NLWC excels at Olympic Trials

Updated: May 5, 2021

2021 Olympic Trials showed the NLWC’s Senior-level talent

Photo: The 86-kilo men’s freestyle final at the 2021 Olympic Trials featured two of the 14 Nittany Lion Wrestling Club wrestlers who competed in Fort Worth in April when David Taylor (left) beat Bo Nickal to claim the top Olympic spot at that weight and style. (Photo by Justin Hoch)

Note: This article appeared in the May 5, 2021 issue of WIN Magazine. Click here of call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

By Mike Finn

Mount Nittany is a common site for the folks of State College, Pa., as the 2,077-foot geographic landmark is a nostalgic landmark for Penn State fans to admire and has served as a backdrop to Penn State’s athletic legacy.

This large hill, which sits east of this community, might also be a good place for the folks of “Happy Valley” to erect a statue to honor Nittany Lions athletes … and a perfect sport to feature would be wrestling. During the 12 years that coach Cael Sanderson and staff have been at Penn State, no other sport has been “kings of the mountain” in terms of national success like the wrestling team. (Penn State’s men’s gymnastics team has won 12 NCAA titles, the last in 2007.)

Nittany Lion wrestlers have excelled during this era as Sanderson’s squads have won nine team championships since 2011 and produced 27 individual champions, including four at the 2021 NCAAs.

And now one cannot look past the success of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club — the program’s Regional Training Center — after the NLWC wrestlers performed very well at the 2021 Olympic Trials, April 2-3, in Fort Worth, Texas.

A total of 14 wrestlers in three different styles, both current and past collegiate wrestlers, wore the NLWC singlet in Dickies Arena and four captured 2021 Olympic berths; led by David Taylor at 86 kg, the former two-time Hodge winner and two-time NCAA champ from Penn State was the 2018 World champion in men’s freestyle.

Several other wrestlers with Penn State ties also earned National Team spots by finishing among the top three of their weight class, including former three-time champs Bo Nickal, who finished second to Taylor, and Jason Nolf at 74k, while 2021 NCAA champ Nick Lee claimed third at 65k.

But what is making the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club brand even more impressive are the renewal stories of the three other 2021 NLWC Olympians: Thomas Gilman (57k) and Kyle Snyder (97k) in men’s freestyle and Helen Maroulis (57k) in women’s freestyle.

All three have medaled on the World/Olympic level, while competing elsewhere:

  • Gilman was a 2017 World silver medalist and 2018 World Team member while wrestling for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club in Iowa City, where he was also a three-time All-American;
  • Snyder won the 2016 Olympic gold medalist and was a two-time World champ (2015 and ’17), 2018 silver medalist and 2019 bronze medalist, while competing for the Ohio RTC in Columbus, where he as a three-time NCAA champ for Ohio State;
  • Maroulis, a native of Maryland,became the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in 2016 to go along with World championships in 2015 and ’17, a silver medal in 2012 and a bronze in 2013.

But all three wrestlers were looking for a new direction and reached out to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club in the past two years.

Gilman, who lost in the finals of the 2019 World Team Trials, saw his HWC coach Mark Perry leave for Arizona State. Snyder fell short of winning World titles after winning three straight.

And Maroulis had to overcome some serious health issues, including concussions, since stunning the wrestling world at the 2016 Rio Games with a victory over Japan’s Saori Yoshida, the three-time Olympic gold medalist and 13-time World champ.

NLWC Coaches Cody (left) and Cael Sanderson helped former Hawkeye Thomas Gilman win the 57-kilo men’s freestyle Olympic berth. (Justin Hoch photo)

“(Cael Sanderson) is a very wise person,” said Gilman, a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who beat Vitali Arujau in two straight bouts. “He has a lot of information to give and he’s very giving in that knowledge to us as his athletes. He talks every day about having fun. It’s cliche and people think it’s funny.

“We’re just being present and it’s hard to have fun when you’re thinking about the future, and you’re having anxiety or thinking about the past and you have a depression. We are alive and healthy.”

Gilman also credits his wife Melissa, a former philosophy major, who has helped Thomas study stoicism.

“Being present is one of the foundations of that philosophy,” he said.

“The NLWC has the best coaching staff in the country and I’m very thankful for the way things worked out,” said Snyder, who beat another former Ohio State All-American, Kollin Moore, in two straight bouts to earn his second Olympic berth. “They take care of everything so we can take care of everything we need to do on the mat.”

Maroulis made the three-hour trip from her home on Rockville, Md., to State College, on a regular basis to help her prepare for the Trials. The Olympic champ has had obstacles in her career dealing with concussions; first in 2015 and later in 2018 when she was also given a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Maroulis also lost her only match of the 2019 Worlds; making some wonder if she’d even try to make another Olympic team.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever get back to this stage, if I’d ever be healthy,” said Maroulis, who pinned Jenna Burkert in an emotional third-and-deciding bout to also earn a second Olympic trip. “I also did not have a clue that I would be at such an amazing program like Penn State, which has so many great coaches and teammates.”

So with all this success in State College, is this community in wrestling-rich Pennsylvania one of the of the best places for an amateur wrestler to be?

“I don’t know if it’s the best place, but it’s what we want it to be,” said Cody Sanderson, the brother of Cael and assistant coach at Penn State. “That was one of the Cael’s things when he came to Penn State. If we work hard and do things right, we can make this a destination to be.”

Cody admitted it was a little bit of a surprise when past World and Olympic medalists like Gilman, Snyder and Maroulis reached out to the NLWC coaching staff.

“But these are competitive individuals and they want to do everything they can to reach their goals,” Cody said. “They were looking around and felt there were some things that we offer here, and wanted to be part of it or at least have the opportunity to learn about it. It’s that simple. They want to win and were willing to take a risk.”

How did the NLWC coaches deal with wrestlers who had already learned how to be successful elsewhere?

“It’s a difficult process to figure out because they are successful,” Cody said. “They are from great programs and have had great coaches. In some cases, we wanted to make sure we didn’t mess them up.”

Cody Sanderson also credits the winning environment and tradition around State College for helping these Olympians; similar to what the Nittany Lion coaches preach to high school wrestlers they recruit.

“At the foundational level, our elite wrestlers are getting the same message as our incoming young athletes,” Cody said. “They hear the same training philosophy. The only difference is that we tell the younger guys to do what you are told. Work hard, be grateful and you will be successful.

“With the older athletes, there is a little bit more of a collaboration. ‘Let’s talk about what you’ve done and where you need to get to and how we get you there.’ We have some great guys with some great knowledge. They know how to train and have a pretty good idea of what they need. But there are always different perspectives out there.”

There is no doubt there is a lot of talent in the NLWC wrestling room; so much that it leads to head-to-head meetings between NLWC teammates … as was the case between Taylor and Nickal.

“That’s one of the most challenging things we have to deal with,” Cody said. “It was something we thought about going into the Trials because we thought it was going to happen. It went well, but I think we could have done a better job. We communicated with the athletes and they knew what to expect.

“This is a challenging sport and there is only one spot (at a weight) on the Olympic Team. These guys are competitive. It’s a sensitive thing. I’m so happy for the guys who made the team but my heart aches for those who didn’t.”

“It was a weird emotion,” said Taylor after beating Nickal, who had defeated 2019 World Team member Pat Downey and former NCAA champion Zahid Valencia to earn a shot against Taylor in the finals.  “We are challenged every day and none of us would be where we are without each other.”