Kyle Snyder poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
The Olympic Games Tokyo are less than 200 days away, and the countdown is on for Team USA wrestlers getting ready for the Olympic trials in April.
Beginning tomorrow, members of the women’s freestyle, men’s freestyle and men’s Greco-Roman teams will return to international action for the first time in 10 months, competing at the Henri Deglane Grand Prix in Nice, France. It will be a chance for the 31 athletes there to not only check out the competition for the first time since March 2020 but also gauge where they’re at in their own preparation.
“They’ve all been pushing and they’re excited,” said U.S. men’s freestyle head coach Bill Zadick. “Honestly, way back in June and July they were asking, ‘When are we going to compete again?’ As we moved through the fall and looked for opportunities we planned for several and had to back off in the last moments, so they know this is a real valuable opportunity to test themselves and elevate their game plans and make adjustments as they head into the Olympic trials in early April.”
Among the 10 women’s freestylers, nine men’s freestylers and 12 Greco-Roman athletes who make up the U.S. delegation are Olympic gold medalists and freestylers Helen Maroulis and Kyle Snyder.
For Maroulis, the tournament is another step in her return following several years of injuries and even a brief retirement. The first American ever to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling returned to the mat in February 2020 for the first time in a year and a half, won a wrestle-off for the chance to compete at the Pan American Olympic Qualifier in March and then won that to secure a quota spot at 57 kg.
Also competing for the women is Jacarra Winchester, who won the world title in 2019 at 55 kg. but has since moved down to 53 kg. because her former class won’t be contested in Tokyo. Fellow world champion Tamyra Mensah-Stock, who’s coming off an upset victory after moving up to take on five-time world champion Adeline Gray at 76 kg. for a FloWrestling match last weekend, will compete at her usual 68 kg.
The women’s competition starts on Friday, followed by men’s freestyle on Saturday and Greco-Roman on Sunday.
Snyder, who became the youngest U.S. wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal when he did so in 2016 at age 20, also last competed internationally in March at the Pan American Championships, which he won for the third time in the 97 kg. class. He highlights the men’s freestyle squad and is joined by two-time 79 kg. world champion Kyle Dake, now wrestling at 74 kg.
The Greco-Roman team includes 2019 world championships team athletes Raymond Bunker in the 67 kg. class and John Stefanowicz at 82 kg. All but one of the Greco-Roman athletes competing for the U.S. are Marines.
A total of 300 athletes from 23 countries will be competing throughout the three-day meet. The most important thing, Zadick said, is that everyone stays safe and healthy so that the tournament can be a springboard for future opportunities. The U.S. opted out of competing at the rescheduled world championships last year citing concerns related to COVID-19.
That said, everyone is curious to get a look at the competition.
Zadick expects the countries that are typically strong — including Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia — will continue to be, but said that other athletes could emerge from countries with smaller delegations.
“Someone who’s highly motivated and had access to a little more resources or who was in a safer area might really be elevated relative to the rest of the field,” he said. “It will be interesting to see from that standpoint. There are a whole host of eastern European and western European countries in addition to the ones I mentioned that maybe aren’t coming with a full delegation but have strong individuals so I think it will be a strong competition and a good barometer to see how we fare.”
One interesting matchup could come in the men’s freestyle 97 kg. class. If Snyder and Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan meet, it would be a rematch of the 2019 world championship semifinals in which Sharifov, the 2012 Olympic champion, upset Snyder.
And while Mensah-Stock may be among the Americans favored to win, she could have competition in the form of France’s Koumba Larroque, who beat Mensah-Stock in the semifinals at the 2018 world championships.
This weekend’s event will be live streamed here.