Abbott Blog: The top 10 wrestling stories of 2016

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Dec. 26, 2016, 12:51 p.m. (ET)
This was an Olympic year, and it will be no surprise that many of the major wrestling stories for this year will have an Olympic connection. The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of the sport of wrestling, the highest level of competition and achievement. The Games is the most important activity in the world for two weeks every two years, bigger than any other activity on earth, sports and beyond. The entire world is focused on the Olympic Games, which brings people together for competition, but also with the spirit of goodwill. The Olympic movement is one of the best things in human civilization, and it is an honor to be part of it.

This was my eighth Summer Olympic Games. Each one is different and all of them are special in their own way. The media tried to make people worry that the Rio Olympic Games were going to be a disaster, for all kinds of reasons. But ask anybody who was down there and they will tell you the Brazilians made a good effort, and the Games did exactly what they are supposed to do – showcase the greatest athletes on the world’s biggest stage. The Rio Games held its own, the city is beautiful and the people are friendly. It was a great experience for me and all of those from the U.S. wrestling community who were able to witness history as it happened.

My top 10 wrestling stories for 2016 include:

1. Helen Maroulis beats superstar Yoshida to become first U.S. woman to win Olympic wrestling gold – I have been blessed to see many of the biggest moments in wrestling over the last three decades, and Helen Maroulis’ amazing triumph over three-time Olympic champion and 13-time World champion Saori Yoshida of Japan to become our first USA woman Olympic wrestling champion ranks right up there with the best of them. Ever since women’s wrestling was added to the 2004 Athens Games, USA Wrestling has been working hard to develop its first Olympic champion in women’s freestyle. There were some close calls in previous Games, but this was one pinnacle that the U.S. wrestling family had yet to reach. Women’s wrestling has a special place in my heart, as I was an early advocate for the program and have worked hard to support our nation’s most talented women in their efforts. There are people who compare Helen’s victory with Rulon Gardner’s defeat of the legendary Alexander Kareline at the 2000 Olympics, a feat I also witnessed in person. There are many similarities, as both slayed giants of the sport and stopped them from becoming four-time Olympic champions. The one big difference is that Gardner was a relatively unknown competitor, while Maroulis was already a World champion and a three-time World medalist. Both were big-time underdogs, and both ignored what others thought and took their fate into their own hands. I found tears in my eyes as Helen took control of the match and Yoshida just could not stop her from reaching her dream. Her post-match quote about seeking perfection and trusting “God that what I have is enough,” was truly moving and compelling to me. Nothing in wrestling in 2016 was bigger than this, and very few U.S. wrestling achievements in history can stack up. Young girls in our country now have an Olympic champion hero to emulate, and I can’t wait to see how Helen’s success inspires others to try to match her amazing effort.

2. Kyle Snyder becomes youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion and is already legendary – I remember a few years ago when one of the athletes competing in men’s freestyle at 97 kg gave young Kyle Snyder a tremendous compliment by calling him a “teenage freak.” His skill, poise, confidence, work ethic and attitude could not possibly come from a person at such a young age, could it? Well, Kyle Snyder has re-defined so many things in American wrestling. It is possible to be a Junior World champion at age 17. It is possible for an American wrestler to win a Senior World title at age 19. And, even better, it is possible for a 20-year-old college sophomore to be an Olympic freestyle wrestling champion. I was blessed to get to know Kyle in more depth during his senior year in high school when he came to focus on freestyle wrestling at the Olympic Training Center rather than wrestle on the high school level. We got to see Kyle on and off the mat, and we were most impressed with him as a great young person. All of the features I have written on Kyle since those days explained how he is “ahead of his time.” For two straight years, he had to beat 2012 Olympic champion Jake Varner just to make the American team. And then he was able to take on the best of the world when it most counted and come out on top. His performance in Rio was perfect Snyder. He was unbelievably poised and when push came to shove, Kyle Snyder was better than his opponents every time. If he is this good at age 20, how excellent will Kyle Snyder get? This kind of talent is rare indeed, and I encourage wrestling fans to enjoy following this remarkable person on his journey. The biggest crime for Kyle was that his gold-medal run came on the absolute last day of the Games, and the media had already checked out and was heading home. His achievement should have been even bigger than it was. We can expect that he will have more opportunity in the years ahead to add to his legacy.

3. Logan Stieber makes amazing run to win World gold medal at 61 kg – When UWW announced that there would be a World Championships in Budapest in December at the weights not contested in Rio, a new opportunity opened for talented wrestlers to become World champions. Logan Stieber, a top contender at 65 kg for the Olympic Team who did not make the team, immediately made the decision to drop the weight and pursue a gold medal at 61 kg. When the World Team Trials were held in New York City in November, Stieber crushed all comers to make the USA team. When he stepped off the scale at the Worlds in Budapest, his draw was beastly, with all the top stars all lined up in his half-bracket. He opened with a quick technical fall over Shuptar, the 2015 World bronze medalist from Ukraine. Stieber’s next two matches were instant classics. He next drew a talented Russian, Chakaev, and in a high-scoring battle, Stieber fell behind with 15 seconds to go, and scored a clean takedown to win in the closing seconds. To top that, in the semifinals, again trailing late, he scored a takedown with one second left to beat rugged Iranian Ehsanpoor to make the finals. These were breathtaking victories, unbelievable to witness in person. In the finals, although he led just 1-0 at the break, Stieber was in control and handled Georgian Lomtadze in the second period for an 8-4 win. We knew Logan Stieber was capable of this, but it was captivating to see him put together such a great tournament at the highest level. He was the first four-time Div. I NCAA champion to win a World title, and like so many of our current young stars, we can expect more down the road. (P.S. – The World Championships in Budapest was legit, and the medalists there are deserving. I have attended dozens of Senior World events and this one stacks up in regards to quality. Logan deserves full props for his great achievement, as does World silver medalist Alli Ragan).

4. J’den Cox surprises the nation and world on the way to Olympic bronze medal – At the NCAA Championships, I always ask the winners about their goals for the spring on the international scene. Many are already looking forward to competing at the next level, although a few decide not to pursue Olympic glory. After Missouri’s J’den Cox won his second title with a 197-pound victory in Madison Square Garden, I asked him if he was going to Olympic Trials. He would not commit, but did say that if he went, he was going there to win. How right he was!! Rumors came out he was dropping to 86 kg, and he came to Iowa City a bit leaner and ready to battle. Seeded No. 9, Cox ran through the weight class, showing great skill and poise for somebody with limited international freestyle experience. He knocked off Clayton Foster, Olympian Jake Herbert and talented Keith Gavin in order to reach the finals against the amazing Kyle Dake. It took three matches, but Cox emerged victorious. More work had to be done to qualify the weight, including getting a passport. He went to Mongolia and earned his spot in Rio with a gold medal. Cox competed at the World Cup and the Grand Prix of Germany, and the kid who was No. 9 seed at Olympic Trials was suddenly ranked No. 9 in the world. Still, nobody expected the wonderful performance from Cox at the Olympics, except himself, his coaches and those who knew him. He beat opponents from Belarus and Iran to reach the finals against Selim Yasar of Turkey. Cox made a mistake in the semis, not knowing the criteria well, and lost 2-1 to Yasar. Rather than let it crush him, Cox immediately focused on the next bout for the bronze against multiple-medalist Reineris Salas of Cuba. Late in the match, Cox received a takedown on a scramble after challenging the call. Salas would not continue wrestling and was disqualified, giving the young American an Olympic bronze medal on his first Senior U.S. team. J’den Cox is a breath of fresh air, with an amazing attitude and perspective, and he heads back to his senior year in college with an Olympic medal and a much larger group of fans worldwide.

5. Snyder vs. Gwiazdowski deserves its place as best NCAA heavyweight finals ever - This year, the actual match lived up to the pre-event hype. Midway through the season, 2015 World champion Kyle Snyder of Ohio State announced he would abandon his Olympic redshirt year to compete for the Buckeyes in the second semester at heavyweight. The big star in the division was senior and two-time NCAA champion Nick Gwiazdowski of NC State, somebody Snyder had worked out with in off-season freestyle training. Snyder only wrestled folkstyle a few times during the year, working in a few international events around the Buckeye schedule, then won the Big Ten title heading into NCAAs in historic Madison Square Garden in New York City. Everybody was looking forward to the battle, and both Snyder and Gwiazdowski did their part by advancing to the finals. The NCAA did its part by making it the last match of the finals. Gwizz, the defending champion, scored two takedowns and jumped to a 5-3 lead with one minute remaining, when Snyder showed his amazing skills. A low single by Snyder tied it up and forced overtime, and another Snyder takedown in sudden death gave him a electrifying 7-5 win. The crowd gave both star wrestlers a standing ovation, and the pundits claimed it was the best heavyweight NCAA gold-medal match ever. After seeing every finals since 1983, I can say it is the best one that I remember.

6. Kaori Icho of Japan becomes first four-time Olympic gold medalist – It had never happened before. Greco-Roman superstar Alexander Kareline fell short, thanks to Rulon Gardner. Freestyle legend Bouvaisa Saitiev could not pull it off, thanks to Brandon Slay. Until the 2016 Rio Olympics, there had never been a four-time Olympic wrestling champion. Women’s freestyle star Kaori Icho got it done in Rio, winning her fourth straight Olympic gold with a victory at 58 kg on the first night of women’s freestyle. Icho did not win easily, needing a takedown with five seconds left to beat Russia’s Valeria Koblova 3-2 in the finals. Her previous three golds all came at 63 kg. She also boasts 10 World titles, an amazing career from the quiet star who often was a bit under-appreciated because of teammate Saori Yoshida’s tremendous career. When Helen Maroulis beat Yoshida to stop her run at four, Icho stands alone as our only four-time gold-medalist at the Olympics.

7. Penn State reclaims NCAA team title, adding to Cael Sanderson’s dynasty in Happy Valley – There is something special going on in Central Pennsylvania, as Cael Sanderson and the Penn State wrestling program is putting together a dynasty. After winning four NCAA titles in a row, the Nittany Lions streak was halted in 2015, when Big Ten rival Ohio State claimed its first national crown. After a strong regular season, Sanderson’s troops were ready for a big effort in Madison Square Garden, ramming five wrestlers into the gold-medal finals and clinching the NCAA team title before the last session was held. In the finals, scrappy lightweight senior Nico Megaludis ended his career with an NCAA title, and dominant bruiser Zain Retherford smashed the field at 149 to claim his first NCAA crown as a sophomore. Three other talented Lions won silver medals, Jason Nolf (157), Bo Nickal (174) and Morgan McIntosh (197). Like other dynasties, Sanderson’s team never rebuilds, but reloads, as it continues to do very well in the recruiting battles each year. The key to the Lions success is the improvement that the athletes make in the PSU wrestling room, a testament to their coaching staff and the system they have built.

8. Spencer Lee wins third age-group World title in a row, having to come from behind in the finals – Anyone who has watched Spencer Lee as he represents the United States at the World Championships on the age-group levels would marvel at his ability to quickly dominate and dispatch his opponents. This phenom from Pennsylvania, en route to a Cadet World title in 2014 and a Junior World title in 2015, basically smashed every one of his opponents, even in the championship finals. After making his second straight Junior World Team in 2016, Lee went to the Junior Worlds in Macon, France on a mission again. He tore through his half-bracket, winning four times, with three technical falls and a 27 second pin, absolutely torching the field. His finals opponent was a relative unknown, Khurshid Parpiev of Kyrgyzstan. Then the unexpected happened. Parpiev launched Lee for a four-point move, almost getting a fall. After Lee cut the lead to 4-3, Parpiev struck again, turning Lee twice and building a five-point lead. Not only was Lee not dominating, but there was a huge possibility he was going to lose. Yet, Lee refused to be beaten. Turning up the pace and unleashing an offensive assault, Lee reeled off eight straight points to secure a dramatic 11-9 victory. He became the first USA athlete to win three straight age-group World titles. Even better, he learned that he could come from behind and score under extreme pressure, something that will help him in the future as he continues to pursue the highest of goals possible.

9. Titan Mercury WC wins Freestyle World Clubs Cup after taking second the two years prior – World champion. It doesn’t matter what level you are at, becoming a World champion in wrestling is a huge deal. Wrestling is a universal sport, practiced all over the globe, with tremendous depth and some nations that truly excel in the sport. The USA now boasts the World Champion freestyle wrestling club, as the Titan Mercury WC went to Kharkiv, Ukraine and came home as the big winners. The last two years, this new major new international event was held in Iran, and Titan Mercury placed second in the standings to a powerful club program from Iran. This year, the team wrestled well in its pool competition, scoring wins over club teams from Ukraine and Georgia to reach the finals. In the semifinals, with wins from Nico Megaludis, Alex Dieringer, David Taylor and Kyle Snyder, Titan Mercury won a 4-4 criteria match over the Zdorovye club of Ukraine to reach the finals, where it drew the loaded Bimeh Razi club from Iran. Each club is allowed two foreign entries, and Bimeh Razi had a pair of Russians on their team, while Titan Mercury included Olympic champion Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Georgia on its roster. Khinchegashvili got into a fight with his Iranian opponent and both were disqualified. Titan Mercury needed four wins to take the dual. Wins came from Nazar Kulchytskyy at 70 kg, Dieringer at 74 kg and David Taylor at 84 kg. With the score tied 3-3 going into heavyweight, young star Nick Gwiazdowski scored a clutch 3-2 win over veteran star Parviz Hadi to give his club the World team title. This is a huge testament to club founder Andy Barth and all of the great people from Titan Mercury who have done so much for American wrestling. World club champions, a great achievement!!

10. Controversies at Rio Olympics must be addressed, or sport remains in danger
– I choose to be positive and believe that wrestling is one of the great sports on earth and deserves its place on the Olympic program forever. This is even after 2013, when we had to wage a tremendous battle just to retain our place in the Games. However, I can’t overlook the huge problems that were exposed in a very public way during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. This reminds us all that there still is a ton of work to do ahead of us. Let’s start with the scandal about the officiating during the Games. If you missed that story, Flowrestling did a big expose about it which gave a good picture of the depth of the problems. There is no doubt that Franklin Gomez of Puerto Rico should be an Olympic medalist, but he is not. (Not sure, watch the video). There were many other examples of how certain officials were assigned to certain matches in a way that may have changed some key outcomes. Then there was the deal with the Mongolian coaches stripping off their clothes in protest of another controversial officiating call. It was a highly dramatic way to make their point, but to those outside of our sport, it made wrestling look bad and diminished our brand in the general public. Then there was the incident in which the president of a national federation reportedly struck one of the women wrestlers on his team in her face. (You can add in an age-group World event when a coach assaulted a referee when he objected to a call). You can have opinions on each of these situations, which is within your rights as a member of the wrestling community. But add them together, and you have to admit that our sport still needs to make reforms. It will take leadership and a willingness to change, and I continue to pray that we find ways to fix our problems and make our sport better.

Other major stories we don’t want to forget from 2016, in no particular order:

• USA has one of its best age-group World efforts ever, with great Cadet and Junior performances – If you were wondering about the prospects for the USA at the 2020 Olympics and beyond, take a look at the age-group World Championships for a measuring stick of our future. The USA had one of its greatest performances at the Cadet Worlds and Junior Worlds ever this year, something which gives confidence for the USA moving forward. The Junior Worlds were held in Macon, France shortly after the Olympic Games, and the USA brought home multiple medals in all three styles. In men’s freestyle, golds came from the amazing Spencer Lee and Mark Hall, with a bronze from Daton Fix. On the women’s side, three athletes came home with bronze medals, Kayla Miracle, Maya Nelson and Alexis Porter. For Miracle, it was a second career Junior World bronze. For the first time in years, the USA had two medalists in Greco-Roman, G’Angelo Hancock and Taylor Lamont. The men’s freestyle team was fifth and the women were sixth in Macon. Fast forward two weeks and the Cadet Worlds were held in Tbilisi, Georgia. Taking Cadet World golds for the second straight year were Yianni Diakomihalis and Gable Steveson. Winning his first Cadet World gold was the exciting Kurt McHenry. Add in a freestyle silver from Vitaly Arujau and three bronzes from David Carr, Travis Wittlake and Jacob Warner and the USA finished a strong second, just two points behind Russia. In women’s freestyle, 2015 Cadet World champion Ronna Heaton made the finals again to win a silver, and bronzes came from Alleida Martinez, Macey Kilty, Gracie Figueroa and Alara Boyd, also taking a trophy as a third place team. It was a great summer for our young stars, all products of the USA Wrestling age-group system.

• Alli Ragan makes most of second chance, winning World silver medal in Budapest – In all respects, 2016 was a tough year for Alli Ragan. For three straight years, Ragan competed for the USA at the World Championships at 58 kg, placing as high as fifth at the 2014 Worlds in Tashkent. This was supposed to be her year. However, life doesn’t always follow expectations or plans. Ragan was upset in the finals of the Olympic Trials by 2012 Olympian Kelsey Campbell. To add insult to injury, the weight did not get qualified for Rio, as Ragan fell short at the 2015 Worlds and the 2016 Pan Am Qualifier and Campbell did not qualify at the final two World Olympic Qualifiers. Then UWW announced a World meet in the fall for weights not contested at the Olympics. Ragan moved up two kg to 60 kg, and had a good performance to make the USA team in the Trials in New York in November. At the World Championships in Budapest, Ragan put together her best World-level tournament ever, hammering through four opponents in a dominating fashion to reach the World finals. Her semifinal win was her best, a 14-4 tech fall over Kassymova of Kazakhstan. With her father in her corner all day, Ragan claimed her first World medal. The finals were a bit disappointing, as China’s defensive-minded Pei stopped a few Ragan attacks and emerged with a 6-0 win. Alli Ragan was not happy with the silver, but she took another big step forward and added her name to the list of American World medalists. The quest for gold remains ahead for her.

• Living the Dream Medal Fund gives wrestling the best bonus program of all Olympic sports – Sometimes, wrestlers do not brag enough about themselves, part of the humble culture that is necessary for success in individual combat sport. With all the hype about the Rio Games, some people even in wrestling don’t know that the USA has the absolute best athlete bonus program for their Senior athletes. Led by a great leader, Mike Novogratz, and a small group of Founding Stewards in 2009, the Living the Dream Medal Fund has rewarded American wrestlers with bonuses for World and Olympic medals. The big carrot has been $250,000 (that’s right, a quarter million dollars) for Olympic gold medals, and four athletes have won this prize, Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner in 2012 and Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis in 2016. (And yes, Snyder and bronze medalist J’den Cox were allowed to keep their bonuses under recent NCAA regulations). Over the eight years of the program, there has been an amazing $1,825,000 in bonuses given to USA wrestlers, including $1,075,000 during this Olympic quad. Even better, the future of this program is being strengthened as more and more Stewards are joining the team, lessening the burden on all of these great wrestling leaders who are willing to make donations directly to American wrestlers based upon performance. There is not a sport in the USA Olympic program, including the big-money and big-publicity sports like swimming, track and field, gymnastics and others, that takes better care of their individual World and Olympic medalists like wrestling does. It is not even close, and we should take great pride in the fact that former wrestlers have developed this kind of connection to the future of the sport.

• Wrestling world embraces putting sport in major venues and historic locations – Mike Novogratz and his team at Beat the Streets gave the wrestling community a great gift when he decided to showcase our sport in historic and unique settings. The Beat the Streets events have been in iconic settings in New York City, including Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and on the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier. The sport has learned from this well. Last year, Iowa wrestled Oklahoma State in Kinnick Stadium and smashed the NCAA attendance mark. This year, the NCAA hosted its Div. I Championships in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. This fall, Rutgers broke its season attendance record in just one day, when it wrestled Princeton outdoors in its football stadium. Next year, Rutgers takes on Maryland in Yankee Stadium. So many colleges are doing outdoor matches, or wrestling bouts at famous landmarks on their campus, including historic buildings and theaters. This kind of promotion works and makes our sport more fun, not just for our fans but also for the general public. Just recently, the Iranian Wrestling Federation proposed to United World Wrestling that it host “World Solidarity” events in historic locations in Iran, Russia, the USA, Turkey and Japan. This kind of creativity, with a splash of fun, will help wrestling moving forward. Really, you can wrestle anywhere. And that is one of the great strengths of the world’s oldest sport. Keep it up wrestling community.

• Alex Dieringer wins NCAA title No. 3, then quickly impacts freestyle scene – Coming into the 2016 college season, Oklahoma State star Alex Dieringer had two NCAA titles and three All-American finishes for the Cowboys. As a senior, he had a chance to cement his place as one of the all-time greats in the program which has won the most NCAA team titles and has done as much as any college to build a strong USA Olympic program. Simply said, Dieringer put together a season of dominance, going undefeated and winning his third NCAA title with an exclamation point in Madison Square Garden. Fans and journalists did the right thing by voting Ringer as the Hodge Trophy winner. A few weeks later, Dieringer looked impressive in making his first USA Freestyle National team by taking third in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City, behind only superstar Jordan Burroughs and world-class Andrew Howe. His season was not done, as since he had a good showing at the World Cup, and went undefeated at the Freestyle World Clubs Cup. Expect much more to come from this Wisconsin native who has high goals for himself.

• Another great U.S. Olympic Team Trials hosted in Iowa City boosts our sport – The USA wrestling community should feel very good about how the top wrestling communities in the nation have embraced the Olympic movement. For the second Olympic cycle in a row, Iowa City, led by the Univ. of Iowa and the local community, has hosted the Olympic Trials in historic Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a legendary venue within wrestling. When Roy Carver provided the funding for this arena, he wanted it to be designed to hold major wrestling events. Job achieved, as it is a spectacular wrestling facility. Because of the hard work and commitment of the local organizers, and the special love for wrestling in Iowa and the Midwest, the Olympic Trials was a huge success again. It is a great way to select an Olympic team and bring the wrestling world together behind our greatest athletes every four years. The USOC is the actual rights-holder organization for the Olympic Trials, and it is great that wrestling is so successful with its Olympic Trials. I can’t wait to see what the 2020 Trials will be like, whether held in Iowa again or another big-time wrestling location.

• King three-peats as WCWA women’s college champions with balanced attack – Women’s college wrestling continues to grow and prosper, with an expansion to almost 30 programs all over the United States. As you would expect from growth, the quality of the women’s college nationals continues to improve. For the third straight year, King University won the WCWA women’s college nationals, keeping its strong hold over the women’s game with a great Nationals performance in Oklahoma City in February. Jason Moorman’s Tornado team lost a ton of talent to graduation and two-time WCWA champion Haley Augello took an Olympic redshirt (and made the Rio team). The team had the depth and culture to continue their run at the top of the sport, led by champions, Marina Doi (101), Samantha Klingel (116) and Forrest Molinari (155). Of the champs, Klingel’s effort was heartwarming, after being close in other seasons. Oklahoma City had three champs of their own to finish second. So far in the 2016-17 season, King remains at No. 1, aiming for a fourth-straight title with nationals are held in February 2017.

• Chris Brown wins second Veterans World Greco-Roman gold medal – Veterans wrestling, the warriors of the sport over the age of 35, continues to grow in the USA and around the world. This is a very competitive event and many nations send large and strong teams to the worlds each year. The USA always has a good team, with some dedicated athletes and leaders who enjoy the competition and camaraderie at the World level. Like the Senior level, the USA tends to do better in freestyle, and has heroes in the program like multiple-champion Shirzad Ahmadi. Now, the USA has its first two-time Veterans World Greco champion, as the team captain Chris Brown added his second gold medal in Seinajoki, Finland in September. Brown won four matches in a five-athlete roundrobin, beating Sarcanski of Serbia in his final bout 4-2 for the title. Brown had the opportunity to run around the mat with the USA flag, as American World champions often do after a World title, and set a higher bar for our Veterans Greco program.

• Year three of World Cup in Los Angeles was a fantastic event – The World Cup is one of the most exciting events on the international schedule every year, and it is great that when the USA gets to host this event for our fans. For the last three years, we have been blessed that Andy Barth and the wrestling community in Los Angeles has hosted the Freestyle World Cup here on our soil. Now that LA is the Olympic bid city for the USA for the 2024 Olympic Games, hosting the World Cup there is an even bigger deal. This year's event was special, not only because the crowds were bigger and the presentation was more spectacular, but also because it was held after the Olympic Trials, and showcased our Olympic freestyle team for the USA fans prior to heading down to Rio. Kudos to all who worked so hard on this event. The USA lost a pair of criteria decisions to Iran and Georgia in the medal rounds (without Jordan Burroughs on the team due to the birth of his daughter) to place fourth, but was as a solid USA effort, and of course very entertaining for the fans. Bravo!

• Minnesota fires J Robinson after long process over team’s Xanex problems – The University of Minnesota placed long-time Hall of Fame wrestling coach J Robinson on administrative leave after public disclosure about a problem on the Gopher team with the use and sale of Xanex. After a lengthy internal investigation, new athletic director Mark Coyle fired Robinson. One of the greatest coaches in wrestling history is no longer employed, after leading his team to three NCAA team titles and coaching numerous champion wrestlers (both on and off the mat). Robinson was not charged by authorities for his alleged involvement in this incident, so his dismissal was not based on any legal issues. We all know that Robinson has had some issues with the Gopher administration in the past, which could have been a factor in the outcome. It doesn’t seem right that J Robinson is not in wrestling as we speak, and many of us in the sport hope that he becomes involved in another way. He has made a difference, and would still make a difference if he takes new leadership role in the future.

• Burroughs, Dlagnev, Pirozhkova, Provisor make second Olympic Teams – Making an Olympic team is the highlight of any American wrestler’s career. Making two Olympic teams is truly amazing achievement and something to be very proud about. American wrestlers who made their second teams at the Trials in Iowa City were men’s freestyle stars Jordan Burroughs and Tervel Dlagnev, women’s freestyler Elena Pirozhkova and Greco-Roman wrestler Ben Provisor. Of the four repeat Olympians, Provisor was the biggest surprise, after a four-year cycle full of injury and challenges. Dlagnev, who suffered serious back problems leading into the Trials, considered pulling out of the event and retiring but went for it anyway, and put together a great tournament. Burroughs and Pirozhkova, future Hall of Famers, were at their best in Iowa City. In Rio, Dlagnev and Pirozhkova made bronze-medal matches and placed fifth, the highest placement among the two-time Olympians.

• Daniel Dennis makes Olympic team after taking time away from sport – Who didn’t enjoy the Daniel Dennis story in 2016? The former Iowa NCAA runner-up left the sport for an extended time, moving to California, camping and hiking and getting involved in the local wrestling community. Few expected Dennis to return to the sport in 2015 and finish No. 2 on the National Team at 61 kg. Even fewer would anticipate his drop to 57 kg for 2016, and an impressive run to earn a spot on the Olympic Team. Daniel Dennis re-lit his passion for wrestling and his performance showed it. He was truly a refreshing addition to the Olympic program and USA Wrestling.

• Imar and Dean win second NCAA titles on way, with eyes on adding more – Isaiah Martinez was an undefeated freshman NCAA champion for Illinois, and entered his sophomore season carrying the weight of history on his shoulders. As expected, people wondered if Imar could run the table unbeaten like the great Cael Sanderson. A loss to Penn State’s talented Jason Nolf during the season ended that opportunity, and Martinez came back better than ever, beating Nolf in the Big Ten finals and NCAA finals to win title No. 2. Gabe Dean won his first NCAA title for Cornell as a sophomore, and came into the season looking to defend his crown. It was vintage Dean in the NCAA tournament, capped off with a 5-3 win over Nebraska’s Tim Dudley for title No. 2. He enjoyed as his teammate Nahshon Garrett also won NCAA gold at 133 pounds. Imar and Dean are back in 2016-17 going for title No. 3.

• Bill Zadick named National Freestyle Coach after Bruce Burnett retires following Rio – USA wrestling fans love their freestyle wrestling, and the program has a new leader. After Zeke Jones left USA Wrestling early in the Olympic cycle to take the head job at his alma mater Arizona State, USA Wrestling brought back the most successful coach in program history to complete the quad, getting Bruce Burnett to abandon his retirement and lead Team USA through the Rio Games. After Kyle Snyder won the last match of the entire 2016 Olympics to claim a gold medal, Burnett returned to Idaho with a job well done. USA Wrestling had many options for its new freestyle leader and chose to stay within staff by promoting Assistant National Coach and 2006 World champion Bill Zadick to become the new head coach. Zadick has added respected Brent Metcalf as an assistant coach, and scored big with World champion Logan Stieber at his first World meet as the lead dog in Budapest in December.

• Myles Martin comes out of redshirt to win NCAAs as a freshman – You may have heard the story. Ohio State freshman Myles Martin was midway through his redshirt year when Tom Ryan and the coaching staff asked him to come out of redshirt. They felt he was ready, but Martin was not so sure and needed convincing. Martin dropped some early bouts as a Buckeye starter, but kept working hard. He reached the NCAA Championships in New York as No. 11 seed, not a top choice for the title. However, Martin was as good as Ryan and team expected, and he fought his way to the finals, where he faced No. 1 seed Bo Nickal of Penn State, who had beaten him three times in a row. Martin pulled off the biggest upset of the NCAA finals, an 11-9 shootout win over Nickal, and became an NCAA champion as a true freshman. Sometimes is it smart to listen to your coaches.

• Wittlake wins Cadet Triple Crown in impressive Fargo performance – Fargo is a big deal in American wrestling, as USA Wrestling has built a true classic in the combined ASICS/Vaughan Junior and Cadet Nationals. One of the big prizes in USA Wrestling is the Triple Crown, awarded to the talented young stars who capture folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman national titles the same year. Winning a Triple Crown at the Cadet or Junior levels keeps getting harder and harder. This year, tough Travis Wittlake of Oregon was the only Triple Crown winner in Fargo, running through the field at 170 pounds. He was named Outstanding Wrestler in freestyle with a tech fall in all six of his matches in the tournament. Later in the summer, Wittlake won a Cadet World bronze medal. Keep an eye on this guy moving forward.

• Greco-Roman future arrives early with Hancock, Bey making big steps up
– The USA is working hard to improve its Greco-Roman program, and one of the priorities for National Coach Matt Lindland is to get more talented young athletes focusing full-time on Greco earlier in their careers. The 2016 season has shown that this strategy could pay off big with the efforts of Junior-level stars G’Angelo Hancock and Kamal Bey, who are already having success on the Senior level. Both train full-time in Greco at the Olympic Training Center. Both made the 2016 USA Junior World team, where Hancock won a Junior World bronze medal. They both had great performances against top opponents at the Greco-Roman World Clubs Cup in Hungary in December, including a win by Hancock over an Olympic medalist from Turkey. Both won U.S. Senior Open titles in Las Vegas in December. Don’t be shocked if our Greco program continues to have young athletes step up big, because other talents like Taylor LaMont also seem Senior-level ready.

I truly enjoy doing this article each year and it takes a lot of time and research to pull together. However, I am absolutely certain I may have missed some stories. In addition, our fans might not agree with my choices and the order in which they are presented. I encourage you to have some fun with this also, by posting your thoughts on this below in the comment section, or going to USA Wrestling’s Message Boards in the International Section and giving your thoughts. It was a memorable year for wrestling in 2016, and I can’t wait for the New Year.