USA Wrestling leaves London dreaming of more Olympic success in 2016

Updated: August 27, 2012

By Bryan Van Kley

The 2012 Olympics will go down into the books as a Games which started terribly for USA Wrestling, but ended quite well.

The Greco team started the first three days of the eight-day competition, followed by the women on the middle two days. After a mostly-disappointing five days, the Americans were sitting with a record of 8-12 as a team. Clarissa Chun’s bronze-medal performance at 105.5 pounds was the only bright spot. And Chun accounted for three of the eight wins by the two teams.

But the men’s freestyle team turned the momentum around. Jordan Burroughs’ weight, 163 pounds, was on the first day of men’s freestyle competition. This date of competition was a huge break for the U.S. in an Olympics where it seemed the Americans didn’t get too many breaks dealing with incredibly difficult draws and some questionable calls.

Burroughs eventually did his job as he said he would. He won his second straight World/Olympic gold and the table was set for the rest of the team. Energy was high on Day Two of freestyle as well. Three Americans started the day 5-0. Former World medalists Jake Herbert, Tervel Dlagnev and hot newcomer

Coleman Scott were wrestling well and the U.S. was on a roll similar to the rolls the talented teams of the mid 1990s used to get on.

The freestylers then went 1-5 the rest of the day. Scott was the only one of the three to medal, winning bronze. Jake Varner then ended the Games for the U.S. on a very high note winning the country’s second wrestling gold.

So what does the future look like for USA Wrestling and its three teams?

USAW Executive Director Rich Bender

USAW Executive Director Rich Bender is very optimistic, despite not “accomplishing what we thought we could accomplish here.”

Bender said the goal for the U.S. remains the same: become the top wrestling country in the world.

“We come to the Olympic Games with the expectation that every single athlete here can medal. We’re going to evaluate and set a course for Rio (2016 Olympics) which hopefully will improve our medal count and put our team on top,” he said.

Bender gave WIN a “state-of-the-union” update in an exclusive interview at ExCeL

London mid-way through the last day of competition.

“I’m really proud with how our freestyle team has progressed. There were a lot of critics after the 2010 performance in Moscow,” he said. “I’m sitting here today telling you we have one of the best teams in the world, no doubt. We came in here with seven bullets.”

Bender added that with another win or two on Day Two of freestyle the Americans could have easily placed at an even higher level as a team in London.

“Those three matches turned a day of incredible performance into mediocrity,” he added.

Much of the drain in momentum happened when 2009 World silver medalist Jake Herbert was defeated by 2011 World champion Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan. With 12 seconds left in a scoreless second period,

Sharifov shot in on a double. Herbert appeared to stop the shot, then reverse gutted

Sharifov and an ensuing scramble occurred.

After a lot of deliberation by the mat officials, the three-member officiating “jury” and eventually even the head official Ik-Jong Kim of Korea, Sharifov was given a three-two-one point sequence to give him the 6-0 win.

The jury ruled it three-three, saying Herbert had stopped the action of the shot. Kim walked down from the head table, spoke to the jury and the call was quickly reversed to 6-0 in favor of Sharifov.

The United States’ and Bender’s frustration came to a boil at that moment after a long week.

Bender raced down to talk to Kim. Fans watching on television and others in attendance said Bender was “pushed.”

“I don’t remember getting pushed,” Bender said with a bit of a smile. “I think I was asked to leave. In a sport like this, if there’s a little contact now and then, you expect it.

Bender made sure to point out that he didn’t think that Kim or other officials where “out to get Americans” as people often question internationally. He said his biggest complaint was not in the interpretation of what happened, rather the process where Kim single-handily overruled the official jury’s decision.

“I was told by FILA if the jury isn’t unanimous that they can’t overturn the call made on the mat. I didn’t know that. I guess it’s a new rule … maybe.”

Bender said he knows the U.S. has the ability to win in Greco, which is why the first Games without a medal for the Greco program since 1976 was so discouraging.

“We had a higher expectation with our Greco team. It wasn’t long ago we were World champions. The world has gotten a lot better, but we have to get better too. We’re going to go back and sit down with people a lot smarter than me and set Greco on a path for success for the next quad.”

For the women’s team, Bender thought it came down to getting “caught up in the moment” for a couple girls.

“With four weight classes, there’s not a lot of margin for error,” he said. “Elena Pirozhkova is the cleanest living wrestler of all three teams. She was emotionally drained when she went out there. We’ve got to learn from that. I’m confident with the course that program is on. But we’ve got to make some changes there too.”

Overall, there’s an energy you can feel about all three programs that is positive despite some athletes underachieving in London. All three teams have very capable head coaches in Zeke Jones (men’s freestyle), Steve Fraser (Greco-Roman) and Terry Steiner (women). And there are many talented assistant coaches and personal coaches in the system.

And Bender is also very pleased by the people around all three programs who want the

U.S. athletes to do well, year in and year out.

“The thing that excites me the most is the people who are around this program that really want to see this program successful.

“Guys like Dan Gable didn’t miss a session here. He really genuinely cares about our athletes being successful on the mat,” Bender said of the 1972 Olympic champion and successful long-time University of Iowa coach.

And Bender also is optimistic about the hungry talent he sees waiting in the wings to take their turn and push the top guys and gals at each weight.

“Jordan Burroughs said he wants to be the most decorated wrestler of all time. For him to commit to another four years….our country is deep at that weight. Andrew Howe, Kyle Dake…(Jordan’s) going to continue to get better because he’s going to be pushed at that weight,” the upbeat Bender said.