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Oak Park wrestler Ellis Coleman achieves unlikely Olympic dream

IOWA CITY IA - APRIL 22:  Ellis Coleman celebrates his wover Joe Betterman 60 kg Grecco-Roman weight class during

IOWA CITY, IA - APRIL 22: Ellis Coleman celebrates his win over Joe Betterman in the 60 kg Grecco-Roman weight class during the finals of the US Wrestling Olympic Trials at Carver Hawkeye Arena on April 22, 2012 in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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Updated: August 26, 2012 6:21AM

The way Oak Park-River Forest wrestling coach Mike Powell tells it, Ellis Coleman has been through a lot in his career.

Two concussions, a broken left ankle and two knee surgeries nearly derailed Coleman, 20, from making the U.S. Olympic wrestling team at 132 pounds.

‘‘It’s been epic,’’ Powell said.

But dig a little deeper and ‘‘epic’’ makes even more sense.

Coleman was raised on the West Side and used to get into fights around the neighborhood. His mother, Yolanda Barral, was in an abusive relationship with Coleman’s stepfather, who later was jailed for being a gang member. Coleman’s biological father has been in jail all of Coleman’s life.

‘‘Moving out to Oak Park [in fifth grade] was like heaven for us, and everything was better,’’ Coleman said.

That euphoria didn’t last long. Coleman’s house burned down when he was in seventh grade, and the family had to move back to the West Side.

‘‘We had to start over from scratch,’’ he said.

The problems continued even after the family was able to move back to Oak Park. Coleman almost got kicked out of school twice — in eighth grade, then again in his sophomore year at Oak Park-River Forest.

But then came an edict from Powell that might have changed everything.

‘‘I remember challenging him as a freshman to be the hardest-working kid in the room the
next few years — and he was,’’ Powell said.

Coleman overcame his nightmarish childhood and won a dual-team state title when the Huskies beat Minooka in the Class 3A final in 2009. Individually, Coleman earned two third-place state finishes and a fifth-place state finish in his high school career.

‘‘If it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t know what optimism is,’’ Coleman said. ‘‘She always showed me that there is another door and there is another way out.’’

It was at Oak Park-River Forest that Coleman got on the right track. It was also there where he developed his signature move, ‘‘The Flying Squirrel,’’ named after his affection for the ‘‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’’ cartoon. Coleman devised the move during practices with his older brother, Lillashawn.

‘‘It was shocking and cool, but the refs had never seen it before,’’ Powell said. ‘‘[The first time Coleman used it] they scored it wrong and gave points to the other guy. People who aren’t naturally that athletic can’t comprehend it.’’

The move is hard to describe because Coleman is moving so fast when he does it. He somersaults over his opponent’s head and shoulders, wraps his arms around his opponent’s waist and flips him over. Referees don’t award Coleman any style points when he uses the move.

‘‘Me and my brother were messing around in practice, and we used to make up moves,’’ Coleman said. ‘‘We never took them seriously or used them in a match. But in my first senior tournament, I was losing and just decided to go for it. From that match, it worked.’’

Coleman and Powell are still close, and Powell will be rooting hard for Coleman to succeed in London.

‘‘I am so proud of him with everything he’s done,’’ Powell said. ‘‘Every kid wants to be like Ellis Coleman. He’s such a big name around the school and a celebrity because people know where he came from and what he went through. That’s a powerful and very moving story.’’

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