The Center Circle by John Fuller U S squads will be deep if the U S Nationals can be used as an

By John Fuller | May 22, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
If the 2003 U.S. National Championships in Las Vegas, Nev. a couple of weeks ago proved anything, it is that the U.S. teams are as good as they have been in a while. And that includes all three styles. Depth at weight classes no longer seems to be much of an issue. Of course, that may have been shoved along with the loss of one men's weight class in 2001. One only has to make one point about the tournament to state the depth in the U.S.: three 2000 Olympic medalists did not win. Two of those, Lincoln McIlravy and Rulon Gardner, did not even make the finals. The other, Matt Lindland, ran into a series of difficulties. He was using this even more as a training regimen for the World Submission Championships this weekend while also running into his longtime student Brad Vering, an up-and-coming star on the international level, in the finals. While Lindland may not compete at the U.S. World Team Trials in Indianapolis, Ind. June 20-22, McIlravy and Gardner will definitely be there. There were numerous stories that came out of the U.S. Nationals, which in my opinion is a much more exciting event than the Trials. Where else can you see college national champions getting dumped out of a tournament in two or three matches? No story sticks out more than that of Jim Gruenwald, who had been a national runner-up seven years in-a-row! For seven years, Gruenwald had to continue to run through the Greco-Roman Challenge Tournament at the Trials. He has won it the past three years and has improved dramatically on the international level since. When Gruenwald was first a runner-up at the nationals, in 1996, I was a runner-up in a swilling contest. Okay, so I never lost one of those, but that just tells you the determination, fire and passion that this guy continues to compete with. Chris Bono was another top-level competitor who captured his first national title. While Bono does not have the extensive history of Gruenwald at this tournament, but his three runner-up finishes rank right up there with it. The most impressive thing about Bono, a 2001 and 2002 U.S. World Team member, is that nobody gave him a chance to win this tournament. Well, nobody except for Chris, his wife and his agent. Though he did not have to face McIlravy in the tournament, a competitor he has never beaten in over 30 matches, Bono seems to have more confidence right now than at any point in his career. And remember one thing: a lot can change in three years, which is the last time Bono and McIlravy wrestled. The women's freestyle competition saw the emergence of young Tela O'Donnell. The woman who nobody knew before she became a U.S. Olympic Training Center Resident Athlete downed Stephanie Murata in the semifinals and Tina George in the finals. Murata had won the last seven U.S. National titles and George is the reigning World silver medalist at her weight. It was not only a shocking display by O'Donnell, but a tribute to the importance of a Women's Resident Program in Colorado Springs. Those three stories were just from the finals. The point is that the depth in the U.S. has greatly improved, which has also made our top wrestlers that much better. Even with a young team without much World competition under its belt, expectations will be high for the men's freestyle team in New York City this year. And they should be. No matter who is on the team, it will be as talented of a group as there is. With the improvements that the Greco-Roman and women's teams have made, expectations will be high again for those two squads as well. Thanks to the U.S. Nationals a couple of weeks ago, wrestling fans had a chance to see first-hand how deep the pools will be when 2004 rolls in. It was a great beginning to what looks like an incredible second half of the Olympic cycle.