Nick Lee at the Olympic Trials (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Considering the style is not really contested on the senior level, an NCAA Division I title is probably the richest prize in all of folkstyle wrestling. While it is a huge accomplishment in its own right, finishing first at the NCAA tournament also qualifies a competitor for the subsequent World Team Trials.
There are some solid arguments against the NCAA tournament being a qualifier. For example, it is an entirely different style. Many of the country's top young stars are competing extensively in freestyle already, so in many cases, NCAA champions have already qualified.
However, the majority of wrestling fans seem to enjoy seeing the top college stars on the freestyle, and occasionally Greco, scene, so the qualification spot is not likely to disappear. In that spirit, let's take a look back at the performances of NCAA champions in the World/Olympic trials immediately following the last five college tournaments.
Six of the 10 champions from the 2021 NCAA tournament chose to enter the Olympic Trials. At heavyweight, Gable Steveson defeated Tanner Hall and Greg Kerkvliet to make the finals. He then bested Nick Gwiazdowski in the best-of-three series to win a spot on the team. From there, Steveson went on an incredible run in Tokyo and captured Olympic gold.
Nick Lee placed third at 65 kg with his only loss coming against eventual tournament champion Jordan Oliver. The then-junior picked up three-straight victories over fellow NCAA champions, Nahshon Garrett, Zain Retherford and Yianni Diakomihalis, on the backside to finish in third.
David Carr, Aaron Brooks, Carter Starocci and AJ Ferrari all failed to place. Brooks did pick up a pair of impressive victories over veterans Nate Jackson and Sammy Brooks, but he was ultimately eliminated on the backside by Pat Downey.
Spencer Lee, Roman Bravo-Young, Austin O'Connor and Shane Griffith were the four champions who chose not to participate in the Olympic Trials.
Yianni Diakomihalis not only qualified for the World Team Trials in 2019 via the NCAA tournament, but he also then earned the opportunity to sit in Final X thanks to a gold medal performance at the U.S. Open. He ran through Retherford, Oliver and Frank Molinaro on the way to that tournament title and then followed that up with a victory over Bajrang Punia at Beat the Streets.
Despite that momentum, Diakomihalis came up short against Retherford in the best-of-three series at Final X. After a controversial finish in the second match, a special wrestle-off was ordered for June. Retherford won, once again, and took the sport on the World team at 65 kg.
Bo Nickal also won the U.S. Open in 2019 at 92 kg. Since J'den Cox was already sitting in the Final X finals, Nickal's victory only earned him a spot in the challenge tournament finals. The then-Penn State wrestler defeated fellow former NCAA champion Michael Macchiavello to advance to Final X. There Nickal ran into Cox and dropped a pair of matches.
Zahid Valencia (79 kg), Jason Nolf (74 kg) and Anthony Ashnault (70 kg) all made the finals of the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament. However, all three ran into veteran competitors and their progress toward the World team was stopped there. Drew Foster also entered the Trials in 2019 and failed to place.
Lee, Nick Suriano, Mekhi Lewis and Anthony Cassar did not compete in the Trials process in 2019 despite earning a spot via the NCAA tournament.
Back in 2018 only three NCAA champions took part in the World Team Trials process. The highlight, of course, was Kyle Snyder at 97 kg. Prior to the start of his senior year at Ohio State, Snyder won his third World/Olympic title at the 2017 World Championships. This allowed him to sit in the finals of Final X with or without an NCAA title. He won his third-straight NCAA title and then beat rival Kyven Gadson in back-to-back matches to make yet another World team.
Valencia walked off the college mats and promptly won the challenge tournament at 79 kg. He defeated former Maryland All-American Josh Asper and then won two-straight matches over former Hodge Trophy winner Alex Dieringer to make Final X. He then faced off against Kyle Dake in a three-match series to determine the World team representative. Dake won the series in two-straight matches, but Valencia did manage to keep it close in the second bout and lost by only one point.
Seth Gross entered the 61 kg Challenge Tournament. He won his first match over Darrius Little. In true Gross fashion, it was a high-scoring shootout, and he walked away with a 12-11 victory. However, Gross dropped his next match against Garrett and was ultimately eliminated by Jon Morrison in the consolation bracket.
The year was a particularly strong year for collegiate champions at the World Team Trials. While six of the NCAA champions entered the Trials, three eventually made the team and two brought home medals.
Fresh off his second NCAA title, Snyder advanced straight to the finals thanks to his 2016 Olympic gold medal. There he faced off against Gadson, and he dominated the series. Not only did the Ohio State wrestler sweep the two-match series, but he also outscored Gadson 13-2. Snyder would go on to win another gold at the 2017 World Championships. In the finals, he handed Abdulrashid Sadualev one of only two losses in his 146-match senior career.
Cox also found himself sitting in the Trials finals after securing a bronze medal at the previous Olympics. David Taylor worked his way through the bracket and set up one of the best Senior-level rivalries in the sport. Taylor won the first bout of the three-match series via a 9-3 score, but Cox was able to control the last two bouts with his defense and earned the spot on the team with 4-3 and 5-3 victories respectively. Cox would go on to win another bronze medal at the 2017 World tournament.
Retherford was the third NCAA champion to make the 2017 World team. After winning his second of three college titles, he defeated Jaydin Eierman, Nick Dardanes and Bernard Futrell to make the finals. Waiting for him in the finals was 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro. In the all-Penn State best-of-three series, Molinaro won the first match, but Retherford stormed back with a 6-0 shutout and a 7-4 victory in the rubber match.
Darian Cruz and Dean Heil both entered the 2017 Trials but failed to place at the event.
After winning a surprise gold medal at the 2015 World Championships, Snyder made a late return to college in 2016. He made his season debut on Jan. 17 and wrestled only three matches before the Big Ten tournament. Snyder went on to win his first NCAA title over Nick Gwiazdowski. He then became one of the seven NCAA champions to enter the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Snyder advanced straight to the finals where he bested Jake Varner in a three-match series. Varner won the first match via criteria as the final score was 4-4. However, Snyder then won two-straight matches to make the team. He would go on to become the youngest Olympic gold medalist in American wrestling history.
Cox won his second NCAA title in 2016 and the cut down to 86 kg for the Olympic Trials. He defeated Clayton Foster, Jake Herbert, and Keith Gavin to make the finals. There he faced off against Dake who had bulked up to avoid Jordan Burroughs at 74 kg. Cox set the tone in the first match with an 8-1 victory. Dake evened things with a 5-3 victory in the second match. Ultimately, Cox would reverse that result in the deciding match as he completed a 5-3 decision and qualified for his first Senior-level team.
The Missouri wrestler would then go on to win the Olympic Qualification Tournament to qualify the weight for Brazil. Cox then brought home a bronze medal with victories over veterans Alireza Karimi of Iran and Refineries Salas of Cuba.
Retherford and Dieringer both finished third at the Trials at 65 kg and 74 kg respectively. Heil, Garrett, and Nico Megaludis would also enter the event, but failed to place.