Trying to get grip again

J.R. Plienis is the perfect poster boy for amateur wrestling.

Both have an identity crisis.


The product of a Dundalk junior program and McDonogh School, Plienis couldn't find comfort as a college wrestler, so he withdrew from Nebraska and began a daunting climb, to become an Olympian as a Greco-Roman heavyweight.

After an 11th-hour switch, he instead qualified for this week's U.S. trials on the freestyle side. His goal is to impress a college coach, land another scholarship and return to the NCAA ranks.


The U.S. trials will run tomorrow through Sunday in Dallas, where Plienis and 172 other men will compete for 16 Olympic berths and record crowds are expected to add to the drama. To distinguish itself from the Vince McMahon brand that is ubiquitous on your TV screen, the promotional material from USA Wrestling is pointed: "Real Wrestling, Real Heroes."

Wrestling for Nebraska was a struggle for Plienis. After a stellar prep career, he was redshirted as a freshman in 1996-97, and had undistinguished NCAA tournaments the following two seasons.

"After the '99 NCAAs, I was pretty discouraged with myself and my performance," Plienis said. "I decided I needed a break. I've wrestled something like 1,500 matches in my life, and I was burned out with college wrestling.

"If somebody said you have to choose between freestyle or Greco-Roman or college wrestling for the rest of your life, college wouldn't be the option. I've always had more success in Greco-Roman and freestyle than college."

In Greco-Roman, wrestlers cannot attack an opponent's legs. In freestyle, both arms and legs can be used to execute holds. Scoring and strategic nuances make it distinct from NCAA wrestling, what international practitioners label "folkstyle."

Plienis, 21, decided last year to put his college eligibility on hold, test his potential in one of the two international disciplines and try his luck during the Olympic year. He worked as a laborer last fall for an asphalt contractor on North Point Road. He returned to Nebraska in the winter, for three intense months of training, and entered whatever tournaments that would have him.

He was bolstered by his showing in the Greco-Roman East Regional. He lost an overtime final to Brian Keck, and since Keck had beaten Olympic silver medalist Matt Ghaffari in the semis, Plienis thought he was going places. Then he ran into eventual champion Rulon Gardner at the U.S. nationals in late April.

"Gardner really put it to me," Plienis said. "He threw me on to the judge's table at one point. He was just out of my league. He made me re-evaluate my situation."


The following weekend, Plienis entered a regional freestyle tournament in Tulsa, Okla. He pinned his way through and qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials. Kerry McCoy, a two-time NCAA champion during his days at Penn State, is the favorite. As the national champion, McCoy advances to a final series against the winner of a challenge tournament, which includes everyone else in the 286-pound weight class.

Plienis hopes that the challenge tournament will match him against Angelo Borzio, the coach at East Stroudsburg. Since his parents didn't see much of him during his stays in Nebraska, Plienis is looking at that Pennsylvania school and two others, Lock Haven and Pitt, as possible locations to exhaust his final two years of college eligibility.

He's spent the last couple of weeks training with Mike Faust. The recent Gilman School graduate was The Sun's Male Athlete of the Year, but he also weighs just 230. Plienis is himself a few pounds shy of the 286-pound limit, and he admits he needs strength and seasoning before he'll be a national force.

"I've got nothing to lose," Plienis said. "I still view myself as a kid."

NOTES: Three men with local ties qualified for the Greco-Roman trials. Ron Muir, who attended Glen Burnie High and Coppin State and is now in the Army, qualified at 152 pounds. Former Naval Academy standout Dan Hicks, now in the Marines, qualified as the Armed Forces champion at 213.75. Navy assistant coach Lindsay Durlacher is in the 127.75-pound field.