Byron Tucker was beginning to look like college wrestling's version of Atlanta Braves - always coasting through the season only to be disappointed in the postseason, until March 18, 2000. That is when Tucker, from the University of Oklahoma, captured the 174-pound National Championship, ending years of frustration with one match.
Tucker defeated Edinboro's Josh Koschek, who brought a more rugged and physical style of wrestling to the tournament than anyone else Tucker had wrestled this season.
"When he was being real physical, I said to myself 'Man, he's really nervous and trying to beat me fast. He's going to wear himself down out here.'," Tucker stated. "He's obviously a great competitor. He's a sophomore in the NCAA Finals, which is more than I'll ever do."
Before this year, Tucker had never even won more than two matches at the prestigious tournament.
After posting over twenty wins his freshman year, he only won one match at the NCAA Tournament. Tucker says he didn't "wrestle as heroic" as he would have liked. "I expected more of myself," he said.
His sophomore season, Tucker was challenged more by one competitor than he may have imagined - Oklahoma State's Hardell Moore.
"I don't think I could consistently convince myself that I was capable of beating him," Tucker said. "I wrestled hard, and I wrestled to win. At that time, he wanted it more, and he got it."
But Tucker's biggest disappointment may have come at the end of his junior season when, as the number four seed, he was ousted from the tournament before reaching All-American status.
"I wouldn't say I started to doubt myself more than I already had. Everybody thought I was an NCAA Tournament choker. That wasn't the case. It was nothing that was NCAA Tournament specific," he said. "I was disappointed more so then than at any other time in my career."
That is when Tucker decided he needed to take a break from the grind of wrestling, so he redshirted for the 1998-99 season.
"I needed some time away from the rush. I needed a break from that so I could figure out what kind of wrestler I wanted to be, and what kind of wrestler I wanted to work towards building," he said. "The problem turned out to be a simple fear. I wasn't giving myself the benefit of the doubt in the competition."
Tucker changed his attitude during the redshirt year. He began to focus on becoming more optimistic, and began to finally see the season and national title as a challenge, or as he puts it, "a constant game."
For once, Tucker wasn't listening to the others around him - the critics, the fans, anyone.
"I didn't care about rankings. They could have ranked me 25th. I was in my own little world," he said proudly. "I was going to take it one match at a time and I was going to wrestle whoever they put out in front of me."
And that's what he did.
Tucker breezed through the season undefeated and earned thee top seed at the national tournament. Once again, Tucker had the pressure of succeeding at the championships, but this time would be different. He changed his preparation and didn't focus so much on winning it, as he did on how much fun he could have.
"After I knew I was going to be seeded number one in the tournament, I visualized how I was going to address everything - warming up, traveling, walking around the stadium. I wasn't going to let what should have or could have been get me down," Tucker said.
"I was going to continue to enjoy the chase."
It was only three days later that Tucker realized his first dream - winning a national championship.
"We went out of bounds with five seconds left. I looked up at the clock and knew I wasn't going to get a major, unless I tried for a five-point move, which wasn't going to happen."
Tucker credits his success on the mat to his head coach at Oklahoma, Jack Spates.
"He's challenged me to become more of an intellectual person; to be able to express myself more verbally and to be able to represent myself in an outstanding manner," he said. "A lot of the things I do are things I've learned from him. I don't think there's anything I can't achieve in that guy's eyes."
And Spates will be able to help Tucker realize his next dream as well, to win an Olympic gold medal.
"I want to be an Olympic champion as many times as I possibly can. Wrestling is not one of those sports where you can do it forever for a significant monetary livelihood. I want to see how much of this sport I can possibly master," Tucker said intently.
"I want to be the best wrestler I can be in a sport that is so beautiful."ARTICLE USED BY PERMISSION FROM INTERMAT