DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For three hectic days Iowa wrestling fans will be far too busy celebrating their love of the sport to worry much about its Olympic future.
Roughly 10,000 fans packed Wells Fargo Arena early Thursday for the opening session of the state's individual wrestling tournament, a 72-hour spectacle that will pack local freeways, restaurants and hotels and draw as many as 80,000 fans to the state capital in one of the biggest events of its kind in the nation.
Screaming fans in brightly-colored shirts will help make "states" a special event for dozens of high school wrestlers whose dreams of winning Olympic gold are now in jeopardy.
"It's a once of a lifetime deal," said senior wrestler Austyn Vogel of rural Pekin, Iowa.
The International Olympic Committee decided earlier this week to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympics, a stunning move that has drawn widespread criticism — including in wrestling-mad Iowa. Gov. Terry Branstad, gold medalist Dan Gable and others planned to hold a news conference Friday announcing a campaign to save Olympic wrestling, one of several efforts to crop up.
Whatever happens, few think the popularity of wrestling in Iowa will go away anytime soon. After all, making the state tournament has been the lifelong dream of thousands of Iowa boys for generations.
The state tournament began in nearby Ames in the 1920s and, after being shuffled around the state of roughly 3 million, found a permanent home in Des Moines in 1972. The tournament has flourished ever since. The final championship session, held annually on a Saturday night in February, has been sold out for 26 years in a row and will draw a crowd of about 14,500 this weekend.
For many Iowans, the sacrifice and mental toughness required of wrestlers harkens back to the state's agricultural roots.
"The fan base here is kind of a farm-based community, hard-working farm kids. There's just kind of a mano-a-mano thing about it, like who's the toughest kid down the next acre, you know?" said Ray Fox, an assistant at Don Bosco High in Gilbertville who's been coaching for 35 years. "That's carried over, and I think that's just how the tradition has rolled."
Iowa High School Athletic Association assistant director Alan Beste said the state's wrestling meet is believed be the most popular in the nation. In Iowa it far outdraws boys' basketball and football. It's also a major draw at the college and international level in Iowa.
A match between then-No. 1 Penn State and the beloved Iowa Hawkeyes drew nearly 15,000 fans in Iowa City. Iowa State also boasts a big fan base, and last year's Olympic team trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena drew near-sellout crowds for a two-day session that shattered the event's previous attendance mark.
Officials, fans and wrestlers on both the prep and college levels remain confident the sport will survive an Olympic ouster. They aren't thrilled about it.
"In my mind, what the Olympic committee has done or is about to do — I don't know how much of an impact it's going to have on high school wrestling. But it certainly sends a negative message to wrestling in general," Beste said. "If you were to take any sport and take the highest level of competition away that sends a negative message."
Though the odds are long that any of the boys who'll wrestle in Des Moines over the next three days will ever blossom into an Olympic-level talent, the IOC snub is on their minds.
Vogel said he couldn't believe the news when he first heard it, adding that he's frustrated that the dreams of many wrestlers could be taken away. West Onawa High junior Logan Moore echoed Vogel's sentiments.
"It's irritating me, but I'm still going to push myself. I'm not doing it because I have to. I just want to do it," Moore said. "It's fun."