Frank Molinaro celebrates his win at the 2016 United World Wrestling World Cup at The Forum on June 12, 2016 in Inglewood, Calif.
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling were supposed to be this weekend, and 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro had a plan.
He was either going to make the men’s freestyle team, or he was going to retire and end his career at the Bryce Jordan Center on the Penn State campus where he honed his skills and became a four-time NCAA All-American.
With both the trials and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 postponed, however, Molinaro announced his retirement this week rather than put his life on hold for another year in the hopes of making a second Olympic team.
“For me, this is the time,” he said. “The biggest thing, honestly, is I never knew when I would know it was time to stop wrestling, but recently I had that rest in my soul and I’m excited for my new identity. With my faith in God, I always try to stay focused on God. Whatever direction I feel I’m getting pulled in and directed to I try to stay present and let things play out organically. The way this played out was a no-brainer. It made more sense to retire now than let it drag out.”
Molinaro, 31, wrestled freestyle at the 65 kg. class, and a big factor in his decision was that he’s about 25 pounds over that right now, he said. On top of that, the U.S. hasn’t yet qualified an Olympic spot at 65 kg.
“It all happened so fast with the quarantine and shutting down the trials, then postponing (the Olympics),” he said. “When I got all the details and found out the Olympics were going to be a year later, with the timing in my life I can’t put my whole life off another year, especially when my weight class wasn’t qualified.”
Molinaro exits the competitive portion of his career with highlights and memories of which most athletes can only dream.
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One was winning the 2005 New Jersey state wrestling title at 125 pounds by beating future Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs. The two would become Olympic teammates in 2016.
“He and his coach forfeited to us two weeks before because he said we were going to wrestle each other at the state final, and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m making the final but good luck,’” Molinaro said. “I ended up beating him with two seconds left.”
Molinaro also won an NCAA title after going undefeated his senior year at Penn State and despite suffering an MCL injury in the second round of the tournament.
Then, of course, there were the Olympic Games.
“In the first grade I wrote in this little yearbook that I wanted to be an Olympic wrestler,” he said. “That was a dream come true.”
Molinaro won the 2016 Olympic trials despite coming in as the No. 9 seed, then had to go to a qualifying tournament in Mongolia and a last chance qualifier in Turkey in order to try to qualify his class. After falling into the repechage, he took the bronze medal in Turkey, and a week later when two European athletes were disqualified for doping Molinaro officially had his spot.
He made it all the way to the quarterfinals in Rio but lost and eventually finished fifth overall following a loss to Italy’s Frank Chamizo in the bronze-medal round.
“It was really surreal when I was warming up for my first match and finally reached that point where I was going to wrestle the best guys in the world,” Molinaro said of his Olympic experience. “That was the thing I said to myself growing up was that I really believed for some reason that on any given day I could beat anyone in the world. I learned more in the Olympic experience than I did in 20 years of training, competing, failing and succeeding. I was around so many good wrestlers and so many good people because the whole country got behind me. All the coaches, everyone at Colorado Springs, everyone just tries to give you the best chance you can have to win an Olympic medal. The experience I took away was amazing and I think, I hope, I learned a lot that I can apply to coaching and my career moving forward.”
Molinaro went into coaching after Rio, and left his position as an assistant at Virginia Tech in 2018 to pursue his Olympic dream full-time. He said with the college wrestling season just ended and all the changes that usually brings, the time is right to get back into the coaching ranks and help others achieve their dreams.
“(Wrestling) is my craft, that’s what I wake up and do every day and I love developing that craft,” said the father of three boys age 5 and under who also looks forward to spending more time with them. “I really like to see other people exceed their potential and their own vision of themselves. I like to see that transformation. In my own life I’ve always been obsessed with the transformative part of sports and wrestling and I want to have that influence in someone else’s life and be someone who can help them develop and set them up for success like my mentors did for me.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.