Benji Peak after his third match at Final X Stillwater (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The United States particularly in our men's freestyle and, of late, women's freestyle programs have emerged as perennial threats to win team titles at the World Championships. With such stacked, star-driven lineups, there is little room for new faces to emerge. Case and point, at the 2021 World Championships, Yianni Diakomihalis was the lone men's freestyle team member making his world debut. The women's freestyle team featured three first-timers (Amy Fearnside, Maya Nelson, and Kylie Welker); however, the Olympic team had none and only one in 2019.
All that to say, it's become a big deal when we see a first-time world team member emerge, especially from the lengthy process we have in place (US Open, World Team Trials, Final X). The selection process is tilted towards our returning stars and rightfully so, as they have earned it with world and Olympic medals in the past.
Today, we are saluting the four wrestlers that earned a spot on their first world team last night, Seth Gross, Abby Nette, Dymond Guilford, and Benji Peak.
Gross was the only first-timer on the men's freestyle team and he did so with the deck stacked against him. The Wisconsin assistant coach finished sixth at the US Open, which gave him a berth at the Trials. There he avenged an Open loss to champion Nico Megaludis with a cradle in the finals, before surviving Daniel DeShazer in two-straight matches. In Stillwater, Gross was paired off with the hometown favorite, Daton Fix. The current Cowboy is a three-time NCAA runner-up and was coming off a silver medal at 61 kg in Oslo, Norway, at the World Championships.
In match one, Fix jumped out to a 5-0 and seemed to be cruising in the second period. However, with under two minutes left, Gross kept pushing and made things interesting. With eight seconds left in the contest, he tied the contest at five, but still trailed on criteria, due to a caution. While it was a loss, Gross proved he wasn't there to roll over for the local favorite.
Match two was similar as Fix held an early lead, but Gross rallied late. Four scores in the second period gave Gross a 5-4 victory. In the rubber match, it was late-match heroics from Gross again. Trailing 5-4, near the edge of the mat, Fix was grounded and a step-point point looked inevitable. Gross deftly avoided that fate and stepped around the Cowboy star for a takedown. Fix's corner challenged the ruling only to lose. That put him at a 7-5 disadvantage. Fix went for broke in the final ten seconds and was in on Gross' leg, however, the crafty vet exposed Fix for two clinching points.
Gross went from a loss via technical superiority to Fix at the 2021 WTT's, to sixth place, at the Open, to Final X and a trip to Serbia, all within nine months.
The other wrestler in this group that fought through a three-match battle was Benji Peak, who unseated multiple-time world team member Pat Smith. Like Gross, Peak's back was against the wall after suffering a loss in match one. A four-pointer from Smith late in the first period, proved to be the difference-maker in a 5-3 setback. Undeterred, the young star fought through a mangled singlet in match two to get the victory. Initially, the official ruled that Smith scored at the edge; however, that was taken off the board after a challenge that showed Smith's hand caught in the singlet. Peak would come out on top, 3-2.
In the deciding bout, it was once again, a singlet pull that proved to be the turning point. Peak was in an advantageous position as he was on top in par terre and pulled Smith up to his feet in a body lock. Smith countered and fell on top of Peak out of bounds, seemingly for two points. Peak implored his corner to challenge, which they did. The reverse angle replay showed, in fact, there was a singlet grab by Smith. The match two grab was just given a warning; however, a caution and two were doled out in this instance. It proved to be a four-point swing in Peak's favor. A second caution later in the second period put the match out of reach and Peak got his hand raised and after a 6-2 win.
On the women's freestyle side, it was inevitable that there would be two first-timers, as 59 and 76 kg, both featured competitors with no previous Senior-level world experience.
Dymond Guilford, at 76 kg, became the first woman of the evening to clinch a spot on the world team and did so in impressive fashion versus Yelena Makoyed. Both were collegiate national champions in 2022, in their respective divisions. Guilford was the aggressor throughout the two-match series and frequently found herself on Makoyed's legs. Though there were a few tense moments in match one, she still won comfortably, 10-5. Match two was more one-sided as Guilford won 12-2. Earlier this spring, Guilford also secured a spot on the U23 World Team.
Speaking of the U23 World Team, Abby Nette has competed internationally in that age group, but never on the world stage at the Senior level. That will change in a few months. Nette imposed her will from the opening whistle in match one and rarely was out of position or in danger of any sort. She downed Lexie Basham 12-4 and 8-5. Nette's triumph marks a great comeback for the Emmanuel and Campbellsville star who missed significant time within the last year due to a shoulder injury. She resurfaced with the Army WCAP team and was one of three Army wrestlers to earn a trip to Belgrade last night. Greco wrestlers Max Nowry (55 kg) and Jesse Thielke (63 kg) were the others.
Of course, Final X is not over as the remainder of the weights will resume on Wednesday from New York City. There will be at least two more first-timers from the women's side of things (53 kg and 72 kg) and possibly more if we see an upset or two.
Now that these four have their respective "feet in the door" no one can take this away from them, as most athletes like to say. They have a shot to settle it on the mat, etch their name into American wrestling history and come home with a medal. Doing so would flip the script and give them a leg up on anyone seeking to make the team at their weight in 2023.
Final X Stillwater Round One Results
Final X Stillwater Round Two and Three Results