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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    My First Olympic Trials

    I remember it like it was yesterday. The date was June 8th, 2019. For those wrestling fans that recall dates and times in reference to notable wrestling events, like I do, it was Final X Rutgers. As the best-of-three finals were wrapping up, other media members and I were hustling to and from the interview area underneath the bleachers of the RAC and back to the matside area. As new world team members were minted, we conducted interviews with the winners, then scurried back to catch the bout that followed. During one of the few breaks in this cycle, I noticed a wrestler sitting with his back against the bleachers, singlet straps pulled down, and head in hands. It was Ben Provisor who had just dropped a second match in a brutal, slugfest to Joe Rau for the 87 kg Greco-Roman world team spot.

    As the two-time Olympian Provisor was having his moment to reconcile the loss and process the thought of another opportunity for a world-level medal slip away, a little girl approached. It was Ben's daughter who appeared to be four or five years old. First, she gave him a few taps on the shoulder of encouragement then jumped in for a huge embrace. It was a sight. I didn't want to look, but it was beautiful in an eerie sort of way. This little girl is helping console her father, probably her superhero, as his professional dreams were shattered. While I physically moved on to the next finals bout, this remarkable image was stamped in my mind. I'm sure there have been hundreds of times in the past (and probably the future) where this muscle-bound, long-haired, world-class athlete has picked up his crying daughter to comfort her; just this time, the roles were reversed.

    Later in the day, I recounted this moment to one of my colleagues in the wrestling media. All they could reply with was, "Wait until the Olympic Trials." Those five words echoed in my head for the remainder of Final X and stuck with me in the 22 months since.

    I've been in the wrestling media since the fall of 2007, with the first ten-plus years taking place while I was working 50 hours a week at a "regular job." That persistence led to a part-time paying gig with The Open Mat doing high school rankings and coverage in the fall of 2017. After that wrestling season (again, how I measure time), I was elevated to the site editor position, which fulfilled a lifelong professional goal of working full-time in the wrestling media. Since 2007, I have covered 11 NCAA tournaments, handfuls of conference tournaments, and two years' worth of Final X's. The one glaring hole on the resume was the Olympic Trials.

    I assumed that this problem, of sorts, would be remedied by the 2020 Olympic Trials slated to take place less than four hours away from my Virginia home on the campus of Penn State University. Like the rest of the world, our plans were changed without consultation by COVID-19 in 2020. "Waiting for the Olympic Trials" would have to wait.

    A year later, I am finally getting to cross off "Olympic Trials" from my imaginary wrestling bucket list. It also happens to be the first event I'll cover for Intermat, which feels like the dawn of a new era in wrestling media. Coupled with the start of the MLB baseball season on Thursday, it was the perfect storm of excitement for a laid-back guy that is generally pretty stoic.

    Not only did the Olympic year change from 2020 to 2021, but the venue of the Trials was changed from State College, Pennsylvania to Fort Worth, Texas. Due to state restrictions, fans at a Trials in Pennsylvania would have been minimal. Texas has been more open to holding public, indoor events, so the Dickies Arena was the setting of this year's marquee domestic event. Dickies Arena opened in late 2019 and has only hosted a few events due to the COVID shutdowns of 2020. I have no insider information, but I'd expect more events at this venue in the future. It still has that shiny "new car" look and can seat over 12,000 for hockey, which is usually what wrestling event organizers pay attention to when scheduling buildings. In the center of the building is a large, crystal-clear video board which is visible from any nook and cranny of the arena. Coupled with the Fort Worth area being a pretty decent fan experience, most people I've spoken with would love to come back.

    Now for the actual Trials themselves. Okay, maybe not technically. As we were getting settled in, figuring out how to get into the arena wi-fi, there were whispers that two-time world champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist J'Den Cox was left out of the brackets. Texts were sent to credible sources that were at the weigh-in's and the results varied. Some said, he was initially overweight, but eventually made it and was fine. Others said he showed up late and couldn't wrestle. Finally, USA Wrestling confirmed via social media that Cox was not in the brackets. Over the course of the day, plenty of conversations were struck with people close to the situation and generally, there was a lot of conflicting information. Since Cox had a bye to the semifinals, there was hope among fans that there would be appeals and meetings which would result in his return during the evening session. That didn't prove to be the case and the 97 kg semis took place without Cox. So, before the first whistle blows at my initial Olympic Trials, we have a story that will go down in wrestling lore for years to come. Cox versus 2016 Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder was one of the two most anticipated bouts of the entire tournament, with Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Dake at 74 kg being the other. The possible favorite to win the 97 kg spot and someone with the goods to knock off the legendary Abdulrashid Sadulaev wouldn't even be in action.

    Once the actual matches started, there were some unexpected results, that's to be expected. But at the same time, nothing that really shook the foundation of the newly-opened Dickies Arena. Once the quarterfinals rolled around, we had the opportunity to see one of the best traditions in our sport. Following a 10-0 loss to Yianni Diakomihalis in the men's freestyle 65 kg weight class, Frank Molinaro left his shoes in the center of the mat, signifying his retirement. This is the same Molinaro that shocked the crowd in Iowa City during the 2016 Trials when he was seeded ninth and got by Kellen Russell, Brent Metcalf, Logan Stieber, and phenom Aaron Pico to earn a spot on the Olympic team. Molinaro ended up just a few seconds away from downing Frank Chamizo to come home from Rio with a bronze medal. Last year, Molinaro announced he was retiring, but he got the itch to return and compete in the Trials. He earned a place in the quarters by defeating Evan Henderson 10-1.

    Later in the evening session, Jackie Cataline also left her shoes in the center of the mat after losing to Victoria Francis in the challenge tournament semis. Saturday morning, Greco star Jonathan Anderson would do the same; however, they were far from the last two athletes to carry on this hallowed tradition.

    In Francis' next bout, she fell victim to one of the high school superstars in the women's freestyle field, Kylie Welker. Kylie, along with Kennedy Blades, made the Olympic Trials finals at the top-two women's weights and showed the rest of the country that the future is now. Though, both would eventually fall to reigning world champions, they can hold their heads high, knowing that they made a Senior national team before a Junior squad and before they turned 18. Blades actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead in her first match against Tamyra Mensah-Stock after getting a legitimate takedown on the 2019 champ.

    The Saturday morning session was littered with forfeits as many competitors were too beaten up or heartbroken to continue with the competition. Penn State national champion Nick Lee stole the show by taking out Nahshon Garrett, Zain Retherford, and Yianni Diakomihalis in three consecutive matches to claim third place. Lee outdistanced the three former DI champions by a 38-14 margin and put the 65 kg on notice for the future. His only setback of the tournament came to the eventual 65 kg champion, Jordan Oliver, 8-3 in the challenge tournament quarterfinals. Considering Oliver's age, Lee may have forced himself into the conversation as the future of the weight class, rather than Retherford or Diakomihalis, two of the pre-tournament favorites.

    After a two-plus hour break, the finals were set to go down. It sounds cliche, but a buzz was in the air. As Willie Saylor and I walked into the building, fans were asking us our picks for the marquee series of the night, Jordan Burroughs versus Kyle Dake. My answer for the last Olympic quad has been Jordan Burroughs until proven otherwise. Burroughs, the face of USA Wrestling for the better part of the previous decade, had fended off Dake's challenges in the past, along with other superstars like David Taylor, Andrew Howe, Isaiah Martinez, and many more.

    The Burroughs/Dake bout was the second of the night on mat two, which was featured on live TV. Whoever set the bout order undoubtedly did this in the event the series would go to three matches, giving the competitors and television network sufficient time to prepare. Dake took the first match in a defensive struggle that saw Burroughs only muster one committed offensive attack (to Dake's none). Uncertainty was the feeling in the arena. Could we be witness to the changing of the guard at 74 kg in less than an hour? I wasn't totally convinced as we've been down this road with Burroughs before. He dropped match one to Dake in the 2017 World Team Trials and had his back against the wall, only to rally and take the final two matches. Well, it wasn't in the cards for Burroughs in 2021. Dake jumped out to an early lead and displayed his incredible defense against one of the best offensive wrestlers in USA Wrestling history.

    The post-match visual was surreal. Burroughs sat on his knees stunned, while a victorious Dake stood above him, extending himself for a handshake. Rather than a large celebration, Dake chose to show his reverence to his defeated rival. For the first time since 2010, Burroughs would not be representing the United States at the World or Olympic Championships. While Burroughs reiterated in his gracious post-match interview that he was not done, it felt like the baton was passed to the two-time world champion, Dake.

    As the finals progressed, another pair of wrestlers left their shoes on the mat, Ellis Coleman and Joe Rau. Both have been fixtures on the Greco scene and have represented their nation admirably over their careers.

    Other standout moments include the surprise of Jesse Porter as he won a decisive match two against Peyton Walsh to clinch the Trials championship in Greco at 77 kg. Both competitors were under the impression that Walsh won the second bout, so the surprise on Porter's face was an unusual gesture that you don't expect to see at a tournament of this magnitude. Mensah-Stock has proven to be one of the most likable figures in the sport. In her post-match interview, she displayed the genuine emotion, sincerity, and humor she's become known for in the media and amongst her peers.

    Only two series would need a winner-take-all third bout and both couldn't have ended differently. At 62 kg in women's freestyle, former prodigy Kayla Miracle secured her spot on the team but defeating a current, prodigy, Macey Kilty. I'm sure Miracle has visualized winning the trials in her head hundreds of times and I'd wager that she probably never expected to win via injury default. Kilty needed to get examined for a significant amount of time before she valiantly tried to fight through the pain. An Olympic berth wasn't in the cards for Kilty, whose corner ended up calling off the match as she was obviously compromised.

    That set the stage for our final bout in 57 kg women's freestyle between 2016 Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis and Jenna Burkert. Maroulis has already etched her name into USA Wrestling's record books and the hearts of women's wrestling fans with her shocking upset of Japanese legend, Saori Yoshida. Since winning a world title in 2017, the road has been rocky for Maroulis, who has dealt with a variety of injuries that led her to question whether or not to continue competing. 99% of the time, this would have been a storybook ending to the Trials, as the queen of the US women's circuit proved she was back.

    But again, these were the Trials and unusual circumstances are commonplace. Maroulis' opponent, Burkert, has been dealing with her mother's passing less than two weeks ago. It's never easy to predict how humans will react in such a circumstance. At the same time, no one was surprised what path Burkert chose when faced with "fight or flight". Burkert used the love for her mother as fuel throughout her run to the finals. The Army WCAP star teched her first two opponents before pinning two-time world silver medalist Alli Ragan with a headlock in the challenge tournament finals. The image of Burkert with her hands clasped together looking upward, while receiving a standing ovation was the highlight of Friday's evening session.

    The three-time World Team member proved to be a formidable opponent for Maroulis, losing 5-3 in the first bout before emerging victorious 6-5 in the middle match. As Burkert took the 2016 gold medalist down for the winning takedown in match two, Maroulis winced in pain, and I thought, "Wow, Jenna's gonna do it". Any of those sentiments were erased off the opening whistle in the third and deciding bout as Maroulis used her signature foot sweep to take Burkert to her back and quickly transitioned to a half. Despite a gallant fight from Burkert, she was pinned in 24 seconds.

    I'm not sure if i've ever been emotionally conflicted more than watching that match and actions that transpired afterward. The move itself by Maroulis was amazing and brought the entire arena to its feet. It provided a quick and decisive end to the match and Maroulis is a serious threat to bring home another gold medal in Tokyo. But then you had Burkert. More shocked than anyone else in the building. It didn't take lip-reading specialists to decipher that she was muttering "I'm sorry" to her mother as she was looking to the heavens. After a post-match handshake, she was embraced by Maroulis, who almost appeared sorry to have done this to someone she has traveled the world with for the last decade.

    There's an expression in wrestling circles that "In order to achieve your dream, you have to shatter someone else's". While that rang true for the entire two days of competition, it was never more evident than the final bout Saturday night. My media crew and I left the building speechless, which is something, if you know new Intermat owner Willie Saylor. We all felt like, despite the celebration that ensued for crowning the 2021 Olympic team, we all received an unexpected stomach punch.

    Despite the inevitable negative emotions associated with the entire event, incredible action and wrestling fans should have high hopes for the wrestlers heading to Tokyo. Now that the Olympic Trials have been checked off my bucket list, the event has been moved to my imaginary "can't miss" group.


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