Ellis Coleman loses Olympic debut but has overcome far worse things
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org August 6, 2012 9:26PM
Former Oak Park-River Forest High School star Ellis Coleman dropped a decision to Ivo Angelov of Bulgaria in the first round of the 60-kilogram Greco-Roman wrestling competition at the Olympics. Coleman’s mom, brother and sister were there, thanks to a fu
Updated: September 8, 2012 6:13AM
LONDON — Don’t feel bad for Ellis Coleman.
His rags-to-rings story came to a quick end Monday at the Olympics, but the real tale isn’t in the ending anyway. It’s in the guts of the book, in the dog-eared, sloppy pages where a young kid overcomes a lot, thanks to his resolve, a tough mom and the determination of a group of men who decided he needed guidance.
Those chapters indicate he’s going to be just fine.
The Oak Park-River Forest High School graduate lost in the first round of the Greco-Roman 60-kilogram competition. His only hope was that the man he lost to, Ivo Angelov of Bulgaria, would make it to the gold-medal match, thus allowing Coleman to compete for the bronze. Angelov lost in the next round.
‘‘I wrestled sluggish the first period,’’ Coleman said. ‘‘I didn’t get going until the second. At that time, it was just too late. Everything just happened so fast.’’
His mother, brother and sister were in attendance Monday, thanks to a fund-raiser that raised $14,000 to get them to London. Also here were Oak Park-River Forest wrestling coach Mike Powell, who had struggled through serious health problems, and others who had helped coax the 20-year-old Coleman to manhood.
‘‘I always tell him, ‘Never give up, strive for what you want in life and work hard,’ ’’ said his mother, Yolanda Barral. ‘‘Every day is a challenge, knowing that I’m a single mom and have to raise three kids on my own. . . . It was a struggle every day.’’
Powell first met Coleman when the boy was a 10-year-old wrestler. The family had moved to Oak Park to escape the violence of the West Side. His biological father, whose life has been a long string of arrests, was in prison. Coleman’s stepfather, whom the wrestler has said was brutally critical of him, went to prison on drug charges in 2004.
Coleman was suspended for 10 days in high school for threatening a teacher, something he insists he didn’t do. That’s when Powell decided Coleman needed help.
‘‘He didn’t have a father,’’ Powell said. ‘‘He never had a positive male role model. We probably had 15 men who had a hand in helping Ellis grow up.’’
Where would he be without wrestling?
‘‘He’d be locked up, for sure,’’ Powell said. ‘‘I mean, I don’t know. His mom’s a pretty tough lady. But Ellis is an extreme personality. I’ve never met a person — and I know Olympic champions — with a higher pain threshold in my life. He’s just tough, on another level. Those type of guys usually become presidents or run prisons from the inside.’’
The commitment it takes to be a top wrestler and the energy it demands were perfect for Coleman, who needed an outlet. That’s the ‘‘extreme personality’’ about which Powell speaks.
‘‘If he was one of my Italian-Catholic or Irish-Catholic drinking buddies, he’d be the guy you’d pick up off the floor every night and put him in a cab and hope he’s alive the next day,’’ Powell said.
In these kinds of stories, the athletes sometimes get lost. A coach, parent or mentor gets the credit. But it takes a kid who wants to be coached, parented and mentored.
Before the Olympic trials in April, Powell looked at his phone and saw he had 11 missed calls from Coleman. It took two hours, but Powell calmed him down. Coleman won the trials.
‘‘There’s something in his psyche, some kind of ‘I’m not good enough’ or some kind of ‘I’m scared of failure’ that I think is probably left over from his childhood,’’ Powell said. ‘‘He’s kind of slowly growing out of it.’’
Coleman had a difficult draw Monday. He faced Angelov, the bronze medalist at the 2011 world championships. If he had won that match, he would have had to face the 2012 world champ. A victory there, and he would have faced a very talented Russian wrestler.
Coleman is known for his ‘‘flying squirrel’’ move. He tried to do the flip Monday, but Angelov appeared intent on not being a ‘‘SportsCenter’’ highlight.
Any number of things could explain the loss. In the months leading up the Olympics, Coleman had dropped from 170 pounds to 132 and might have felt weak. The concussions that had kept him from wrestling live for most of the last six months might have affected him. It didn’t help when he bashed heads with Angelov.
Whatever the reason, he felt as though he had let his friends and family down.
‘‘I want to tell them sorry for everything that happened,’’ he said. ‘‘I tried as hard as I could.’’
Coleman knows something about effort, having seen it up close. In 2009, Powell was diagnosed with polymyositis, a progressive autoimmune disease. He lost 40 pounds and was profoundly weakened, but he kept coaching and his wrestlers rallied around him. His health has improved markedly in the last few years, and he looked fit as he cheered for Coleman.
These Oak Park-River Forest Huskies stick together.
‘‘I’m angry [about the loss] and sad for him,’’ Powell said, ‘‘but I’m unbelievably grateful and proud.’’
As a father should be.