Sparring Partners Helps Others Excel In Olympics Some athletes have been training for a long time to go the Beijing Olympics — only they were never planning to compete. These sparring partners get many of the perks, but must swallow the disappointment of not being on the Olympic team.
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Sparring Partners Helps Others Excel In Olympics

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Sparring Partners Helps Others Excel In Olympics

Sparring Partners Helps Others Excel In Olympics

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This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen. Wrestler Katie Downing recently returned from the Beijing Olympics, where she faced off against some of the top athletes. But she never had a chance of winning the gold. That's because Downing wasn't there to compete.

She's one of the handful of wrestlers, boxers, and fencers who go to the Olympics as sparring partners. Katie joins us now from Colorado Springs, where she lives and trains. Thanks for joining us, Katie. And why don't you explain what the role of a sparring partner is? What exactly did you do in Beijing?

Ms. KATIE DOWNING (Wrestler, Sparring Partner): In a combat sport, it's necessary to have two people you can't really wrestle yourself, so you need someone there to train them and to push them, to keep them going, to sometimes try to wrestle like their opponents, and also to help create the best environment for them to be able to compete at their best. So for some people, they need to relax and just hang out and do nothing, and for some people, they need someone that can joke around with them and give them a hard time, make fun and light.

COHEN: How did you wind up in the current position that you were in, as a training partner as opposed to one of the competitors?

Ms. DOWNING: I absolutely was trying to make the team at 72 kilos, and I took number two at that spot. So I was the runner up for that position, but Randi Miller down at 63 kilos made the team, and she and I trained together all the time here in Colorado Springs.

And once the Olympic team is established, the Olympians go back and talk to their coaches and other people close to them and discuss who might be the best person for them on the mat and who might be the best person to have just around them that can keep them comfortable and ready to go. And so, when they pick who they want, then national team coach Terry Stiener asked me if I would do this, and I said yes, of course.

COHEN: You're 28 years old, right?


COHEN: You've been competing for quite some time. Did you yourself want to compete in this year's Olympics?

Ms. DOWNING: Yeah, absolutely, and I've been dreaming about this and started wrestling back in 1994. And I had put a lot of my life on hold and dedicated everything to this Olympics. It's something hard to deal with it that I didn't get to go, for sure.

COHEN: It sounds like a pretty complicated job, and on top of all this, you're facing off against someone who presumably took a spot on the Olympic roster that you might've liked to have filled. Did you ever get jealous of the people that you're wrestling with?

Ms. DOWNING: It's definitely a complicated situation, but it's the nature of what we do. And to a lot of people, being a training partner's kind of a stepping stone. It kind of exposes you to the level of competitions, and it gives a learning opportunity.

I didn't really have any personal feelings towards the girls who went, just because I've trained with them for so long. My training partner was actually in the weight class below me, and we trained together so much that it was easy to go for her. The only hard part was dealing with my own emotions about that I envisioned myself being in all of those situations.

COHEN: You were in Beijing as an athlete. Do sparring partners get the same kind of treatment as other athletes do in Olympic Village?

Ms. DOWNING: Yes and no. I mean, we didn't really get any gear, And there's definitely places that we were not allowed to go, and the spotlight and all of the special treatment was certainly on the Olympians. Although, we were definitely taken care of. The USOC, the United States Olympic Committee took care of everyone involved with team U.S.A. from (unintelligible).

COHEN: And you do get the memories to bring home. What was your favorite one?

Ms. DOWNING: Watching my training partner win her bronze medal match and seeing her face at the podium definitely made it worth it to go through that for her.

COHEN: As you look ahead to the next Olympics, is there anything from this experience that you could take to it possibly as a competitor next time around?

Ms. DOWNING: I'm actually going to be moving on into more of a coaching role and really working behind the scenes to help women's wrestling grow in the United States.

COHEN: Katie, you're back now in Colorado from China. What's the best thing about being back at home?

Ms. DOWNING: Getting to sleep in my own bed. And I'm getting married in 11 days. So this is an exciting time for me, and so I was glad to be back and to be near my fiancee again and to be focusing on stuff that's just happy, not hard and stressful and painful, too.

COHEN: Well, congratulations and welcome back home. Katie Downing, thank you so much for talking to us.

Ms. DOWNING: Sure.

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