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  • Photo: Larry Slater

    Photo: Larry Slater

    One Word to Describe Each American Olympic Medalists Tournament

    2020 Olympic bronze medalist Thomas Gilman (Photo courtesy of Larry Slater; LBSphoto.smugmug.com)

    We've had a few days to digest the feast that was seven days of high-intensity wrestling competition at the 2020 Olympic Games. Like any other wrestling tournament, Team USA was on the positive end of some upsets and exceptional finishes, while also absorbing the bitter taste of defeat from some of our top athletes. Since this was the Olympics, those successes and setbacks were multiplied. Remember, this is a tournament that only comes around every four years (five this time).

    What we're doing today is reviewing the performances of our nine (yes, NINE!) Olympic medalists and attributing one singular word to their tournaments. Of course, we'll describe why exactly that word fits with more than a few words.

    Thomas Gilman - Respect

    Think about the whispers you've heard regarding Thomas Gilman and the 57 kg weight class domestically over the past four years. Sure, he made the world finals straight off the collegiate mat in 2017. Critics may have poo-pooed his side of the bracket. Well, the following year, he made the team, but fell in the semifinals to a then-relatively unknown Nurislam Sanayev (Kazakhstan). For the bronze, Gilman lost to young Suleyman Atli (Turkey). A couple years later, those losses don't seem as bad, considering the pair have been ranked in the top-five at 57 kg.

    In 2019, Gilman lost his spot on the world team to college phenom Daton Fix. This was a close, three-match series, one that could have gone Gilman's way based on a call or two. During the pandemic, Gilman moved from Iowa to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Whispers out of Iowa were that he wouldn't have been the Hawkeye Wrestling Club's number one guy anyways, with Spencer Lee in the pipeline.

    Oftentimes, in life, we want the new shiny toy rather than being satisfied with what we currently have. The 57 kg weight class is a perfect example. Going into the Olympic Trials, most favored Nick Suriano, Vito Arujau, Fix, and Lee, if he were to wrestle. Not many picked Gilman and I'm sure there were a few that were ready to move on to the next generation. Gilman went out and did it at the Olympic Trials, then he did it at the Olympic Games. When the lights were the brightest and pressure was at its peak, Gilman pushed the two-time world champion to the brink, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat. Even so, he rebounded and crushed his next two opponents to claim the silver medal.

    There's a lot of young talent at 57 kg and plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the future. But for now, let's put some respect on Thomas Gilman's name. He's an Olympic medalist and the first American at the lowest weight to medal since Henry Cejudo in 2008.

    Kyle Dake - Motivation

    Let's face it, the only one ever undefeated in sports is father time. Sooner or later, an athlete's body breaks down and it's time to hang up the wrestling shoes. At 30 years old, Kyle Dake is at a crossroads for a Senior-level wrestler. International wrestling, particularly at the lower and middleweights (not 97-125kg), is dominated by youth. Speed and explosiveness are key traits needed for success against the best of the best and, at some point, those characteristics can fade. What we're getting at is that Dake was in a perfect position to win an Olympic gold medal and head off into the sunset. He already had a pair of world championships, put together one of the most incredible and unique folkstyle careers ever, and just hit the 30-year-old mark. It would be an excellent time to walk away.

    But, with the way that his tournament played out, retiring on the strength of a gold medal isn't possible. Dake was suffering the after-effects of an injury and was dominated in a way we've never seen, in the Olympic quarterfinals against Mahmedkhabib Kadzimahamedau (Belarus). A day later, Dake looked more like his usual self and defeated Frank Chamizo (Italy) for the bronze.

    Now, competing until 2024 may have been in Dake's plans all along. But, with an uncharacteristic performance against the Belarussian in the quarters, I imagine Dake has just a little more motivation to keep himself going towards Paris. Earlier this week, Dake already announced his intentions to compete at the 2021 World Championships, which he was entitled to after winning an Olympic medal. I don't care who is in the field in Oslo, would you bet against Dake with a chip on his shoulder?

    David Taylor - History

    David Taylor is in a similar position as his former rival/teammate/friend Kyle Dake. He's also 30 years old and will turn 31 before the end of the year. While Taylor does an incredible job at maintaining himself in top physical condition, you have to wonder if he'll be as effective at 33 years old, the next time the Olympics roll around. But, with an Olympic gold medal on the resume, to go along with a world title in 2018, combined with a boatload of credentials from Penn State, Taylor's fate is sealed as one of the legends of our sport. Anything he does from now on just adds to it. A loss somewhere in Tokyo would have forced him to “chase” that first gold medal. That's something that will be difficult for a 33-year-old.

    Taylor has already stated that he'll compete at the 2021 World Championships. While he'll always put pressure on himself to perform at the highest level and win, there isn't that additional monkey on his back. As he stated in his post-match interview, he'll “always be an Olympic champion.” The 2021 World Championships and anything beyond, just adds to his legacy.

    Kyle Snyder - Consistency

    Let's face it, we probably take Kyle Snyder for granted! Is he this generation's Bruce Baumgartner? Big Bruce amassed 13 World/Olympic medals during his illustrious career with two Olympic gold medals and three world titles. At only 25 years old, Snyder has six in his collection. He has an Olympic gold medal and two world titles. Considering his love for the sport and the fact that he's an upperweight, there's no reason why Snyder can't push for Baumgartner's 13 medals.

    Snyder has now earned World/Olympic medals at the last six tournaments. That's a streak that current legends like Jordan Burroughs, Helen Maroulis, and Adeline Gray haven't been able to maintain. Of those five world medals, only one is bronze. And in the tournament where Snyder left with bronze, he suffered a semifinal loss to Olympic and World champion Sharif Sharifov (Azerbaijan). He also has the 2017 gold medal at the expense of Abdulrashid Sadulaev (Russia). As the years pass, that win looks even better. Sadulaev is on the fast track to being remembered as one of the best EVER in the sport.

    For all of Sadulaev's greatness, Snyder wasn't that far away from defeating him in the 2020 Olympic gold medal match. Two separate pairs of exposure points for Sadulaev were the primary difference in the bout. Snyder remained the only wrestler that threatened the Russian.

    Snyder has already indicated that he'll compete at the World Championships this year, so expect him to add more hardware to his collection.

    Gable Steveson - Superstardom

    As someone who picked Gable Steveson to win the gold pre-tournament, I figured that winning it all would probably catapult Steveson into mainstream stardom that few wrestlers obtain. What I couldn't account for was the manner in which he won. Steveson dismantled the reigning Olympic champion, Taha Akgul (Turkey), and waved the Turkish stud back to the center of the mat as he seemingly gave up, down 8-0. For the gold medal, Steveson pulled off a sensational comeback that will live on in American wrestling lore until the end of time. The Minnesota heavyweight took down three-time World Champion, Geno Petriashvili (Georgia), twice in the last :13, including securing the winning takedown with only .02 left on the clock.

    Steveson's brash gesture's against Akgul, combined with his buzzer-beater against Petriashvili, resonated with mainstream sports media exponentially. Hours after his win, Barstool Sports was selling a pair of Gable-themed shirts. Steveson has made the rounds appearing on some of the more widely heard shows and podcasts in the nation since.

    Of course, before the Olympics, there were not-so-subtle hints that there was a mutual attraction between Steveson and the WWE. The UFC is also an option for Gable. On Tuesday, Steveson and the Minnesota Vikings exchanged tweets and teased a possible future together. It goes without saying that, but Steveson has more career prospects outside of wrestling than any other wrestler before him. And more power to him.

    Sarah Hildebrandt - Validation

    Whenever fans talk about the top active American women's Tamyra Mensah-Stock, Adeline Gray, and Helen Maroulis typically get mentioned first. And for good reason. Each are world champions that have displayed consistency over a decent amount of time.

    One name that may get overlooked is Sarah Hildebrandt. It says a lot about the growth of our women's program that a past world silver medalist isn't automatically thrown into the conversation for best in the nation.

    The word we chose to describe Hildebrandt's Olympic tournament was validation. This is true on multiple fronts. Her bronze medal performance validated her choice to drop from 53 kg, a weight where she earned her world medal, to 50 kg at the beginning of 2020. As someone who competed at 55 kg, as recently as 2017, that cut couldn't have been ideal. But with the drop in weight, Hildebrandt has encountered unmatched success on a consistent basis. Her semifinal loss to Yanan Sun (China) was the first setback at her current weight.

    The loss to Sun was a heartbreaking one. Hildebrandt led 7-0 at one point and 7-6 in the closing seconds. Sun was able to notch a four-point trip as a last resort move and advanced to the finals. Many a wrestler has packed it in and lost their following match after losing such a close, high-profile bout. Not Hildebrandt. She demolished 2018 world bronze medalist Oskana Livach (Ukraine) for the Olympic bronze, marking her third win of the tournament by technical superiority.

    I'm sure the loss to Sun will continue to sting, but Hildebrandt was able to pick herself up, dust herself off and bounce back in unbelievable fashion. The bronze medal that followed serves as validation that she belongs in the conversation with the triumvirate of women atop the US ranks.

    Helen Maroulis - Resilience

    During one of Helen Maroulis' bouts in Tokyo, fellow Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs made the accurate assessment that “winning a gold medal usually improves your life, but Maroulis has faced more difficulties since winning hers.” A year after pulling a stunning upset in Rio, Maroulis appeared to be the best woman in the world...pound for pound. She outscored her competition 52-0 and grabbed her second world title.

    In early 2018, Maroulis suffered a severe concussion while competing in the India Pro League, and injury that hindered her for the bulk of the year. Despite the setback, she made the 2018 world team, but suffered a shoulder injury in her only bout at the World Championships. The lingering effects from the concussion almost forced Maroulis to hang up her shoes on multiple occasions.

    Maroulis finally was able to get in position to compete for another spot on the Olympic team, but suffered a knee injury before the Trials in early April. She gutted through the injury and secured her place on the team by winning an emotional, three-match series with Jenna Burkert. Along the way, Maroulis changed her training situation a couple of times, too. She settled on Sunkist Kids at Arizona State before the Games, and had Sun Devil coach Mark Perry in her corner in Tokyo.

    Unless you were training with Maroulis, you were probably uncertain how her 2020 Olympic Games would play out. In her only tune-up before the Games, Maroulis dropped matches to a pair of talented opponents that she normally would defeat. Her opening match seemed daunting, as well.

    After about 15-20 seconds of movement, it was apparent that this version of Helen would be closer to the Helen we all remember. She turned in solid performances in her opening two matches, both against past world medalists, the second coming at the expense of Tatyana Kit (Ukraine), one of the foes that downed her in Poland.

    Maroulis would come up on the short side of a 2-1 loss to fellow 2016 gold medalist Risako Kawai (Japan), in a tentative, defensive struggle. She rebounded to dominate for a bronze medal. While her 2016 gold medal win was one for the ages, the resilience Maroulis showed by winning a spot on the team and leaving with a medal could be a more rewarding gift.

    Tamyra Mensah-Stock - Royalty

    Despite the long list of credentials possessed by Helen Maroulis and Adeline Gray, Tamyra Mensah-Stock was arguably the top American woman, pre-Tokyo. After Tokyo, there are no doubts. Tokyo provided the coronation of the new queen of American women's wrestling.

    While some may have gotten uneasy looking at Mensah-Stock's draw, she didn't even flinch. Mensah-Stock's tournament began with a pair of 10-0 technical superiority wins over 2016 Olympic champion Sara Dosho (Japan) and world silver medalist Feng Zhou (China). You wouldn't have known by the result, but Zhou was the last opponent to defeat Mensah-Stock. The semifinals saw Mensah-Stock “only” defeat Alla Cherkasova (Ukraine) by the score of 10-4. Cherkasova was a 2018 world champion in a weight class where Mensah-Stock took bronze.

    Mensah-Stock capped her tournament off with a controlled 4-1 win over Blessing Oborududu (Nigeria). In winning the gold, she became only the second American woman to do so and the first Black female to win Olympic gold.

    As I suspected, the post-match interview went viral and exposed a national audience to the irreverent, yet genuine, and loveable character that the wrestling community had already fallen in love with. Like Steveson, Mensah-Stock could have more national media appearances and endorsement opportunities abound after her wins on the mat and personality off of it. Regardless, she has clearly staked her claim as the queen of American wrestling (along with the future) and perhaps one of the top pound-for-pound women in the world.

    Adeline Gray - Closure

    Regardless of whether or not Adeline Gray wrestles another match, the hypothetical Mount Rushmore of American women's wrestling already has a spot carved out for Gray. Prior to this year, Gray had been on eight world teams and the 2016 Olympic squad. During that time, she's hauled in seven world medals, five of which were of the gold persuasion. Gray's five world titles are the most by an American, male or female.

    The one honor that was missing from Gray's lengthy resume was Olympic medalist. In 2016, Gray was considered a favorite to take the gold, but she was stunned in her second bout by Vasilisa Marzaliuk (Belarus) 4-1. When Marzaliuk failed to make the finals, Gray was eliminated from the tournament. This time, many of the key players were the same at Gray's 76 kg weight class. It was the deepest of any women's freestyle bracket, with 12 of its 16 entrants owning a past World/Olympic medal. Three wins from Adeline locked up a silver medal and put her in the finals opposite longtime rival and friend Aline Rotter-Focken (Germany).

    A gold medal wasn't in the cards for Gray as she gave up a few uncharacteristic points to Rotter-Focken and fell into an early hole. The loss shocked American wrestling fans who expected the bout to go Gray's way and give her that elusive gold medal. While the wrestling public was shocked, Gray proceeded to give a remarkable interview just a short time after the match. Though probably stunned and deeply disappointed, Gray was able to put her medal into perspective and displayed the professionalism that we have become accustomed to hearing from her. Not winning it all is a letdown, but earning a silver medal at the Olympics is an honor that a minuscule fraction of the wrestling population can ever fathom.

    With her Olympic silver medal, Gray can get some semblance of closure on her Olympic career. Like others above, at 30, it's hard to say whether or not Gray will want to continue shooting for the 2024 Olympics. However, she did mention preparing for the World Championships in that interview. It should be noted that Adeline hasn't officially committed to entering the world's this year, that quote may have been attributed to raw emotion, but I wouldn't be surprised if she did.

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