2021 Junior World Champion Kennedy Blades (Photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Last Friday, Kennedy Blades showed the rest of the world what wrestling fans in the United States have known for years. Not only was she capable of winning a world title, but she's the next big thing in women's wrestling. That'll happen when you cap an incredible Junior World Tournament with a : 16-second fall in the finals. In reality, the fall probably should have been called in half that time, but you can excuse an official who is not accustomed to seeing such a performance in a gold medal match.
Blades' 16-second fall over Germany's Lilly Schneider wasn't the only dominating showing of the tournament. It was almost par for the course. None of her four opponents managed a single point and only one was able to survive past the first period.
A couple months ago, at the Olympic Team Trials, Blades made the best-of-three finals by downing 2019 Final X participant Alex Glaude, 5-0, before teching two-time world team member Forrest Molinari, 11-1. Though she fell in the Trials finals, Blades acquitted herself against eventual Olympic Gold Medalist Tamyra Stock-Mensah, better than almost anyone in the world. Past Senior world medalists and champions couldn't amass the five points she tallied on Mensah-Stock over two matches.
Not bad for a high school senior! (or junior at the time of the Trials)
So the question is, "What Next," for Blades? A possible berth on the Senior World Team in 2021 at 72 kg and the U23 World Championships are on the docket in the short term, but we're talking about after that.
If Blades were a boy growing up in America, every major DI program in the nation would have fought for her services. Similar to the warranted hype surrounding Gable Steveson coming out of high school in 2018. Chances are, with the way that recruiting works, she would have already committed to one of those DI superpowers. But, since only two "true" DI schools have women's wrestling (Presbyterian and Sacred Heart), projecting her future plans gets a little murky.
We've come up with a couple possible pathways for Blades and her long-term plans.
1) Go to the US Olympic & Paralympic Training Center
Traditionally, this has been a route for women's wrestlers with talent levels close to Blades (though there are not many). The women's national team coaches are excellent, so it would certainly be a good decision, strictly wrestling-wise, for Blades to work closely with Terry Steiner, Clarrisa Chun, Jessica Medina, and crew on a daily basis. Two Olympic finalists around Blades' weight, Mensah-Stock and Adeline Gray, also train out of Colorado Springs. You couldn't ask for better partners than those two. Other high-quality women around that range are also in the Springs.
Now looking forward to 2024, Blades would have to go through either Mensah-Stock or Gray to make the Olympic team (if both are still wrestling). That probably isn't an immediate concern, though. She won her world title at the non-Olympic weight 72 kg.
A caveat to this is that on the Baschamania podcast, released yesterday, Blades mentioned her desire to "go to the same college" as her sister, Korina. Which leads us to other avenues.
2) Take the traditional Women's Collegiate Wrestling Route
There are plenty of great options for Blades if she wants to wrestle in college at a school with an existing program. Heck, if she doesn't want to leave her home state (Illinois), she can find McKendree and North Central. Both are relatively young programs that have torn up the recruiting trail and have teams that will vie for national team titles. Outside of Illinois, King University, Simon Fraser, and Campbellsville all put wrestlers on the 2020 Olympic Team and consistently have national title threats.
There's something to be said about being part of a team and going straight to the Olympic Training Center may not be for everyone. As fans, we tend to overlook our favorite athletes' personal lives and pretend they are robots, just focused on wrestling. Would living on a campus with three other teammates, doing the everyday things that college students do, be best for her long-term development as a person? Really, only Kennedy and those closest to her know the answer.
From a strictly wrestling standpoint, does rolling through collegiate competition benefit her most? I know matches aren't wrestled on paper, but Blades has crushed domestic competition at her age group for years. We have to mention another 2021 World Champion, Emily Shilson, who has gone this route and wrestles for Augsburg. Shilson was a mega-star at the age-group level and obviously, wrestling in college hasn't hampered her development.
Maybe a rivalry with fellow Junior World Champions Amit Elor or Kylie Welker could develop if any of the three are at the same collegiate weights? That could go a long way in growing a fanbase for women's college wrestling.
3) RTC/Powerhouse Colleges
As mentioned earlier, the Penn State's and Iowa's of the world, ones that would typically be all over a recruit of Blades' stature, currently do not offer women's wrestling. But there are plenty of RTC's that have had success with women's wrestlers. Arizona State/Sunkist Kids, Penn State/NLWC, Oregon State/Dam RTC, North Carolina/Tar Heel WC, Virginia Tech/SERTC, Iowa's Hawkeye Wrestling Club previously had a large contingent.
In today's mailbag, Willie mentioned how there is plenty of traction behind the scenes for Power 5 and Ivy League schools to add women's wrestling. Could Blades attend one of these schools and train with their RTC's, hoping they will add? Or maybe she joins an RTC without going to school at the affiliated University.
At the Olympic Trials, there were whispers that a prominent DI school that is pushing for women's wrestling already had visions of Blades wrestling in their singlet. Doing that would be a combination of these options.
Don't rule out Blades doing more than one of these items. Maybe she goes to the OPTC for a year, while the college administrators are getting their ducks in a row, regarding adding women's wrestling. Then goes to school. Or goes to school and then the OPTC.
However, this plays out, it will be fascinating, as this is a scenario that we have not encountered thus far with a girl's high school wrestling prodigy of Blades' caliber. We'd be remiss not to mention her fellow world champions Elor and Welker. Like Kennedy, both are still in high school and already have gold medals at a U20 world bracket. They will both have similar options and decisions to make. Hopefully, all of these young women have the people closest to them giving them the best information to make the best decision for their respective situations.