Opponents of Team USA’s wrestlers at the Pan American Games will look across the mat in Toronto and see a couple two-time world champions, previous Pan Am Games medalists, some Olympians — and lots of scary hair.
Leading the way for the freestyle team are Jordan Burroughs and Adeline Gray, who both compete at the 74 kg. class. Burroughs is a 2012 Olympic gold medalist with a 106-2 international record and two world titles, while Gray is a 2012 world champion.
And in Greco-Roman, competitors will not only see a team of competitive wrestlers with hopes for medaling, but also a lot of facial hair, between Robby Smith’s enormous beard and Andy Bisek’s impressive moustache.
Team USA has 16 wrestlers in Toronto, six in men’s freestyle, four in women’s freestyle and six in men’s Greco-Roman. Only the Olympic weight classes are used at the Pan Am Games. Competition begins July 15 at the Mississauga Sports Centre.
The team’s most accomplished wrestler is Burroughs, who won gold at the 2011 Pan Am Games in addition to his 2012 Olympic gold medal and 2011 and 2013 world titles. Jake Herbert (86 kg.) also won freestyle gold at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Burroughs said he thinks this year’s group is even stronger and made a brash prediction.
“I think we could bring home six gold medals,” he said. “I think we’re more than capable of doing something like that. I think we’re that good.”
Burroughs said Team USA’s top competition in freestyle will come from Cuba.
“The Cubans are always tough,” Burroughs said.
For the U.S. women in freestyle, Canada is likely to provide the stiffest competition, said Gray, who is going to her first major multi-sport competition and looking forward to the atmosphere that comes with being part of the full contingent of more than 600 American athletes.
Gray said she’ll be focused on her competition but is also hoping to finally see some teammates in other sports compete. She regularly has breakfast with a fencer at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and might actually get to see him compete.
“That would be really awesome,” she said. “I have breakfast with him five days a week and I’ve never seen him fence.”
Gray said women’s wrestling in the Americas is getting stronger, and that she’s happy to see South American countries putting more resources into the sport with the Olympic Games coming up in Brazil. Several Latin American countries now “have little nuggets of gold you have to watch out for,” on their rosters, Gray said.
Cuban wrestlers took home gold medals at all but one weight class in Greco-Roman at the 2011 Pan Am Games and will provide the toughest competition for the Americans. Greco-Roman Coach Matt Lindland said on a USA Wrestling video that he also thinks the atmosphere in Toronto will help wrestlers prepare for the Olympic experience.
“We stay in a village, similar to what we’re going to see in Rio,” Lindland said. “It’s a great event for these guys to be able to showcase their talents, in front of a big audience.”
And the hair?
Smith and Bisek will be among the most recognizable wrestlers because of their facial hair — but Smith says there’s nothing special about his beard, which flows well below his face. Smith said Bisek’s moustache, though, has some kind of magic.
“That does give him some power,” Smith said. “There’s something in that thing that helps him.”
While some may notice the facial hair, Lindland said opponents will be more concerned about the rest of the wrestlers’ bodies.
“These guys are competing well, that’s why people know them,” he said. “Not because of the ... big hair.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.