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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    2021 U23 Women's Freestyle Day Two Preview

    53 kg U23 World team member Ronna Heaton (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    53 kg

    53 kilos in Belgrade will be laden with unfamiliar faces; lots of women will be making their debut on the international and upper age level scene. Several well-established competitors stand out as favorites to take home the top honors, with the most credentialed of the lot being USA's Ronna Heaton, who also has some of the brightest accolades of the entire American World team. Heaton's international career features a 2015 Cadet world title and a Pan-Am gold from earlier this year, but her most impressive performances as of late have been domestic: she made the American Olympic Trials and World Team finals, where she proved that she was one of the top women domestically at the weight class. Heaton has a funky, unconventional style and is capable of pinning just about anyone in the world.

    The favorite beyond Heaton, however, will be Russia's U23 Euro Champ Ekaterina Verbina. Verbina dominated en route to Euro gold in Skopje earlier this year and has a strong history of past wins to make her one of the favorites to medal here. She'll also come here looking for some vengeance. In 2019, she let a Junior world title slip through her fingers after falling in the finals despite holding a criteria lead with 40 seconds left. Later that year, she again fell in a world medal match: this time for bronze at the U23 Worlds. Verbina has looked better than ever this year and will certainly be motivated to bring home the top prize.

    One of the Russian's biggest threats, however, will be Zeynep Yetgil of Turkey. Though Yetgil ended up forfeiting to Verbina at the U23 Euros this year, she does own the two most recent victories from their rivalry. Yetgil has repeatedly cemented herself as the cream of the age-level crop with a plethora of medals to her name; she's accumulated some strong competition experience this year at a wide variety of tournaments. Turkey has invested heavily in her and earning a ticket to the world finals would be very significant for her and her nation.

    While Ukraine has been incredibly strong over the past couple of years, 53 kilos has proven to be a deficit in their otherwise very talented lineup. They did not qualify the weight for the Olympic Games, nor bring home a medal from Oslo. In Belgrade, they'll be sending former 50kg competitor Mariia Vynnyk to try to improve upon their meager results. Vynnyk has a world medal down at lightweight, but hasn't been able to extend that success to her new weight class quite yet. A medal here could be very significant for her future representing Ukraine internationally at this weight class.

    As this weight is thinner, a couple other names that should be watched out for to pick up some wins include Szimonetta Szeker of Hungary, who owns a trio of Cadet medals in addition to a 5th place finish at the U23 Euros earlier this year. Moldova's Mariana Dragutan has bounced around from weight class to weight class this year- competing as low as 50 kg and as high as 55kg within a month- but has strong enough Cadet results to imply that she could eventually translate to a senior-level threat. The number of new names in this weight also implies that someone could have a breakout performance- Ankush of India and Khulan Batkhuyag of Mongolia both haven't competed internationally in several years, but had decent international results as Cadets.

    Overall, the race to gold should be expected to primarily include Ronna Heaton, Zeynep Yetgil and Ekaterina Verbina, all of whom have proven to be exceptional talents. Don't be surprised if a lesser-known woman comes out of the woodwork and impresses with an unanticipated performance; the nature of this weight class and the COVID year means some new names could prove to be real threats to take home medals in Belgrade.

    57 kg

    57 kilos is one of the deepest weight classes being contested in Belgrade. It's laden top to bottom with young talent and more than half of its entrants have an age-level world medal to their name (8 of 15!). A lot of women that have announced themselves as leaders on the age-level scene will look to elevate themselves as they transition fully to the senior level.

    The top woman at 57 kilos is Ukraine's superstar Alina Akobiia, who has been having a fantastic year. She secured a U23 Euro title and nearly made the Senior Euro finals (if not for being caught in a throw while she had an 8-0 lead). Akobiia also qualified for the Olympics, but unfortunately suffered an injury just prior to the Games and was not able to attend. She'll look to upgrade her 2019 Junior and U23 World silver medals to gold in Belgrade, and will be hard-pressed to find a challenge when doing so.

    Historically, however, there's been one woman in particular who has managed to get the best of Akobiia of a couple of occasions: Dagestan's Viktoriia Vaulina. Vaulina tech-falled Akobiia in 2018 at the Junior Euros before defeating her again a couple months later at the Junior Worlds. The rivalry heated up further in Skopje in May, when Akobiia managed to turn the tables and pin her in a dominant showing. Vaulina has a solid international resume, including a Junior World Bronze, a Yariguin title, and lots of continental success. She'll certainly be in contention to medal in Belgrade.

    While this bracket does not lack for world medalists, the only woman from this bracket to secure gold is Poland's Patrycja Gil. Gil is moving up from 55 kilos, where she upset Ekaterina Verbina to take the Junior title in 2019. She's somewhat newer to the international scene than many of the women in this weight class, but she's shown really strong growth and progress since first representing Poland in 2018. She even finished second in Skopje at the U23 Euros and was the only woman to last a full six minutes against Akobiia. This competition will be a good test for her against a full international age-level field at her new weight class.

    One of Canada's most promising young wrestlers, Hannah Taylor, will look to add to her 2019 U23 World bronze medal here in Belgrade. Taylor has been representing Canada internationally very consistently since 2015, and finally managed to crack the podium in 2019. Her upwards trajectory, plentiful Pan-Am accolades and proven ability to compete at this level will make her one of the prime picks to medal. Taylor is one of the brightest stars for the future of Canada's solid women's wrestling program and her final age-level tournament will likely display the good things ahead for the nation.

    A few other names to look out for include Aurora Russo of Italy, who came out of nowhere to take silver at the Junior World Championships this year. Russo is only 18, but has begun representing Italy on the senior level at 57 kilos and could prove to be one of their more successful women. Another 18-year old that's had a solid year is Othelie Hoeie of Norway, who secured her second continental medal in Skopje with a bronze. Despite her youth, she has the physical strength to compete with the older women and has the benefit of being able to work with her very-talented countryman, Grace Bullen, in her training. A couple other Cadet-level question marks are Altyn Shagayeva of Kazakhstan, who took silver at the Asian Championships and placed 5th at Worlds and Maral Batsooj of Mongolia, who won the Asian Championships. Neither woman has competed internationally since 2019, but the limited success they've had implies they could generate similarly positive results in Belgrade.

    The final athlete of note is the lesser-known of Kyrgyzstan's two WW entrants: Nazira Marsbek Kyzy. As Kyrgyzstan continues to advance through the international ranks- propelled primarily through their dynamic upperweight squad- the clear deficits in their lack of depth and talented lightweights must be amended to ensure continual success. Marsbek Kyzy does own a Cadet World bronze and a pair of Junior Asian medals in addition to a 5th-place finish at the 2019 Worlds, but she failed to qualify for the Olympics and doesn't have the same jaw-dropping results as her teammates. A solid performance would be a huge sign that Kyrgyzstan is truly establishing themselves as a women's wrestling powerhouse for an extended period of time.

    All in all, there's lots to look forward to at this weight class. Ukraine's Alina Akobiia should be expected to go relatively unchallenged en route to her first world title, a sign of the nation's amazing women's wrestling growth. Prime medal contenders will include Canada's Hannah Taylor, Russia's Viktoriia Vaulina and Poland's Patrycja Gil; however, there's lots of lesser-known athletes that will look to make a statement as they establish themselves on the international scene.

    62 kg

    The 62-kilo competition in Belgrade will mark the anticipated World Championships debut of talented American Emma Bruntil, who has been fantastic domestically as of late. Bruntil has dominated the American college scene over the past couple of years, and extended those successes to the senior level in 2021 by placing fourth at the Olympic trials and second at the 65kg World Team Trials. She also had a stellar performance at an international tournament in Romania in September, where she tech-falled her three competitors to win the round-robin bracket. This will be a great gauge as to the depth of this weight class in America and Bruntil should be expected to contend for the title here.

    This bracket will be made especially interesting, however, with the team race implications it could withhold: the United States and Ukraine seem like the top two teams poised to potentially win top honors in Belgrade, and Ukraine will send a game challenger looking to beat Bruntil for the title: Tetiana Rizhko. Rizhko's international credentials are impressive, with a pair of age-level world bronze medals to her name. In the past year, she's also won the 2020 World Cup, the U23 Euros and earned a formidable silver medal at the Senior Euros. On paper, she's a clear favorite to win this bracket; a potential showdown between her and Emma is incredibly appealing.

    Canada's Ana Paula Godinez is one of the most exciting young stars entering the international scene. In addition to taking bronze at the 2019 Junior World Championships, she also finished second at the Poland Open ranking series in a very solid weight. Godinez started wrestling in high school- a fraction of the time that most of her competitors have been training- and has huge upside; she will look to be a big part of the future of Canadian wrestling.

    A few other women who have had age-level success this year includes Zhala Aliyeva of Azerbaijan, who picked up a bronze at the Junior Worlds down at 59kg. Breaking onto the podium was huge for her after she finished 5th at the Cadet Worlds twice; however, she likely won't be in contention for a medal here. Belarus' Tatsiana Paulava also impressed with a second-place finish at the U23 Euros, a result that was unexpected but backed by a solid performance. If she can match that level here and have a solid showing, she'll definitely raise her international stock. One final woman that should be regarded as a threat is Aurora Campagna, who came second at the 2019 European Championships and also has a Junior World bronze. With the right draw and a solid showing, she could be in the mix to bring home some hardware. Kazakhstan's Irina Kuznetsova is also solid and has a chance at placing high.

    This weight class features some fantastic up-and-coming athletes, including Bruntil, Rizhko, and Godinez. The importance of the team points secured in this weight class will make every match exciting to watch as the United States and Ukraine send two very tough teams forth in search of a title.

    65 kg

    The 65-kilo weight class will feature one of the biggest senior-level stars of the competition across all styles: France's Koumba Larroque. Larroque has displayed fantastic growth over the past quad; the 22-year-old has world titles from all three age-levels- including a U23 gold from 2017- as well as a pair of senior World medals. However, since winning the Poland Open in June, where she defeated half of the Tokyo podium with wins over Kyrgyzstan's Zhumanazarova and Nigeria's Oborodudu, Larroque has been in a bit of a slump.

    Though she was leading 2012 Olympic Bronze medallist Battsetseg Soronzonold of Mongolia late in the first round at the Olympics, Larroque eventually lost by pin to, unfortunately, knock her out of the Olympic Games. She was heavily favored to emerge out of her half of the bracket and face Mensah-Stock in the finals. Then, in Oslo, she made the surprise decision to move down to 65 kilos; the weight descent was shocking as she had spent a good amount of time at 72 kilos on the age-level scene. At her new weight class, she was once again a huge favorite. While she secured a couple solid wins, her quarterfinal loss to Forrest Molinari was not on par with the golden hardware many expected her to bring home.

    In Serbia, Larroque will have a prime opportunity to shake herself out of this negative trend she's found herself caught in. With 2021 Junior and Senior World Champion Irina Ringaci absent from the field and a lack of big-name competitors, her path to a title should be relatively clear. Though 65 kilos is one of the biggest women's weight classes being contested, it lacks in-depth. Koumba will be a heavy, heavy favorite to win here.

    One of the other prime contenders for a medal will be Ukraine's Kateryna Zelenykh, who has made two European finals this year. Zelenykh had strong showings at both the Junior and U23 continental championships, falling in close matches only to Junior World Champs Irina Ringaci and Alina Kasabieva. She's bounced around a lot between weight classes lately, wrestling as low as 59kg and as high as 65kg in 2021, but she had arguably her best performance at this weight class in Skopje in May. In a wide-open weight class, her performance could be vital to the team race.

    A few other women who have excelled on the international scene this year that will also be in these weight classes includes Junior World bronze medalist Birgul Soltanova of Azerbaijan, U23 Euro bronze medalist Eyleen Sewina of Germany and Kamila Kulwicka of Poland, and Junior European bronze medalist Alina Maksimava of Belarus. Another woman that has proven to be strong on the continental level is Kazakhstan's Aina Temirtassova; she's placed fifth at three different world championships, so she'll be itching to reach the podium in Skopje.

    Ultimately, 65 kilos will be Larroque's weight class to win, even if she doesn't show up in her prime form. It'll be an important tournament for her to regain momentum after a couple subpar performances. The prime challenger behind her looks to be Zelenykh; however, the podium is wide open to whoever can rise to the occasion and prove themselves better than their opponents on that day.

    72 kg

    Unfortunately, one of the most exciting young wrestlers set to compete in this tournament, Kennedy Blades, will not be making her appearance at 72 kilos in Belgrade this week. Blades was coming off an incredible year where she made the American Olympic Trials finals and won a Junior World title in dominant fashion, and was poised to repeat her earlier successes here in Serbia. However, an apparent injury sustained at the Senior World Team trials has caused her to miss this competition. Her replacement, Kayla Marano, is more than game; she owns a 2015 Cadet World Bronze and has been solid on the American college scene, though she won't be favored to take the title as Kennedy was.

    With Blades out of the competition, there's no clear favorite, but lots of solid women will still be competing. One of the bright spots on the Indian WW team is Divya Kakran, who is a two-time Asian Champion and placed 5th at
    the 2017 U23 Worlds. Her most notable international results, however, include two victories over Olympic medalists: she's beaten both 2012 Olympic Bronze Battsetseg Soronzonbold and 2020 Olympic Silver Blessing Oborodudu. Kakran has proved herself as a solid addition to the senior level scene and will be one of their prime medal threats.

    While the 72-kilo bracket at the U23 Euros was the smallest of all the weight classes, the competition between the top four women was razor-thin. Many of the matches were decided by just a few points and many seemed like they could go the other way should a few little things have gone differently. While the champion Wiktoria Choluj is not registered for this tournament, the silver and bronze medallists and fourth placer are all on the entry list. Silver medallist Marina Surovtseva lost only by criteria to Choluj and looked solid, though she is quite new to the international scene. She, like her teammate Evgeniia Zakharchenko, is looking to be the answer to the Russian heavyweight question as their top two women- who have both achieved fantastic success- reach the twilights of their careers.

    Bronze medalist Zimiankova of Belarus is also super talented; she has three age-level European titles to her name and has been in the hunt for a spot on the podium for quite some time. She wrestled in Oslo and will be a prime contender to reach the podium here. Ukraine's Anastasiya Alpyeyeva finished fourth at the U23 event, but also has a 2021 Junior Euro title and a 2019 Junior World Bronze medal to her name. The European entanglement of really talented women will provide us with more really close matchups as we look to see who makes the podium here.

    Although Kennedy Blades is missing from this weight class, two of the four Junior World medalists will be back here and looking for medals. Germany's Lilly Schneider, who made the finals opposite Blades, and Slovakia's Zsuzanna Molnar, who also owns a pair of age-level Euro medals and a bronze from the 2020 World Cup, will both be in Belgrade. While they are both solid prospects, they probably lack the experience and physical maturity to really compete with some of the older, more seasoned veterans in this weight class, though they should not be discounted.

    Finally, the only Olympian in this bracket, Zaineb Sghaier of Tunisia, will be back down at her most optimal weight after competing at 76 kilos in Tokyo. The 19-year old was a surprise qualifier for the Games and unfortunately had to face two hammers in Adeline Gray and Yasemin Adar. Sghaier has placed 5th at both the Cadet and Junior Worlds and has oodles of continental success; it'll be interesting to see how she fares here in Belgrade, though she won't be expected to place.

    Ultimately, though 72 kilos is lacking one of the most exciting young wrestlers, it'll still be really interesting to see how athletes like Marano and Kakran fit into the puzzle of the tightly-intertwined European group of competitors. It's hard to say who will end up on the podium, but the results here should provide some great insight into the future of this weight class and the athletes competing here.

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