Nico Megaludis has this vision. He needs this vision, really. It's the best way to get through grueling offseason workouts. It's the best way to get over his second consecutive loss in the NCAA wrestling championship.
So when Megaludis, a Penn State junior from Murrysville, pushes the weight bar over his head, when his thighs burn from too many lunges and when his abs ache from too many sit-ups, the former Franklin Regional standout closes his eyes and goes elsewhere.
First, he goes back to the NCAA final and this time wins the title. Second, he pictures himself on the mat, scoring point after point, wearing his opponent down. His hand gets raised as an Olympic champion. With a gold medal draped around his neck, he stands on the highest platform of the podium, listening to "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- his lifelong work coming to fruition.
"I've always dreamed about it," Megaludis said. "When I was young, the coaches ask you what you want to be. I wanted to be an Olympic champion."
But this might not be possible for Megaludis. On Feb. 12, the International Olympic Committee removed wrestling as a core sport for the 2020 Olympic Games and left it to compete with seven other sports for the final spot in the Games.
Wrestling officials were quick to act by modernizing the sport, launching a global marketing campaign and adopting Dick's Sporting Goods as a corporate partner.
All of this is to keep the Olympic dream alive for Megaludis and others like him.
"It's pretty much the end-goal of wrestling," Megaludis said. "When you're the Olympic champion, you're the Super Bowl champion."
In early September, the IOC will make its final decision to remove wrestling from life support or pull the plug.
Help from a friend
Rich Bender didn't see it coming that February morning. He knew of the IOC meeting and its purpose, but his sources assured him wrestling's well-being would not be discussed.
They were wrong.
Like a bad reality TV show, wrestling -- part of the Olympics since its modern inception in 1896 -- along with baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wake boarding and the Chinese martial art wushu were left out of the 2020 Olympics.
Megaludis and his Penn State teammates had little time to react. They were preparing for the postseason. There was no time to sulk, but they still understood the magnitude of the decision.
"Of course you're bummed out," Megaludis said. "You're in danger."
Bender's job is to face that danger.
"We realized that we had to answer the bell almost immediately," he said. "We felt it was time for the U.S. to take a leadership role with helping our international federation battle the decision and fight for our sport."
Within weeks, wrestling officials realized they needed help from an outside source, said Jim Scherr, the former U.S. Olympic Committee head and former Olympic wrestler. Scherr and Bender knew whom to call.
Steve Brunner, president and founder of King of the Mountain Sports Marketing, had previously served as the director of marketing and properties for USA Wrestling. Bender called Brunner and notified him wrestling was searching for a marketing company. For two days, Brunner and his team brainstormed and returned with a pitch.
"A strategic plan [that] encapsulated the 2020 vision campaign," Brunner said.
First, there was the logo -- the number 2020, with the first three numbers in bold gray type, and the last 0 resembling a wrestling mat colored as a bull's-eye.
Red fine print below the numbers says "Vision," and to the right, "Keep the Dream Alive" is written vertically.
"The target was 2020," Brunner said. "And we wanted to galvanize the vision around that."
Company vice president Guillermo Rojas said the firm pitched a complex campaign, one that needed to start at the sport's "grassroots," the common wrestler, and one that also mobilized the sport's elites -- the Olympians.
The logo helped push the campaign online and through social media. The elite athletes were provided with talking points to help tell wrestling's story to a wider audience.
It was clear, however, that wrestling needed more help. It needed a way to reach the masses. And through a network of friends and contacts, Rojas connected with Ryan Eckle, Dick's Sporting Goods' brand vice president.
Dick's carries wrestling equipment and Eckle had been following wrestling's Olympic saga. The demographics matched, so USA Wrestling and Dick's Sporting Goods announced a partnership May 28.
From a social media standpoint, the two million Facebook followers of Dick's would be key. Dick's helped advertise a petition to "Help Save Olympic Wrestling," which has more than 76,000 signatures. Wrestling believes it can galvanize the masses by delivering an emotional appeal to wrestlers and sports fans, preaching its history along with the grueling work a wrestler puts into every practice.
Brunner said KOM is currently in talks with three other corporations that might soon join wrestling to make its Olympic push. But corporate partnerships and petitions alone won't convince the IOC wrestling still belongs in the Olympics.
An encouraging sign
The room in St. Petersburg, Russia, erupted with cheers.
On May 29, the IOC announced the three finalists for the last spot in the 2020 Olympic Games: Wrestling, baseball/softball -- which compete together -- and squash.
Wrestling was the first sport voted into the next round.
"Certainly, the message the IOC sent to our progress so far was pretty resounding," Bender said. "The response we've gotten from the Olympic family and community has been positive and encouraging that we've been going down the right path."
Changes for the better
Football is America's sport. Baseball is its pastime. And wrestling seems to have lost its edge in the United States, surviving mostly in pockets around Pennsylvania and the Midwest.
"The rules honestly made the matches really slow, really tactical and boring," Megaludis said.
"If you don't understand the rules of a sport, it's hard to recognize when there is an exciting moment in its match," Bender said.
Changes were made. Most notably, matches will now be two three-minute sessions instead of three two-minute sessions. Scoring is now cumulative rather than best two-out-of-three.
Former Olympic wrestler and North Allegheny graduate Jake Herbert said the rule changes are his favorite move the sport has made in the past few months.
"Wrestling has always been timeless," Herbert said. "The modernization is very good for the sport."
Megaludis said losing its Olympic spot became a wake-up call for the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, or FILA. Even wrestlers such as Megaludis, who have dedicated their entire life to the sport, believed the rules lacked the stimulation and thrill other sports provided.
"I honestly think this is one of the best things for wrestling," he said. "The rules are 10 times better and more exciting."
"I'm truly convinced our sport is better [now] rather than Feb. 12," Bender agreed.
Still dreaming big
Megaludis has come too far to quit now. Wrestling is part of his life, regardless of its association with the Olympics .
He's confident wrestling will remain an Olympic sport. He sees it winning poll after poll online. He has seen this grassroots movement and the petitions. "I always dreamed big. I still dream about the Olympics."
Megaludis doesn't know if wrestling will make the final cut. He'll continue to work out, to get stronger, to build his body up by tearing it down. And when the pain sets in, he'll go back to his vision -- the one with the gold medal draped around his neck and "The Star Spangled Banner" blaring -- because he always has.
"For little kids, if it gets taken away, they don't get to dream of standing on that podium, listening to your country's anthem," Megaludis said.
Mike Vernon: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @m_vernon. First Published July 3, 2013 4:00 AM