Ali Bernard rewrites final chapter

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2012 - 11:38 AM

Ali Bernard lost at the Olympic trials, but a foe's suspension gave her a ticket to London.

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Ali Bernard of New Ulm (in red) lost her first match in the qualifying round of the Women's 72kg freestyle wrestling match to Jenny Fransson of Sweeden.

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LONDON - All she wanted to do was lie on the couch at her parents' house and mope. Ali Bernard felt certain her wrestling career had ended on that awful day this past April, when Stephany Lee swept her out of the U.S. Olympic trials in Iowa City.

Bernard, of New Ulm, entered the trials as the 2011 world bronze medalist in the women's 72-kilogram (158.5 pounds) class. She left as a badly beaten favorite, saddened to think those two lackluster matches would be her last.

"I thought, 'What am I going to do now?'" Bernard said. "I'm 26. I need to find a future. I thought I was going to be done."

Six weeks later, Bernard got the ultimate do-over. Lee tested positive for marijuana in a sample drawn at the trials and was suspended for a year, losing her place on the Olympic team. Bernard was named trials champion and given the spot to compete in London, where she will wrestle her opening Olympic match Thursday against Sweden's Jenny Fransson.

U.S. women's national coach Terry Steiner did not let her stew for long after the trials, urging her to get back into the gym so she would be prepared for anything that might happen. This was the last thing Bernard expected, but the two-time Olympian is grateful for the opportunity to leave wrestling on a happier note.

"It was rough, thinking that was going to be my last competition," Bernard said of the championship series at the trials, where Lee defeated her 3-1, 5-2 in the first match and 3-1, 6-0 in the second. "[Lee] is always a tough competitor, but I know I'm better than how I performed there.

"This is definitely a good way to end my career. I'm glad it didn't end the way I thought it would."

Bernard and U.S. teammate Clarissa Chun -- who won the bronze medal Wednesday at 48 kilograms -- are the first two American women to qualify for two Olympic teams. In 2008, Bernard finished fifth at the Beijing Olympics.

A multiple national champion and two-time junior world champ, Bernard pinned 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jiao Wang on her way to winning the bronze medal at last year's world championships. In Beijing, she said, she felt shellshocked; it was her first major competition at the senior world level, and her inexperience showed. Now she is thoroughly comfortable on such stages, which made it all the harder when she lost at the Olympic trials.

Bernard retreated to her parents' home for a week. She had to endure questions from people in town who didn't know what happened, asking her if she was going to the Olympics. Unsure what to do next, she began calling wrestling contacts to inquire about coaching jobs and put in an application for a college coaching position.

She knew that as the second-place finisher at the trials, she had an obligation to keep training, just in case anything happened that would require her to step in as an Olympian. That got her back on the mat, and within a month, she learned there could be an issue with Lee.

"I just sucked it up and got off the couch," said Bernard, who won five national titles during her college career in Canada. "The next week, I put it aside and was back on the mat going hard. Then Terry said, 'I want you out [in Colorado Springs] training.' It was a long process. I didn't want to get my hopes up, because I didn't want my heart broken again. That probably would have killed me. I was going to train, focus on myself, get better and take away what I could."

It was announced June 28 that Lee -- who also tested positive for marijuana in 2009 -- had been suspended. Bernard declined to comment on Lee other than to say she is "a good competitor." Steiner said that despite the emotions and uncertainty that followed the trials, he expects Bernard to wrestle well in London.

The 72kg class is dominated by Stanka Zlateva of Bulgaria, a five-time world champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist. If Bernard wins, she will face the winner of a match between Zlateva and Vasilisa Marzalyuk of Belarus.

"Ali has proven she can beat anyone at this weight," Steiner said. "She had a rocky road getting here. Because of all that, I believe it has made her focus a little more."

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