LONDON >> Roughly three months ago, U.S. wrestler Ali Bernard was on her parents’ couch in Minnesota thinking she had blown her last chance for an Olympic medal.
Bernard was heavily favored to represent the U.S. at the London Games after taking fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games and bronze at the 2011 world championships. But Hawaii’s Stephany Lee took the American spot at 72 kilograms with a surprising and decisive win over Bernard at the U.S. Olympic trials in Iowa City.
Then Lee got popped for pot.
A drug test Lee had taken in Iowa City in late April came back positive for marijuana, and in late June the U.S. suspended Lee — and gave Bernard her spot for London.
Because it took a few weeks for anyone to get an inkling that Lee’s eligibility was in jeopardy, Bernard was left wondering what to do because her career was presumably over.
"I gave it everything that I have, but it wasn’t working, and I hope it doesn’t happen again," Bernard said. "It was rough thinking that that’s going to be my last competition and wrestling like I did. So I’m grateful for this opportunity to prove to myself and to everyone else that that’s not me."
Until that loss to Lee, Bernard was viewed as the top heavyweight in the American program.
Bernard, 26, a native of New Ulm, Minn., was a two-time U.S. Girls Wrestling Association national champion in high school before moving to a pair of Canadian colleges. She won five collegiate national titles in Canada to add to the junior world titles she picked up in 2003 and 2005.
She eventually earned the U.S. spot for the Beijing Games and, like teammate Clarissa Chun, finished a respectable fifth. At last year’s world championships, she pinned the 2008 gold medalist, Jiao Wang of China, on the way to a bronze.
The strong showing at worlds also earned Bernard a bye into a best-of-three championship series at the trials. Lee and the rest of the field had to survive the bracket just for the chance to face a well-rested Bernard.
It didn’t do Bernard any good.
Lee took the first match and ended the second with a technical fall to complete the upset. In an instant, Bernard went from eyeing London to eyeing a possible future as a wrestling coach.
"It definitely a roller-coaster. It’s definitely ‘Oh man, what am I going to do now? I’m looking for jobs. I’m like ‘I’m 26. I need to find a future,’" Bernard said.
But Bernard knew she’d have to stay in shape in case anything happened to Lee because by finishing second she was the alternate for the U.S. at her weight. U.S. coach Terry Steiner asked her a few weeks later to move back to Colorado Springs to train, but it wasn’t until about six weeks ago that Bernard found out for certain that she would take Lee’s spot.
The change came so late that Olympic officials had already prepared a name card for Lee, not Bernard, for a press conference held Thursday in London.
"Things happened as they did, so I’m glad I got off the couch," Bernard said.
Though Bernard joins Chun as the first two-time Olympic women’s wrestlers produced by the U.S., she isn’t favored to take gold Aug. 9.
That distinction belongs to Bulgaria’s Stanka Zlateva, who has won the last two world titles and has five to her credit. She only won silver in Beijing, though, which has provided Zlateva more than enough motivation to put the final touch on a brilliant career in London.
Russia’s Ekaterina Bukina and Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus should be in the mix for medals. But Bernard is a serious medal candidate in her own right, and the weeks she spent dealing with what she assumed was the end of her competitive career has helped her stay loose.
"When I start to get stressed out I’m like ‘You know what? I lost already. What’s the worst that can happen now?’" Bernard said.