This is not about winning a gold medal. It is about trying to win, and the people who believe that you can. It's a corny feel-good tale, but it's true. And one that could make you cry and smile all in the same minute.
You may have heard of 20-year-old Ellis Coleman, the youngest member of the USA Olympic wrestling team in London this summer, or seen him as the wrestler with the hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube or the video on ESPN of his Flying Squirrel move.
But chances are you do know the other Flying Squirrel, Gabby Douglas, the gold-medalling 16-year-old USA gymnast who already graces a Corn Flakes box and reportedly is set to earn more than $10 million in endorsements over the next few years.
But at our house there is only one Flying Squirrel Olympian: Ellis. Though he lost his quest for a medal in the Greco Roman 60K qualification round against Bulgaria's Ivo Angelov Monday, a group of his most ardent local fans gathered around a flat screen TV in his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois, in the early morning to cheer for the young man I affectionately call my fourth son. One mom brought champagne to celebrate after we watched at 7 a.m., hoping for a win. We never opened the bottle.
Of course Ellis doesn't need a second mom; his own mother, Yolanda, gives him more than enough love and support. Ellis' mom, brother and sister were there in London to cheer him on, along with two of my three sons, Weldon and Colin; Oak Park's coach Mike Powell, plus Ellis' former Little Huskies coach and a group of about 40 friends, one group carrying a banner that read: "Pride of the Huskies." My middle son, Brendan, couldn't make the trip, but cheered from here.
Because all of my boys' wrestled in high school, I belong to the Oak Park-River Forest High School Huskies Wrestling Family made up of scores of parents of wrestlers past and present. We have known Ellis since he was an eighth grader in 2004 on the Little Huskies Wrestling team. From the beginning, he won a lot of wrestling matches. His arm was raised in victory a whole lot.
The next year, 2005, Ellis was in the same high school class as Brendan, who counted Ellis among his closest friends. Ellis spent a lot of time in our car, to and from wrestling practice and school; a lot of time at our house for sleepovers and family parties, coming to Michigan with us for weekends in the summer. We all know him off the mat as the shy, polite, respectful, well-spoken young man who volunteers to help out, empty the dishwasher, carry groceries in from the car. Ellis looked up to Weldon, two years ahead of him in the varsity wrestling room. Ellis was three years ahead of Colin, but a mentor to him on the mat.
He was fierce enough in a match, but never after the whistle. And each time before he competed, Coach Powell kissed Ellis on the top of the head. So he knew that he was loved.
After Ellis qualified for the Olympics at Iowa City in April -- when Brendan, Colin and many of Ellis' 2009 state championship teammates cheered -- a dozen or so of us gathered for two months of Wednesdays to strategize. We needed to raise money so Ellis' family could go to London and he could have some funds leftover to help him continue his training. Through merchandise like the red, white and blue Ellis wristband and posters sold on www.elliscoleman.com, plus fundraisers, we raised $36,000. Not a fortune, but enough for what he needs.
To most Americans, wrestling is a low-profile, misunderstood sport, not like soccer or football and certainly not garnering the airtime or attention at the Olympics that swimming, gymnastics and track and field do. You usually don't get famous outside wrestling circles if you are a wrestler, unless you're Dan Gable. I bet more Americans know who Olympic great Rulon Gardner is from The Biggest Loser than from his medal days.
Some report it costs up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to train an Olympic athlete. But for years Ellis never had elite training from a private wrestling club. He had Coach Powell, a high school wrestling room of teammates and dreams of the future. After graduation three years ago, Ellis set his sights on 2012 by training at the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Michigan before heading to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado a year later. And he made it to London. Everyone who knew Ellis knew he would. We also know he can do it again.
The Olympics is recognized universally as the ultimate athletic achievement. We cheer along with Aly Raisman's parents, Michael Phelps' and Gabby Douglas' moms. Because of nationalism and a tendency to root for our own, we think we know the athletes because we have seen them so many times on television. The extreme close-up shots invoke a sense of intimacy and familiarity, whether we watch on a mobile phone, laptop or an HD flat screen.
But Ellis I do know. And I do love him like a son.
Though the outcome this year was disappointing -- heartbreaking for him -- his story isn't over yet, not for Ellis and not for all of us who count him as family. There is 2016, 2020 and beyond. And of course, whether in spirit or in person, again we will all be there cheering his name as loud as we possibly can.