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Olympian task
Memory of father driving Hahn in quest for trip to Beijing
May 12, 2008

As Damion Hahn scrolls through the mental snapshots from his career, the defining images of a life in wrestling begin to emerge.

The freeze frames include the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Region VI final he lost to Jackson's Derex Johnson as a Lakewood High School freshman, with the electricity in the Red Bank Regional Field House giving him his first real understanding of the sport's intensity.

There was the feeling of accomplishment after his major decision over Iowa's Jessman Smith in front of 16,000 screaming Minnesota fans helped the Gophers pull off a stunning win as a sophomore, and the unmatched drama of his takedown of Lehigh's John Trenge at the buzzer to win the first of his two NCAA championships a year later.

And last October's victory over fellow American Mo Lawal to capture the 96-kilogram title at the Alexander Medved Invitational in Minsk, Belarus, marked the zenith of his freestyle career.

Each has significance, intertwining with thousands of other matches and moments to form the foundation of an Olympic hopeful, as Hahn, a volunteer assistant coach at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., looks to chase his dream all the way to Beijing this summer.

But it's possible the flashbacks would be quite different had a second-grader not come home from school on day with a flier for a recreation wrestling program.

"His father was a professional wrestler," Hahn's mother, Betty, said of her late husband, Miles, a member of the Wild Mongos tag team. "When we walked into the gym, the first words out of his mouth were "Where's the ring?' "

"(Damion) was a pudgy little thing, so he always had to wrestle bigger kids and he'd come home crying, "Dad, I'm getting my butt whipped.' "

Then, he pinned his opponent to win the first tournament he entered, and he was hooked. A few years later, after two-time Olympic gold medalist John Smith, now the head coach at Oklahoma State, handed him his medal at a tournament while he was in grammar school, he said, "I'm Damion Hahn, and someday I'm going to be better than you."

And that's the carrot dangling in front of Hahn right now, as he points his efforts toward the U.S. Olympic Team Trials from June 13-15 in Las Vegas, where an all-expense-paid trip to China hangs in the balance.

Helping to push him through the rigorous training sessions is the memory of his late father, who served as his coach, trainer and confidant. Miles Hahn died just over two years ago after battling kidney and heart ailments due to diabetes.

"He devoted a lot of time and effort to me, and it's like I'm trying to give back to him now," said Hahn, who was a three-time NJSIAA champion at 189 pounds for Lakewood. "It's really my whole family and all the people who have played a major role in my life, but he's right at the top of the list."

Added Betty Hahn: "He always looked up to his dad in the stands and found him in the crowd. It was very emotional. I find now when I go to big tournaments, I still see him like he's looking up for his dad somewhere in the crowd."

It was shortly after his father passed away that Hahn and his wife, Terry, began thinking about moving closer to Hahn's mother. Around that same time, Cornell coach Rob Koll decided to place a telephone call.

"I tracked him down out in Minnesota," Koll said. "I wanted to get the best big guy in the country. Damion's 210 pounds, but he wrestled like a lightweight. I was able to convince him that Cornell was the best place for him."

With his wife working full time as a manager for Target, and the New York Athletic Club, which Hahn wrestles for, and the U.S. national team picking up the bulk of his traveling expenses, Hahn is free to spend much of his time training. On the mat and in the weight room, he works alongside former Cornell standout and fellow Olympic hopeful Clint Wattenberg.

At the Trials, Hahn will have to navigate a field including the top competitors in the 211 1/2-pound weight class. The survivor of a mini double-elimination tournament earns the right to meet Daniel Cormier of Stillwater, Okla., No. 1 in the weight class and winner of the recent Las Vegas/ASICS U.S. National Freestyle Championships, where Hahn finished fifth, for a spot on the Olympic team.

Conditioning was always Hahn's calling card, although he feels that advantage has been minimized by the new rules for freestyle wrestling that were put in place after the last Olympics.

"To give you an example, my junior year in college, three of my five matches in the nationals came down right to the end," Hahn said. "I kept wrestling and wrestling and eventually outwrestled my opponent. There wasn't a need to rush your technique. With the new rules, conditioning doesn't play as big a factor. Each period is its own match and you have to win two of three. You could beat a guy 5-0 in the first period, and then lose 1-0 and 1-0, and you lost the match."

At 28, he understands this may be his last chance to achieve the ultimate goal.

"I don't ever want to say absolutely done, over, but it has crossed my mind," Hahn said. "But I do not want to put a date on it. For the most part, you get bumps and bruises, but I have no major physical damage."

But there's little question that to be standing atop the podium in the Thomas and Mack Center a month from now, with the memory of his father, the honor of competing for his country and the understanding of the sacrifices he and those around him have made swirling through his head, would provide Hahn with the most enduring metal image of all.