When Jim Messer of Prospect Heights travels next month to London for the Summer Olympics, it will culminate a journey that started during his sophomore year at Hersey High School, when he turned to wrestling after an injury.
As member of the Huskies, he eventually helped his team win the Mid Suburban League title his senior year, before earning regional and sectional titles and advancing downstate to the Elite Eight.
"At the time, it seemed like the biggest thing in the world," Messer says.
Now, he moves to a bigger stage. As an assistant varsity coach of the Oak Park and River Forest High School wrestling team, he helped develop one of the school's most successful athletes: 2009 graduate Ellis Coleman, known around the world for his "flying squirrel" move.
At 20 years old, Coleman is the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team bound for London, where his high school coaches -- Head Coach Mike Powell, and Messer, among others -- will be there watching him.
Coleman is getting lots of media attention for his creative wrestling move, where he literally goes airborne to take down his opponent, as well as for his compelling personal story of overcoming adversity while growing up Chicago's West side.
But perhaps lesser known are the coaches and mentors -- eight in all will travel to London -- who helped shape him, and that includes Messer.
At Hersey during his senior year, Messer won 40 matches and qualified for state as an individual. His coach at the time, Rick Mann, had a big influence on him, and Messer says they continue to stay in touch.
"He taught me to wrestle with pride, to control my emotions and the importance of team," Messer says.
He likes to think he conveys those same principles to the student athletes he works with now.
At Oak Park River Forest, they work with wrestlers year-round, including off season conditioning and tournaments in the Greco Roman style of wrestling, the arena where Coleman qualified for the Olympics.
Greco-Roman wrestling has been around since the ancient Greeks and has been part of all the modern Olympics, but it is little known to mainstream audiences. However, at Oak Park River Forest High School, coaches see its many benefits.
"You can't attack or defend with your legs," Messer says, "so it opens up the opportunity to throw your opponent in ways you can't in high school and collegiate wrestling.
"It opens up opportunities to be creative and forces you to generate more offense," Messer adds, "and take control of the mat."
He says that is how Coleman came to create his famous flying squirrel move. It wasn't just the element of surprise that made the move successful. It worked in part because his opponent could not prevent the move with his legs.
"It came out of desperation; he turned to it when he kept losing," Messer says with a laugh. "That's why if everything goes as planned, you won't see it in London."
Messer describes Coleman as the best wrestler Oak Park and River Forest High School has produced, but he hopes some of the intangibles he learned from the sport stay with the young Olympian.