Reflections on the 2021 USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials

After two days of the highest-stakes and highest-level wrestling in the United States, 18 Tokyo Olympic team members were crowned across three styles. There…

By: Ed Gallo | 2 years ago
Reflections on the 2021 USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

After two days of the highest-stakes and highest-level wrestling in the United States, 18 Tokyo Olympic team members were crowned across three styles. There was an abundance of drama on and off the mat, breakout performances, technical intrigue, and genuine heartbreak.

NBC Sports has not yet archived the vast majority of the matches from the Trials, so it may be a while before I can turn around technical breakdowns on any of these matches. What I can do instead is go weight-by-weight and give some insight into the results.

USA Men’s Freestyle Olympic Trials Results

57 KG

In the months leading up to the trials, the thought was that the University of Iowa’s superstar Spencer Lee would be the favorite to win the weight and go on to threaten for an Olympic medal. Due to severe injuries to both of his knees, Lee prioritized his health and decided not to compete.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a battle between Nick Suriano, Thomas Gilman, Daton Fix, and Vito Arujau. A day or two before the Trials, it was announced that Suriano would be unable to compete as well. Given their recent results, I favored Gilman, knowing that he had defeated Daton Fix in Europe in March, as well as Vito Arujau. In my preview of the weight, I predicted that if anyone was going to jump levels and have a breakout tournament – it was Arujau.

Well, he did. The Cornell wrestler was nails on his feet, using short attacks to get to the legs of Daton Fix with regularity, stunning the returning World team member in the semifinals. He looked to be in good form to challenge Gilman for the spot. Unfortunately, just like at Junior Worlds, Vito Arujau did not bring that same fire or focus to the finals, and lost in two matches to the 2017 World silver medalist.

Gilman has taken some tough losses recently, so I don’t love his chances in Tokyo. He’s capable of going with the best guys in the world so anything is possible, but it’s hard to project a lot of success for him based on his current momentum. One feel-good story of this bracket was Nathan Tomasello taking 3rd place and making the national team. Since his 2015 NCAA title win, Tomasello has struggled with the elite wrestlers at the weight. After losing to Arujau in the championship bracket, he wrestled back for his highest placement yet. Tomasello coaches at Duke University – a program that has zero athletic scholarships for its wrestlers. Hopefully Tomasello’s success means growth for that program.

65 KG

Chaos! I was fairly certain that this would come down to Zain Retherford and Yianni Diakomihalis once again, and I wasn’t alone. That narrative broke apart immediately when the Penn RTC’s Joey McKenna took out Retherford in the semifinals. A Junior World medalist, McKenna’s journey from Stanford, to Ohio State, now to Philadelphia has culminated in a career-best showing at the Trials. On the other side of the bracket, Oklahoma State legend Jordan Oliver turned the tables and avenged a 2019 loss to Yianni Diakomihalis with a 4-4 criteria win. Oliver has dominated ever meeting he has ever had with Joey McKenna, and cruised his way to an Olympic team spot.

If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, NCAA champion Nick Lee exploded on the back side of the bracket, defeating Zain Retherford and Yianni Diakomihalis to take 3rd and make the national team! No one saw that coming, no one.

Jordan Oliver has a tall order ahead of him. To qualify to compete at the Olympics, a representative from your country at that specific weight class must either place top 5 in the world, or make the finals of the continental qualifier. Our representative was Zain Retherford – he did not place top 5 at 2019 Worlds, and at the Pan-American Qualifiers he was pinned in an upset against Augustin Destribats. That leaves only one other option – the Last Chance Olympic Qualifier in May. He will face a field of absolute killers, including Olympic champion Vladimer Khinchegashvili. Oliver’s accomplishment had been a long-time coming, it would be a tragedy if after his long journey he was unable to compete at the Olympics.

74 KG

The dominant narrative at this weight held true. With two-time World champion Kyle Dake sitting in the semifinals, it was basically assured that he would face five-time World and Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs in the best two-out-of-three series for the Olympic spot.

Dake bombed and dominated his way to the Burroughs match, turning heads with a massive feet-to-back lift on a single leg against Jason Nolf.

Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Dake have been competing against each other since 2013. Since then, the record stood 7-1, Jordan Burroughs. However, all the moment pointed toward Kyle Dake. Dake was undefeated since early 2018, he had been competing up a weight at 79 kg, and he seemed to have improved leaps and bounds as a freestyle wrestler. Burroughs, on the other hand, had met his match in Zaurbek Sidakov, dropped a match to Isaiah Martinez, and struggled at times with his rival Frank Chamizo. Although only slightly, it appeared Burroughs had lost a step, while Dake was in his prime.

With those narratives aside, the way the matches played out was fairly straightforward. There were two major areas of improvement that allowed Kyle Dake to control the action. One was his freestyle-centric counter game. Burroughs prefers straight-on attacks, like his explosive low double leg. Dake was able to quickly establish the threat of the chest wrap counter, which caused Burroughs to flatten out in order to avoid exposure. Once Burroughs flattened, Dake had the option of switching off to his crotch lift attack, which had a higher scoring potential from that position. This made it extremely risky for Burroughs to shoot straight in.

The answer to this is, “simply attack from an angle”. Well, that brings us to Dake’s second area of improvement – his handfighting. Not only has Dake become larger and more powerful, allowing him to control ties and enforce his preferred distance, he also started to incorporate head movement into his game. Most tie-ups involve grabbing the collar, and with Dake constantly slipping, bobbing and weaving, it was difficult for Burroughs to move him around the way he needed to. The downside of all that motion is that it could make you more vulnerable to outside leg attacks – but that’s exactly what Dake wanted. These two details really put Dake in the driver’s seat. Both matches were tight, but Dake was able to execute his gameplan flawlessly.

At the Olympics Dake will have plenty of contenders to reckon with, but the most anticipated matchup will be two-time World champion Zaurbek Sidakov. Sidakov’s preference for single legs and his ability to score from upper-body ties will definitely make for a different dynamic from the Burroughs matches, but it will also feed into another area of strength for Kyle Dake. The four-time NCAA champion may be headed for an Olympic title in Tokyo.

86 KG

David Taylor walked through the weight, as expected. The 2018 World champion left little doubt as he shut out the red-hot Gabe Dean and completely controlled his teammate Bo Nickal in the best two-out-of-three finals.

The real intrigue was outside of the championship finals, like the incredible back-and-forth match between #2 seed Zahid Valencia and Bo Nickal. It was an amazing contest, one that I hope to break down in the near future. Here’s a little taste of the action!

Future MMA fighter Pat Downey had a better showing than expected, defeating NCAA champion Aaron Brooks outside of his losses to Bo Nickal and Zahid Valencia. Valencia wrestled back strong and took 3rd to make the national team.

At the Olympics, Taylor will likely meet Iran’s Hassan Yazdanicharati for the third time. If history repeats itself, he will be an Olympic champion.

Bo Nickal has made it clear he wants to compete in MMA, originally stating he would begin that process after this upcoming Olympic season. We will see if he sticks to that.

97 KG

Okay, so here’s what happened. Two-time World champion J’den Cox was not able to compete in the tournament and challenge Kyle Snyder due to an incident with his weigh-in. At every single wrestling tournament, there is a set window of time for the athletes to weigh in. They have to make weight within that window. Everyone in the entire tournament did, except for J’den Cox. Why? I have no idea. He’s appealing for a special wrestle-off, on the grounds that his personal coach Kevin Jackson (technically a USA Wrestling employee) told him the wrong time. I don’t think that is going to work.

Fans are lobbying for USA Wrestling to make an exception. What they don’t understand is that procedures for the trials are set by the US Olympic Committee, not USA Wrestling. They do not have the authority to do so. If they did, not only would there likely be a lawsuit from the generous benefactors of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club (where Kyle Snyder trains), they would be in hot water with the USOC. Don’t forget that wrestling was an endangered sport just a few years ago when it was proposed to be cut from the Olympics entirely. It’s a really lousy situation, and I am a huge J’den Cox fan, but there’s no move here. It’s over.

Kyle Snyder dominated the weakened bracket, beating up on his former teammate Kollin Moore in the best two-out-of-three finals. Moore had a lot of momentum coming in after defeating Alireza Karimimachiani in Italy, so this may bode well for Snyder’s chances against the field this year. He’s 1-1 with Abdulrashid Sadulaev, but has taken losses to other contenders like Mohammadian and Sharifov in the past two years as well.

Kyven Gadson had a nice showing for himself on the backside of the bracket, defeating Ty Walz to take 3rd and make the national team.

125 KG

Back in December, I told you that Gable Steveson is the best wrestler in the country. Last month, after he dominated Mason Parris at the Big 10 Championships, I doubled down on that. In my preview for the weight, I assumed Steveson’s victory with confidence.

With all of that in mind, I was still surprised by just how easily Gable Steveson dominated this bracket. Every wrestler he faced, he defeated by technical fall. Mason Parris did not have a great showing, losing by criteria to Dan Kerkvliet, but he came back to win 3rd and make the national team. I still believe Parris is the second best heavyweight in the country, and perhaps top 10 in the world.

Steveson had his way with Gwiazdowski in their first match in the finals, racking up takedowns and turns to win by technical fall. He had no trouble moving “Gwiaz” around with his heavy snapdowns and created motion for his takedown entries whenever he pleased. In their second match it almost looked like Steveson was bored, getting lazy with his wrestling and going on cruise control for the majority of the match.

It was just too easy. In Tokyo, his main competitors will be Taha Akgul and Geno Petriashvili. Only time will tell if he is a genuine threat for Olympic gold.

USA Women’s Freestyle Olympic Trials Results

Unlike men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman, every single women’s freestyle weight is qualified for the Olympics – meaning each of our team members are officially Olympians.

50 KG

It was a treat to watch this bracket unfold. World silver medalist Sarah Hildebrandt sat in the finals while the dynamic Victoria Anthony blasted her way through a tough bracket. In each of their matches, Anthony came out hot and found ways to score. But when she faded, Hildebrandt went to work and did serious damage with her leg lace to make the team.

Hildebrandt has been a star for the women’s team for a couple of years now, it’s a well-deserved achievement for the 27-year-old.

53 KG

Returning World champion Jaccara Winchester took care of business. Picking away at the surging Ronna Heaton on the feet, Winchester found her groove in their second match, winning by technical fall to sweep the series.

While her status as the country’s best at 53 kg may not have been in doubt, Winchester’s emotional response speaks to what a massive honor it truly is to be an Olympian.

57 KG

57 kg was by far the most emotionally charged weight at the entire tournament. 2016 Olympic champion and 2017 World champion Helen Maroulis sat in the finals. She has had a tumultuous stretch of misfortune since 2017, stemming from a horrible concussion and the symptoms and trials that followed. After failing to place at the 2018 World Championships, she contemplated retirement.

Coming after her was 2019 World team member Jenna Burkert. One of the sport’s best representatives was dealing with trauma of her own – the extremely recent loss of her mother due to complications after heart surgery. Some may have been unable to compete at all, dealing with that kind of tragedy. Instead, Burkert wrestled the tournament of her life, burning through a tough bracket before pinning two-time World silver medalist Alli Ragan with a vicious headlock in the challenge tournament finals. Burkert wrestled mercilessly, operating on a level we had never before seen.

In the best two-out-of-three finals, Burkert gave the legendary Olympic champion a serious challenge. After narrowly losing their first match, Burkert turned up the aggression and was able to snatch a victory to force a third and final meeting. Taking a match from a wrestler of Maroulis’ caliber was already a massive achievement, but she was there to go all the way.

It was the last match of the night, you could feel the tension in the arena through the screen. Almost immediately, the bubble burst, Helen Maroulis hit her signature foot sweep and pinned Jenna Burkert to make her second straight Olympic team. Both women broke down in tears. The moment was overwhelmingly emotional, each athletes had overcome unthinkable trials to reach that point, and in a blink of an eye, each of their journey’s ended, for now.

The camera stayed on Jenna Burkert long enough to see her mouth, “I’m sorry Mom”. If your eyes were dry after watching that, I question your humanity.

62 KG

The next weight up was a bit more tame. U23 World silver medalist Macey Kilty had a fantastic tournament, taking out a number of establish veterans to challenge for the spot against 2019 World team member Kayla Miracle. She scrapped hard in their first match, but was unable to continue in their second meeting due to injury.

One interesting note is that Miracle is the only member of the women’s Olympic freestyle team this year who has not yet medaled at the world senior level.

68 KG

One of the most captivating narratives of the night was the breakout performance of 17-year-old Kennedy Blades. With only a few years of wrestling experience under her belt, Blades stunned the field with her run to the finals, most notably when she defeated 2019 World team member Forrest Molinari via technical fall.

In the finals she was held off by 2019 World champion Tamyra Mensah-Stock, one of the pound-for-pound best female wrestlers in the world. Mensah-Stock will be a strong favorite to win gold in Tokyo.

Kennedy Blades’ future may be up a weight, but she is clearly the next big thing in women’s freestyle.

76 KG

In a surprise to no one, five-time World champion Adeline Gray made her second Olympic team. What did surprise many, was the appearance of another teenager in the finals! Cadet World bronze medalist Kylie Welker unseated 2019 World team member Victoria Francis for her shot at Gray. She was dominated by Gray, especially from par-terre, but the future looks bright for women’s freestyle in the United States.

Women’s wrestling is reportedly one of the fastest growing sports in the country, and the current youth movement appears to already be on another level than the old guard. I’m looking forward to seeing how far they can climb.

USA Men’s Greco-Roman Freestyle Olympic Trials Results

60 KG

Once an Olympian for Uzbekistan, Ildar Hafizov dominated his way to another trip to the Olympic Games. He defeated veteran Ryan Mango in two straight matches.

Hafizov did not place at the 2019 Worlds, hopefully the 33-year-old has some gas left in the tank for a push to the top.

67 KG

After qualifying the weight for the US at the Pan-American Qualifiers, U23 World team member Alejandro Sancho sat in the finals. There he was met by the challenge tournament champion Ellis Coleman – “The Flying Squirrel”.

The viral sensation and 2019 World team member was defeated by Sancho in two straight matches. Thereafter, Coleman left his shoes on the mat – signifying his retirement from the sport of wrestling.

A huge storyline at this weight was the breakout performance of Benji Peak. The uber-lanky wrestler established himself as a domestic threat in the past year, and it culminated with a run to the challenge tournament finals against Coleman. In the semifinals he defeated Raymond Bunker, a credentialed veteran and 2019 World team member. Bunker also retired from wrestling, announcing his intentions to pursue a career in MMA.

77 KG

Although the weight is not yet qualified for Olympic competition, 77 kg was another “feel-good” story. Without access to training partners or conventional gym equipment, dark-horse contender Jesse Porter made his way through a field of veterans to make his first senior level team, when the stakes were the highest. He knocked off 2019 World team member Pat Smith and the experienced and solid Peyton Walsh to do it.

Porter will have to place top two at the Last Chance Qualifier tournament in May.

87 KG

After making the World team in 2019, Pennsylvania’s Johnny Stefanowicz made good on his ranking to become an Olympian. Stefanowicz had never even qualified for the state tournament in high school, so it’s safe to say his Greco-Roman career has been the full realization of his potential.

He knocked off heralded Cuban transfer Alan Vera to do it, before shutting out 2016 Olympic Trials champion and multiple-time World team member Joe Rau in the finals. After the matches, Joe Rau announced his retirement from wrestling. Semifinalist Jon Anderson retired after the tournament as well. Retirements at the trials definitely centered around Greco-Roman wrestling.

97 KG

Two massive talents showed out at this upper-weight. After qualifying the weight at the Pan-American Qualifiers, 2019 World team member G’Angelo “Tracy” Hancock sat in the finals. He was met by Braxton Amos – a recruit headed to the University of Wisconsin. Amos is a freakish talent – he qualified for the Olympic Trials in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Amos powered his way through to the finals, but the athleticism and savvy of the young veteran Hancock proved to be far too much, he was dominated in two straight matches by technical fall. Hancock has a ton of upside and could be one of our best medal threats in Tokyo.

130 KG

Multiple-time age-group World medalist Cohlton Schultz is the heir apparent for USA men’s Greco-Roman at heavyweight, but it is not yet his time. A three-time NCAA All-American and World silver medalist, the giant Adam Coon proved he was still top dog in two straight matches. He defeated Schultz by technical fall in their first meeting, but had to settle for a 3-3 criteria win in their second match. This may spell trouble for the Michigan alumnus, Schultz isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

While Adam Coon is one of the few Greco-Roman competitors the US has with a senior World medal under his belt, his results recently have not been promising. He failed to place at the 2021 Matteo Pellicone tournament, and even more seriously he failed to place top two at the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier tournament last year.

He will have a chance to redeem himself in Bulgaria in May at the Last Chance Qualifier.

If NBC gets the footage up soon, I will return with breakdowns of some of my favorite matches from the tournament. If not, we can look ahead to May.

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