Zain Retherford was still in high school.
That didn’t stop the hungry, eager and highly motivated 17-year-old from making a huge splash in his international wrestling debut.
Retherford won four matches, including two over athletes from wrestling powerhouses Russia and Iran, to capture a gold medal at the 2012 Cadet World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan.
“It was an awesome experience,” he said. “It’s obviously something you will always remember.”
Now, five years later, Retherford has an opportunity to shine on an even bigger stage.
The reigning Hodge Trophy winner as the nation’s best collegiate wrestler, Retherford has landed a spot on his first U.S. senior world championships team in freestyle wrestling. It will be the first world championships for Retherford since he heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” being played after his 2012 cadet world title.
“It obviously helps, having that experience,’ Retherford said. “I was exposed to international wrestling early.”
Retherford’s wrestling career almost ended shortly after it began.
Pinned early in a match by a bigger opponent as a 5-year-old, a distraught Retherford had tears streaming down his face when he walked up to the bleachers following the match.
His father was convinced his son should quit.
But even at a very young age, Retherford was determined. He stuck with wrestling, and the farm kid from Pennsylvania with the strong work ethic continued to develop and progress.
Retherford, who has one year of eligibility left at Penn State, isn’t backing down from anybody now.
“Zain’s one of the toughest wrestlers I’ve ever been around,” said Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist. “He’s a hard worker with a great attitude, and he wrestles an exciting style where he is looking to dominate his opponents. It’s fun to watch.”
The 22-year-old Retherford is scheduled to compete at the Grand Prix of Spain this weekend. It’s his last competition before next month’s world championships in Paris.
“I’m excited to wrestle in it,” said Retherford, who will wrestle at 65 kg. “I’m trying to learn and grow as much as I can before worlds.”
Retherford hasn’t competed much internationally since capturing the cadet world title. He tried to make the U.S. junior world team in recent years but fell to cadet and junior world medalist Aaron Pico in the finals.
“I had been coming up short so many times in the finals,” he said. “That was really tough.”
His limited senior-level experience includes placing fourth at the Dave Schultz Memorial International during his redshirt season in 2015 and a victory at the Beat the Streets dual against Japan this year.
However, he does train in the loaded Penn State room that includes world medalists and Olympians. And among his workout partners at world team camp last week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion Jordan Burroughs.
“It’s awesome having an opportunity to wrestle with someone like Jordan,” Retherford said. “He’s very fast and has some great attacks. I picked up a lot just being around him.”
Retherford has had a standout career at Penn State. He upset Ohio State senior Logan Stieber as a true freshman before Stieber went on to win his fourth NCAA title that season.
Retherford has won NCAA titles the past two seasons at 149 pounds while leading his team to national championships. He’s won his last 67 matches and hasn’t lost a collegiate bout in three years.
“Zain’s been a great leader — he’s tremendous in all aspects,” Sanderson said. “His greatness comes from his consistency. He’s just an incredibly solid individual.”
Retherford was so good this past season that he won the Hodge Trophy, wrestling’s Heisman, over college stars that included Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder and Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox.
That momentum rolled into June’s U.S. World Team Trials, where Retherford beat Rio Olympics fifth-place finisher Frank Molinaro, a former teammate, in a grueling three-match series to win a trip to Paris.
Blood was streaming down Retherford’s face after he outlasted the powerful Molinaro in a physical, hard-fought battle.
“Frank’s a very tough wrestler,” Retherford said. “He’s beaten some of the best guys in the world.”
The U.S. hasn’t won a medal at an Olympics or world championships at Retherford’s weight class since Bill Zadick won a world title in 2006. Zadick is now the U.S. national freestyle coach.
Retherford is on a strong U.S. team that features five wrestlers who won medals in their first trip to a world-level event on the senior level. Burroughs, Snyder and Stieber won world titles on their first try, Cox earned an Olympic bronze medal and James Green a world bronze medal.
“It’s awesome the U.S. has been able to do that,” Retherford said. “I’m excited to have that opportunity now.”