Jenna Burkert (left) and Kayla Miracle 2021 World Team Trials(Photo/Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
55 kg: Burkert Looks to Keep the 55kg World Title American
Jenna Burkert has had one heck of a year.
It started with heartbreak: at the beginning of 2021, Jenna's mother had begun suffering from issues with her heart. She had to undergo numerous surgeries before her unfortunate passing a week before the US Olympic Team Trials. In an interview on The Bader Show, Jenna described herself as a "wreck" after her mother's death- she hadn't even planned on going to the Olympic Trials as she had focused her time and energy on caring for her mom. However, one of her mother's last wishes was that Jenna go and compete- so she did.
At the Olympic Trials, Jenna had the performance of a lifetime. She steamrolled her way through the bracket, including a victory via fall in the challenge tournament finals over two-time World Finalist Alli Ragan, who she had never previously beaten. In the best two-of-three series to decide the Olympic Team Spot, Jenna faced off against defending 53kg Olympic Champion Helen Maroulis- and stunned the nation by taking a match from her. Though she ended up falling in the third match, her emotions surrounding the loss of her mother combined with the beautiful display of sportsmanship between Maroulis and Burkert created a moment that no one watching the Trials would ever forget.
Fast forward to September 12th, where Burkert found herself in another three-match series: this time for the 55kg World Team spot. She faced off against reigning World Champion Jacarra Winchester, who was coming off a fifth-place finish at the Olympics, and was this time able to win the series in dramatic fashion. Each match was decided by points scored in the final seconds, with Burkert tossing Jacarra for four points in the first match and taking her down late in the third. Though Jenna lacks in international credentials compared to the rest of the field, her recent high-level success against some of the most talented women in the world- and the defending World Champion at this weight- make her a definite contender to win a world title this year.
While Jenna is coming down from 57 kilos to 55kg, many of the women in the field are 53 kilo Olympians rising back up to their preferred weight. 2019 World Bronze Medallist and two-time European Champion Olga Khoroshavtseva of Russia, 2017 World Bronze Medallist Roksana Zasina of Poland and two-time European Bronze Medallist and U23 World Bronze Medallist Andreea Ana of Romania will all be competing at 55 kilos. While Zasina was the only one of the three to win a match at the Olympics (eventually falling in repechage), the other two should not be overlooked: Ana has had some stellar age-level results, and Khoroshavtseva is a returning medalist at this weight. The Russian has also been on a hot streak prior to the Olympics, winning 7 of her last 8 tournaments. She and Zasina are prime contenders to win gold in Oslo.
A couple other veterans at this weight class include Sumiya Eredenechimeg of Mongolia, who won a World silver medal in 2013 and was also a 2016 Olympian. She has a recent win over Zasina and could be in medal contention if she is in peak form. Fellow 2016 Olympian Nina Hemmer of Germany has three Euro bronze medals to her name and has been a staple on the 53-kilo scene for some time; this could be a prime opportunity for her to have a career-defining performance and pick up a medal.
Japan's young women's wrestling team will be represented at 55 kilos by Tsugumi Sakurai, a 2016 Cadet World Champion and 2019 Junior Asian Bronze medallist. It'll be interesting to see how she performs on the senior level. Other strong youngsters include Turkey's two-time age-level Euro medallist Eda Tekin and Ukraine's talented Oleksandra Khomenets, who won this year's Junior Euros dominantly in addition to taking bronze at the Kiev in February.
Ultimately, if Burkert performs at the level, she has as of late, this could be her weight to win. However, watch out for the very hot Olga Khoroshavtseva to contend for a title as well as Olympians Zasina and Ana and youngsters Khomenets and Sakurai.
62 kg: A New Chapter in the Japanese-Kyrgyz Rivalry
This August in Tokyo, we were treated to the fourth bout in one of the most remarkable women's wrestling rivalries of the past quad: home country's Yukako Kawai's 4-3 defeat over Aisuluu Tynybekova in the 62 kg Olympic finals. This razor-thin match between two of the world's best talents brought the 62kg Kyrgyz-Japan series to a 2-2 split and resulted in Kawai earning Japan's first of four Olympic gold WW medals.
While Tynybekova, unfortunately, suffered the defeat, her win was still monumental in that she was only Kyrgyzstan's second woman to ever medal in the Olympics (the first being her teammate Meerim Zhumanazarova the day prior). Despite failing in her attempt to win her country's first-ever Olympic gold, Tynybekova has made plenty of history previously, becoming her country's first female senior World Champion and proving her unquestionable dominance since the creation of the weight class in 2018.
While Kawai will not be attending the World Championships, Japan will be sending a formidable replacement who could very well be the only other woman on Earth to challenge Tynybekova: 18-year-old Nonoka Ozaki. Ozaki won 2018 and 2019 Cadet World titles in addition to a Youth Olympic Games title in utterly dominant fashion. She followed up those performances with a stellar transition to the senior level, winning Japan's last two senior tournaments and downing two age-level World Champions en route to earning the world team spot. Ozaki is from the same academy that produced wrestling legends and Olympic Champions Yui Susaki, Mayu Mukaida and Takuto Otoguro, and her senior-level debut should not be missed.
Beyond Tynybekova, three other Olympians will be returning to this weight. Lais Nunes de Oliveira, a two-time Pan-Am Champion from Brazil, will be looking to place high; while she doesn't have any major Senior-level results, she does have some really solid wins under her belt. American Kayla Miracle will still be in the hunt for her first senior-level medal here; she has a U23 World silver medal from 2019 in addition to a host of other solid international results. This bracket will provide a real opportunity for her to vie for a podium shot. Finally, Luisa Niemesch of Germany was a 2016 Olympian, but failed to qualify for Tokyo this year. She has some solid wins but likely isn't in medal contention.
A youngster well-worth watching in this weight class is Ossetian Alina Kasabieva, who teched and pinned her way to Junior European and World titles this year. Her dominant performance led women's wrestling fans to question whether she can contend domestically and internationally on the Senior level yet, and Russia's decision to send her despite having respectable depth at the weight implies she just might be able to. Kasabieva is from one of the wrestling epicenters of the world, but Ossetia is not yet known for producing women's wrestlers. If the Caucasus region can start producing women that can replicate the success of their men, Russian women's wrestling could reach unimaginable heights.
While Ana Paula Godinez doesn't have the same years of experience under her belt as many of her competitors do- considering she took up the sport at age 16- she has established herself as a potential rising star. In 2019, she secured a Junior World Bronze medal (complete with a techfall over European and Junior World Champion Irina Ringaci) and followed that up with a surprise finalist performance at the very deep Poland Open, notching a gritty win over tough Ukrainian Ilona Prokopevniuk (who is also in this bracket) and losing only to Tynybekova. While Godinez is still new to the international scene, watch for her as a potential dark horse to make the medal matches.
Speaking of Prokopevniuk, she should not be overlooked- Ukraine's insane depth at 62 kilos has resulted in her being second or third in the lineup, despite credentials including three U23 World medals, two U23 Euro titles, a 2018 Euro bronze, a 2020 World Cup bronze, and formidable results at some of the bigger international events like the Yasar Dogu and Poland Open. She even pushed Tynybekova in an exciting 9-7 match at the Kiev in February. Ilona's fellow countryman Iryna Koliadenko won an Olympic bronze medal in August, so Prokopevniuk will look to showcase how deep the talent runs in Ukraine's backup lineup.
One final cool storyline that makes up this weight class includes the entry of Olympic Bronze medalist and international superstar Bajrang Punia's wife, Sangeeta Phogat. Sangeeta has limited international experience but does own a 2018 Asian Bronze medal.
Overall, watch for a new chapter in Aisuluu Tynybekova's rivalry with her Japanese opponents to be written here as Ozaki makes her senior debut, and enjoy the performances of returning Olympians and talented up-and-comers alike in this deep bracket.