Hildebrandt overcame tough loss to claim bronze to cap USA’s ‘best’ Olympics

Updated: August 8, 2021

Photo: Sarah Hildebrandt used this leg lace to dominate Ukraine’s Oksana Livach in a bronze medal match at 50 kilos to close out USA’s Olympic effort that saw nine of 15 entries earn medals. (John Sachs photo)

By Bryan Van Kley

TOKYO — Team USA sent past World silver medalist Sarah Hildebrandt out on the mat here on Saturday night with one last shot at an elusive Olympic medal in wrestling at the 2020 Olympic Games. The U.S. had already won a record-tying (in a non-boycotted Games) eight Olympic medals in freestyle, tying the medal hauls the U.S. had in 1992 and 1996.

Depending on how you analyze it, the U.S. had already made a case for the 2020 Games being the “best” Olympics for wrestling in the nation’s history. Hildebrandt’s bronze-medal bout and Kyle Snyder’s finals match at 97k came one night after back-to-back nights of come-from-behind, gold-medal wins by David Taylor (86 kg) and Gable Steveson (125 kg).

A Hildebrandt win for bronze at 50k would accomplish three very significant things:

  • First, the U.S. would pass the powerhouse Russian Olympic Committee — competing under that name because of IOC sanctions against them as a country for wide-spread cheating through doping — for most wrestling medals at the Games.
  • Next, it would give the U.S. nine medals, setting the all-time U.S. record for medals. (The U.S. did win 21 medals in wrestling in 1904 but very few countries competed in those Games and USA earned 13 in the 1984 Games that the Soviet Union powerhouse boycotted.) Also in the tournament, Tamyra Mensah-Stock, Taylor and Steveson won gold medals, Adeline Gray and Snyder settled for silver and Helen Maroulis, Thomas Gilman and Kyle Dake left Tokyo with bronze medals.
  • And finally, it would be Hildebrandt’s first Olympic medal to add to her World silver of 2018.

Hildebrandt got the epic win, and in convincing fashion with a 12-1 technical fall over Ukraine’s Oksana Livach.

The Ukrainian got on the board first a little over two minutes into the match when Hildebrandt was put on the activity clock and was unable to score. The American responded with her first lead of the match with a takedown at the buzzer just before the period ended.

Leading 2-1 to start the second, it was all Hildebrandt in the second.

She hit a throw-by to extend her lead to three points, then converted on four straight ankle laces between the :35 mark and :15 mark to win by tech fall. The women’s freestyler was elated when the official awarded the final two points and ended the match early, looking shocked and incredibly excited, tears rolling down her face as she walked out of the competition area with her coaches.

The center Mat B was the same mat where her semifinal bout happened just 24 hours prior when she saw a 7-1 lead melt in the second period into a 10-7 loss to China’s Yanan Sun, who threw the American to her back on a four-point move in the final 10 seconds. Prior to the loss knocking her into the bronze-medal bout, Hildebrandt had two straight tech falls, 11-0 and 12-2.

“It’s just so unreal,” said the 27-year-old native of Granger, Ind. “(The loss to Sun) was probably the lowest I ever felt. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around. I don’t think I still can,” Hildebrandt said.

“To be able to come back from that … so many people were there for me and picked up me from the floor. To come back and get this medal, with so many people who have put into this, I feel it was a great representation of that (of why it matters to come back and still get bronze).”

Hildebrandt admitted she had some doubts after the uncharacteristic shut-down in the semifinals.

“I’m not going to lie, those thoughts come into your mind, ‘You’re up again. Don’t blow it.’” she said. “I messed up because I stopped and froze. I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that. That’s not happening. I don’t care what the results are going to be, but I’m not going to let it go down like that.’”

Hildebrandt said being a member of the U.S. wrestling team in Tokyo and having so much success was a thrill, particularly noting the team chemistry that helped them all starting when they got to Japan. The three teams had their team training camp together at a small town about five hours from Tokyo.

“What a special time to be a part of Team USA Wrestling. I’m so grateful to have these teammates,” she said. “We are out here supporting each and working to get better. That’s different than before.”

Kyle Snyder showed he could get to the legs of Russia’s Abdulrashid Saduaev and was able to take down the 6x World/Olympic champ once, but wasn’t able to overcome the 6-3 late-match deficit in the gold-medal bout. (John Sachs photo)

A short 15 minutes before the Hildebrandt win, Snyder lost to five-time World champion and Olympic champ Abdulrashid Sadulaev 6-3. This 97-kilo final was billed by many as the biggest match of the week since the two superstars had met two other times in the World finals and had nine World and Olympic medals between them.

Snyder had defeated Sadulaev in 2017 to win the team title for the U.S. Then Sadulaev won in 2018, making the 2020 Games bout a “rubber” match.

The difference in the match were two chest-locks by Sadulaev in the first and second periods where the Russian first stopped the shot, then tilted Snyder for two exposure points each time. Snyder did take Sadulaev down with about a minute left in the match and got a step-out at the :28 mark to pull within three, but couldn’t score after that.

Taking home the silver medal, the 25-year-old Snyder became the first American since John Smith to win six straight World/Olympic medals. He won two World titles in 2015 and 2017 and the Olympic title in 2016. Sadulaev won in 2016 as well in Rio, but he was down at 86 kilos. The U.S.’s David Taylor won that weight on Thursday night with a come-from-behind win over Iran’s Hassan Yazdani 4-3.

Sadulaev wrestled an extremely uncharacteristic defensive match against Snyder. He told reporters through interpreters he was “scared” of Snyder, which was why he didn’t attack him more offensively during the match.

Snyder was candid in post-match interviews about the simple need to improve, including giving up defensive tilt points.

“It was a chest-lock position,” said the former Ohio State three-time NCAA champ, who has spent the past year training with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club in State College, Pa. “I just have to keep working in there. I have to finish those attacks. So that’s what I’m going to do,”.

Despite how disappointing it is to lose in the Olympic final which only happens every four years (five years since Rio because of COVID), Snyder said he’s keeping the loss in perspective and knows what he needs to work on.

“I love competition and I love wrestling,” said the 25-year-old Maryland native. “It’s what I love to do no matter what tournament it is.

“I’m a competitor and I hate to lose. I know there’s things I need to get better at. But the spirit of Jesus is really strong in me. His spirit keeps me moving forward.”