The United States enters the Olympic year with a field of men’s freestyle athletes with a mix of veteran performers and young talents. On the international level, Russia remains the power in men’s freestyle, having won the last two world championships with strong performances. The United States is considered a top team, but has not challenged in the team race the last two years. During the first two world championships of this Olympic quadrennial, the U.S. had a pair of medalists: 2009 world silver medalist Jake Herbert at 84 kg and 2009 world bronze medalist Tervel Dlagnev at 120 kg. There are two past Olympic champions who are making a comeback late in this quadrennium – 2004 Olympic champion Cael Sanderson, who is the head coach for NCAA champion Penn State University, came back and qualified for the 2011 U.S. World Team at 84 kg, beating world medalist Herbert in the trials finals. In addition, 2008 Olympic champion Henry Cejudo wrestled once in 2011, but did not try out for the World Team, but insists he will be competing in the 2012 Olympic Trials. 2000 Olympian Cary Kolat was second at the 2011 U.S. Open and seeks another team spot. Most of the seven men’s freestyle weight classes are up for grabs at this time.
Top contenders are:
- 55 kg - 2009 World Team member Obe Blanc; 2010 World Team member Nick Simmons; 2008 Olympic champion Henry Cejudo; and World Team Trials runners-up Angel Escobedo and Sam Hazewinkel
- 60 kg – 2009 World Team member Shawn Bunch; 2010 World Team Trials champion Reese Humphrey; 2006 world silver medalist; and 2008 Olympian Mike Zadick
- 66 kg – 2009 World Team member Brent Metcalf; 2010 World Team member Teyon Ware; and 2000 Olympian Cary Kolat
- 74 kg – 2010 World Team member Jordan Burroughs; 2009 World Team member Travis Paulson; 2009 U.S. Open champion Andrew Howe; and 2009 World Team member Trent Paulson
- 84 kg – 2004 Olympic champion Cael Sanderson; and 2009 World silver medalist Jake Herbert
- 96 kg – 2009 and 2011 World Team member Jake Varner; 2009 World Team member J.D. Bergman; and 2007 World Team member Tommy Rowlands
- 120 kg – 2009 world bronze medalist Tervel Dlagnev; 2008 Olympian Steve Mocco; 2010 World Team member Les Sigman; and 2009 junior world champion Dom Bradley
If any of the athletes on the 2011 U.S. World Team win a medal at the 2011 World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, they move directly to the final series at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
The U.S. Greco-Roman team looks to be very experienced, with a number of proven international athletes in the field. 2002 world champion Dremiel Byers, who competed in the 2008 Olympics, has won three world medals at 120 kg. Two-time world bronze medalist Justin Lester returned after a short retirement and seeks his first Olympic Team at 66 kg. 2005 world bronze medalist Justin Ruiz has continued to compete, also seeking his first Olympic Games berth. 2008 Olympian Spenser Mango, who has been No. 1 at 55 kg for four straight seasons, still seeks his first senior-level medal. 2000 Olympic champion and 2001 world champion Rulon Gardner is considering a comeback, to battle his longtime rival Byers at 120 kg. Gardner was famous for his entry in the Biggest Loser TV series, getting as high as 474 pounds during his retirement.
A look at each weight class heading into the Olympic Trials season:
- 55 kg – Spenser Mango has dominated this class, taking the No. 1 spot for the last four years in the USA. Paul Tellgren moved up to No. 2 this year. Jermaine Hodge has also been second behind Mango in other seasons. Another challenger is Nate Engle.
- 60 kg – In recent years, Joe Betterman and Jeremiah Davis have battled for this position, as both have made two U.S. World Teams. Betterman won the trials this year, and will attempt to qualify the weight class. Other challengers include Marco Lara and Donovan DePatto. 2006 world champion Joe Warren may return for a run for his first Olympic Team.
- 66 kg – Justin Lester has won two world bronze medals at this weight class. He moved to 74 kg in 2009 and was No. 1 at that weight class also. Dropping back to 66 kg this year, Lester will be a top favorite for the team. Army teammate Glenn Garrison and Faruk Sahin are top challengers. Sahin won on the 2009 and 2010 World Team. C.P. Schlatter was third in this year’s trials.
- 74 kg – Jake Fisher has held the No. 1 spot the last two years at this weight. Young Ben Provisor won the 2011 U.S. nationals, and will be a tough challenger here. Andrew Bisek has shown improvement internationally. Aaron Sieracki and Steve Forrest are other challengers.
- 84 kg – This weight class is up for grabs. Cheney Haight made the 2011 World Team. Jake Clark made the 2010 World Team and Chas Betts made the 2009 World Team. Coming on strong is Jordan Holm, the 2011 U.S. Open champion. Peter Hicks will also be a challenger.
- 96 kg – Justin Ruiz, a 2005 world medalist, has made numerous U.S. World teams but fell short in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Trials. He extended his career for another Olympic run and is No. 1 this year. 2009 World Team member R.C. Johnson is a big challenger, as is World Team Trials runner-up John Lorenz.
- 120 kg – Dremiel Byers has owned this class since 2005. With three world medals, he still seeks an Olympic medal. His biggest challengers have been Army teammate Timothy Taylor and young talent Brandon Rupp. A new challenge could come from Rulon Gardner’s proposed comeback, perhaps a longshot but something to take very seriously.
If any of the athletes on the 2011 U.S. World Team win a medal at the 2011 Worlds in Istanbul, Turkey, they move directly to the final series at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
The United States has been a world power in women’s wrestling since the sport has been contested and looks to have a strong team going into the 2012 Olympics. In women’s wrestling, there are only four weight classes at the Olympics, in comparison to seven weights at the world championships. In the USA and all top wrestling nations, athletes must juggle their weight in order to be at an Olympic division. This makes it even more difficult to make an Olympic team and to win an Olympic medal.
One of the stars for Team USA is 2008 world champion Clarissa Chun, who was also fifth in the 2008 Olympics. Chun has come on strong, and has made two of the last three U.S. World Teams. Winning medals in this quadrennium are Elena Pirozkhova, a world silver medalist at 63 kg in 2010, and Tatiana Padilla, who won world bronze medals in 2008 and 2010 and was fifth in 2009. Padilla is battling injuries and was unable to try out for the 2011 U.S. World Team.
Ali Bernard was fifth at the 2008 Olympics, and has made the 2009 and 2011 U.S. World Team. No American woman has made two Olympic wrestling teams, so Chun and Bernard are hoping to be the first to repeat (the other two 2008 Olympians have retired).
One of the sport’s greatest stars, two-time world champion and nine-time world medalist Kristie Davis has not made an Olympic Team. She is now No. 2 at 63 kg behind Pirozkhova.
Here is a weight-by-weight breakdown for U.S. women:
- 48 kg – World champion Clarissa Chun has made the 2009 and 2011 U.S. World Team, with young star Alyssa Lampe on the 2010 U.S. World Team. Two athletes who have dropped from a non-Olympic weight (51 kg), two-time World Team member Jessica Medina and 2011 World Team member Whitney Conder, will also challenge here. Past U.S. Open champion Sara Fulp-Allen is also a threat.
- 55 kg – Tatiana Padilla won two world medals and made three World Teams from 2008-10, but missed the 2011 season with injury. Taking the spot this year is Helen Maroulis, a two-time junior world medalist who also wrestled in the 2008 World Championships at 51 kg. Pushing hard here is Kelsey Campbell, a 59 kg World Team member in 2010 and 2011 who is dropping in weight. Others to watch are Ashley Hudson and past World Team member Leigh Jaynes.
- 63 kg – Elena Pirozhkova has made four U.S. World Teams and won the world silver medal in 2010. She has an ultimate challenge from two-time world champion Kristie Davis, who has dropped to this weight class. Placing second in the World Team Trials this year was Adeline Gray, who was fifth in the world in 2009 at 67 kg. Other top challengers here are Othella Lucas and Veronica Carlson.
- 72 kg – Ali Bernard finished fifth in the Olympics, and has made World Teams in 2009 and 2011. Her top challenger could be Stephany Lee, a 2008 and 2010 World Team member. Also in the mix is 2005 world champion Iris Smith. Young wrestlers Melissa Simmons, Britteny Roberts and Brittany Delgado could also be a factor.
- Will Cael Sanderson qualify for a second Olympic Team? After winning the 84 kg gold in Athens, Sanderson concentrated on coaching, first at his alma mater Iowa State University, then at Penn State University. After seven years off the mat, Sanderson returned in 2011 to beat world medalist Jake Herbert and make the World Team. Can Sanderson keep this position, with the responsibilities of coaching the top college wrestling team in the nation?
- Can Henry Cejudo make a successful comeback? His historic run to the 55 kg Olympic gold in Beijing made Cejudo an international hero. At 21, he was the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion. Taking off the last three years to pursue business opportunities, Cejudo has not yet been tested. Will his 2012 comeback be a success?
- Will Tervel Dlagnev be able to win a tough 120 kg division? The top U.S. wrestler two of the last three years, Dlagnev has proven success internationally with a world bronze. In 2010, he lost to college nemesis Les Sigman in the trials. He also has a talented 2008 Olympian Steve Mocco back in his weight and past junior world champion Dom Bradley on his heels. Can this two-time NCAA Div. II champion win a loaded weight class?
- Will young stars Jordan Burroughs or Andrew Howe make the team at 74 kg? The top challengers at 74 kg are young and talented. Jordan Burroughs, a two-time NCAA champion for the University of Nebraska, made the 2011 World Team in his first full season on the senior freestyle circuit. Burroughs is now graduated, and focusing entirely on his freestyle skills. To make the team, he had to beat 2010 NCAA champion Andrew Howe from the University of Wisconsin, who just completed his junior season in college. With other tough challengers, both will be tested, but it is possible that this spot will be decided between these two tough young stars.
- Can Brent Metcalf rebound to reclaim the 66 kg weight? Metcalf, a two-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner for the University of Iowa, quickly moved to the top at 66 kg by making the 2010 World Team. A talented and aggressive wrestler honed by Iowa coach and 1996 Olympic champion, Tom Brands, Metcalf has great international potential. He was upset in the 2011 trials by Teyon Ware, an NCAA champ at the University of Oklahoma now training at Penn State University. 2000 Olympian Cary Kolat is making a comeback here as well. Can Metcalf recover from the loss in 2011 to make the 2012 team, with the U.S. Olympic Trials in his home gym in Iowa City?
- Will Dremiel Byers get his Olympic medal at 120 kg and will Rulon Gardner’s comeback succeed? Byers won a world title in 2002, and added a world silver medal in 2009 and a bronze medal in 2007. He made an Olympic appearance in 2008 in Beijing, falling short of the medal rounds. He could face an old rival in the trials with the return of two-time Olympic medalist Gardner, who beat Byers in the 2004 trials finals.
- Can Justin Lester get his shot at an Olympic medal at 66 kg? Lester won world bronze medals in 2006 and 2007. However, he was upset by 18-year-old Jake Deitchler in the 2008 Olympic Trials and didn’t get his chance for Olympic glory. Lester wrestled at 74 kg in 2009 and took 2010 off. He joined the U.S. Army and dropped back to 66 kg this year, again making the U.S. team. Can this huge talent cash in on an Olympic medal?
- Will Justin Ruiz get his Olympic opportunity at 96 kg? Ruiz has been very close to making Olympic teams. He lost in the finals of the 2004 Olympic Trials to Garrett Lowney, who won a 2000 Olympic bronze. In the 2008 Olympic Trials, he lost to Adam Wheeler, who went on to win 2008 Olympic bronze. Ruiz boasts a 2005 world bronze, but has not been at the Olympics. This veteran is a leader on Team USA, and is motivated to finish his career with an Olympic medal.
- Will Spenser Mango win a medal at the international level at 55 kg? Mango competed on his first U.S. senior team when he made the 2008 Olympic Team in Beijing, placing ninth. He has been on three U.S. World teams since, and still has not brought back a medal, although he has been close. Mango recently joined the Army World Class Athlete Program and hopes the change will help him take the next step.
- Will it be Joe Betterman and Jeremiah Davis battling for 60 kg spot? In 2008, the U.S. did not qualify to wrestle at the Olympics in Greco-Roman at 60 kg. Betterman was the top athlete then and won the Olympic Trials but could not compete in Beijing. Betterman and archrival Davis have gone back and forth in this quadrennium, with Betterman going to the 2011 worlds and Davis wrestling in 2009 and 2010. The question will be who can win this showdown, and can they qualify the weight for the 2012 Olympics.
- Will world champion Clarissa Chun get her Olympic medal? Fifth in the 2008 Olympics, Chun won a world title a few months after the Beijing Games and has been a top star ever since. She would like to be the first U.S. female wrestler to make a second Olympic wrestling team. Chun will have some tough challengers in the United States to make the team, and another shot at an Olympic medal.
- Can Tatiana Padilla rebound from injury and pursue more medals? Padilla is known for her toughness, as evidenced by two world bronze medals and a fifth place in her three world appearances. Padilla was injured in 2011 and could not compete. If she is able to recover, her toughness would be a big factor in making her first Olympic Team.
- Will Ali Bernard be able to repeat as 72 kg Olympian? A two-time junior qorld champion, Bernard made a big step by making the 2008 Olympic Team and placing fifth. She went to college in Canada, first to the University of Regina, then to the University of Alberta. She has made two world teams since Beijing, and enters the Olympic year as the No. 1 American in her weight class.
- Can Elena Pirozhkova move from silver to gold? Born in Russia, but becoming an American resident as a small girl, Pirozhkova has become one of America’s top Olympic hopefuls. She has won two World University Games gold medals and made four U.S. World Teams. In 2010, competing in her homeland of Russia, she added a world silver medal for Team USA. Going into the Olympic year, Pirozkhova is looking to turn her world silver into an Olympic gold.
- Will Kristie Davis finally get her Olympic opportunity? Davis is tied with men’s freestyle star Bruce Baumgartner with nine career world championship medals. Two of her medals are world gold medals. However, she fell short of making both the 2004 Olympic Team and 2008 Olympic Team, and has stayed in the sport seeking an Olympic berth. She has had two daughters, and is juggling being a college student, a mother and an international athlete at the same time.
- Cael Sanderson: 84 kg, Nittany Lion WC – State College, Pa.
- Tervel Dlagnev: 120 kg, Sunkist Kids – Columbus, Ohio
- Jake Herbert: 84kg, New York AC – Evanston, Ill.
- Henry Cejudo: 55 kg, Sunkist Kids – Phoenix, Ariz.
- Nick Simmons: 55 kg, Sunkist Kids – Corvallis, Ore.
- Obe Blanc: 55 kg, Gator WC – Stillwater, Okla.
- Shawn Bunch: 60 kg, Gator WC – Columbus, Ohio
- Reese Humphrey: 60 kg, New York AC – Columbus, Ohio
- Brent Metcalf: 66 kg, New York AC – Iowa City, Iowa
- Teyon Ware: 66 kg, Nittany Lion, WC – State College, Pa.
- Jordan Burroughs: 74 kg, Sunkist Kids – Lincoln, Neb.
- Andrew Howe: 74 kg, New York AC – Cedar Lake, Ind.
- Twins Trent and Travis Paulson: 74 kg, Sunkist Kids – Ames, Iowa
- Jake Varner: 96 kg, Nittany Lion WC – State College, Pa.
- J.D. Bergman: 96 kg, New York AC – Columbus, Ohio
- Steve Mocco: 120 kg, Lehigh Valley AC – Bethlehem, Pa.
- Les Sigman: 120 kg, Nittany Lion WC – State College, Pa.
- Dremiel Byers: 120 kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Justin Lester: 66 kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Justin Ruiz: 96 kg, New York AC – Provo, Utah
- Spenser Mango: 55 kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Rulon Gardner: 120 kg, Sunkist Kids – Avon, Utah
- Joe Betterman: 60 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Jeremiah Davis: 60 kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Glenn Garrison: 66 kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Faruk Sahin: 66kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Jake Fisher: 74 kg, New York AC – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Ben Provisor: 74 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Cheney Haight: 84 kg, New York AC – Boise, Idaho
- Jordan Holm: 84 kg, Minnesota Story – Boise, Idaho
- R.C. Johnson: 96 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Tim Taylor: 120 kg, U.S. Army – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Clarissa Chun: 48 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Elena Pirozhkova: 63 kg, Gator WC – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Tatiana Padilla: 55 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Ali Bernard: 72 kg, Gator WC – New Ulm, Minn.
- Kristie Davis: 63 kg, Gator WC/OCT – Yukon, Okla.
- Helen Maroulis: 55 kg, New York AC – Rockville, Md.
- Adeline Gray: 63 or 72 kg, New York AC – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Stephany Lee: 72 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Alyssa Lampe: 48 kg, Gator WC – Colorado Springs, Colo.
- Kelsey Campbell: 55 kg, Sunkist Kids – Colorado Springs, Colo.
There are two key stages of Olympic qualification for wrestling. First, the United States must qualify an athlete for each weight class at the Olympic Games. The athlete does not qualify as an individual; instead, the athletes qualify their nation to participate at that weight class. Once a nation has qualified a weight class, the nation will decide which athlete will compete at the Olympics in that division. This is done through an Olympic qualifying system with three key stages:
- 2011 World Championships: top six in each Olympic weight class
- Continental Olympic Qualifiers: top two in each weight class (the U.S. event is the 2012 Pan American Olympic Qualifier)
- Final Olympic Qualification Tournaments: there are two final events where nations can enter athletes who are not qualified yet for the finals positions in each weight class
Next is the U.S. Olympic Team Qualification process. Athletes must qualify for the Olympic Trials, through a number of different qualifying events and standards. Each of the three Olympic styles has different qualifying criteria for the Olympic Trials. Both women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman will host a U.S. nationals event as a qualifier, while men’s freestyle will not. The team will be determined at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling, set for Iowa City, Iowa. In some weight classes, there may be an additional qualifying activity to secure the final spot. This would occur if a) a proven international performer did not win at the Olympic Trials or b) if the U.S. needed to attend a Final Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the weight class, which caused a scheduling conflict with the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
- Sept. 12-18, 2011: 2011 World Championships – Istanbul, Turkey
- March 23-25, 2012: Pan American Olympic Qualifying Tournament – Orlando, Florida
- April 21-22, 2012: U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Iowa City, Iowa
- April 25-29, 2012: World Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament – Taiyuan, China
- May 2-6, 2012: World Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament – Helsinki, Finland