LINCOLN, Neb. – Step on the mat to face Alli Ragan and you better be ready for anything.
She can fire in on a low single-leg attack.
Or she can launch an opponent with a vicious headlock.
Those techniques were on full display when Ragan stormed into the finals at the 2017 World Wrestling Championships in Paris.
“I’m ready for another shot at winning a world title,” Ragan said. “I’ve been in the finals the past two years and I’m really excited to have another opportunity this year. I want that gold medal. That’s all I’m training for.”
The 25-year-old is on the brink of accomplishing that lofty goal.
Ragan won her second straight world silver medal last year and was a member of the U.S. women’s team that finished second behind perennial power Japan.
Ragan is headed back to worlds after sweeping Jenna Burkert at 59 kilograms to win USA Wrestling’s Final X on Saturday night at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.
She now advances to October’s world championships in Budapest, Hungary.
Ragan, from Carbondale, Illinois, grew up in a wrestling family. Her father, Dennis, coached at the high school level and her older brother also wrestled. She started wrestling when she was 6 years old.
She has made a swift progression up the USA Wrestling ladder. She won two junior world medals before earning a silver medal at the World University Games.
Ragan was on the verge of medaling at the 2014 senior world championships before dropping a heartbreaker in the bronze-medal match. She was on track to land a berth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but was upset in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Ragan bounced back later that year to win a silver medal at the 2016 world championships before following with a second silver medal last year.
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When Ragan is on her game, she’s difficult to stop.
“I definitely need to keep the pressure on the people I wrestle,” she said. “I need to stay on my attacks and stay on my offense, especially against foreign opponents who try to slow me down.
“I need to make my presence felt right away. I need to push the pace and control the entire match.”
Ragan is now one of the veterans on the strong American women’s squad.
“I feel more confident now,” she said. “I feel more comfortable being in those big matches. I’m excited to see what I can do moving forward.”
Ragan powered into the world finals last year after pinning world medalist Anastasija Grigorjeva of Latvia with a headlock in the semifinals. Ragan trailed 3-2 late in the match before scoring the dramatic fall.
“I was down, and she kept banging on my head,” Ragan said. “I said if she does that one more time, I am going to throw her with a headlock. She did it one more time, and I hit the headlock.”
Ragan ran into a tough opponent in the finals, falling by technical superiority to Olympic gold medalist Risako Kawai of Japan.
U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach Terry Steiner knows Ragan is capable of being the best in the world.
“No. 1, Alli is very athletic,” Steiner said. “Then the next thing is that she is a student of the sport. She grew up in a wrestling family and she understands sports in terms of the work and commitment involved. Lastly, she doesn’t like to lose. If you put all those things together it creates a winning combination.”
Steiner has seen that approach pay off for Ragan.
“Alli is looking good right now,” Steiner said. “She was a little beat up and worn down after the tour season, but through the spring she has rested her mind and body and I believe she is ready to perform at a high level.
“Alli is a professional — she works very hard and lives the right lifestyle. She expects a lot out of herself and so do we.”
Even in a grueling, demanding sport like wrestling, Ragan still enjoys what she’s doing.
“I don’t think that I would be doing this if I didn’t have fun with it,” she said. “It’s a tough sport. If you don’t find a silver lining in your hard training every day, you get tired and you get burned out with the sport.
“You really have to find what your passion is. For me, I feel like I can learn something new every day. I can never stop learning. That learning process really excites me and that brings me back to training every day.”
Ragan is ready to take the next step in her career.
“I know I can be a world champion,” she said. “My coaches tell me that every day. I want to prove that I can do that. Winning a world title would be a dream come true for me.”
Craig Sesker is a sports writer based out of Cedar Falls, Iowa. He has covered three Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.