A Look At Athletes And Storylines To Watch At Wrestling’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials
by Bob Reinert
Sarah Hildebrandt celebrates winning against Betzabeth Arguello at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 8, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Who to Watch presented by DeVry is a series that includes a run-down on the front runners, dark horses, unexpected athletes and top storylines to watch during Trials.
U.S. wrestlers are ready to lay it all on the line at wrestling’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials April 2-3 at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, where most of the team will be chosen. It’s been a long wait. The competition was originally scheduled for April 2020 at Penn State University but was postponed and later moved due to safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fifteen of the 18 winners at Trials will secure spots on the U.S. team that will compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 this summer. Men’s winners in three other categories in which the U.S. has not yet earned a 2020 Olympic quota spot must then place first or second in the world qualifier May 6-9 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Kicking off a series presented by DeVry, here’s a look at some of the ones to watch and storylines to keep an eye on at this weekend's Trials.
Olympic and World Champions Galore
Among those wrestling at Trials will be Olympic champions Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis, and current world champions J’den Cox, Kyle Dake, Adeline Gray, Tamyra Mensah-Stock and Jacarra Winchester. All of them are freestyle wrestlers.
Jordan Burroughs, 74 kg.
Burroughs, 32, won his first world championship the same year he wrapped up his University of Nebraska career with an undefeated season and second national title. He won his Olympic gold medal in London the next year. Now a four-time world champion, his combined five world and Olympic titles ties him with Bruce Baumgartner at No. 2 in U.S. history, behind John Smith with six.
Kyle Snyder, 97 kg.
Snyder became not only the youngest Olympic gold medalist in U.S. wrestling history when he won at 97 kg. in Rio in 2016, he became the first U.S. wrestler to win an NCAA national title, world championship, and Olympic championship in a 12-month span since John Smith did it in 1988. Now a two-time world champion, Snyder is still only 25 years old.
Helen Maroulis, 57 kg.
In Rio, Maroulis became the first U.S. woman freestyle wrestler in history to strike gold, winning at 53 kg. She also owns two world championships at 58 kg. The 29-year-old has dealt with concussion issues that have kept her out of competition since the 2018 world championships, but she’s mounting a comeback for Tokyo.
Adeline Gray, 76 kg.
Simply one of the top wrestlers in the world, Gray, who is a graduate of DeVry University, is the first and only U.S. wrestler of either gender to claim five world championships. After an injury-plagued campaign at the 2016 Games, Gray, 30, is seeking her first Olympic medal.
J’den Cox, 97 kg.
In the midst of winning three NCAA titles at the University of Missouri, Cox won an Olympic bronze medal in Rio at 86 kg. and is the two-time reigning world champion at 92 kg, a non-Olympic weight. The 26-year-old is expected to challenge Snyder at 97 kg.
Kyle Dake, 74 kg.
Dake, 30, first took a shot at the Olympic team during his run of four consecutive NCAA national titles at Cornell, placing third. He then even more narrowly missed out in Rio with his runner-up finish at the 2016 Trials and since has become the two-time defending world champion in the non-Olympic 79 kg. weight class. He’s expected to duke it out with Burroughs at 74 kg.
Tamyra Mensah-Stock, 68 kg.
Should Mensah-Stock win at 68 kg. just as she did in the 2019 world championships, she’ll win her second U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but would be going to her first Games. The U.S. didn’t qualify a quota spot at her weight back in 2016. The 28-year-old was named women’s wrestler of the year by United World Wrestling in 2019.
Jacarra Winchester, 53 kg.
Along with Gray and Mensah-Stock, Winchester was part of a historic trio of gold medalists at the 2019 world championships. Never before had three U.S. women won gold medals at worlds. Winchester, 28, secured the Olympic quota spot at 53 kg. at a qualifier last March.
Overcoming A Difficult Year
In preparing for Trials, American wrestlers had to get more creative than ever to work around restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
For Cox, that meant “finding ways and avenues to compete. That was a struggle. I think this year’s been difficult on athletes. Trying to stay consistent with training has been a hassle on everybody. It’s all around been rough. Those who were able to be the most consistent, I think, will benefit the most.”
Wrestlers often had to find ways to back off on the intensity of their training, as well.
“I definitely worked on coming down a little, letting myself put on some weight, letting my body recover,” said Sarah Hildebrandt (53 kg.), 2018 world silver medalist. “There’s really a lot to be gained in just recovering, with having all that time and knowing that I’d have time to come back up again.”
“Obviously, not being able to go anywhere with the pandemic, not being able to travel that far, there were so many unknowns,” Dake said. “I did take a little bit of time (off) and just put my feet up and relaxed.”
For the first time, the U.S. women will field an entire six-member team at the Games. They will attempt to rival the historically dominant Japanese women, winners of four of six gold medals in Rio, on their home turf.
“I think it’s going to take some great draws,” Gray said. “It’s going to take some head-to-head matchups with USA versus Japan, and us coming out on top. We won’t beat Japan without a few gold medalists. We could walk away with some serious medal counts from this Olympics.”
Maroulis said she likes the U.S. team’s chances.
“We have multiple world champs. We have multiple multiple-time world champs,” Maroulis said. “I think this is one of the strongest teams that we’ve had going into an Olympics. And I think this is the team to do it, to win the team title. Honestly, whoever makes the team … is definitely a medal contender and gold medal contender.”
Hildebrandt pointed to the explosive growth of U.S. women’s wrestling.
“Women’s wrestling is just … taking off,” Hildebrandt said. “I only think we can add to that. We carry ourselves with that in mind. We’re very aware that the steps in us chasing our dreams is creating a bigger platform for the women coming up behind us. That’s something that can really fire you up.”
Gray likened U.S. women’s wrestling to a pot of boiling water.
“You saw a bubble here and there of great women who were coming up on the scene and girls popping up on boys’ programs,” Gray said. “And then it just got hot enough that women’s wrestling is now boiling in the United States. It’s really awesome to be a part of that.
“These women are doing things that are strong and powerful and dominant, and it’s cool to be around. It’s inspiring. It makes me work harder.”
WCAP Produces Greco-Roman Hopefuls
The Army’s World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, has been a reliable feeder system for the U.S. Greco-Roman team, and this year is no exception. Alejandro Sancho and Ildar Hafizov are among those soldiers competing at this year’s Trials.
Alejandro Sancho, 67 kg.
Sancho is a 2019 national champion and bronze medalist from the 2020 Pan American Championship.
“We’re the best Greco program in the whole U.S. right now,” said Sancho of WCAP. “We all push each other in the room really hard.
“I had one mission, one goal, to qualify the weight class. I knew I could do it mentally, physically.”
Ildar Hafizov, 60 kg.
Hafizov, an Uzbekistan native, was a 2012 Olympian for that country and a two-time U.S. World Team member. Hafizov said overtraining was of no concern to him while preparing for Trials during the past year.
“I always work with my coaches,” Hafizov said. “I put that thought on them. They know on what level I am right now, and they will decide better what kind of practice I should do.”
Others to keep an eye on include 2019 Pan American Games champion Pat Smith (77 kg.) and Pan Ams silver medalist G’Angelo Hancock (97 kg.)