LONDON -- With a broken heart and nerves rubbed raw by the most disappointing day he had spent near a wrestling mat, Jake Herbert went searching for reassurance the only place he knew to look.
His final match, a defeat against Turkey's Ibrahim Bolukbasi Saturday night that eliminated him from contention for an Olympic medal, had been over for about 20 minutes. Wearing his blue singlet with a white T-shirt over it, Herbert climbed the stairs to Section 416 of the ExCel Exhibition Centre and peered over the railing, his eyes combing the crowd for his parents.
A few minutes earlier, in an emotional state, he had said that he was sorry he had let his large group of supporters down.
"I know they'll say I didn't," said Herbert, 27, who went to North Allegheny High School, "but I came here to win hardware, and I'm not leaving with it."
His mother, Kelly, started her son's rebuilding process, giving him a hug and telling him "I'm so proud of you." His father, Jim, picked up where she left off, pulling Jake in for a hug that immediately produced heaving tears from both sides.
How did the hulking Herbert men get to this disconsolate place? They both believed Jake was destined to be golden, to the point that the family had black T-shirts printed up that said "From Steel City to London Gold." After three matches in the 84-kilogram (about 185 pounds) division, they would leave Saturday night feeling cheated and wondering why it was Jake who became the victim of two seemingly questionable judging calls.
Herbert won his first match, but, in a quarterfinal, he was pitted against the 2011 world champion, Azerbaijan's Sharif Sharifov, a tough draw. Sharifov won the first round, 4-1. In the second, Sharifov made an attacking move that drove back Herbert, but it appeared Herbert was able to stop Sharifov's move and turn him onto his back.
If the judges had ruled that's what happened, Herbert would have been awarded three points. But they determined that Sharifov had initiated the move and gave him three instead.
While this was being debated by the judges, the match continued, with Sharifov getting on top of Herbert for two more points. That made it 5-0 Sharifov, and Herbert's coaches stopped the match to request a review of the scoring. The judges, after minutes of debate, upheld the original scoring decision, which gave Sharifov another point and the match (rounds are stopped when one wrestler has a six-point lead).
The loss dropped Herbert into the repechage bracket, which allows for the wrestlers who lost to the finalists to compete for bronze. But Herbert and his coaches felt he should have been leading, 3-2, in the second round against Sharifov with a chance to take him to Round 3.
"I understand wrestling," Team USA coach Zeke Jones said, "and Jake stopped the shot and threw the guy for three."
Jones said that a jury, a second group of three referees called in to give a ruling, agreed that Herbert deserved the three points. But Jones said an official from the Federation Internationale des Luttes Associees, known as FILA, came to the floor and influenced the decision to go Sharifov's way.
"Some people are going to be in the refs' favor and some people aren't," Herbert said, "and, unfortunately, I'm wearing the United States of America. It's the greatest country in the world, and these guys are all mad about that."
In his repechage match against Bolukbasi, Herbert lost the first round, 0-1, and won the second, 4-1. He would lose the third, 5-4, after another controversial call went against him.
Herbert was left having to think about his future. He needs to have major surgery on his left shoulder, but he said he could not retire after this.
"I want to come back in 2013 and 2014 and get a gold medal," Herbert said. "I've got to come away with a title at some point. This is my biggest fear, just coming here and being a participant, and that's unfortunately all I am right now."
At the end of his night, he was still a son to Kelly and Jim Herbert.
"It just was not his day," Jim said. "Just not his day."