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U.S. wrestlers must also qualify weights in both men’s freestyle and Greco
By Mike Finn
Wrestling fans will be in Iowa City in record numbers April 21-22 for the United States Olympic Trials to see what wrestlers will emerge as the United States’ greatest hopes to medal in this summer’s Olympic competition in London.
The only problem for the 9,762 fans who had bought tickets for the event as of March 28, is that they may not see all the eventual athletes who get a chance at wrestling for gold this August.
That’s because two of the 18 Olympic weights — 132 pounds in men’s freestyle and 211.5 pounds in Greco-Roman — still have not been qualified by the United States for a spot in the Olympic bracket. That means U.S. National coaches Zeke Jones and Steve Fraser will ask two of their veteran wrestlers to sit out the Trials in Iowa City and travel to China and/or Finland two weeks after the U.S. Olympic Trials are held in Iowa City.
If they qualify the weights for the U.S., each wrestler will face the Trials winner at a later date to determine the American representative who will compete in London between August 5 and 12.
“When we get closer to the Olympic Trials, I will determine who will wrestle in China and everyone else will go through the Trials. The Trials frankly don’t matter unless we get the weight qualified,” said Jones, unsure whether Shawn Bunch, who failed to qualify the weight at the Pan-Am Trials in March, would make the trips to China and Finland.
“I wouldn’t say it’s less than ideal. It’s a different path.”
Meanwhile, Fraser already knows that Justin Ruiz, a former World bronze medalist, will compete in the two remaining qualifying tournaments.
It is no easy task to get the weight qualified even with an experienced wrestler like Ruiz,” said Fraser. “But I have total confidence in Justin in getting the weight class qualified. He’s a top-quality guy and is up there with the best guys in the world.”
In order to qualify those weight classes, the two Americans must finish among the top three wrestlers at the April 27-29 tournament in Taiyuan, China, or among the top two finishers at the May 4-6 tournament in Helsinki, Finland.
Currently the International Olympic Committee limits the number of wrestlers to 18 to 20 wrestlers per weight class in the 18 different classes: seven in men’s freestyle and Greco and four in women’s freestyle. Qualifying weight classes for the Olympic Games is something countries have been faced with in the past 20 years. Prior to that, countries could send as many as they wanted.
“Because of the sheer size of the Olympic Games, they want medals (limited among) 10,000 participants because the Games have out-grown the host cities,” said Jones, who won a silver medal in the 1992 Games, which was the first time the IOC started limiting athletes.
Qualifying weights also became even more difficult when the Soviet Union — strong in wrestling — broke into individual countries, who have also raised the stakes in international wrestling.
“The qualification process is increasingly difficult and more competitive than ever,” said Jones, who helped the U.S. finish third in last year’s World Championships. “Many of these countries are offering big money for individuals to medal. These countries are well-funded and the competition has gotten stiffer.
“Times change and we have to change with it.”
Jones also pointed out there are also two other weight classes — 163 and 211.5 pounds in men’s freestyle — where the winner of this year’s Trials may not automatically earn a trip to London.
Those two weight classes feature 2011 World medalists — Jordan Burroughs, who captured gold at 163 pounds and Jake Varner, a bronze medalist at 211.5 — who automatically will be in the best 2-of-3 Championship Series to take on the winners of the mini-tournament held earlier in the day.
And if either is upset in the championship series, that will not kill their chances of competing in the Olympics.
“Say for example if Andrew Howe were to beat Burroughs, we would take both of them to an international tournament this summer and the onus would be on Burroughs to out-medal Howe in that event to make the Olympic Team,” said Jones. “This is a common factor that other countries are doing to develop their Olympic teams and send their best wrestlers.
Meanwhile, the top two wrestlers of the mini-tournament in the remaining men’s freestyle weights will meet in the Championship Series.
In women’s freestyle, all four winners of last December’s U.S. Open — Clarissa Chun (105.5), Helen Maroulis (121), Elena Pirozhkova (138.75) and Iris Smith (158.5) — are also in the Championship Series and will await the winner of the mini-tournament held earlier on those days.
In Greco, only Dremiel Byers — who won the U.S. Open and finished fifth in last year’s Worlds — has a spot in the Championship Series at 264.5 pounds. The top two wrestlers in the six other weight classes will emerge from the mini-tournament to the Championship Series.
Once the Championship Series begins at 264.5 pounds, Byers may have to beat two-time Olympic medalist Rulon Gardner, who at age 40 is trying to make a comeback. Gardner, who won gold in 2000 and a bronze in 2004, recently gained national attention; first by competing in NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” after his weight ballooned to 475 pounds and later on NBC’s news show, “Rock Center” which left some uncertainty on whether Gardner would make weight at the Trials.
“He plans on making weight,” said Fraser, who also coached Gardner in his two previous Olympic tournaments. “I talked to him (April 3). I can’t tell you what he weighs; he’s keeping it confidential. He’s working hard and telling me he is going to make weight.”
Fraser also pointed out that former World medalists Joe Warren (a 2005 gold medalist) and 52-year-old Andre Metzger (who earned bronze in 1987) would compete at 132 and 163 pounds, respectively, in Iowa City.
Meanwhile in men’s freestyle, Cael Sanderson, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, told WIN in a late-March interview that he would not be competing in this year’s Olympic Trials. The current Penn State coach created a stir last summer when he returned to competition for the first time in seven years and qualified for the 2011 Worlds in Istanbul, Turkey, where he finished fifth at 185 pounds.
This year was different, though, for Sanderson. The Nittany Lion head man had some off-the-mat issues to deal with before the start of the 2011 season with returning NCAA finalist Andrew Long. And this year’s Trials were only one month after the end of the NCAA season. The Trials normally take place in June. The April date of the Trials this year also made it even more difficult for Sanderson to consider coming back again.
The following is a schedule of what styles and weights will be contested at the Olympic Team Trials:
Saturday, April 21: men’s freestyle – 132, 163 and 211.5 pounds; Greco-Roman – 121, 145.5, 185 and 264.5 pounds; women’s freestyle – 121 and 158.5 pounds.
Sunday, April 22: men’s freestyle – 121, 145.5, 185 and 264.5 pounds; Greco-Roman: 132, 163 and 211.5 pounds; women’s freestyle: 105 and 138.75 pounds.
The mini-tournament of each day will take place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. with the Championship Series running between 6 and 9 p.m., each day.