Final Matchups Set After Exciting First Day At U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials

by Alex Abrams

Kyle Dake, in blue, competes against Jason Nolf, in red, during their Freestyle 74kg 1st place match on day 1 of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials at Dickies Arena on April 2, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.


David Taylor said he was so confident in 2012 after winning the first of his two national championships at Penn State that he thought he’d just go on and win an Olympic gold medal.

Not so fast. But he soon may get his chance.

Taylor, the 2018 world champion at 86 kg., has had to endure plenty of uncertainty and heartbreak in his attempts to qualify for his first Olympic Games. Taylor finished a disappointing third at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials after moving up to 86 kg. He missed nearly a year in 2019 after suffering a major knee injury.

Now healthy, Taylor moved a step closer to achieving his dream of making the Olympic Games Toyko 2020 with a strong showing on Friday’s opening day of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

Taylor cruised to a 4-0 win over Gabe Dean in the semifinal round of the 86 kg. men’s freestyle to set up Saturday’s best-of-three finals against Bo Nickal, his close friend and training partner.

“I know Bo. We’ve been training together. We’ve been friends and brothers for a long time,” Taylor said. “I mean we know what we’re going to expect from each other, and it’s going to be a war. It’s going to be a battle, so I’m going to have to stay focused the entire time.”

Best-of-three finals in each weight class await on Saturday. The winner of each weight class qualifies for the Games. Team USA has so far qualified spots in 15 of the 18 weight classes for the Tokyo Games. It’s spots in those 15 classes that are on the line in Fort Worth. 

“I think every kid here has talked about writing it down and believing in it and wanting to achieve it, so now it’s a reality,” Taylor said of his Olympic dreams. “It’s two matches away (from) representing the greatest country in a sport that I love that I’ve been doing my entire life, so it’s exciting. You can’t take anything for granted.”

Wrestlers at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials had to wait one year for the chance to compete for a spot in Tokyo. The competition was originally scheduled for last April at Penn State, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The opening day began with some drama. 

J’den Cox, the two-time world champion who earned a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Games, missed the weigh-in Friday morning and was removed from the bracket for the 97 kg. in men’s freestyle. Cox filed an appeal with USA Wrestling.

When matches finally started Friday, a small gathering of spectators socially distanced in the stands alongside cutouts of fans at Dickies Arena. However, it didn’t seem to affect the back-and-forth action on the mat.

Jenna Burkert used a strong headlock and pinned two-time world silver medalist Alli Ragan at 2:12 in the 57 kg. women’s freestyle during Friday night’s Challenge Tournament.

Burkert advanced to Saturday’s finals against Helen Maroulis, who in 2016 became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal. 

Maroulis is attempting to continue her comeback from a series of injuries, including concussions, that caused her to consider retiring from the sport.

Meanwhile, University of Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson earned a pair of 11-0 technical fall victories in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, giving him a chance to renew his rivalry with Nick Gwiazdowski in the 125 kg. finals.

Steveson celebrated a 4-1 win over Gwiazdowski, a two-time world bronze medalist, at the 2020 RTC Cup in Cincinnati, Ohio, in what was considered a likely preview of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

“It’s going to be a brawl, and I know it is. It’s going to be six minutes of us straight going at it, and may the best man come out on top,” Steveson said. “But from now until the past … I think I’ve developed really well, and I think I’m going to … put a lot of points on the board and get on the mat and get off and get my hand raised.”

Victoria Anthony, a three-time Pan American Championships gold medalist, capped Friday with an 11-0 technical fall victory over Amy Fearnside to advance to the finals in the 50 kg. in women’s freestyle. 

Anthony said her dominant win provided her with a bit of relief following a 7-6 decision over Alyssa Lampe earlier in the day in what Anthony described as a “sloppy” match. 

“My goal in this whole thing, this whole wrestling thing, is just to realize my potential, to wrestle to my potential,” Anthony said. “And I didn’t feel like I did that with Alyssa in the quarters. You know, it turned into this sloppy, holding-on-for-the-last-4½-minutes type of match. 

“That upsets me internally, even though this tournament is just about winning of course. But for me, it’s like how I win. It’s just who I am, so I’m really grateful that I got myself to wrestle what I feel is my potential.” 

A full list of results from Friday as well as the pairings for Saturday’s championship matches is available here.

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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