2016 Olympic gold medalist Erica Wiebe of Canada was there. So was 2017 world champion Yasemin Adar of Turkey. And world medalist Epp Mae of Estonia.
But Team USA’s Adeline Gray beat them all.
Gray showed she was back in an emphatic way after winning a loaded women’s freestyle wrestling bracket at Sweden’s Klippan Open in February.
A three-time world champion, Gray rolled to a pair of wins before powering past Mae 7-1 in the semifinals and Adar 9-6 in the finals at 76 kilograms.
Eighteen months after a disappointing and heartbreaking finish at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the 27-year-old Gray demonstrated she is ready to make a run at Olympic gold in 2020.
“It definitely put me in a place where I know I’m ready to get back to where I was,” Gray said. “Terry (Steiner) told me I can be the best in the world again.”
Steiner, USA Wrestling’s national women’s coach, said Gray’s victory in Sweden proved “she is still competitive and she can still do this.”
“Adeline is wrestling really well,” Steiner said. “She definitely showed she is back. It was an impressive performance.”
Gray’s quest to make the 2018 world team begins when she competes at the U.S. Open on Thursday and Friday in Las Vegas. A win there would land Gray a spot in the championship series at June’s Final X that will determine the world team.
“I’m really looking forward to wrestling in the U.S. Open,” she said. “It’s always exciting to compete in Las Vegas and wrestle in front of the USA fans.”
Gray was ranked No. 1 in the world entering the Rio Games after earning world titles in 2012, 2014 and 2015. The five-time world medalist was the favorite to take home Olympic gold.
Gray won by fall in her first match before suffering a stunning, last-second quarterfinal loss to three-time world bronze medalist Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus. Gray finished seventh in her first Olympics.
“It was an incredible experience, being an Olympian,” Gray said. “Did I want to win an Olympic gold medal? Yes. It was very tough when it didn’t happen. It obviously didn’t go how I wanted and it was disappointing, but I don’t look at the Olympics as a terrible experience. Very few people have the opportunity to represent their country in the Olympics.”
Steiner said Gray’s loss was a result of a number of factors.
“There was a lot of pressure on Adeline,” Steiner said. “I think she was looking ahead and not focusing on the match at hand. She could’ve opened it up more and was a little conservative.
“I know she will learn from it and come back from it. She already has. Adeline is a professional and she is very intelligent. You rarely see her make the same mistake twice. With Adeline Gray, you know she’s going to compete hard and wrestle to the best of her ability.”
Gray injured her shoulder prior to the Games in April 2016. It was later discovered the injury was much more severe than initially thought.
“After the Olympics, I was helping paint my friend’s apartment and I couldn’t raise my arm,” she said. “I called the doctor and we scheduled a surgery. I ended up being out for nine months."
Gray took a year off from wrestling while recovering from surgery. She missed the 2017 world championships after medaling in that event five straight years from 2011-15.
She couldn’t wrestle, but she had a rare extended break from the grind of being a world-class athlete in a grueling sport.
“I had a wonderful life of enjoying my family and traveling to see my friends,” she said. “I got to live my life and it was so, so great. That made it harder when I came back.”
During her time off the mat, Gray got married. Her husband, Damaris Sanders, is a captain in the U.S. Army who is scheduled to return home in a few weeks after a nine-month deployment in Iraq.
She’s also working on her master’s degree in project management.
Gray has enjoyed a superb season in her return to the mat. After her win in Sweden, she went unbeaten at March’s World Cup in Japan.
“It’s fun competing again,” she said. “I’m enjoying my team and enjoying the process of being back in the limelight. It’s really exciting to wrestle for my country.
“I feel great physically. My shoulder is strong again. It’s not all the way back, but it will get there. I’m trying to get a little bit bigger and stronger again.”
Gray also has started coaching. She serves as an assistant coach to former USA Wrestling assistant Erin Tomeo at Wyoming Seminary, a new high school program in Pennsylvania.
“It’s been a really educational experience for me,” she said. “It’s been great to have an opportunity to give some of the knowledge I have back to the young girls on the team. I’ve been able to share lessons that I’ve learned in the sport with the athletes. Coaching has been a new experience for me — it’s fun.”
Gray also continues to be one of the leading ambassadors for women’s wrestling in the U.S.
“It’s incredible to see our sport continue to grow,” she said. “A lot of these young girls look up to us and have been inspired by the girls on the senior level. It’s nice when they come up and talk to you and tell you that. It’s awesome to see women’s wrestling making a bigger impact. And it’s neat to see another generation coming up. I am happy to see women’s wrestling being accepted more.”
Steiner said he envisions Gray being in the mix to win an Olympic title in 2020.
“Adeline’s going to put herself in a position where she is in contention,” he said. “She has re-established herself as one of the best in the world. She just has to stay the course and do the right things.
“She’s ready to make a run. I think she’s definitely capable of making it to Tokyo and winning a gold medal.”