas on Easter weekend may push him towards trying out with a NFL team as a rush end or even a tight end on offense. For now though, it appears Stephen Neal has accepted the difficult loss to Kerry McCoy. Yet, he isn't ready to distance himself from the extremely competitive sport of wrestling. Stephen Neal says without a doubt Kerry McCoy will win the Olympics, "He is the complete package: powerful, intelligent, explosive." As the two worked out last week in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center, they rarely wrestled each other, just some light pummeling and warm-up drills. No doubt McCoy and Neal were not ready to risk injury to America's chances of bringing home the gold in Sydney. Yet, most in the wrestling world are looking forward to seeing these two titans of the heavyweight division battling again in 2001.
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