Women's wrestling debuts

Homer's Tela O'Donnell wins her first match, loses second in sport's first Olympic competition

Posted: Monday, August 23, 2004

ATHENS, Greece - Tela O'Donnell stood in a concourse underneath the stands, watching a television, reacting to each move on the screen.

After two matches - two of the first women's wrestling matches in Olympic history - this is what it came to for the 22-year-old from Homer. All she could do was watch, hope and every so often use a little body language.

To have a shot at advancing to the semifinals, she needed Olga Smirnova, the Russian she pinned Sunday morning, to defeat Tonya Veerbeek, the Canadian she lost to 11-1 Sunday night.

It didn't happen.

When Veerbeek finished off her victory against Smirnova, O'Donnell raised her eyebrows and forced a slight smile.

Her medal hopes were gone.

Still, it was quite a day for O'Donnell - and for women's wrestling.

There have been world championships for women's wrestling since 1987. But this was the first time for the Olympics.

So win or lose, pin or get pinned, Sunday was an event for all the competitors - including four Americans - who gathered at Ana Liossia Olympic Hall, a 6,000-seat arena located on the northwest side of Athens.

The debut drew dozens of photographers. And although the stands were far from full, those fans who showed up made lots of noise - especially the large contingent from Japan, the perennial leader in women's wrestling.

O'Donnell drew a first-round match against Olga Smirnova.

Smirnova is a veteran of international competition. The 25-year-old Russian won a world title in 1996. She had beaten O'Donnell in a tournament in the past year. And Sunday, after they shook hands and started making Olympic history, Smirnova quickly jumped to a 5-0 lead.

But O'Donnell pulled off one of the most dramatic comebacks of the day, pinning Smirnova at 4 minutes, 26 seconds and vaulting one victory from the semifinals.

After an eight-hour break, O'Donnell returned to the arena for the second match of "pool" competition, where one wrestler advances from each of the four pools.

This time, she fell behind early and didn't come back with a pin. Veerbeek made sure of that.

"I watched her first match on tape," Veerbeek said. "She can turn things around. So you always have to be aware of your positioning. You can't let up. Anything can happen."

O'Donnell proved that just by making it here - upsetting two-time World Championships silver medalist Tina George at the U.S. Trials.

That victory came before any of the other weight classes were decided. So O'Donnell has a piece of U.S. wrestling history - the first American woman ever to earn a spot on an Olympic team.

After the first-round victory, she downplayed the significance of the day, shrugging and saying, "It feels like wrestling ... I think it will kind of hit me in a little bit."

But after talking about it for a few moments, she laughed and changed her mind.

"OK, it does kind of hit you," she said. "It's cool."

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