USA Wrestling Abbott Blog: Top 10 ...

Abbott Blog: Top 10 wrestling stories of 2020

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Dec. 30, 2020, 9:54 a.m. (ET)

Depiction of what the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Championships at the U.S. Bank Center in Minneapolis was expected to look like, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down. Original image courtesy of

I have enjoyed writing an annual Top 10 wrestling stories of the year column for a very long time, but I can absolutely confirm that there has never been a year like 2020. I started competing in the sport in 1972, and have worked in wrestling communications since 1983. This is totally different than any other wrestling year, hands-down.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only had a major impact on wrestling, but has affected every aspect of life on earth. I don’t know anybody who went through the Spanish Flu pandemic over 100 years ago, so none of us have any experience in this kind of thing. The big wrestling stories mostly came off the mat, not on it, and in most cases, they were very challenging or difficult.

So, in a year in which “everything is fluid,” and when everybody has “to pivot” in order to move forward, here are my Top 10 stories for 2020.

1. NCAAs, Olympic Games, Olympic Trials, Fargo and so much more cancelled by pandemic – It would be easy to include COVID-19 in some way in all of our top stories for the year, but we are not going to do that. We are lumping all of the major wrestling competitions which were cancelled or postponed into just one posting, which is clearly the biggest story of the year. The first event that I missed attending due to pandemic cancellations was the NAIA Women’s National Invitational in Jamestown, N.D., which was cancelled in early March. Shortly after that, the NCAA announced the cancellation of all of its wrestling nationals, including what was going to be a record-setting Div. I Championships at U.S. Bank Stadium, a football stadium in Minneapolis. I had been to every NCAA D-I meet since 1983, and the pandemic ended that streak for me. When the IOC postponed the Olympics for a year, USA Wrestling postponed the sold-out Olympic Trials in State College, Pa. for a year. After holding out as long as possible, USA Wrestling ultimately ended up cancelling the biggest wrestling tournament on the planet, the combined USMC Junior/Cadet Nationals in Fargo, N.D., which was set to celebrate the 50th year of Junior Nationals. The pandemic shut down the sport of wrestling for months, before it was possible to start back up with some youth competitions this summer. I certainly hope that there is never another year where the biggest story is about what didn’t happen in our sport.

2. USA has great Pan American Olympic Qualifier, and has 15 qualified weights for Olympic Games
– At the 2019 World Championships, the USA had an excellent performance overall, but qualified just four weight classes for the Olympic Games (two in men’s freestyle, two in women’s freestyle). The next opportunity came at the 2020 Pan American Olympic Qualifier in Ottawa, Canada in early March. The first major obstacle was actually having the event held at all, because it was scheduled right at the time when the world was shutting down due to COVID-19. UWW and the hosts in Canada made adjustments and the event went forward. Team USA had a great performance in Ottawa, qualifying at 11 more weight classes to give the USA 15 out of the 18 weights locked in. You needed to place in the top two to qualify in Ottawa. The four U.S. women all reached the finals, with Sarah Hildebrandt, Jacarra Winchester, Helen Maroulis and Kayla Miracle getting the job done. Men’s freestyle got three more weights qualified, thanks to Thomas Gilman, David Taylor and Nick Gwiazdowski making it happen. In Greco-Roman, four weights were qualified, thanks to Ildar Hafizov, Alejandro Sancho, Joe Rau and G’Angelo Hancock making the grade. At 15 qualifiers, the USA currently has the most Olympic weights in Tokyo of any nation, and has one more than the 14 we had at the 2016 Rio Games. There are only three spots left to qualify (two in Greco-Roman and one in men’s freestyle), and we get our final chance at the World Olympic Qualifier in Bulgaria this coming spring.

3. RTC all-star cards and special broadcast events kept the sport alive –
When wrestling shut down due to the pandemic, there became a great hunger for wrestling in our nation. Not only did the nation’s top wrestlers want to compete, but wrestling fans were craving to see some great action. Instead of waiting until the world opened up completely, the wrestling community got very creative. The result has been a series of all-star wrestling cards and special broadcast events, held without fans and streamed live for fans to purchase and enjoy. The first card was the Illinois RTC Rumble on the Rooftop in June on top of an undisclosed building in Chicago and aired on Fight.TV. Many more followed. FloWrestling has been very creative in this space, holding events in their home city of Austin, Texas. It started with a FloWrestlng Dake vs. Chamizo card in July. Flo partnered to broadcast the postponed Beat the Streets Gala fundraiser card in Hoboken, N.J. FloWrestling also created a pair of 8-Man brackets, first at 195 pounds then at 150 pounds, and also partnered with the Titan Mercury WC on a brand-new event, the RTC Cup. The Nittany Lion WC became a big player, with four cards held and broadcast on its Rokfin channel. The Wisconsin RTC had two events and the Hawkeye WC, Tar Heel WC and Pittsburgh WC also hosted events. Even former wrestler and MMA star Chael Sonnen got into the fray, holding an Underground Wrestling card in a cage which was aired on UFC Fight Pass. Senior athletes got paid to wrestle, college athletes got some quality competition and fans supported the events financially. There are a few more expected in early 2021. The question is whether this model is sustainable when wrestling comes back in full after the pandemic ends. Will we see this kind of event activity in the fall of 2021? Here’s one wrestling guy who hopes this becomes a tradition in wrestling every year.

4. University of Iowa has dominant wrestling season cut short after winning Big Ten title – Head Coach Tom Brands and the Iowa Hawkeyes were the dominant team in a very competitive 2019-20 Div. I college season. The Hawks went undefeated in dual meets, won the Midlands over the holidays, and had an excellent performance in winning the team title at the Big Ten Championships. They were the overwhelming favorite for the NCAA team title in Minneapolis, until the NCAA cancelled all of its winter championships on March 12. Their biggest dual meet win came on January 31, a 19-17 decision over returning NCAA champion Penn State in front of a sold-out home crowd at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Big Ten title, its first since 2015, featured three individual champions in Spencer Lee (125), Pat Lugo (149) and Alex Marinelli (165). There was debate about whether to award an unofficial team title within the sport, which did not happen, like so many other things during this screwy year. Lee won the Dan Hodge Trophy, and Brands was named NWCA Div. I Coach of the Year. Iowa comes back in 2021 with the No. 1 ranked team heading into the season.

5. Olympic weight decisions: Cox (97 kg), Hildebrandt (50 kg), Winchester (53 kg), Nickal (86 kg) – Early 2020 was a time for many athletes to make their decisions regarding what Olympic weight class they planned to wrestle at. Since there are 10 World Championship weights and only six Olympic weights, a bunch of athletes needed to made a move prior to the April 2020 Olympic Trials. Some of the big decisions included two-time World champion J’den Cox deciding to move up from 92 kg to 97 kg, to challenge 2016 Olympic champion Kyle Snyder and others. Two top women made a decision to drop in weight, World silver medalist Sarah Hildebrandt to 50 kg and World champion Jacarra Winchester to 53 kg, and both qualified their weights for the Tokyo Olympics. Bo Nickal, a 92 kg U23 World champion, announced the move down to 86 kg, where he will face 2018 World champion and fellow Penn State legend David Taylor and others. Unfortunately, the Olympic Trials were pushed back a full year. It will be interesting to see if all of these adjustments remain the same when April 2021 comes around and the Olympic Trials are finally held.

6. Women’s wrestling gets NCAA Emerging Sports Status in all three divisions – It was in 2020 when women’s wrestling closed the deal in regards to receiving official Emerging Sport Status within the NCAA. Planning meetings about this project began in 2016, and a coalition of wrestling organizations made its first application for Emerging Sport Status in August 2017. A second application was filed in August 2018, with required revisions and updates. In June 2019, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) recommended that all three NCAA divisions approve women’s wrestling as an Emerging Sport. The first official approval came on January 31, 2020, when NCAA Div. II and NCAA Div. III approved women’s wrestling in their meetings. On June 17, 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, the NCAA Div. I leadership approved women’s wrestling as an Emerging Sport at the Div. I level. With women’s wrestling now considered an NCAA sport, the next obstacle is reaching the required 40 programs for an official NCAA Women’s Wrestling Championships. There is an awful lot of hard work ahead for the wrestling community in developing the sport at the NCAA level. Women wrestlers will have additional opportunities to compete and receive a college education which was not available for generations in the past. A big win for the sport.

7. Guess What? Wrestling can be held safely during a pandemic – While it seems like the only news in wrestling during the first half of 2020 was that all the major wrestling events of the year were being cancelled, there was a ton of work going on behind the scenes about how to bring the sport back. USA Wrestling created a number of COVID-19 Special Committees of experts to help the organization as it moved forward during challenging times. The COVID-19 Advisory Committee of health, medical and government experts played a huge role throughout the pandemic. A COVID-19 Events Committee, which focused on how to safely conduct the sport, created two outstanding documents, a Return to the Mat Guidelines for practices, and a Return to Events Guidelines for competitions. These events guidelines were tested in a pair of USA Wrestling competitions in Utah in July, both which were deemed successes. Since then, USA Wrestling has been able to host three major national events, the Senior Nationals in Coralville, Iowa, the Preseason Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa, and the U23/UWW Junior Nationals in Omaha, Neb., plus a series of Folkstyle Tour of America events for youth and high school athletes. USA Wrestling state associations, where it is possible, have also been hosting competitions using these health protocols. The main focus in wrestling’s return has been on following local and state health and government regulations. Wrestling is not entirely opened back up, as shown by the reduced, rescheduled or cancelled wrestling seasons at the high school level. However, while wrestling has been labelled as a “high risk” sport by certain organizations, the wrestling community has found a way to return to the mat. Here’s to a full recovery in 2021 as the vaccine becomes available and the pandemic gets under control.

8. College wrestling holds the fort during pandemic, but Div. I ODU, Stanford and Fresno State dropped – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major financial crisis at the university level, especially within the college sports scene. With the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, and the 2020 college football season held mostly without fans, college sports programs are in peril. There have been literally hundreds of programs dropped in recent months, with sports such as tennis, cross country, track and field and others taking big hits. It is interesting that during the pandemic, a number of colleges announced additions of women’s and men’s wrestling programs, mostly at smaller institutions. Our sport did not emerge unscathed, with three valuable Div. I programs getting the axe. Old Dominion dropped the sport on April 2, and did not have wrestling for the 2020-21 year. Stanford cut 11 sports on June 8, including wrestling. Fresno State, which reinstated wrestling a few years ago, dropped wrestling, lacrosse, plus men’s and women’s tennis on October 20. In all three cases, the program’s coaches and alumni were not given any notice or opportunity for a solution before the cuts were announced. Keep Stanford Wrestling has raised a record $12 million to endow the program, but has still not gotten the administration to work with them. A big push to Keep Fresno State wrestling was launched recently. The goal is to get these colleges to change their minds in 2021, so these two West Coast programs can continue. Wrestling still needs to work hard to support all of its existing programs, because the economic fallout from the pandemic is expected to continue to wreak havoc on college athletics.

9. Young stars take center stage at Senior Nationals in October - USA Wrestling was excited to work with Think Iowa City, its local organizing committee in the Iowa City community, to host the postponed Senior Nationals in a brand new arena in Coralville in early October. Senior athletes who had not been able to wrestle for months had a chance to get on the mat, as start of their preparation for the 2021 Olympic Trials. While a number of big-name athletes competed in the event, the major news came from the young stars who took huge steps forward in their careers. Andrew Alirez, a sophomore at Northern Colorado, was named OW in men’s freestyle after a monster performance on the way to the 65 kg title. He beat Josh Heil, Mitch McKee, Joey McKenna and Evan Henderson on the way to the crown. The OW in Greco-Roman was another young star, Benji Peak from Northern Michigan, who won the 67 kg title with dominance and big throws. The men’s freestyle finals at 57 kg featured two young talents, champion Vitali Arujau (Cornell) and runner-up Dylan Ragusin (Michigan). College wrestlers Mason Parris (Michigan), Alex Thomsen (Nebraska), Nick Boykin (Ohio State) and Cohlton Schultz (Arizona State) were also champions. Among the Senior National women’s runners-up who made big strides were Xochitl Mota Pettis, Ronna Heaton, Macey Kilty and Skylar Grote. Mota-Pettis scored a pin over two-time World silver medalist Alli Ragan during the event.

10. Top Senior wrestlers move to new locations for their Olympic year push – In late 2019, Olympic champion Kyle Snyder made a huge move, leaving the Ohio RTC to train with the Nittany Lion WC for the Olympic push. A big move of talent continued in 2020, as other stars found new training locations. World silver medalist Thomas Gilman made one of the biggest moves this year, going from his Hawkeye WC home to join the Nittany Lion WC. Others to find new training locations were James Green and Nahshon Garrett going to the Southeast RTC, Mark Hall going to the Pennsylvania RTC, Joe Colon to the Cyclone RTC, among others. Numerous women wrestlers also moved. When Mark Perry left the Hawkeye WC to coach at Arizona State, top women Kayla Miracle, Forrest Molinari and Alli Ragan followed him to the Sunkist Kids in Tempe. Other women with new RTCs were Macey Kilty to Tar Heel RTC, Jen Page to Nittany Lion WC and Erin Golston to Wisconsin RTC. The biggest move announced won’t happen until after the 2021 Olympics, when Olympic and four-time World champion Jordan Burroughs will leave Nebraska to join the Pennsylvania RTC near his hometown in New Jersey. Burroughs will continue to compete through the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Other major stories that missed the Top 10, but are worth noting:

• Too many wrestling legends and friends passed away in 2020 – It just seems like the sport of wrestling lost so many legends and leaders to death this year. The most difficult for me personally was the dual loss of Donna Strobel in January and Greg Strobel in October, both dear friends and huge leaders in wrestling. USA Wrestling also lost one of our national staff members and another great friend, Safe Sport Director Dan Prochnow. Long-time USA Wrestling volunteer leaders who passed away this year included coaches Joe DeMeo, Chris Feder and Vern Zellner, Georgia state chair Robert Horton and referees Mike Matlock and Al Williams. One of my professional mentors, retired USOPC spokesman Mike Moran, passed as well. Award winning wrestling journalists Dan McCool and Pat Galbincea died in 2020. Hall of Fame wrestling giants who we lost included Carlton Haselrig, Ken Kraft, Dan Hodge and Jim Keen. Others such as Bob Zadick and Lars Jensen were among those who we lost and will be missed. It has truly been a tough year for our community.

• Wrestling actively participates in national conversations on social justice and equality – The 2020 year included national conversations on a variety of important issues. After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our nation turned its focus on the issues of social justice, police brutality and systemic racism. The wrestling community immediately engaged in this conversation in numerous ways. USA Wrestling issued a social justice statement on May 1. The Black Wrestling Association was formed by leaders among wrestling athletes. Numerous forums and discussions about the topic were held within the sport. In addition, focus on equality and inclusion were also prominent within our sport. Women wrestlers began the #HowSheWrestles campaign to spotlight the personal stories of women and girls in the sport. USA Wrestling President Bruce Baumgartner revived its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, appointing many impressive members to serve on September 2. The committee, chaired by Olympic athlete and coach Kerry McCoy, has begun its work. There is a lot more conversation and effort needed, but the sport is serious about working to create positive change.

• Two of three college women’s nationals were held, with McKendree and Campbellsville winning titles – While the pandemic caused the cancellation of many of the men’s college national tournaments, two of the three women’s college national events were held before the shutdown. It started as the traditional college national event, the WCWA Nationals, was held in Marietta, Ga. in February. Campbellsville won the team title with three individual champions. The WCWAs was an Olympic Trials qualifier, and featured some great performances. The historic first National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships, featuring only NCAA teams, was held in Adrian, Mich. in early March. McKendree won the team title, led by five champions. McKendree has been a top power for a long time, but this was their first national team title. The event that was cancelled was the NAIA National Invitational in Jamestown, N.D., closed down as teams were heading there to compete. That means a number of women wrestlers and teams did not get to have a national tournament this year. Later, Campbellsville star Abby Nette won the Patricia Miranda Medal, the Heisman Trophy of women’s college wrestling.

• Grand View wins ninth straight NAIA team title, then breaks dual meet win streak with its 93rd in a row – When we speak of college sports dynasties, we must mention NAIA national wrestling power Grand View. In March 2020, Grand View won its ninth straight NAIA national team title, led by two champions, finishing 72.5 points ahead of runner-up Menlo College. Evan Hansen won his fourth NAIA individual title for the Vikings. This fall, during the start of the 2020-21 year, Grand View set another record with its 93rd straight dual meet victory, breaking SUNY-Delhi’s 92 match streak. The Vikings beat Marian University, 36-6, as part of the Missouri Valley Winter Clash Duals on December 16, then added two more wins to their record, which continues to grow. Their last loss was in November 2013 to Div. I Iowa State. Grand View can set another college record in 2021, if it is able to win a 10th straight NAIA national wrestling title.

• Shilson and Kilty win U23 and UWW Junior National titles the same weekend – USA Wrestling was pleased to schedule two major national tournaments which had been postponed during the spring, when the U23 Nationals and UWW Junior Nationals were hosted in Omaha, Neb. in November. There is some overlap in these divisions, and two talented women athletes competed in both tournaments and won both gold medals. Emily Shilson, college star for Augsburg and past Youth Olympic Games champion, won both age divisions at 50 kg, while five-time age-group World medalist Macey Kilty also scored a double title at 62 kg.

• High school wrestler Canaan Bower foils kidnapping in gas station in New Mexico – One of the biggest stories about wrestling this year came in late March when a high school wrestler performed a Good Samaritan deed that captivated the nation. Wrestler Canaan Bower of Mayfield High School took down and held a suspected kidnapper in Chucky’s gas station in Las Cruces, N.M., pinning the suspect until police came to make the arrest. The video of this incident, as well as articles about his selfless action, showed the general public one of the great things about wrestling and wrestlers. When it was time to step up, Bower had the courage and ability to make a difference. USA Wrestling did a Moments Off the Mat interview with Bower afterwards, and his actions made the wrestling community proud.

• Princeton wins Ivy League title, snapping Cornell’s lengthy dominance – When Princeton defeated Cornell 19-13 in their dual meet on Feb. 9, the Tigers snapped the Big Red’s long streak within the league. Cornell had won every Ivy League title outright since 2003, and had an impressive 92-match dual meet win streak against their Ivy opponents. Winning six of the 10 bouts in the dual, Princeton won its first Ivy League title since 1986.

• Ivy League cancels 2020 winter sports, including wrestling – One of the most disappointing decisions off the mat this year came in November, when the Ivy League announced that it would cancel all of its winter sports seasons, including the 2020-21 season for the six Ivy League colleges with wrestling. The Ivy League has a number of teams and individuals that compete at a high-level in Div. I wrestling. Although the college wrestling season is kicking off after the New Year, the teams at Cornell, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Harvard and Brown will sit it out, leaving a lot of great talent on the sidelines.

• U.S. Marines win Armed Forces Greco title after a USADA sanction deletes an Army athlete’s results – In February, the U.S. Army won the Armed Forces Championships in both Greco-Roman and freestyle for the 19th straight time. The Greco-Roman finals match between the Army and Marines was very close and highly competitive. That Greco-Roman win streak came to an end in June, however, when one of the U.S. Army athletes, Vlad Dombrovskiy, was given a sanction by USADA for violating its rules. Dombrovskiy’s wins were ruled by Armed Forces Sports as forfeit losses, which changed the Greco-Roman finals to a 24-18 U.S. Marines victory. This sanction also affected the U.S. Olympic Trials, giving U.S. Air Force wrestler Brandon Mueller the 77 kg Greco-Roman spot in the Trials instead of Dombrovskiy. The Army still won the freestyle title after the scores were changed. One of the sport’s longest winning streaks has ended.

Here are a few other items of special note:
Spencer Lee became only the fifth wrestler to win the coveted AAU Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation’s top amateur athlete. Lee joined John Smith, Bruce Baumgartner, Rulon Gardner and Kyle Snyder as winners of this major honor.
High School girls wrestling opportunities continued to grow, as there are now 29 high school state associations that will sponsor girls state wrestling championship events. This is a huge increase from just a few years ago, when there were only six states with official girls state events.
Dan Gable became the first wrestler to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom, when he received this major national award from President Trump in Washington, D.C.
The PIAA in Pennsylvania voted to reduce the number of high school weight classes in wrestling-rich Pennsylvania from 14 to 13 weights in the future.
• Junior World Greco-Roman champion Kamal Bey will not be able to compete in the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, due to a USADA one-year sanction in October, based upon three failures to comply with USADA Whereabout requests.
• USA Wrestling’s Executive Committee unanimously voted on October 20 not to send a U.S. team to the 2020 Senior Worlds in Belgrade, Serbia due to the pandemic. Because a number of other major wrestling nations also announced decisions not to attend, United World Wrestling later cancelled the World Championships and held an Individual World Cup instead.

Like many people I know, I am very much looking forward to the end of 2020, and the start of 2021. In so many ways, we will never forget 2020. I am hopeful that 2021 will be a memorable year as well, for all the right reasons.