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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    NCAA Champs to World/Olympic Teams in the Same Year

    Gable Steveson at the Olympic Trials in early April (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    One of the main reasons why the Olympic/World Team Trials falls on the calendar where it does is because the NCAA tournament is a Trials qualifier. The winner of each of the ten weight classes has the option to enter the Trials with the hope of making the World or Olympic team.

    Some proponents have advocated for moving the Trials since many NCAA champions still need time to develop and convert to freestyle. However, a few college wrestlers have walked right off the folkstyle mats and then represented the U.S. on the international scene. The following looks at the wrestlers who made men's freestyle Olympic/World teams right after winning an NCAA title, and a few who came very close, from the last five NCAA tournaments.

    NCAA Champions who made the Olympic/World Team in the same year

    Kyle Snyder (2016, 2017, and 2018)

    Snyder might be a special case. He accomplished the rare feat of winning his first Senior-level World title before winning an NCAA title. He made the Olympic/World team after each one of his NCAA titles, as a sophomore, junior and senior.

    In 2016, Snyder sat and waited in the 97 kg finals as the reigning World champion. 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner earned the right to face him after winning the challenge tournament. Varner defeated Snyder in the first match 4-4 on criteria. However, the Ohio State wrestler won the next two matches by a combined 10-1 score to make the Olympic team. Snyder went on to become the youngest Olympic gold medalist in the history of American wrestling.

    After yet another NCAA title, Snyder found himself with a bye to the finals, once again. This time, his opponent was a familiar rival. Kyven Gadson had previously shocked Snyder in the finals of the 2015 NCAA tournament. Two years later, they would face off in the best-of-three finals with a trip to the World Championships on the line. This time, Snyder dominated the contest and took 10-0 and 13-2 victories to make the team. He would go on to pick up his second World championship.

    Snyder finished his collegiate eligibility with another NCAA title. USA Wrestling implemented the Final X concept in 2018, which meant that Snyder waited in the finals due to his previous World title. Once again, he faced off against Gadson in the finals, and once again, Snyder advanced with a two-match sweep. Snyder would go on to finish second at the World championships.

    Interestingly enough, Snyder's opponent in the NCAA finals, Adam Coon would win Final X on the Greco Roman side to also make the World team. He went on quite a run at 130 kg and brought home a silver medal.

    J'den Cox (2016 and 2017)

    It would be wrong to say that Cox came out of nowhere at the 2016 Olympic Trials. However, few thought he would be able to make the run he did. Not only did he make the team, but he also managed to defeat a pair of Hodge Trophy winners along the way. Cox first ran into veteran Jake Herbert and took an 8-1 decision. He then got by with a 3-1 win over Keith Gavin in order to make the best-of-three series against Kyle Dake. Dake was clearly giving up a lot of size. However, he managed to win one of the three matches. In the end, Cox pulled it out and made the team. At the Games, he broke through and brought home a bronze medal.

    The following year, Cox found himself facing off with yet another Hodge Trophy winner. He sat in the finals before facing off against David Taylor. The former Penn State wrestler got off to a hot start and handed Cox a 9-3 defeat in the first match. However, Cox leaned on his stellar defense and won the next two 4-3 and 5-3 to advance to the World championships.

    Zain Retherford (2017)

    The three-time NCAA champion made his first World team while still in college. Following his second NCAA title as a junior, he entered the 2017 World Team Trials. Retherford made the best-of-three finals after winning the challenge tournament with match-termination victories over Jaydin Eierman (14-2), Nick Dardanes (11-0) and BJ Futrell (10-0). He then bested 2016 Olympian Frank Molinaro in the finals. The reigning U.S. representative won the first match, but Retherford stormed back with a 6-0 win and a 7-4 victory in the deciding match. The Penn State product failed to medal at the 2017 World championships, but he was part of the country's team title.

    Gable Steveson (2021)

    During this past collegiate season, Steveson appeared to be on another level. He won his first NCAA title and shared the Hodge Trophy with Spencer Lee. The Minnesota wrestler carried that momentum into the recent Olympic Trials. He won all four of his matches, including a pair over two-time World medalist Nick Gwiazdowski to make the Olympics. The three-time age-group World champion is expected to make a strong push for a medal at the upcoming Games.

    Best of the Rest

    Zahid Valencia (2nd at Final X in 2018)

    After winning his first NCAA title as a sophomore, Valencia walked into a crowded field at the 2018 World Team Trials. He won the challenge tournament with victories over Josh Apser and Alex Dieringer (twice) by a combined 22-1 score. The Arizona State wrestler then advanced to Final X against Kyle Dake. Valencia remained competitive but he dropped two matches via 4-0 and 4-3 scores.

    Bo Nickal (2nd at Final X in 2019)

    Following his senior season that saw him claim his third NCAA title and the Hodge Trophy, Nickal entered the 2019 World Team Trials. He advanced to Final X after a pair of victories over former NCAA champion Michael Macchiavello. However, at Final X, Nickal ran into J'den Cox and dropped both matches in the best-of-three series.

    Nickal would then challenge for a berth on the U23 World team. He won the spot with a pair of victories over Jake Woodley and went on to claim gold at the World event.

    Yianni Diakomihalis (2nd at Final X 2019)

    After winning his second NCAA title as a sophomore, Diakomihalis qualified for the World Team Trials in 2019 by winning the U.S. Open. That victory also allowed him to sit in Final X and wait for an opponent.

    That opponent ended up being Zain Retherford. The former Penn State wrestler won both of the Final X matches and seemingly won the spot on the World team. However, after a challenge to the result in the deciding match, Diakomihalis was granted a special wrestle-off. Once again, Retherford won and took the spot.

    From the last five NCAA tournaments, only four wrestlers have gone on to make an Olympic or World team. In some ways, this may support the idea of moving the Trials to a more prime position. However, even when college champions do not win their respective brackets, they can still have a sizable and important impact on the resulting team. The tradition alone will keep many fans in favor of the status quo. On top of that, it is hard to top the excitement of a recent NCAA champion taking on some of the best on the senior level.

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