Back in the summer of 1996, 4-year-old Joey DeNova's eyes were glued to the Atlanta Summer Olympics and the U.S. wrestling team.
That was the year Kurt Angle, Kendall Cross and Tom Brands won freestyle gold for the U.S. A couple of American wrestling legends, Brandon Paulson and Dennis Hall, took silver in Greco-Roman. Overall, the U.S. won eight wrestling medals, more than any other country.
DeNova was hooked.
Asked by his father, Bill, whether he wanted to try the sport, DeNova has been getting better ever since, and this weekend the Columbus High and Harris County product will realize a lifelong dream when he competes at 60 kg (132 pounds) at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City.
"That's what makes this whole thing come full circle," DeNova said. "I get to compete for a chance to wrestle at something that originally got me into wrestling."
DeNova, a two-time state champion who won titles at Columbus High and Harris County -- his dad, Bill, moved out of the Muscogeee County school district after his sophomore season -- is coming off of his first Greco-Roman Junior Nationals championship.
Wrestling a week ago at
the FILA Junior Nationals in Madison, Wisc., DeNova beat Jessy Williams 3-0, 1-0 to win his first national title since the eighth grade.
"It's definitely given me some much-needed momentum going into the trials," DeNova said. "I just have to do what I've been doing."
After a successful high school career, DeNova had a choice. In high school and NCAA competition, the style of choice is folkstyle, a style of wrestling that translates better to freestyle competition at the international level.
But DeNova always has had a knack for Greco-Roman, a style of wrestling that doesn't allow competitors to use their legs.
"You can't take shots, there's no tripping," DeNova said. "It's all upper body, there's a lot more high-altitude moves than folkstyle, a lot more throws."
Instead of taking a scholarship and competing in the traditional NCAA Championships, DeNova chose to go to Northern Michigan, the only school in the country that offers Greco-Roman wrestling.
"It was kind of the obvious choice for him," his father, Bill, said. "Having wrestled all three styles his whole life, that's kind of what he excelled at."
Two years into his time at Northern Michigan, DeNova has no regrets.
Because Greco-Roman is more popular overseas, he has wrestled in Norway, Austria and Bulgaria each of the past two years.
Now, he has an outside shot to make it to London for the 2012 Olympics. Joe Betterman and Jeremiah Davis, who have held down the 60 kg spot on the U.S. world team the past three years, are the favorites, but, as a young wrestler, DeNova could set the foundation for his future career.
"Realistically, I'd say, I think I've got a good shot at placing in the top five," DeNova said. "I'm going to go out there and enjoy this, it's possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
For a kid from Georgia--not exactly known as a wrestling hotbed--DeNova's career already has reached impressive heights.
"Anywhere that there's snow on the ground, it makes wrestling a little bit more popular," said Bill, who grew up in Ohio. "But Joey learned real fast. He's a real smart kid."
With two years left at Northern Michigan and a chance to establish himself as a contender on the U.S. Greco-Roman scene, DeNova wants to open a path for other talented Georgia wrestlers.
"Coming from Georgia, wrestling isn't as recognized," DeNova said. "I want to kind of pave a path for everybody else coming up there."