Olympic Wrestlers


 

Aug. 7, 2004 

Side by side again
First-time Olympic coaches are longtime friends
By ROB HOFFMAN
News Sports Reporter 
     Zeke Jones pauses for a moment.
    "This story is not going to be all about her beating me up?" he asked carefully.
    No, it isn't.
    But we'll get to that.
    For now, this story is about what will happen next Saturday. That will be the day Huron High School graduates Jones, 37, and Tricia McNaughton Saunders, 38, will walk into Athens' Olympic Stadium as coaches for the United States wrestling team.
    The honor of going to the games is somewhat familiar to Jones, who won the silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and has been present as a coach in each of the last two Olympiads.
    But for McNaughton Saunders, this is a whole new world.
    A whole new world that opened up to her, thanks in no small part to Jones, her childhood friend and former wrestling partner.
    Let's start at the beginning.
    Jones and Tricia McNaughton grew up within five blocks of each other in the Carpenter
School neighborhood of Pittsfield Township. Born into a wrestling-mad family, McNaughton competed against boys from the age of 5. Jones, a good friend of her brother Andrew and a teammate on the Warriors Wrestling Club, often would practice against her. And McNaughton, who was nine months older than Jones, would beat him.
    Again and again.
    "From the ages of 5 to 12, she was a terror," said Jones, who, by his count, lost 20 straight times to his friend before he finally snared two straight victories toward the end of their training days. "No boys wanted to lose to a girl. But she wasn't a girl. She was my friend."
    Not everyone felt that way.
    As the lone girl competing against boys, McNaughton sometimes had to go to court to be allowed to participate in meets. (Meets that, by the way, she would frequently win). She would watch parents berate and even physically punish boys whom she had pinned, simply because they had lost to a girl.
    But by 1989, that was ancient history.
    Simply put, when she turned 12, there was no one else for McNaugton to compete against - certainly no girls and no more boys, her usual opponents, because they had graduated to middle school and high school wrestling.
    "The door was shut pretty tight," she said.
    So McNaughton competed in gymnastics at Huron. And she went to the University of Wisconsin, where she pursued a degree in bacteriology.
    The trailblazer for women's wrestling had left the trail.
    Then on that fateful day 15 years ago, she received a phone call from Jones. Having just gotten back from competing at the world wrestling championships in Switzerland, her childhood friend had some exciting news to share.
    "Hey, there was women's wrestling there," Jones told her.
    Simple words. But simple words were all it took to put McNaughton back on the mat - and back on top, this time in the new world of female wrestling, which had staged its first world championships at that Swiss meet.
    In 1992, the same year she married former Olympic wrestler Townsend Saunders and became Tricia McNaughton Saunders, she won the first of four world championships - part of a career that also includes 11 national championships (she never lost to a U.S. wrestler), 12 World Team Trial titles and the first-ever USA Wrestler Woman of the Year award, handed out in 1997.
    Meanwhile, Jones built an impressive list of career accomplishments: Four World Cup gold medals, six national championships and No. 1 ranking in the United States for seven straight years. Plus, the crown in his headgear, a silver medal in 144.5 pounds at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Six years ago, he became an assistant coach at West Virginia University.
    Unlike Jones, McNaughton Saunders, however, never got a chance to pursue individual Olympic glory. Despite an assortment of injuries that almost forced her to retire in 1999, McNaughton Saunders kept wrestling because she was told that the addition of women's wrestling as an exhibition sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was a "done deal." It never happened.
    Instead, the announcement came in 2001 and it was for the 2004 games. But, by then, it was too late. Realizing that her time on the mat was over, she retired.
    "My injury status was through the roof," said McNaughton Saunders, who had 10 different orthopedic surgeries toward the end of her career. "I was starting to get injuries, like fractures, that just couldn't happen if I wanted to continue."
    So McNaughton Saunders, whose husband had become an assistant wrestling coach at Arizona State, joined him on the sidelines. She became a member of the U.S. national women's team staff in 2001, serving as head coach of the 2003 Pan Am games team. Late last year, she and her husband were picked as assistant coaches to U.S. Olympic coach Terry Steiner.
    McNaughton Saunders insists that she's not disappointed to be going to Athens as a coach, instead of as a competitor.
    "Right now, there's nothing bittersweet about it at all," she said. "Would I like to have been there (competing) in 1992, 1996 or 2000? Yes. But not in 2004. I don't want to be doing that. I'm in a different place in my life right now."
    Next week, that place will be Athens. For Jones, who is at his first Olympics as an official member of the U.S. coaching staff (Previously, he had gone to the Olympics to coach specific competitors), he knows it will be a magical two weeks for both himself and his former wrestling partner.
    "There's nothing like the Olympic games," he said. "It's what the world focuses on every two years. In today's times, it's an amazing opportunity to represent your country."