Keaser grapples with what could've been 1976 doesn't evoke golden memories


Wherever Lloyd "Butch" Keaser speaks, at wrestling clinics or IBM functions or to high school groups, he shares a bittersweet experience with his audience.

Keaser won a silver medal in wrestling at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal -- after entering his final match with a virtual lock on a gold.

A graduate of Brooklyn Park High and the Naval Academy, Keaser was in position to win the gold even if he lost his last match to the Soviet Union's Pavel Pinigin. The rub, the confusing part, was that he couldn't afford to lose to Pinigin by more than seven points.

"I probably would have been better off if I had to win the match to win the gold," said Keaser, 42, a former Marine who has worked for IBM in Baltimore for 15 years, currently as a technical support specialist for computer systems.

Preliminary rounds had narrowed the field in the 149 1/2 -pound class to Keaser, Pinigin and Japan's Yasaburo Sugawara. Under a complex black-mark-system rule, Sugawara had five penalty points, Pinigin three and Keaser none.

If Keaser lost to Pinigin by more than seven points, both would have 3.5 penalty points, and Pinigin would receive the gold by virtue of the win in head-to-head competition.

The U.S. coaches were of little help, leading Keaser to believe he could lose to Pinigin by as many as 11 points and still capture the gold.

"I made some assumptions," Keaser said, refusing to blame the coaches. "It was like not talking to the pitcher when he has a no-hitter going. The coaches didn't want to remind me I could lose and still win. I was wrestling the best of my life."

Keaser and Pinigin had engaged in classic matches in the past. Keaser won one, Pinigin another and there had been a few ties. The largest point spread was three points.

"I wrestled to protect something I didn't actually have, and wrestled conservatively as a result," Keaser said. "I didn't wrestle my match. I left the mat embarrassed by the score, but believing I had done what I needed to do to win the gold."

He had not. Pinigin won the match, 12-1, and with it, because of the over-seven point differential, the gold.

"It was gut-wrenching, frustrating," Keaser said. "It hurt. It still hurts. But the only person to blame is me. I lost the mental battle."

That is the theme of Keaser's remarks when he serves on the staff of Navy wrestling camps and speaks to high school and local club teams.

"The idea is not to change your style and play your opponent's game, or play to his strength," Keaser said. "Do your best."

In other years, Keaser wouldn't have been so tempted to change his style. The black-mark system was used in Olympic wrestling for the first time in 1976, requiring a round-robin final with three wrestlers.

It never would have come to Keaser vs. Pinigin in previous Olympics. In 1976, Pinigin lost to Sugawara, and Keaser beat Sugawara.

That would have been automatic gold for Marine Lt. Keaser.

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