Worlds Preview: Zain Train Back on Track in Men’s Freestyle

Updated: September 5, 2022

Photo: Zain Retherford (right) avenged a loss to Jordan Oliver at the 2021 World Team Trials by beating the former Oklahoma State star in the 2022 Final X in Stillwater. Retherford, a former Penn State two-time Hodge winner, is one of four members of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club to earn a spot on the World Team. (Justin Hoch photo)

By Tristan Warner

When the 2022 UWW Senior World Championships get underway September 10-18 at Stark Arena in Belgrade, Serbia, Zain Retherford will be making his third appearance on the sport’s biggest stage.

The three-time NCAA champion (who amassed a 93-0 record over his final three seasons) at Penn State dominated the sport’s highest level in folkstyle in a way few others have been able to. Retherford was named the top collegian in 2017 and 2018, winning the Dan Hodge Trophy both years.

Ever since, his focus has been on translating that same success into the freestyle realm on the international scene.

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“I feel so grateful for this opportunity,” Retherford said. “Obviously, after getting to compete at NCAAs, the highest level of folkstyle, this is the highest level in freestyle, so I am really excited.”

Two previous World Championship appearances in 2017 and 2019 saw the former Nittany Lion suffer heartbreaking one-point losses that ultimately kept him from collecting a medal.

Now, as he logs his final few weeks of training before embracing the opportunity to represent Team USA for a third time at the Worlds, several recent life changes helped the central Pennsylvania native shift his perspective for the better.

First, Retherford is up a weight class from 65 to 70 kilograms, having made the decision to focus less on managing his weight and more on improving his wrestling.

“After the 2020 Trials, I felt like I wasn’t able to put forth my best effort on the mat,” he recalled. “I decided I wanted to make some changes.

“At that point, my practice mentality was more on controlling my weight than it was on becoming the best wrestler I could be.”

Retherford made the jump to 70 kg and placed third at the 2021 World Team Trials, falling to Jordan Oliver in the quarterfinals, 2-2.

But the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club athlete came storming back during the 2022 Trials, emerging from the No. 4 seed in the challenge bracket with victories over Doug Zapf and Alec Pantaleo.

At the Final X Stillwater held in early June, Retherford found himself standing toe-to-toe with Oliver again, the nemesis who kept him from a 2021 World Team berth.

This time, Retherford battled his way to a best-of-three victory, winning bouts one and three (8-3, 4-5, 4-3) to secure his spot on Team USA’s World Championship roster.

While no stranger to competing at the sport’s highest level, he feels some recent changes in his personal life have prepared him for this moment in a way that no amount of training ever has.

“I recently got married, and now my wife and I are expecting a baby in January,” the soft-spoken Retherford excitedly unveiled.

“I’m also currently working towards a Master of Business Administration, so I’ve just been busy in a good way. As I’ve gotten older, these life changes have taken some pressure off and changed my perspective.”

While Retherford has always enjoyed the sport of wrestling and the competitiveness of such high-level events, his previous World Championship appearances came with stressful circumstances that detracted from his focus.

“Some weird things happened in previous years,” he reflected. “For example, in 2019, I didn’t officially make the team until a few weeks before the tournament. Not knowing if I would even be on the team until the last minute was a stressful situation. This year, I can just focus on wrestling and enjoying this journey.”

From a mental standpoint, as Retherford prepares with his teammates and coaches for his third attempt at a coveted World gold medal, Retherford specifically emphasized he is not focusing on medals or victories.

He is also paying no mind to his opponent’s previous accolades on the international stage.

 His only concerns are effort and energy.

“Previously at the World Championships, I think I paid too much attention to who my opponents were and what medals they had previously won. I felt I had too much nervous energy. I was jittery and jumpy. Sometimes, getting caught reaching even one time can make all the difference at such a high level.”

This time around, not focusing on wins and losses but merely on effort is the game plan.

“I am excited to just enjoy this opportunity and have fun competing. Leave it all out there on the mat, and when you do that, the wins and losses take care of themselves. One score at a time.”

As for his future in the sport, especially considering the changes in his personal life and a jam-packed schedule, Retherford has no plans to hang it up any time soon.

“As long as I am still enjoying wrestling and competing, I will keep going,” he said. “If ever I start to resent the sport or feel I’m not getting the most out of my efforts, then it would be time to reevaluate.

“But I enjoy wrestling now even more than I did as a kid. I am still dialed in and am so grateful for this sport.”