By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — PENDLETON — Family is far more than a metaphor around the Pendleton Heights wrestling program.
As Indiana Hall of Famer Katie Downing — a bronze medalist at the 2005 World Championships — returns home on a cross-country trip this week, she'll be accompanied by former assistant coach Eric Kriebel's nephew.
The pair — traveling to Pendleton by car from Downing's current home in Monterrey, Calif. — also plan to make a stop in Denver to visit Kriebel's sisters.
Downing is moving back to her hometown for the first since she left for college at the University of Minnesota-Morris in 1998. She's since lived in Pennsylvania, Colorado — to train with the U.S. Olympic team — Oklahoma and California.
After retiring from wrestling, she believed she was settled in for the long haul in Monterrey.
Then she received word of the 55-year-old Kriebel's unexpected death in April. And her whole world changed.
"It's kind of the best and the worst reason to be back," Downing said. "Krieb got to be one of my best friends. (His death) kind of rocked me."
She was not alone. The news rocked the entire Pendleton Heights wrestling family, and its effects still are felt today.
While Downing was visiting her old wrestling room after the funeral, Arabians head coach Dave Cloud hatched an idea that altered her plans. The best way to honor Kriebel was to replace him.
Downing never before had stood in that room without Kriebel by her side, and she knew returning to it on a full-time basis could bring back fresh emotions every day.
And, yet, there was never any real doubt about her decision.
"I knew I would say yes immediately," she said Saturday during a cellphone interview from her now temporary California home. "But I wanted to do my best to sit on it a little bit, just to not make a major life decision in the middle of grief. But I always knew I would say yes."
And Cloud knew he'd never find a more qualified candidate.
Among a litany of accomplishments, Downing won a national high school championship in 1998, a World Cup championship in 2001 and a United States championship in 2003. She won another national crown in 2004 but lost in a special wrestle-off for a spot on the 2004 Olympic team.
After falling short of her Olympic dream again in 2008, Downing accepted a position as a training partner and traveled to Beijing to support Team USA.
"She went and helped other girls achieve their Olympic dreams," Cloud said Saturday, still marveling at the self-sacrifice.
Downing also had a deeply personal connection with Kriebel. She gave her 2005 bronze medal to Kriebel, and it hangs on a wall in his home.
Adding Downing as Kriebel's replacement was no spur of the moment decision for Cloud. He's seen her work with youngsters during Arabian wrestling camps over the years, and she's lent a hand at the occasional varsity practice during her infrequent trips home from spots across the country.
In fact, not working in the Pendleton Heights wrestling room more often is one of Downing's few regrets concerning her years with Kriebel.
"I wish I would have got to coach with him a little bit more," she said.
Cloud said he could have interviewed 20 candidates and not found a resume more complete than Downing's. Her voice carries authority from her international experience to her tireless work as the only girl on the Pendleton Heights team.
"I've always said, if all the guys worked as hard as she did when she wrestled here," Cloud said, "we'd win every year."
Despite the fit and the storybook-quality surrounding the hire, there will be tough days ahead.
For the second time in three years, the Arabians will open the season mourning the loss of one of their own. Sophomore Zach Wise died prior to the start of the 2011 campaign, and Cloud is attempting to use the hard lessons of that experience in dealing with Kriebel's death.
"Eventually, there's just going to be a new normal," Cloud said. "Things will never be the same. We'll never get back to the old normal, and we'll never forget him."
Downing isn't sure whether she'll be helping the program heal from Kriebel's loss, or whether the team will be helping her. Or if there's any difference between the two.
For the first time in her life, there's no long-term plan. She has no idea how long her stay in Pendleton will be, and she's fine with that.
She knows she'll coach with as much passion as she can. She knows she'll give generously of her extensive knowledge of the sport. And she knows, somewhere along the way, she and the Arabians will begin to heal.
No matter where she's been in the world, no matter what she's accomplished, the road always seems to lead back to Kriebel and the Pendleton Heights wrestling room.
"When I first stepped in that room, being a girl, I fell in love with wrestling," Downing said. "All I ever wanted to do was wrestle. Coming back in a coaching position, I very much want to continue that spirit of wrestling that Krieb left. And I'll do that by being myself. He's so much a part of who I am."