Greatest Athlete #5: For McCoy, wrestling was love at first sight

DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES | Kerry McCoy reacts to his victory over Tolly Thompson in the Freestyle 120KG Final Match 2 during the 2004 Olympic Team Trials of Wrestling at the RCA Dome on May 23, 2004 in Indianapolis, Indiana. McCoy would go on to represent the U.S. at the Athens Olympics in August.

Kerry McCoy never planned on wrestling.

Growing up in the Longwood School District, he couldn’t wait until he reached seventh grade and could play on a school basketball team.

But when he finally got there, a 12-year-old McCoy was disappointed to learn the school was only offering two junior high sports that winter: track and wrestling.

A friend of his said he was going to wrestle instead, and suggested McCoy do the same.

“I though ‘Sure, why not,’” he recalled in a telephone interview this week. “I thought I knew about wrestling, you know, but I knew about WWF. I knew about Hulk Hogan, Jimmy Superfly Snuka, those guys.”

When he got to his first practice, McCoy was shocked by his surroundings.

There was no ring with ropes he could jump off. No fancy costumes.

“I got to the first practice and coach had us running a bunch of laps,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t wrestling.’”

But something happened at that first practice. McCoy found his sport. Never mind basketball, he was a wrestler now.

He doesn’t quite know how he fell in love at that first practice. He says it certainly wasn’t because he was head and shoulders above the other wrestlers. Because he wasn’t. Not yet anyway.

But it wouldn’t take long.

The first time Kerry McCoy’s name appeared in the newspaper, he wasn’t quite 16 years old.

The 20 Greatest Athletes in area history continues Monday with No. 4.

It was the summer before his junior year of high school and he was being recognized for placing second in a national competition.

What the story doesn’t tell you is that McCoy had only discovered wrestling four years earlier. Yet there he was along with three of his Longwood teammates leading the United States over Canada in the Canadian Friendship Cup competition.

McCoy’s second place finish in the 180-pound division was good enough to earn him a spot in the Cadet World Wrestling Championships in Budapest, Hungary. It was the first glimpse that the youngster from Middle Island could compete on a world stage. And he didn’t disappoint. McCoy would win the silver medal in Hungary, the top finish of any U.S. wrestler.

It was just the beginning of a career spent wrestling the world’s best in unusual places.

McCoy took a vacation the next summer in Siberia as one of 14 American youngsters invited to compete in the Tour du Monde. He moved up in weight to 198 and took home the gold. Two weeks later he won both the Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling gold medals at the Empire State Games.

McCoy’s rise up the wrestling ranks baffles his friends and former Longwood teammates.

“The most amazing thing about Kerry is the way he became what he is,” said Longwood wrestling great John Lange in an interview this week. “He only started wrestling in seventh grade. So to be able to accomplish all that he did after just a couple years of wrestling, it shows the dedication. He became a true mat rat.”

In high school, McCoy was overshadowed a bit at first by the older Nick Hall and Keith Ketcham, and later by the younger Lange and Rason Phifer, all standout wrestlers for coach Mike Picozzi.

Ketcham was the guy most people credit with putting Longwood wrestling on the map with a pair of county titles in the late 1980s. Hall then became the school’s first state champ in 1991, a year he won the Most Outstanding Wrestler award at the state tournament.

Lange would ultimately become the best high school wrestler in Longwood history. A complete athlete, he was also a star linebacker and fullback on the Lions’ first Suffolk County champion football team in 1993.

That winter season, Lange would claim his third consecutive state wrestling championship, making him the first Section XI wrestler to win three state titles.

McCoy’s high school career gets so lost in the shuffle of the golden age of Longwood wrestling that a list one Newsday reporter wrote for a local wrestling website of the greatest wrestler at each Long Island school makes no mention of him. The writer chose Lange as the Lions’ best, with an honorable mention to the two-time state champ Phifer — and those are two names many folks would put above McCoy at the high school level.

“Those guys were all great wrestlers,” McCoy said. “I never felt like I was anything special in those days. I wrestled because I loved it not because I was necessarily good at it. A guy like Nick Hall, he was my biggest source of improvement. Him kicking my butt all the time.”

LONGWOOD COURTESY PHOTO | Kerry McCoy with legendary Longwood wrestling coach Mike Picozzi in a 1992 photo.

That’s not to say McCoy didn’t find success in his time at Longwood. He entered his senior year as one of the wrestlers to watch in Suffolk County.

In his junior year of 1991 he had captured his first county title and made it all the way to the 177 pound state final, where he lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Mahopac’s John Degl. McCoy managed just two escape points in the match.

This time around, he wouldn’t be denied a state championship.

He annihilated Centereach’s Robert Hughes 14-5 to claim his second straight county crown on a day that also saw Lange and fellow teammate Duane Thompson win titles.

When the Longwood trio and their Section XI teammates headed to Syracuse to represent Suffolk County in the state tournament, McCoy was named team captain.

“The kid is a real leader,” West Islip coach Tony Mellino told Newsday. “He kept the kids focused and ready.”

Led by McCoy, the 1992 Suffolk squad posted one of the finest performances of any county in the history of the New York State Wrestling Championship. At the time, the team’s 242 1/2 points was the second best of all-time.

Eight champions that year were from Section XI, including the senior from Longwood who had only taken up the sport five years ago.

With a 5-2 win over Ryan Hammersmith of Clarence High, Kerry McCoy was a state champion.

“That’s when I started to get good,” he said. “When I wasn’t just wrestling because I enjoyed it. I was now wrestling because I wanted to win.”

When it came time for John Lange to pick a college, he had a difficult decision to make.

Lots of schools wanted a piece of the tough senior from Ridge, who had just won his third state championship in 1994.

He had narrowed his options to three schools: Wisconsin, Indiana and Penn State.

“And pretty much in that order,” he recently told a reporter for an interview published on a Nittany Lions wrestling site.

The reason Penn State ranked lowest on his list of three final schools could be summed up with the names Kerry and McCoy.

Lange loved McCoy. To this day, he counts him among his best friends. He appreciates everything McCoy did for him in high school, when they were practice partners and the older, bigger McCoy pushed him to the limits on a daily basis — like Hall did for McCoy.

But could he really follow in his friend’s footsteps to Penn State?

“I wanted to be my own person and make my own way,” Lange said. “Kerry had set a high bar there and I wondered what the expectations of me would be when I got there.”

After a subpar freshman season, Kerry McCoy quickly bulked up to heavyweight and made an immediate impact in his sophomore campaign.

That’s because McCoy had just taken College Township, Pennsylvania by storm.

After graduating from Longwood in June of 1992, McCoy immediately began to bulk up for college. Just four months after winning the state title at 177 pounds in his senior year, the 6-foot-2 inch wrestler won the 190-pound title at the Junior World Freestyle Championships in Cali, Colombia.

By the time McCoy’s sophomore season at Penn State rolled around in 1994, he was up to a more natural 215 pounds and wrestling heavyweights.

Despite having to grapple with opponents as much as 60 pounds heavier than him in the heavyweight class, he was ranked first in the nation by February of his sophomore year.

He even defeated Hall, now wrestling at Old Dominion University, in a close decision at the Mat Town Open at Lock Haven University that winter.

McCoy just kept on winning that season. By the time he claimed the Big Ten championship in March, he’d already won 42 matches. He was just five wins away from becoming 13th national champ in Nittany Lions history.

Thirty of the top heavyweights from around the country were invited to the national championships in North Carolina. McCoy was on one side of the bracket and his high school teammate and one-time practice partner Hall was on the other side.

There was a slim chance the two could face each other for the title.

McCoy kept up his end of the bargain, winning all four matches leading up to the finals, including wins over highly respected Dan Hicks of Navy and John Kading of Oklahoma.

Hall, meanwhile, made pretty easy work of West Virginia’s Jim Howard in the first round and advanced to face Northern Iowa’s Justin Greenlee.

Four minutes, 22 seconds in, the No. 2 ranked Greenlee defeated Hall by a fall, dashing any longshot hopes McCoy and his former teammate had of facing each other for the championships.

Instead, it was Greenlee, a familiar foe, that McCoy would face for the title. McCoy had already defeated the Northern Iowa team captain in a decision at the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Star Classic at the University of Pittsburgh earlier in the year.

It was one of just six losses Greenlee registered all season. Another came in the national championship, where McCoy was again too much for the Iowa product to handle. They’d wrestle to a decision, but McCoy edged him 7-4 in points.

Lange remembers watching from the stands with his father and McCoy’s family.

“It was incredible to watch,” Lange said. “There was a lot of pride seeing him win that title.”

After the victory, McCoy and his family went out with the Langes for dinner.

A wrestling fan spotted McCoy and offered to buy him a beer.

“My mom was like, ‘Uh, he’s only 19,’” McCoy recalled.

In just his sophomore year of college, the kid from Middle Island who didn’t even know what wrestling really was just seven years earlier was the unbeaten NCAA heavyweight champion.

Lange paid a trip to Penn State after that season and McCoy showed him around. At one point on the trip, Lange and McCoy struck up a conversation with one of football coach Joe Paterno’s assistants. The coach said something to Lange that would ultimately help him make up his mind.

“If you’re dumb enough to pass on Penn State,” the coach said. “You probably couldn’t have made it here anyway.”
With that challenge issued, Lange and McCoy were again teammates.

Today, Lange, who would go on to win a Big Ten title and earn All-American honors with a third-place finish at nationals in 1998, looks back on the time he and McCoy spent together at Longwood and Penn State with such fondness.

He credits the older McCoy, who was a senior class president at Longwood and maintained a 3.86 GPA, with helping to make him not just a better wrestler, but a better person.

“Kerry was always just so down to earth and such a good person,” Lange said. “I always wanted to emulate him.”

The two would even go on to become roommates during McCoy’s senior year.

“The tough part about living with him was going to the supermarket,” Lange joked. “Kerry’s throwing Chips Ahoy and Pop Tarts into the cart and the rest of us are eating nothing but chicken breast to make weight.”

It was during that senior year, as McCoy continued to get bigger and stronger, that he made his return to the top of the heavyweight class.

As a junior in 1995, he entered the national championship tournament again ranked No. 1, but lost a semifinal revenge match to Greenlee, and finished third. It stopped a streak of 88 consecutive wins for McCoy, who would redshirt in 1996 in an unsuccessful attempt to make the Olympics.

PENN STATE COURTESY PHOTO | Kerry McCoy defeated Stephen Neal of Cal-State Bakersfield for his second National Championship in 1997. Neal, who would win three Super Bowl rings playing offensive line for the New England Patriots, was perhaps McCoy's fiercest rival on the national level.

But Olympic-level training would ultimately benefit McCoy, who went on to capture his second national title in 1997, becoming just the second Long Island wrestler to ever win multiple national wrestling championships.

Now 235 pounds, McCoy would defeat Stephen Neal of Cal-State Bakersfield 3-2 in the final.

The win was a fitting end to one of the most dominating careers in collegiate wrestling. McCoy’s 150 wins at Penn State are second best in program history. He won 131 of 132 bouts from his sophomore to his senior season, recording 11 falls, 12 major decisions and four technical falls.

“Kerry was one of the most determined wrestlers I have ever coached,” said former Penn State head coach John Fritz in an interview for a Penn State wrestling site. “He had a great ability to learn from each experience, whether it was a win or a loss. He constantly improved because of his ability to look ahead and stay focused on his goal.”

It’s that laser focus that would ultimately lead McCoy back to working toward his ultimate goal of competing against the best wrestlers in the world.

After three years of elite post-collegiate wrestling, McCoy won the 2000 U.S National Championship, again beating Neal. The victory awarded him one big prize: A plane ticket to Sydney, Australia.

Kerry McCoy was headed to the Olympics.

Artur Taymazov was born on July 20, 1979 in Nogir, North Ossetia, then part of the Soviet Union. He was the third born of four Taymazov brothers, each of whom gravitated to the world of sports.

Artur’s older brother, Timur, was a world-record breaking weight lifter who claimed a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

If the Taymazov brothers had to be summed up in one word, it would no doubt be the word strong.

Artur was just 20 years old when he qualified for Uzbekistan’s 2000 Olympic wrestling team.

Taymazov obliterated the competition in his two pool matches at the Sydney Games, allowing no points to the pair of wrestlers he faced in Pool 4 of the 130 kg tournament.

Meanwhile, in Pool 3, McCoy was having just as much success, shutting out both Rajab Ashabaliyev of Azerbaijan and Merabi Valiyev of the Ukraine, whom he needed overtime to defeat, to advance to the knockout round. From there, one win would send McCoy to the medal round.

All that stood in his way was Taymazov, a wrestler five years younger than him from a world away.

Taymazov was a relative newcomer to international wrestling when he arrived in Sydney.

While McCoy was not exactly a veteran to the world stage, he at least had the 1998 world championships, where he placed fourth, under his belt. Taymazov had not yet represented his country in a world championship tournament.

The knockout round pits six wrestlers in brackets, with two getting automatic byes from the pool matches to the medal round. Lose once and the chance to hang an Olympic medal around your neck is gone for four more years.

McCoy’s knockout round match against Taymazov was equal parts thrilling and controversial.

A look back at the final score of the match reveals Taymazov won 11-9.

It’s a score that has never sit well with McCoy and other U.S. Wrestling officials.

It’s also a different score than the one on the board at the time the match ended. The referees initially scored the match 8-7 in favor of Taymazov.

McCoy had come just short of a comeback from an 8-3 deficit after one period.

Or did he?

The United States team felt McCoy was denied two points he earned early in the match that would have tilted the outcome in his favor.

“We’re going to protest to see if we can get two more points,” U.S. coach Greg Strobel told the Associated Press moments after the match ended. “Kerry got a takedown, gut-wrench, then turned him in that early flurry and we think he should’ve gotten a couple more points.”

The protest led to an immediate videotape review of the match.

There was just one major problem.

In between the first and second period, ringside officials had reviewed tape of the first three minutes of the match.

When they were finished, they neglected to fast forward to the end of the period. When they began to record the second period, they erased the first.

Somewhat reluctantly, international wrestling officials agreed to review a tape of the match that was shot by the U.S. team doctor.

McCoy stood on pins and needles alongside his mother and younger sister, Christine, in a breezeway under the stands, where he awaited the outcome of the review.

The officials agreed, McCoy had in fact earned the two points he was never awarded. But officials said they also found three more points that should have gone Taymazov’s way. The Uzbek grappler would go on to win the silver medal, falling to Russian David Musulbes in the finals.

McCoy and his family were devastated.

“You know, I haven’t done any shopping for souvenirs yet,” Ms. Cisco told Newsday on the day of the match, “and now I’m not sure I want to.”

Ms. Cisco wasn’t the only member of her family to leave Sydney empty-handed. McCoy, who placed fifth in his weight class at the Olympics, headed home without the medal he still believes he could have won.

“It still stings because I thought I was the guy,” he said. “I had a great chance to win a gold medal.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done and all I’ve accomplished, which makes me who I am today. But that [loss] will be with me for the rest of my life.”

MARIO TAMA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES | Kerry McCoy following his victory over Ukraine's Merabi Valiyev in a 130 kg match in the World Cup of Freestyle Wrestling at the Patriot Center at George Mason University in February 2000, prior to his first Olympics appearance.

McCoy would continue to compete internationally for the next several years. He would win the U.S. national title four more times between 2001 and 2004. In 2001 he placed fourth at the World Championships, improving on his fifth place finish at the Olympics. In 2003, he’d win the gold medal at the Pan-American games.

Also that year, McCoy would wrestle his way into the 120 kg finals at the world championships.

He would face a familiar foe for a chance at world gold: Artur Taymazov.

As fast and furious as their Olympics match was, a video of the 2003 World Final reveals a much slower tempo. For the first 20 seconds of the match, neither McCoy nor Taymazov gains an advantage over the other. The two circle the mat in an upright position, as neither one of them makes an aggressive move.

Another eight seconds passes before Taymazov finally drops to his right knee and wraps both of his arms around McCoy’s left leg. As he begins to lift up, McCoy drops his right leg to the mat in a desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable take down. He has no such luck as Taymazov forces him to the mat and falls on top of him.

It was only one point, but it would prove to be big.

The two heavyweights would grapple to a stalemate for the next five minutes of the match, before McCoy finally found a breakthrough.

Taymazov again tried to be the aggressor as he dropped to both knees and lunged to McCoy’s right. This time, the American was able to maintain his balance and he quickly took control of the action, spinning on top of Taymazov and dropping him to the mat for an escape that evened up the score at 1-1 just seven seconds before the end of regulation.

But for as slow-moving as the first two periods were, Taymazov wasted little time claiming victory in sudden death overtime with a two-point take down just 11 seconds in.

Artur Taymazov, who McCoy now calls with a laugh his arch-nemesis, was world champion. He would go on to claim the gold medal in the Athens Olympics of 2004 and in Beijing in 2008.

McCoy wrestled in one more Olympics in 2004, but a loss to Marid Mutalimov of Kazakhstan kept him out of the knockout round. He finished in seventh place.

Soon after, McCoy hung up his international wrestling shoes as a two-time Olympian, gold medal winner in the 2003 Pan-Am Games, silver medalist in the 2003 World Championships and a five-time U.S. Champion.

McCoy was recently speaking with a group of youngsters when the topic shifted to the age-old question of what someone does with themselves when it’s time to enter the real world.

“I kind of cheated,” McCoy said. “I graduated and then when I was done competing, I started coaching.

“I’ve never had to leave the athletic field.”

He’s currently the head coach at the University of Maryland, where he has guided the Terps to three straight top-20 finishes at the NCAA Championships, two ACC titles, while twice being named ACC Coach of the Year. He has also coached six Terps to All-America status, a title he earned three times himself.

Prior to coaching at Maryland, McCoy coached the Stanford wrestling team for three seasons.

He also served as an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing games.

It’s been a great life in wrestling for McCoy. He can say with the utmost sincerity that he’s beaten many of the best wrestlers in the world. And when he’s lost, it’s been only to the best of the best.

These days, McCoy has no problems with Longwood’s decision to not offer a junior high basketball team when he was in seventh grade.

Wrestling is his true passion.

It may not have turned out to be the sport he once thought it was, but it’s led to a life he wouldn’t trade with anyone.

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