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Diane Pucin

Wrestling With Past, Sims Off to Sydney

A decade-long quest to make the Olympic team in Greco-Roman event is finally reached by Woodbridge graduate.

August 02, 2000|Diane Pucin

Heath Sims is a Greco-Roman wrestler, which means he can only wrestle with his arms and that almost nobody in the United States has a clue what Sims does.

Sims, 28, is from Huntington Beach, a Woodbridge High graduate, and will represent the United States in the Sydney Olympics as a Greco-Roman wrestler at 69 kilograms. That's 152 pounds to you and me.

Greco-Roman wrestling might be the most anonymous of Olympic sports in this country. The U.S. has won only nine medals, and four of those came in 1984, when the powerful Eastern Bloc nations boycotted the Olympics. Two more medals were won in the heavyweight class, which has been discontinued after 1996.

And then there are the guys who chose Greco-Roman. They are crazy mostly, loud, raucous boastful men who fill up a room with their muscles and their mouths.

"We laugh about Heath," USA Wrestling spokesman Gary Abbott says. "Heath is this laid-back Southern California beach guy who likes to surf and ski. He is not a typical Greco guy."

If you want the short version of Sims' decade-long quest to reach the Olympics, talk to his father, Dave.

Dave Sims was a wrestler too, of the freestyle variety, which is more familiar to most because it's the way Americans wrestle in high school and college. Dave Sims participated in the 1972 Olympic trials and, as he so delicately put it, "Got my [butt] kicked."

And Dave is blunt about how his son has marched along a long Olympic road.

"In 1992, we had him ready for the trials; he had a daughter and messed up. In 1996, we had him ready for the trials; he got divorced and messed up. In 1999, we thought we had him close to ready for the trials and he snowboarded off the side of a mountain and lacerated his kidney and his spleen. I thought he messed up, but he straightened up."

Sims' coach, Bill Anderson, has the longer version.

Anderson met Heath when Heath was a ninth-grader. Anderson was the coach of the San Clemente Jets, an amateur wrestling club where kids from all over California came to learn freestyle and Greco-Roman techniques.

"I made all the kids who came to me learn Greco-Roman," Anderson says. "A lot of kids are a little reluctant. It's basically the same rules, but in Greco you can't grab, block or trip the legs. The movements are much more in the way of throws.

"Anyway, kids don't like it because you can't go crashing into somebody. But Heath just had a natural affinity for it. Heath was a hard, hard worker. He'd use moves I'd teach him right away.

"I'd be sitting at home sometimes, there'd be a knock on the door, it would be Heath. He'd come over and ask if he could work out in my garage. I had a big mat and weight equipment. He'd go in the garage for a while, then poke his head in. I'd be on the couch, relaxing, and he'd ask me to come out and show him a few things. Finally, I told him he could keep coming but he'd have to bring a partner. And he did."

Sims won two state championships, in 1988 and '89, at Woodbridge.

But instead of going to college and continuing a freestyle career, Sims decided to keep wrestling with Anderson in the Greco style. He became a junior national team member in 1989 and a world team member in '90.

Heath also got married during this time and shortly before the 1992 Olympic trials his daughter, Skye, was born.

"Heath was an up-and-comer in 1992," Anderson says, "but he was trying to be an Olympian and a father. He'd be bringing his daughter to practice, and, man, it was hard."

In 1996, Anderson and Dave Sims say Heath was under emotional strain. "He was getting a divorce, he was keeping custody of Skye," Anderson says. "He wasn't thinking straight and still, he was one match away from making the team. He was that good."

After 1996, Sims quit wrestling. "I was so disappointed," Sims says. "I figured I'd better go get a job and support my daughter."

Sims worked for a computer company in Santa Ana and had shared custody of Skye. For 18 months, that's what Sims did. He loved his daughter and he didn't hate his job.

But he missed wrestling.

When you meet athletes in sports like Greco-Roman wrestling, it is then you discover men and women who truly love sport for the sake of sport. They love the competition and the training. They love the practice and the opponent. Sims missed it all, the sweat, the pain, the pulled muscles.

He went back to practice. Sims finished third at the 1998 U.S. World Team trials and felt he was getting back in shape. But in 1999, while he was training at the U.S. Olympic facilities in Colorado Springs, Sims flew his snowboard off a mountainside. Sims had to be transported off the mountain by helicopter and spent three months as weak as a child. His kidney and spleen had been lacerated and his kidney had been nearly severed.

"I didn't think I'd ever wrestle again," Sims says. "I couldn't get out of bed for three months. I couldn't walk, I could barely sit up and watch television."

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