The Olympic gold medal was draped around his neck and the Star-Spangled Banner played. But what made it strange for Penn wrestler Brandon Slay was that it was mid-November at the outdoor concert series set for NBC's Today Show.
According to the International Olympic Committee, there has been just one medal ceremony conducted outside of the Games. Just one man in history has received his Gold in such a manner. So, of course, Brandon Slay's journey from Texas to Gold was more unique than simply unique.
The seeds for the journey were planted back in Amarillo in 1984, when Slay -- the product of a broken home -- was living with his grandmother. During the Los Angeles Games, they would get up to watch the likes of Dave Schultz and Bruce Baumgartner in tape-delayed wrestling matches at 2 am. Slay came out of that -- at just eight years old -- with a focus on making it to the Olympics,
At Tascosa High School in Amarillo, he achieved at every level. Slay was in the top 10 of his 400-student class and was a finalist for the Texas Youth of the Year. He was a football captain and the defensive player of the year in the Texas Panhandle. But his widest acclaim came on the wrestling mat. Slay finished second in the state as a freshman before becoming a three-time state champion. He won 141 matches and lost just four.
Slay could have gone just about anywhere for college, but he chose to pay his own way at Penn -- which was ranked 90th nationally in wrestling at the time. The Wharton School and his relationship with Coach Roger Reina were the deciding factors.
"I had a wonderful experience at Penn," he once said. "I earned one of the best educations in the world, made lifelong friends, was part of a wrestling team that went from 90th in the nation to ninth, and this country boy learned what it was like to live in the big city."
The country boy -- who finished second at the NCAA Championships twice -- would learn about traveling the globe after collecting his economics degree in 1998.
In 1999 he finished sixth at the U.S. Nationals while preparing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while working 16 hours a week as an investment advisor for Charles Schwab. In 2000 Slay returned to the mat with a new spiritual strength that remains his focus (he is pursuing a degree from the Dallas Theological Seminary and works for a commercial real estate firm).
In terms of wrestling, 2000 also turned out to be his year. He claimed the U.S. title in April, earning a spot in the finals of the Olympic Trials. Those trials were in Dallas in late June, and before a partisan crowd of nearly 10,000, he twice beat former Penn assistant coach Brian Dolph to earn a trip to Sydney.
The experience was about to fulfill those boyhood dreams. "The Olympics was a 16-year dream that came to fruition," Slay said in 2001. "It was amazing to walk into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies with 110,000 people in the stands and 10,000 athletes making the walk around the track. Plus, I'll never forget the thrill of stepping onto the mat to represent our nation, the state of Texas, and my community of Amarillo, Texas."
He represented them all with pride, beating wrestlers from Bulgaria, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey on his way to the Gold medal match. Slay lost that match to Alexander Leipold, but three weeks later the German was stripped of his medal after testing positive for an anabolic steriod.
Awarding Slay his proper medal would take until November, when Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee who attended Penn Law School, would eventually be the one to drape the Gold medal around his neck on the Today Show in New York's Rockefeller Square. DeFrantz told Richard Sandomir of the New York Times that it was the first ceremony of its kind in Olympic history.
"It turned out to be even better than had I won the Gold in Sydney because that ceremony would have come on at 1 am and many people, especially children, would not have had a chance to see it. But, they said six million people saw the ceremony on the Today Show. Teachers back in Amarillo brought TVs into their classrooms for their kids to see me get the Gold."
Reaching those kids has meant the world to Slay since his Olympic dreams came true. The way his story came together gave him all the inspiration and advice he need for his countless speeches at schools and clinics.
"Being a person of faith, character, and integrity means so much more to me than winning gold medals," he would tell the children. "Of course, we all should attempt to win in all that we do, but we should never sacrifice our morals or character to achieve the prize.
"If you have a gold medal, but nobody wants to go out to coffee with you, it's not worth much."
— Brett Hoover