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BVK: Is men’s freestyle ready to take on Russia’s dominance?

By Bryan Van Kley

For U.S. freestyle, the time has come to show the world and ourselves that we are once again an international power in freestyle. It’s been 17 years since the U.S. has won a team title at a World Championships or Olympic Games. Since that time, the Soviet Union broke up and Russia has become the 500-pound gorilla in the middle of the room … and many of the former Soviet Republics have gotten incredibly good as well.

U.S. national freestyle coach Zeke Jones (right) spoke with a local TV announcer in London three days before his Olympic team was set to wrestle in the Games. (John Sachs image)

That Eastern Europe shift of power left many countries like the U.S., Cuba and Iran scrambling most years for medals.

But, 2012 is a new year. And United States’ freestyle coach Zeke Jones is looking to this year as a key one to show that the new plan that USA Wrestling, Jones and staff has put into place is working.

“There’s a new plan in place,” Jones said to a throng of reporters at a team practice at the University of East London on Tuesday, Aug. 7. “There’s a new way we’re attacking the techniques and tactics of our wrestling program and how we’re competing against the world. We’re doing it differently than it was done before. And we know those differences are the right differences.

“It was a little bit of a learning curve for all of us. We’re all folkstyle guys trying to learn freestyle. Now we know for sure what we’re teaching is accurate. In ’09 and ’10 (Worlds) it was a little bit of guess, there’s no guessing now. The techniques and tactics that we’re using we know win. If you look at the body of work from the last 12 to 18 months, they’ve really been wrestling quite well.”

Jones takes a talented squad to Excel London Exhibition Center starting on Friday, Aug. 10. Four of the seven have won World-level medals in the last three years.

And in addition to bringing experience and talent to the mats, the freestyle staff is talking frequently about the new plan they’re executing which hopefully will bring about more international wrestling hardware.

Key parts of their plan included having Senior-level guys focusing on freestyle more than in the past, made easier by the Regional Training Centers all over the country. In addition, there have been many more international wrestling tours than in the past. And the freestyle staff is working on age-group development in different ways.

One of the biggest means of doing that is bringing promising young stars out to the Olympic Training Center to get them exposed to the Olympic and World Championship-level dream for extended periods of time during the ages of 14 to 19.

The other critical part of the U.S. strategy according to the coaching staff is to surround the current team with past World and Olympic medalists to remind them often of the long and storied U.S. tradition.

“It’s American history and tradition,” Jones said, referring to practice partners and mentors like former Olympic medalists Cael Sanderson, Kendall Cross and Jamill Kelly. “When you come through our program, you’re prepared. The champions standing around our mat during practice symbolize that.”

The coaches are pointing to guys like that and others and telling the U.S. team there’s no reason first-year national team members like Sam Hazewinkel, Coleman Scott and Jared Frayer can’t win a medal in their first try.

“You tell Sam, and Coleman and Frayer the facts,” assistant freestyle coach Brandon Slay said, himself once an Olympic Team rookie who shocked the world in defeating the “unbeatable” Russian Olympic/World champion Buvaisar Saitiev (in 2000 Olympics). “The facts are the chances of them making the team and medaling are very high. You tell them what the truth is; it’s not a trick. You tell them that’s what you do as Americans. And put guys around them who have done that.”

Jones said consistency would be a key for the U.S. moving forward.

“It’s important for our guys to achieve their individual goals more than anything else. We need to be consistent as a country. Dan Gable said that and that stuck with me. ‘Ok, you have a good year. That’s great.’ We want to be consistently competing for team championships,” Jones said.

“We haven’t won a team championship in 17 years and we were right on the cusp last year. We know the Russians are obviously the favorites. But they won by 23 points two years ago; they won by five points last year. The gap has closed.

“Right now there’s about five countries who are kind of converging on each other. This Olympic Games will define that.”

Defending World champion and Olympic-favorite Jordan Burroughs (at 163 pounds) said he and his teammates, even the rookies, are ready for those kinds of expectations from the U.S. as a country. And it’s going to fuel them in a positive way.

“I was a rookie last year when I won the World Championship. I love high expectations. We step out there and we want to win, and we know we can win,” the 2011 Dan Hodge Trophy winner said.

The always-confident Burroughs added he’s planning on coming through for the U.S. in a big way with his second straight gold.

“The whole country is behind me. Everyone expects me to win. I don’t want to let anyone down. It’s easy to let yourself down,” he said. “I don’t want to let my country down.”

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