SAN CLEMENTE — Tired and gaunt, weak from starvation and saunas, Heath Sims returned from last month's U.S. National Wrestling championships in Las Vegas and made what will probably be the biggest decision of his career.
Sims, a Woodbridge High School graduate, was the nation's top-ranked Greco-Roman wrestler at 149 1/2 pounds but finished fourth at the nationals.
Sims, whose natural body weight is in the mid-180s, was tired of cutting weight so he decided to do something he had resisted for some time: bow to natural forces.
When he steps onto the mat next weekend at the Olympic trials in Concord, Calif., it will be to compete in the 163-pound class, where he has had little experience. Only the champion in each weight class will make the U.S. team.
He's still faced with shedding some pounds, however. He weighed in the low 170s as late as last week. At least 163 pounds is more realistic than 149 1/2.
"He's still just as good as he was at 149 1/2," said Bob Anderson, Sims' coach. "I felt he could have gone up earlier, but he wasn't ready for it [mentally]. This isn't one of those, 'poor-me-I-can't-make-weight things.' He's ready to be there."
Anderson points out that Sims, 25, defeated Keith Sieracki, the top-seeded 163-pounder in next week's trials, at the 1994-95 University National championships.
Still, it's unusual for a top-ranked wrestler to change his weight class, particularly so close to the Olympics.
"It was bad weight loss at the nationals," Sims said. "I was tired. I was having trouble making the weight and feeling good when I wrestled.
"I can't wrestle well and have to lose that kind of weight any longer."
Sims has switched weight classes before, including twice at Woodbridge, where he won state titles at 132 pounds in 1988 and at 138 pounds a year later.
This isn't the first time Sims has had to make a tough decision, either.
After graduating from Woodbridge, Sims turned down college scholarship offers and chose instead to compete for Anderson's club team, the California Jets. Sims received some criticism for his decision, but he defends it.
"I can always go back to school and get an education," he said. "With Bob, we traveled all around the world for good competition. I wrestled in Russia and Sweden and Europe. The people I met, it's an experience I never could have had in college."
These days, Sims, who lives in San Clemente, spends most of his time in the steamy wrestling room at San Clemente High, where Anderson's Jets have taken root. Other Olympic hopefuls are there too, including Dan Henderson, a former Victorville Victor Valley High, Arizona State and Cal State Fullerton standout who will be trying to make the U.S. Greco-Roman Olympic team in the 180 1/2-pound class.
Sims and Henderson are regular sparring partners, with Sims getting his share of pins over his heavier opponent.
"Heath is real tough on the mat," Henderson said. "He's a good wrestler. He can get a lot of good lift."
Unlike the more traditional freestyle approach that features style and grace over brute force, Greco-Roman wrestling lends itself to power moves. Holds below the waist are prohibited. Points are earned for throwing an opponent to the mat, holding him there and by having your opponent be penalized for stalling.
Sims excels at earning quick points, and he rarely tires.
"He has to get in his opponent's face, attacking, moving in, moving all over him like a mosquito gets on you," Anderson said. "He has to do that until he wears them down, earns some cautions and then takes the match."
Sims is quiet, but there's a feeling that there is a caldron of intensity inside him. He has long prided himself on discipline, a trait that he displayed early in his career.
"In high school, he was one of the hardest workers I have ever seen," said former San Clemente Coach John Owens. "There are lots of guys around, many of them better wrestlers, but this kid worked his tail off."
If Sims has a weakness, Anderson said, it's his failure to believe in himself.
"He has to have a positive mental outlook," Anderson said. "He has to believe he can be a champ. Once he believes that, then it's just conditioning that will take its toll.
"Conditioning is a mainstay of his wrestling. It will be there at the trials. It's there right now."
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well," he said. "The way I see it, I can fall apart or suck it up, focus and train hard."
Most who know him say they are betting on the latter.
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More than 200 competitors will vie in 10 freestyle and 10 Greco-Roman weight classes, with the winners qualifying for the U.S. Olympic teams.
Greco-Roman schedule: June 1-2, Ignacio Valley High School, Concord, Calif.
County connection: Heath Sims (Woodbridge High) of San Clemente at 163 pounds; Dan Henderson (Cal State Fullerton) of Huntington Beach at 180 1/2 pounds.
Freestyle schedule: June 7-8, Spokane Arena, Spokane, Wash.
County connections: Sheldon Kim (Cal State Fullerton) at 125 1/2 pounds.