Olympic Wrestling Trials: Team Status & Surprises
BY | AIMEE BERG
|Qualified for 2012
U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team
Two weight classes remain undecided because the United States has not yet qualified internationally at 60 kg men’s freestyle and 96 kg Greco-Roman. If the team earns those berths in either Taiyuan, China (April 27-29) or Helsinki, Finland (May 4-6), USA Wrestling will decide how to select those Olympians later.
Meanwhile, the Trials winners now have a chance to win $250,000 for a gold medal, $50,000 for silver, and $25,000 for bronze in London (thanks to the “Living the Dream Medal Fund”), and their elation was clear even though their tongues were bloodied, noses bandaged, ears torn, and every pore spouting sweat long after their hands were raised in victory.
Below, a look at how some of the top stories played out:
Heavy favorites qualified
Dremiel Byers (2002 world champion) qualified for his second Olympic team by beating 22-year-old wildcard Steve Andrus in Saturday’s 120 kg Greco-Roman final. Afterward, Byers hugged his high school coach Steve Moffitt and attributed his love of Greco to the white-haired, blue-eyed coach. Byers said he will now go back to Michigan and eliminate all distractions because at 37, he does not want to end his career with three world medals and no Olympic gold. “I gotta get this done,” he said. Byers placed seventh in Beijing and is a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
Jordan Burroughs (2011 world champion) earned the 74 kg freestyle berth when his final opponent, Andrew Howe, withdrew with a knee injury after losing the first match in their best-of-three final on Saturday night. Howe, a 2010 NCAA champion for Wisconsin, had his knee bent unnaturally during a long, awkward hold near the midpoint of their first bout. “I didn’t even know he was injured,” Burroughs said. “He wrestled even through the injury. Hats off to him. He’s a grinder and a competitor.” Nonetheless, Burroughs, 23, said, “I would have like to have dominated the second match. I would have liked to have a lot of Americans see me wrestle.” On Saturday night, 13,750 filled Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “A lot of people won’t be able to see me in London so this is probably the last time I’ll be able to wrestle in front of [an American crowd] until next year.”
Jake Varner (2011 world championship bronze medalist) defeated Tommy Rowlands to qualify for London in the 96kg freestyle division as 2004 Olympic gold medalist/coach Cael Sanderson stood in his corner. Sanderson had recruited Varner to compete at Iowa State, and when Sanderson took a job at Penn State during Varner’s senior year, Varner completed his eligibility in Ames, then moved to Pennsylvania to train with the legend. “Finally, it’s my turn to make the team,” Varner said. Four years ago, the two-time California state high school champion had placed third at the Olympic Trials. (Sanderson aborted his own bid for an Olympic berth at 84 kg a few weeks before Trials even though he had made the 2011 world championship team after a long retirement.)
Henry Cejudo’s dream of having his mother, Nelly Rico, watch him compete at the Olympic Games ended at 11:45 a.m. CDT Sunday when Nick Simmons beat him in the 55 kg freestyle semifinals 3-0, 5-9, 5-2. Afterward, the 2008 Olympic champion was set to place his shoes on the mat, signifying his retirement, but quickly threw his black Nikes deep into the standing ovation at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Moments after the loss, Cejudo, who was raised in poverty by his Mexican mother, said, “I came back to this sport [after a three-year layoff] because I want to inspire people. The person who inspired me for 21 years when I won the gold wasn’t able to attend the  Olympics because of her citizenship status.” Rico is now a U.S. citizen and could have traveled to London. “I’m okay. I gave it my all. It was sweet but it could have been sweeter. I’m not going to say goodbye to wrestling. I’m done competing. But I’m going to say Hello. Whoever makes the team at 121, I’m going to help.” As for his non-wrestling future, he said, “My purpose in life is to serve others. I want to be the people’s champion, not just the Olympic champion.” Cejudo also wants to finish college and, “as a kid who grew up without a father, I’d like to be a father someday,” adding that if he has a daughter, he would name her America.
Two-time Olympic medalist Rulon Gardner pulled himself out of the running on Friday, six hours before the 120 kg Greco-Roman weigh-in. Even though he was just five pounds over the super-heavyweight cutoff of 264.5 lbs, he said that after a one-hour morning workout, “My body got to a point that told me it’s time to stop pushing yourself. Being realistic is more important than being optimistic,” adding, “this weigh-in is a starting place and finishing place. I’m disappointed, but now I have to prove myself every day. It’s time to take responsibility [for my health].” At 40, his life inside the ring may be over, but Gardner said he plans to stay involved. “This sport gave me… a passion to live. Hopefully [U.S. national Greco-Roman] coach [Steve] Fraser can use me.”
Would 20-year-old Ellis Coleman use the “Flying Squirrel” takedown he used at the 2011 Junior World Championships that went viral on YouTube? No. The Illinois native did not need to jump over Joe Betterman’s head to win the 60 kg Greco-Roman championship series 2-0. “I never wanted it to happen because I only hit the move when I’m losing,” he said, explaining with a smile: “There’s more to it than just that move -- more grit, more technique, and a more versatile human being back there.” Nonetheless, he added, “I always pictured myself -- even in an Olympic setting and losing in the finals, third period with 15 seconds left and hitting the flying squirrel and everyone going crazy. I still picture it.” Coleman did, however, throw a victory flip and crash landed. “I was a bit tired,” he laughed, and promised better flips in London. Coleman also gave a shout-out to his Oak Park High School coach Mike Powell, who was diagnosed with polymyositis (a rare muscle-wasting disease) and was the subject of a poignant feature in Sports Illustrated (Feb. 13).
Would Sam Hazewinkel keep the family’s Olympic wresting legacy alive -- even if it meant switching from Greco-Roman to freestyle after the 2008 Olympic Trials (in which Hazewinkel placed second in Greco)? Yes. After three grueling matches that went the full three periods in the 55 kg freestyle final, it ended with a ball draw against Nick Simmons (who had beaten Cejudo earlier in the day). Hazewinkel prevailed by being the first man to score. Sam’s father, Dave, and Uncle Jim both competed in Greco-Roman at the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich Olympics.
Would Clarissa Chun, 30, or Ali Bernard, 26, become the first two-time U.S. Olympic qualifier in women’s wrestling? It took Chun (2008 world champion) three matches of three full periods each to defeat Alyssa Lampe in the women’s 48 kg final on Sunday. Bernard, the 2011 world championship bronze medalist, lost to Stephany Lee, 2-0, in the best-of-three 72kg final on Saturday. Women’s wrestling made its Olympic debut at the 2004 Athens Games.
Compelling stories ending in heartbreak
The unbelievable run by Jordan Holm ended in the 84 kg Greco-Roman final when he lost to Chas Betts, 2-0, in the best-of-three series on Saturday night. Holm was a two-time Minnesota state champion who spent six years and eight months in an Iowa prison for a sex crime he maintains that he didn’t commit. (The incident occurred at a party in Iowa City when he was a pre-med student at the University of Northern Iowa.) On April 25, 2010, he was released, and one of his first acts was to call one of his old Minnesota coaches. After his loss at Trials, Holm, 30, wasn’t sure whether he would continue wrestling. “I didn’t really look past today,” he said, and summed up his recent past by paraphrasing scripture. “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame. That verse is dear to my heart. I do hold onto that hope.” He is currently seeking post-conviction relief to clear his name, according to the website freejordan.org run by his older brother Jason, an orthopedic surgeon in Minneapolis.
Travis Paulson decided to go up in weight (to 84 kg) after seeing his twin, Trent, won the 2012 Pan Am Championships in the 74 kg freestyle division that they had normally shared. On Sunday, he faced his former roommate Jake Herbert in an aggressive best-of-three final that took all three matches. Herbert prevailed and thus became the last wrestler to qualify for London at the Trials. (On Saturday, Trent lost to Andrew Howe in of the Challenge division semifinal. Had Paulson beaten Howe, Trent would have faced 2011 world champion Jordan Burroughs in the Championship final.)
Dennis Hall lost his bid to become the third American wrestler in history to make a fourth Olympic berth when he succumbed to Chad Vandiver in his first-round 60 kg Greco-Roman match on Sunday. Hall, 41, had been a 1996 Olympic silver medalist at 57 kg and hadn’t competed since the 2004 Athens Games where he placed 14th. (The only wrestlers to make four U.S. Olympic teams are Mark Fuller in Greco, 1980-92, and Bruce Baumgartner in freestyle, 1984-96.)
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.