One year out: Special time as Olympics draw closer

Kyle Snyder with the Olympic gold medal in Rio (Photo/Tony Rotundo,

Not long after I laced up my first pair of wrestling shoes in fourth grade, I set the first significant goal in my life.

I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist.

Growing up in Iowa in the 1970s and 1980s, every kid wanted to be like Gable.

Gable, of course, was the legendary Dan Gable. The 1972 Olympic champion who went on to coach the University of Iowa to 15 NCAA titles.

It was Gable who was head coach of the first Olympic Games I recall watching on television. It was 1984 and the U.S. team was stacked with studs.

The team featured four of my favorite wrestlers of all-time -- Randy Lewis, Barry Davis, Ed Banach and Lou Banach. They were Gable proteges that had all starred for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

The Russians weren't there for the 1984 Olympic Games, but it didn't matter to me. It was amazing seeing Lewis, my favorite Hawkeye, win an Olympic gold medal before the Banach brothers followed suit by striking gold.

It also broke my heart to see Barry Davis, another wrestler I idolized, finish with a silver medal.

Seeing brothers Dave and Mark Schultz win gold also was inspiring during the 1984 Olympics.

Twenty years later, my favorite wrestler of all-time won an Olympic title when Cael Sanderson struck gold in Athens, Greece. Cael was a tremendous wrestler with an entertaining style. He was amazing to watch. He was the ideal wrestler -- an excellent athlete who was driven to be the best. He was very good technically and tactically. He was constantly moving and attacking, and always looking to score points. He wrestled the way you are supposed to.

Rulon Gardner's epic 2000 upset of three-time Olympic champion Alexander Karelin of Russia remains one of the biggest Olympic stories in any sport. Gardner followed by winning a world title before earning an Olympic bronze medal in Greco in 2004.

There obviously is something very special about an Olympic Games. And with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, just a year away, the memories have come flooding back from how special this event is to the sport of wrestling.

The Olympics are the pinnacle in international wrestling. Winning a world title is a huge accomplishment, and it's very difficult to do, but winning the Olympics is the ultimate.

The U.S. has high hopes for 2020 and with good reason. The American freestyle roster is loaded with superstar wrestlers. That impressive list includes Olympic gold medalists Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder along with world champions Kyle Dake, David Taylor and J'den Cox. The strong women's freestyle roster features Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis and world champion Adeline Gray.

I've been to the last three Olympic Games and each one has been magical in its own way.

When I worked my first Olympic Games, as the communications manager for USA Wrestling in 2008, I was like a kid in a candy store.

It was always a dream of mine to go to the Olympics, and to finally make it there was an amazing and unforgettable experience. Watching these elite athletes perform on the sport's biggest stage was nothing short of remarkable.

I had been to the World Championships, but the Olympics was a whole different level. The stakes were higher and the amount of attention focused on the Olympics was much greater.

Henry Cejudo after winning Olympic gold at the age of 21 in 2008 (Photo/John Sachs,

I was fortunate to be on the floor matside when Henry Cejudo stunned many observers by winning the 2008 Olympic Games. He became the youngest U.S. wrestling champion at an Olympics at age 21. Now in his early 30s, Henry has gone on to win two world titles in the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Henry was totally focused during that special day in China, under the tutelage of coach Terry Brands, and he turned in the performance of his life to win the Olympics. He was a gifted wrestler who was very advanced technically for his age. He also was quick and athletic, and was determined to reach his gold-medal goals.

Jordan Burroughs with the American flag after winning a gold medal in London (Photo/Larry Slater)

Four years later, in London, I was witness to the incredible gold medal run of Jordan Burroughs.

The 2011 world champion won an epic semifinal battle over world champion Denis Tsargush of Russia en route to capturing the 2012 Olympic gold medal.

Burroughs is a tremendous athlete with a determination and a resolve to match. Nothing rattled the guy. His confidence level was sky-high and nobody was going to stop him.

Not even the Queen of England.

Burroughs said after winning gold that he would have double-legged her if she was standing in his way.

Jake Varner also won gold in London. It was a surprise performance to many as Jake delivered with the biggest day of his superb career. It was overshadowed by the win by Burroughs, but Varner was the best wrestler on the planet the day he won. And he earned that trip to the top of the medal podium.

2016 was another special Olympics for me. I covered the event as a freelancer writer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and had the opportunity to see Helen Maroulis and Kyle Snyder win gold for the U.S.

The Maroulis upset over three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan ranks as one of the most memorable scenes that I have witnessed in 30-plus years as a sportswriter.

Helen Marouls and Saori Yoshida drop to the mat after their match at the 2016 Olympics (Photo/Tony Rotundo,

The scene after the match, where both Maroulis and Yoshida dropped to the mat with their heads down while overcome with emotion, was one of the most powerful you will ever see.

It was an incredible achievement by Maroulis. Yoshida was virtually unbeatable on the women's circuit for more than a decade. And Maroulis found a way to knock her off. Her training was focused primarily on beating Yoshida and it paid off for her on the biggest stage.

Snyder followed with his own historic moment, becoming the youngest U.S. wrestler to win the Olympics at age 20. The maturity and composure shown by Snyder is like nothing I've ever seen before. It's impressive to watch.

The gold-medal moments obviously stand out most from my experiences at the Olympics, but I've seen some awesome moments by other U.S. medal winners as well.

Adam Wheeler and Randi Miller had never made a World or Olympic team before 2008, but both wrestlers earned Olympic bronze medals in Beijing. And did it with excellent performances. Neither wrestler was picked to win a medal, but that didn't matter to them. They took advantage of their opportunities.

It was awesome to see the joy on the face of Clarissa Chun when she captured an Olympic bronze medal in 2012. Chun had nearly made the 2008 Olympic finals before just falling short of a medal in Beijing. It was a crushing loss for Chun and to see her come back and medal in London definitely was something to see. The huge smile on her face after winning bronze was priceless.

And it was great seeing Coleman Scott battle back to win a bronze medal in 2012. He was another wrestler who took advantage of his opportunity. Coleman wrestled a great tournament and it paid off for him.

J'den Cox delivered to win a bronze medal in 2016, a few months before starting his senior season at Missouri. He's carried that over with world bronze and gold medals at the start of this Olympic cycle. The high level that Cox has competed at to start his international career needs to be appreciated and applauded.

Those wrestlers obviously were shooting for more at the Olympic Games. Nobody sets a goal to win bronze, but winning an Olympic medal certainly means something. And it definitely is better than going home empty-handed.

2020 is going to be an interesting year, that's for sure.

The Olympic Trials are always a compelling event and next year's event may be one of the best ever.

With only six weight classes now in each style, you will see Olympic and world champions from Team USA battling each other for Olympic spots.

You could see Burroughs facing Dake at 74 kilograms or Dake meeting Taylor at 86 kilograms. You could see Cox facing Taylor or moving up to challenge Snyder at 97 kilograms.

It is unfortunate there are just six Olympic weight classes now, but that's the reality. The quality of competition at the Olympic Trials next year will be off the charts.

No doubt, the 2020 Olympic Games will be something to see. There is never a shortage of compelling storylines when the best wrestlers on the planet gather every four years.

It seems like just yesterday when the 2016 Olympics were contested in Rio.

It's hard to believe the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are only a year away now.

It promises to be a memorable event.

I can't wait to see what happens.

Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.


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BuckeyeWrestler2000 (1) about 3 months ago
Great article! Just one small detail I noticed that doesn’t take away from the article but was incorrect. J’Den Cox actually won the 2016 Olympic bronze medal a few months “before his college career ended” (not “after” as stated in the article). I remembered vividly because the big story at the 2017 NCAA Wrestling Championship was that two Olympic medalists were returning to compete in NCAA competition with both Kyle Snyder and J’Den Cox returning, and Kyle Snyder was the first U.S. wrestler to return to NCAA competition after winning Olympic gold. (Of course this excludes Yojiro Uetake who competed for Japan in the 1964 Olympic Games and returned to NCAA competition for Oklahoma State after winning the Olympic gold medal, but this is focused on wrestlers competing for Team USA.) It was a big deal because historically in freestyle (a few exceptions in Greco-Roman) most U.S. wrestlers make World and Olympic teams after their NCAA competition has expired, and both of them returned after winning Olympic medals.