U23 World Championships Women’s Freestyle Preview: World champ Okuno headlines deep field of talents

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Nov. 19, 2017, 1:42 p.m. (ET)
2017 Senior World champion Haruna Okuno (Japan) scores a takedown at the 2017 World Championships in Paris, France. Photo by Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors.

In the second TheMat.com preview of the the first U23 World Championships, we focus on the field in the women’s freestyle division, which will be held Nov. 23-24.

This new event is set for Bydogszcz, Poland, Nov. 21-26, bringing together the world’s best 18-23 year old wrestlers in the three Olympic disciplines. The competition mixes some current Senior-level competitors with rising talents from the age-group programs.

Let’s look at the U.S. athlete and the top medal contenders in each weight class in all three styles. We started with Greco-Roman on Saturday, women’s freestyle today, and men’s freestyle on Monday.

Fans will be able to enjoy the action live each day on TrackWrestling.

48 kg/105.5 lbs.

The American

Cody Pfau of Brush, Colo., a senior at Emmanuel College, competed in three Junior World Championships earlier in her career, but seeks her first World medal in the inaugural U23 World Championships. Pfau dropped bronze medal matches in both the 2013 and 2015 Junior World Championships, placing fifth in the weight class that year. She was not in medal rounds in 2014. Pfau is No. 2 on the U.S. Senior National ladder, after placing second behind Victoria Anthony in the Senior World Team Trials. Pfau won two WCWA titles for Oklahoma City before transferring last year to Emmanuel. She has a reputation as a pinner, somebody who is capable of winning any match by fall regardless of the score.

Other Top Medal contenders
• Evin Demirhan (Turkey) – 5th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 3rd in 2016 University Worlds, 2016 European U23 champion, 3rd in 2013 Junior Worlds
• Anzhelika Vetoshkina (Russia) – 3rd in 2017 Russian Senior Nationals, 2017 European U23 champion, 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Oksana Livach (Ukraine) – 3rd in 2015, 2016 and 2017 Junior Worlds, 2013 Cadet World champion, 2nd in 2014 Cadet Worlds
• Irina Borissova (Kazakhstan) – 2nd in 2016 Asian Seniors, 3rd in 2017 Asian Seniors, 2nd in 2015 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2012 Cadet Worlds
• Ritu (India) – 3rd in 2017 Asian Senior Championships
• Turkan Nasirova (Azerbaijan) – 2015 Junior World champion, 2nd in 2017 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2014 Cadet Worlds
• Rina Okuno (Japan) – 2nd in 2015 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2013 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2013 Cadet Worlds
• Julie Sabatie (France) – 5th in 2015 European Games
• Kseniya Stankevich (Belarus) – 2017 Medved International champion, 3rd in 2015 Junior Worlds
• Weronika Sikora (Poland) – 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Miglena Selishka (Bulgaria) – 3rd in 2014 Junior Worlds

The skinny

This weight has a mix of Senior experience with a ton of age-group World success. Demirhan (TUR), fifth in the 2017 Senior Worlds, won the 2016 European U23s and two age-group World medals. Vetoshkina (RUS) was third in the 2017 Russian Senior Nationals and is the reigning European U23 champ. Borossova (KAZ) has two Asian Senior medals and Ritu (IND) also has an Asian Senior medal. Livach (UKR) has the deepest age-group resume, with a World-level medal for the last five years. Nasirova (AZE) is a 2015 Junior World champion. Okuno (JPN) medalled at two Junior Worlds. Almost every entry has World-level experience, including three-time Junior World entry Pfau (USA). This will be a dogfight.

53 kg/116.5 lbs.

The American
Amy Fearnside of Colorado Springs, Colo. won a 2014 University World bronze medal and was on the 2014 Junior World Team member. A four-time WCWA All-American and two-time finalist for Jamestown, Fearnside has won a pair of University National titles and looked strong at the 2017 U23 World Team Trials. Now a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center, Fearnside is No. 3 on the USA Senior National Team and has expanded her international experience. She has a high expectation for this World event, and should be ready to go.

Other Top Medal Contenders
• Iulia Leorda (Moldova) – 9th in 2016 Senior Worlds, 3rd in 2017 European U23s, 5th in 2017 European Seniors, 2014 University World champion, 2nd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Miho Igarishi (Japan) – 2015 and 2016 Junior World champion, 2014 Cadet World champion, 3rd in 2013 Cadet Worlds
• Leyla Gurbanova (Azerbaijan) – 2015 Junior World champion, 2015 Cadet World champion
• Alyssa Cleaves (Canada) – 2016 University World champion
• Ekaterina Poleshchuk (Russia) – 3rd in 2016 and 2017 Russian Nationals, 2017 Medved International champion
• Pinki (India) – 2016 Commonwealth champion
• Otgonjargal Ganbaatar (Mongolia) - 2017 Military World champion
• Mercedes Denes (Hungary) – 2nd in 2014 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2106 European U23s, 3rd in 2012 and 2013 Junior Worlds
• Khrystyna Bereza (Ukraine) – 2nd in 2017 Junior Worlds
• Qi Zhang (China) – 3rd in 2017 Asian Seniors
• Silje Kippernes (Norway) – 2nd in 2016 European U23s

The skinny
Although this weight is loaded with past age-group World medalists and has some solid Senior-level backgrounds, there is no big-time favorites. Leorda (MDA) was ninth in the 2016 Senior Worlds and was a University World champion. Igarishi (JPN) has three age-group World titles, two as a Junior and one as a Cadet. Gurbanova (AZE) has won Junior and Cadet World titles. Cleaves (CAN) is a past University World champion. Poleschuk (RUS) has been third in the last two Russian Senior Nationals. Ganbaatar (MGL) is a Military World champion. Age-group World medalists include Denes (HUN), Fearnside (USA) and Bereza (UKR). Should be a wide open race.

55 kg/121 lbs.

The American
Dominique Parrish of Scotts Valley, Calif. is a college star competing for Simon Fraser up in Canada. Although she wrestles a bunch up in Canada while in college, Parrish will be on her first U.S. World Team this year, so her European experience is limited. She has placed second and third in the last two WCWA College Nationals, and seeks her first women’s college national title this year as a junior. Parrish is a member of the Women’s Senior National Team, after placing third at the World Team Trials last year. She also was third at the U.S. Senior Open. There is little doubt that she continues to improve, and the U23 Worlds will be a great test to see just how much.

Other Top Medal Contenders
• Haruna Okuno (Japan) – 2017 Senior World champion, 2016 Cadet World champion, 3rd in 2014 Cadet Worlds
• Irina Kurachkina (Belarus) – 3rd in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2017 European U23 champion, 2nd in 2016 Senior Europeans
• Ramona Galambos (Hungary) – 5th in 2016 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2015 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2016 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2017 European U23s, 2013 Cadet World champion
• Lalita (IND) – 9th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2016 Commonwealth champion, 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Marina Sedniva (Kazakhstan) – 10th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2016 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2015 Junior Worlds
• Bediha Gun (Turkey) – 2016 Olympian, 2016 University World champion, 2nd in 2017 European U23s
• Nina Menkenova (Russia) – 2nd in 2016 and 2017 Russian Senior Nationals, 3rd in 2017 European U23s, 2nd in 2016 University Worlds
• Liana Montero (Cuba) – 2nd in 2017 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2016 Senior Pan Ams

The skinny
The favorite is clearly 2017 Senior World champion Okuno (JPN), who was also a 2016 Cadet World champion. Another 2017 Senior World medalist is in the draw, third-place Kurachkina (BLR), who is the reigning European U23 champion. Three other wrestlers who have placed in the top 10 at the Senior Worlds are also entered, Galambos (HUN), Lalita (IND) and Sedniva (KAZ). Galambos was a Cadet World champion, and Lalita and Sedniva have won age-group World medals. Add in 2016 Olympian Gun (TUR), who is also a University World champion, plus Menkenova (RUS), a two-time Russian Senior Nationals runner-up, and we have a weight stacked with Senior experience. 2017 Junior World silver medalist Montero (CUB) is a young talent.

58 kg/128 lbs.


The American
Megan Black of Batavia, Iowa, is a senior at McKendree University and looks to finish her college career in a big way. Already a three-time All-American and two-time WCWA runner-up, Black aims to win a WCWA national title in her final year. She has already had a strong USA Wrestling season, winning the 2017 University Nationals in March, then the 2017 U23 World Team Trials in October. She is on her first U.S. World Team when she competes in Poland. Black made big news in high school when she made the Iowa state meet competing against the boys, then went on to win the Junior Nationals competing against the girls. She is seeking to win a medal at the U23 Worlds to keep the momentum going for a great year.

Other Top Medal Contenders
• Tetyana Kit (Ukraine) – 3rd in 2015 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2014 Junior Worlds, 2016 European U23 champion, 2nd in 2016 European Seniors, 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Elin Nilsson (Sweden) – 5th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2017 European U23s, 2015 Junior World champion
• Bilyana Dudova (Bulgaria) – 5th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2017 European Senior champion
• Vernonika Chumikova (Russia) – 3rd in 2017 Russian Senior Nationals, 2nd in 2017 Yarygin Grand Prix (RUS), 2016 University World champion, 1st in 2015 Klippan Open (SWE)
• Alyona Kolesnik (Azerbaijan) – 3rd in 2017 European Seniors, 3rd in 2016 UWW Golden Grand Prix Finals, 2015 European U23 champion
• Yuzuru Kumano (Japan) – 2016 and 2017 Junior World champion, 3rd in 2016 and 2017 Klippan Open (SWE)
• Battsetseg Altantsetseg (Mongolia) – 2014 Junior World champion, 3rd in 2014 and 2017 Yarygin Grand Prix (RUS), 2nd in 2011 Cadet World Championships
• Anastasia Nichita (Moldova) – 2nd in 2017 Junior Worlds, 2nd in 2017 European U23s, 2nd in 2016 Cadet Worlds
• Arianna Carieri (Italy) – 3rd in 2015 Junior Worlds
• Laura Charashvili (Belarus) – 2nd in 2013 Cadet Worlds
• Katarzyna Madrowska (Poland) – 2nd in 2012 Cadet Worlds

The skinny
This weight class has a good share of experienced Senior athletes. 2015 Senior World bronze medalist Kit (UKR), who also boasts age-group World medals, leads the pack. A pair of athletes who have been fifth in the Senior Worlds, Nilsson (SWE) and Dudova (BUL) are also stong. Dudova was European Senior champion. Chumikova (RUS) was third in Senior Russian Nationals. Kolesnik (AZE), third in the European Seniors, is also a 2015 European U23 champion. Kumano (JPN) has won the Junior Worlds gold the last two years, while Altantsetseg (MGL) was a 2014 Junior World champion. A number of other age-group World medalists are in the mix.

60 kg/132 lbs.

The American
Kayla Miracle of Campbellsville, Ky., who is No. 2 on the U.S. Senior National Team behind only Olympic champion Helen Maroulis, says she only wants a gold at the U23 Worlds. She has collected three age-group World medals, Junior World bronze medals in 2015 and 2017, plus a Cadet World silver medal from 2012. Miracle is a three-time WCWA national champion at Campbellsville, and is aiming to become only the fourth four-timer with a WCWA title again this season. She recently beat two top age-group stars from Japan and one from Korea within just a few days. Miracle can score points and can be stingy on defense when needed. She needed to beat a past Cadet World champion Teshya Alo to make the USA U23 World Team. Miracle has what it takes to get that gold she seeks, but may have to win some close bouts with some big-time talents.

Other Top Medal Contenders

• Yui Sakano (Japan), 5th in 2016 Senior Worlds, 2011 Cadet World champion
• Tetiana Omelchenko (Ukraine) – 3rd in 2017 European Seniors, 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games champion, 2016 European U23 champion
• Krista Incze (Romania) – 8th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 3rd in 2017 European U23s, 2nd in 2016 University World Championships, 3rd in 2013 Cadet Worlds
• Uliana Tukurenova (Russia) – 3rd in 2017 Russian Senior Nationals, 2017 Medved International champion (BLR)
• Sarita (India) – 2nd in 2017 Asian Seniors, 2nd in 2016 Commonwealth Championships
• Ayaulym Krassymova (Kazakhstan) – 3rd in 2017 Asian Seniors
• Gantuya Enkhbat (Mongolia) – 3rd in 2016 Asian Seniors, 5th in 2016 University Worlds
• Therese Persson (Sweden) – 3rd in 2015 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2016 European U23s, 2nd in 2012 Cadet Worlds
• Derya Bayhan (Turkey) – 3rd in 2016 University Worlds, 3rd in 2016 European U23s

The skinny
This is a small weight class, and almost all the entries have Senior achievements and a bunch of age-group honors. Sakano (JPN) was fifth in the 2016 Senior Worlds. Omelchenko (UKR) was third in the 2017 European Seniors and won the 2016 European U23s. Incze (ROM) was eighth in the 2017 Senior Worlds. Tukurenova (RUS) was third in the Russian Senior Nationals. Miracle (USA) boasts three age-group World medals. Sarita (IND) was an Asian Senior silver medalist. Tough athletes will battle right off the bat in this weight class, so everybody will have to be ready for their opening match.

63 kg/138.75 lbs.

The American
2017 Junior World champion Maya Nelson of Denver, Colo., who lives and trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, is excited for another chance at a World medal. Nelson was a Junior World bronze medalist in 2016, and has proven she can win against top international opponents. Nelson is also No. 3 on the U.S. Senior National Team, and has been overseas enough that she will be ready to go in Poland. After over a year in college at the Cumberlands, Nelson made the move to the USOTC and has continued to progress. The U23 Worlds will be a good test, as there will be Senior-level wrestlers throughout the brackets. Can Maya win a second World gold this year? It will be worth watching for sure.

Other Top Medal Contenders
• Petra Olli (Finland) – 2nd in 2015 Senior Worlds, 5th in 2014 Senior Worlds, 10th in 2016 Olympics, 2015 and 2017 European U23 champion, 3rd in 2014 Junior Worlds, 2nd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Braxton Stone-Papodopoulos (Canada) – 5th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2013 and 2014 Junior Worlds, 2017 Pan American Senior champion, 2015 Pan American Games champion, 3rd in 2012 Cadet Worlds
• Adela Hanzlickova (Czech Republic) – 2016 Olympian, 9th in 2015 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2016 and 2017 European U23s
• Ayana Gempei (Japan) – 2016 Junior World champion, 2nd in 2017 Senior Asians
• Moa Nygren (Sweden) – 2nd in 2015 Junior Worlds, 2nd in 2012 Cadet Worlds
• Asli Tugcu (Turkey) – 3rd in 2016 European U23s, 5th in 2015 Junior Worlds
• Natalia Kubati (Poland) – 3rd in 2012 Cadet Worlds

The skinny
2015 Senior World silver medalist Olli (FIN) is a strong favorite, with a 10th place at the 2016 Olympics and a ton of Senior and age-group medals in her trophy case. Stone (CAN) has been fifth in the Senior Worlds, won the Senior Pan Ams and claimed three age-group World medals. Hanzlickova (CZE) is an Olympian and a Senior World placer. Gempei (JPN) and Nelson (USA) are past Junior World champions. Nygren (SWE) has two age-group World medals. This weight has talent but also a bunch of opportunity, where a good draw could make a difference.

69 kg/152 lbs.

The American
Forrest Molinari of Colorado Springs, Colo. has gone through some ups and downs that puts her right where she wants to be. A California native who was a three-time WCWA All-American and 2016 WCWA champion at King, Molinari was also seventh in the 2015 Junior World Championships. She has been as high as No. 4 on the USA Senior ladder. Molinari had an injury last season which could have been career threatening. She has recovered and is competing well, as shown by her victory at the U23 Trials and her gold medal at the Dave Schultz Memorial a few weeks ago. There will be athletes in the field in Poland with longer resumes, but there may not be anybody with more passion for competing than Molinari, something which could pay off with a podium visit.

Other Top Medal Contenders
• Koumba Larroque (France) – 3rd in 2017 Senior Worlds, 2016 Junior World champion, 2015 Cadet World champion, 2017 European U23 champion, 3rd in 2017 European Seniors, 2nd in 2014 Cadet Worlds
• Martina Kuenz (Austria) – 5th in 2017 Senior Worlds, 9th in 2015 Senior Worlds, 2nd in 2015 and 2017 European U23s, 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Bose Tosun (Turkey) – 7th in 2016 Olympics, 2016 University World champion, 2016 European U23 champion, 2nd in 2013 Junior Worlds
• Bi Yang (China) – 9th in 2016 Olympics, 3rd in 2014 and 2017 Asian Seniors
• Khanum Valieva (Russia) – 2017 Junior World champion, 2014 and 2016 Cadet World champion, 3rd in 2017 European U23s
• Elis Manolova (Azerbaijan) – 1st in 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games, 3rd in 2015 and 2016 Junior Worlds
• Divya Kakran (India) – 2nd in 2017 Asian Seniors
• Yudari Sanchez (Cuba) – 2nd in 2017 Junior Worlds, 2nd in 2016 Pan American Seniors
• Alla Belinska (Ukraine) – 2017 Military World champion, 3rd in 2015 Junior Worlds
• Danute Domikaityte (Lithuania) – 3rd in 2017 Military Worlds, 3rd in 2014 Junior Worlds
• Alexandra Anghel (Romania) – 3rd in 2017 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2017 European U23s
• Natalia Strzalka (Poland) – 2nd in 2014 Cadet Worlds, 3rd in 2014 Youth Olympic Games
• Sofia Georgieva (Bulgaria) – 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Zhamila Bakbergenova (Kazakhstan) – 2nd in 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games, 3rd in 2013 Cadet Worlds
• Naruha Matsuyuki (Japan) – 5th in 2017 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2017 Klippan Open (SWE)

The skinny

For a small weight class in numbers, this field is very strong, led by heavy favorite and 2017 Senior World bronze medalist Koumba Larroque (FRA). Larroque has won the 2016 Junior World and 2015 Cadet World titles also. Kuenz (AUT) was fifth in 2017 Senior Worlds and second in two European U23s. Tosun (TUR) was seventh in 2016 Olympics and Yang (CHN) was ninth in those Rio Olympics. Valieva (RUS) is reigning Junior World champion. Kakran (IND) was second in 2017 Asian Seniors. Seven others have age-group World medals. Matsuyuki (JPN) has not won an age-group World medal, but Japan is always in the hunt at a World Championships. It will be tough sledding on the way to a medal here.

75 kg/165 lbs.

The American
Rachel Watters of Ankeny, Iowa, has placed in the top 10 at three straight Junior World Championships, with her best finish a fifth place at the 2015 Junior Worlds. Watters competes at Oklahoma City University and was seventh at the 2017 WCWA, wrestling up in weight and coming off injury. Waters has reached as high as No. 4 on the USA Senior ladder two different years. Watters went up in weight for the U23 Trials, then wrestled at 76 kg at the Dave Schultz a few weeks ago, where she had a chance to wrestle three-time World champion Adeline Gray. Watters combines toughness with good technique, and is motivated to get that World-level medal this time around.

Other Top Medal Contenders
• Zsanett Nemeth (Hungary) – 10th in 2016 Olympics, 2nd in 2017 European Seniors, 2106 and 2017 European U23 champion, 2011 Cadet World champion
• Pooja (India) – 8th in 2017 Senior Worlds
• Anzhela Kataeva (Russia) – 2nd in 2017 Russian Senior Nationals, 2nd in 2014 Junior Worlds, 3rd in 2011 Cadet Worlds
• Yasuha Matsuyuki (Japan) – 2nd in 2017 Junior Worlds, 2016 Cadet World champion
• Dalma Caneva (Italy) – 3rd in 2014 Military Worlds, 2nd in 2014 Junior Worlds
• Quiandegenchagan (China) – 2016 UWW Golden Grand Prix champion, 3rd in 2016 Asian Seniors
• Anastasiia Shustova (Ukraine) – 5th in 2015 and 2016 Junior Worlds, 2013 Cadet World champion
• Francy Raedelt (Germany) – 3rd in 2017 European U23s, 3rd in 2013 Cadet Worlds

The skinny

Coming in, many entries can legitimately believe they can win here. The top hopeful may be Nemeth (HUN), 10th in the Olympics, winner of the last two European U23s and a 2011 Cadet World champion. Others with strong senior placements are Pooja (IND), who was eighth in the 2017 Senior Worlds, and Kataeva (RUS), second in the Russian Senior Nationals and a 2014 Junior World runner-up. Others who have won Junior World silvers include Matsuyuki (JPN) and Caneva (ITA). Shustova (UKR) was a 2013 Cadet World champion. With no dominant favorites, this weight could be a great coming out party for some wrestlers who come in well prepared.