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Sports: Pawleys wrestler battles time in search of place on Olympic team
By Roger Greene
Mark Battaglino knows he’ll likely get plenty of looks this weekend. At 41, he’ll be one of the older, perhaps the oldest, competitors at the Final Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Some may think Battaglino has taken a leave of his senses when he takes to the mat. But his rationale is simple. Despite his age, he still feels that he can compete and, more importantly, he wants to.
“I probably have songs in my iPod older than many of the guys who will be there,” Battaglino said. “But my body still tells me I can do it. And I still have the passion for the sport in me. I have nothing to lose. This is going to be a fun trip for me.”
Those who know Battaglino best aren’t surprised he’ll be making the jaunt to Cedar Falls. They say he has an inner-drive that always allows him to push beyond the norm.
“He may be the oldest wrestler that will be there, but that is not going to stop him,” said Battaglino’s wife of 18 years, Michele. “I’m always amazed by how determined he is. Once he makes up his mind to do something, he is going to do it.”
Actually being on the mat may be easiest part of the last year for the Ricefields resident. Shaving the required pounds off his naturally lean 5-foot-2, 145-pound frame to qualify for the 55 kilogram (121 pound) weight class has been a test in its own right.
His training regimen has typically started before dawn. There have been daily 10-mile runs, countless hours of strength training and lap swimming and thousands of sit ups and jump rope revolutions.
“I’m sure people think I’m nuts for putting myself through all of this,” Battaglino said. The reason “is not something that is easy to explain. Wrestling is a sport that demands a great deal of discipline and commitment. It will give me a sense of victory to know I’ve gone through this whole process, made weight and been able to have stepped onto the mat and competed.”
Just a few pounds remain to be shed before the tournament and Battaglino is confident he will reach his goal by the required weigh-in. He and Michele joke that the process of cutting weight has been a true test of the strength of their family, which includes daughters Olivia, 15 and Julia, 12.
“I’m not easy to put up with,” Battaglino said.
“He’s been miserable,” Michele said. “He’s down to the last few pounds, so the pace has gotten a lot slower.”
Not even back surgery due to a ruptured disc derailed Battaglino’s efforts.
“He put himself on his own rehab schedule,” Michele said. “He has a high tolerance for pain and was back training a few days later.”
The demand to be able to compete through pain and the discipline required to cut and maintain weight were two of the aspects that drew Battaglino to wrestling at a young age.
Born and raised in upstate New York, he demonstrated a natural talent for the sport from the beginning. Though his favorite sports were football and baseball, his frame was ideal for wrestling.
“My body type kind of lent itself to wrestling,” Battaglino said. “I loved other sports, especially football, but wrestling was something I took to as soon as I stepped onto the mat.”
Battaglino became involved with the Adirondack Three-Style Wrestling Association program due to its emphasis on freestyle wrestling, a form he was more comfortable with than collegiate style.
“Given my size, I was much more competitive wrestling freestyle,” said Battaglino. “It’s more aggressive and you are on your feet more than you are in collegiate-style, where you are down on the mat more and have more restrictions.”
Battaglino competed regularly in ATWA events through college and into 1998. Though accomplished on the mat in his own right, Battaglino’s wrestling goals were trumped at that point by the realities and responsibilities of marriage, family and career development. He would not wrestle competitively again until a decade later.
With the competitive fires still burning, Battaglino – president of Carolina Landscape Group – took his first shot at the Olympic Trials in 2008, capitalizing on the open nature of the qualifying tournament.
A long shot in the event, Battaglino did not place, but walked away from the tournament taking pride in his performance.
“People probably knew I was older, but I’m not sure they knew my exact age,” Battaglino said. “I’m not sure the first guy I wrestled expected me to do some of the things I did.
“This time around though, my age may be easier to pick up on. I have a few more gray hairs.”
Battaglino has served as a volunteer assistant coach for Waccamaw High’s wrestling team since its inception in 2009. His said that experience helped convince him to take another shot at the Trials.
“After the 2008 Trials, I had no intention of wrestling again,” Battaglino said. “After getting involved at Waccamaw though, I started to give that more thought. I love being able to work with the kids. They’re excited about the sport and want to learn. That kind of lit a fire in me and got me thinking about giving it another shot.”
“Mark does anything we ask and is always willing to help anyway he can,” Waccamaw wrestling coach Scott Cook said. “He’ll get down on the mat and help teach, referee, or do anything else we need. And he’s available anytime. I know he works with a lot of kids in the offseason.
“Everything he is doing now sets a great example for our kids. He’s showing what can be done when you dedicate yourself to reaching a goal. We’re proud of him.”
Battaglino will need to finish in the top two in his weight class this weekend to advance to the Olympic Team Trials, which will be held in Iowa City from April 21-22. The fact that the odds are not in his favor to escape Cedar Rapids, much less make it to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, doesn’t change his outlook.
“My goal is to win,” Battaglino said. “The realist in me says that is not going to happen. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could be competitive.”