Being an Olympian still settling in for Homer's O'Donnell

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

In "The Iliad," the classic poet Homer described the sport of wrestling in ancient Greece more than 2,500 years ago. This summer, at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, one of Homer's residents, Tela O'Donnell, will be making some wrestling history of her own.

O'Donnell grappled her way to Greece on May 23 by pinning her longtime nemesis and two-time world silver medalist Tina George twice at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Indianapolis.

The victory cemented the 121-pounder a spot on the first ever U.S. women's Olympic wrestling squad. She and three other U.S. women's wrestlers will begin competition Aug. 22, when the event makes its Olympic debut.

O'Donnell said Tuesday during a phone interview that at times she still can't believe she is going to the Olympics.

"I think it comes and goes," she said. "I don't think it's settled in yet."

O'Donnell had to wrestle through a minitournament and win three matches earlier in the weekend to reach the finals against George.

"All the girls are real close, strong competitors," she said. "It was good for me. Nothing was an easy win."

George, on the other hand, received a free pass to the finals with her victory over O'Donnell at the U.S. National Championships in Las Vegas in early April.

The extra work in the tournament paid off for O'Donnell, who has faced George in several tournaments and beat her once in 2003.

"She's a real explosive lady with strong legs and strong arms," O'Donnell said. "I was working on making angles and not getting right in front of her."

In the first of the best out of three matches the two wrestlers sparred like gladiators.

O'Donnell scored on four takedowns while George scored on a pair of takedowns and a reversal.

Nearly six minutes into the second period O'Donnell clamped a headlock on her opponent, sending George to the mat. O'Donnell then finished her off with a pin to take the first match.

O'Donnell said she didn't feel as nervous as she usually does during the matches, even though an Olympic berth was on the line.

"It was weird," she said. "I was just trusting in my training, in my skills, and if they were good and I could beat her, I'd be ready to go."

In the second match George came out quickly, taking a 6-1 lead into the second period.

"She came out real strong and real aggressive," O'Donnell said. "It took some time to adjust, then it started to work.

"I thought, 'Well if she got six points in the first then I can get six in the second,' so here we go."

O'Donnell scored a takedown to begin the second period and then threw a hold on George that proved to be George's Achilles' heel.

"It was a half-nelson," O'Donnell said. "I just drove, drove, drove, with my feet and pinned her."

O'Donnell's friend, Brittney Gaethle, watched the victory unfold in the stands.

"It was literally amazing, I can't even explain it," Gaethle said. "It was so out of the blue that she pinned her. It was like boom, and she was down."

With the victory, and the spot on the U.S. team, O'Donnell has earned the right to compete in the country that gave rise to the sport.

"I think about that," she said. "I feel very lucky to be part of women's wrestling the first time women's wrestling is an Olympic sport."

Back home in Alaska, word of her accomplishment spread quickly. Her picture donned the cover of the Anchorage Daily News Monday, TV outlets carried video feeds and a radio producer tracked her down for interviews.

O'Donnell, 21, said she is slowly learning to grapple with the newfound fame.

"I'm not at all used to it," she said. "Sometimes I get shy when I talk."

In Homer, one of O'Donnell's former wrestling coaches, Patrick Daigle was excited by the news.

"I guess it's hard to believe," he said.

Daigle coached O'Donnell at Homer High School through her junior year. She then transferred to Nikiski, where she was coach by David Martian.

"For the most part, she wrestled against the boys," Daigle said. "She just enjoyed wrestling. It was a sport that fit her."

O'Donnell went to women's nationals as a sophomore and won the tournament. Daigle said it was at that point that O'Donnell realized how good she was.

"It's really fun. I've coached a lot of kids and often she was the best athlete in the room," Daigle said. "I just think that Tela had some special abilities (as a wrestler)."

For now, O'Donnell is taking a week off before training begins for the games.

She said she hopes she can make it back to Homer before the trip to Athens.

"It seems like it's been a long time since I've been home," she said. "Even if it's just for a day."

The games will mark O'Donnell's first world tournament experience, something she is looking forward to.

"It is pretty neat, to be part of that, and to see other countries. Wrestlers have good sportsmanship," she said. "It's neat to represent the U.S. and be with people from other countries that represent their culture."

At the games O'Donnell said she has set at least one goal for herself.

"I'll try to make Homer proud," she said.

Ben Stuart is a reporter for the Homer News. He can be reached at

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