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ABBOTT COLUMN: Top 10 wrestling stories of 2012

Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
12/24/2012


Every holiday season, between visits with family and friends, I make sure to find a little time for a column on the Top 10 wrestling stories for the year we have completed. This has become as traditional for me as anything we do every December.

The 2012 year was an Olympic year. In some way, I could make all 10 of the top stories related to the Olympic Games or the Olympic Trials. The Olympic quest is such an important and special process that it truly takes center stage in our sport every four years. However, I will resist that temptation and include some other big stories, because there really were a lot of important things going on at other levels.

Here are my top 10 stories for 2012. As always, I encourage you to look back at past year and decide which stories stand out in your mind. There are no wrong answers. In fact, I often get great suggestions after I have already finished my list. Thank you for your support of wrestling, and of USA Wrestling.

1. Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner win Olympic gold medals – What could be a bigger wrestling story? Although the circumstances of the gold-medal runs for Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner were totally different, the result was the same. These two talented young freestyle wrestlers will be linked in history as American Olympic champions in 2012. The last time the USA won two Olympic gold medals was in 2000, with Rulon Gardner in Greco and Brandon Slay in freestyle. The last time the USA had more than one freestyle Olympic champion was 1996, when Kendall Cross, Tom Brands and Kurt Angle climbed the podium. Burroughs came into the year as a reigning World champion, undefeated on the Senior level, with a Twitter handle which brought attention on himself – All I See Is Gold. Burroughs lived up to his billing, seemingly thriving under the spotlight. Varner, a World bronze medalist coming in, had a disappointing World Cup effort just weeks before the London Games. Competing on the final day of the entire Games, Varner worked his way through the field with a quiet confidence. While Burroughs may have captured the most attention, Varner’s gold medal meant just as much. These two talents as teammates reminded the world that the United States is a world wrestling power, and that the American system, like it or not, produces Olympic champions.

2. Clarissa Chun and Coleman Scott win Olympic bronze medals – U.S. wrestlers are not satisfied unless they win gold medals. Yet, bronze medal performances can be very inspiring, which is what happened when Clarissa Chun and Coleman Scott came back from London with hardware. The U.S. wrestling world had gone through three tough days of Greco-Roman without a medal, and the 2008 World champion Chun had a difficult draw on day four. However, match after match, Chun needed a toughness and focus that required her best effort, and she came through. After a loss, she rebounded and beat the woman who kept her off the podium in 2008, rugged Olympic and World champion Irini Merlini of Ukraine. Chun’s smile after winning bronze helped ignite the U.S. prospects for the rest of the Games. Scott came to London as an underdog. He had a rough journey just to make the field, needing to win the Olympic Trials and a Special Wrestle-off in Times Square to earn his spot. It was Scott’s first U.S. Senior Team, and the rest of the world did not know what he had to offer. Once Scott got on a roll, he wrestled with an edge, a crispness that winners have in close matches. And when Scott scored a winning takedown late in his bronze-medal match, there was no doubt that he not only belonged on the podium, but that his future could also be inspiring.

3. The Olympic Trials in Iowa City raises the bar for this amazing event – I have always said that my favorite event in wrestling is the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. No event captures the emotion and passion which makes our sport so special as this massive showcase which only happens every four years. Wrestlers spend a lifetime dreaming and training for a chance to go to the Olympics, and it is at this event where they must be at their best. Putting the Olympic Trials on a proper stage also adds so much. Hosting the 2012 Trials in Iowa City, on the campus of the University of Iowa, where wrestling is important, truly raised the bar for our sport. Sell-out crowds with strong community support and a talented local organizing committee, provided the athletes, coaches, media and everybody there with a perfect setting for the drama. If you were there, you will never forget it. If not, you need to find out about the 2016 Olympic Trials and do what you can to be there. Another big part of the story was that NBC allowed USA Wrestling to webcast the preliminary sessions on their Olympics website, allowing those who weren’t there to enjoy much of the drama. This year’s Trials were truly historic and will be hard to top in the future.

4. Penn State defends its NCAA Div. I team title with impressive effort – Winning a NCAA team title in wrestling is a rare feat, achieved by only a handful of teams over the long history of the sport. Repeating as NCAA champions is even more difficult, especially in the era of expanded parity on the Div. I level. Cael Sanderson’s Nittany Lions were able to go back-to-back as champions, with some great individual efforts and a total team effort. History will remember the Penn State champions. Sophomore David Taylor, dominating the entire season, won his NCAA title match at 165 pounds by technical fall. He won everything, the NCAA OW award, Most Falls Award and later the Dan Hodge Trophy. Team leader and sparkplug Frank Molinaro reached his goal of winning the NCAAs during his senior year at 149 pounds, proving how hard work and skill can pay off at the end. Many people felt that the most talented of the champions at the NCAA meet was the 174-pound champion for the Nittany Lions, Ed Ruth, who combined power, skill and technique in an impressive fashion. Although they lost Molinaro to graduation, a big part of the Penn State lineup returned this year, and Sanderson’s troops hold the No. 1 ranking for the new season heading into the holidays. Will there be a three-peat in March?

5. Elena Pirozhkova and Adeline Gray win women’s World gold medals – FILA, the international wrestling federation, is lobbying to have all seven women’s weight classes in future Olympic Games. Part of this process is holding a World Championships in the seven weights during the Olympic year, to give those in non-Olympic weights a chance for a World title that year and to show its commitment for women’s wrestling. The United States, which had a single medal at the Olympics, put together a strong team for the 2012 Women’s Worlds in Canada, and two of the athletes came home as World champions. First on the podium was Adeline Gray, who was a World bronze medalist at 67 kg in 2011, but dropped to the Olympic weight at 63 kg and fell short of the Olympic team. Back at her regular weight of 67 kg at the Worlds, Gray was powerful and confident, scoring pins in the semifinals and finals to become only the sixth U.S. Women’s World champion. Two days later, Olympian Elena Pirozhkova, who had a disappointing effort in London, was wrestling at her best at the Worlds, pinning her first two opponents and closing out the event with two decisions. A past World silver medalist, Pirozhkova put together a complete tournament on the highest stage this time. Both American champions beat talented young Junior World champions in the finals. It was a good effort for the U.S. team, which finished third in the standings with four medalists. This bodes well for the new Olympic four-year cycle.

6. Olympic year comebacks, those attempted and those talked about – All year, the national media had an interest in the Olympic Trials for wrestling because of the potential comebacks of four past Olympic champions. 2004 Olympic champion Cael Sanderson returned in 2011 to make the U.S. Freestyle World Team and place fifth in the World. Sanderson would not say if he was coming back or not for the Olympic Trials, but his potential Olympic run was of high interest. Three other past Olympic champions did announce a comeback, 2008 Olympic champion Henry Cejudo and 1996 Olympic champion Kurt Angle, both in freestyle, and 2000 Olympic champion Rulon Gardner in Greco-Roman. Cejudo entered a few events in the fall of 2011, but did not compete in the winter. Gardner, who had ballooned to 470 pounds before going onto the Biggest Loser, started the big weight drop needed to make the heavyweight limit of 264.5 pounds, working out at the Olympic Training Center. Angle, who makes his living in entertainment wrestling, gave numerous interviews about his comeback, and trained a few times at colleges near his Pittsburgh home. For insiders, the discussion was whether any of the four would actually compete in Iowa City. As it turned out, only Cejudo stepped on the mats at the Olympic Trials. In good shape and motivated, Cejudo wrestled well, losing a memorable Challenge Tournament semifinal match at 55 kg to 2011 World Team member Nick Simmons which many feel was the most entertaining bout of the entire event. Cejudo retired after the loss, tossing his shoes to the fans. Gardner showed up in Iowa City and made a last effort to make weight, dropping out just a short time before weighins reportedly only a few pounds shy. He held a big press conference the next day to talk about his journey at age 40. Sanderson made it official that he wasn’t competing a few days prior to the event, and then coached Jake Varner to a team berth. Angle also announced shortly prior to Iowa City that he had to withdraw due to injury. In addition to the four Olympic champions, comebacks by World medalist Tina George in her mid 30s., World champion and Olympic medalist Dennis Hall, who was in his 40s, and past World medalist Andre Metzger, now in his 50s, did happen, although all fell short. Comebacks are always a part of the Olympic year storyline, but this time was quite interesting.

7. Passing of wrestling legends Bill Farrell and Jeff Blatnick and many others we care about – Wrestling is a family with leaders and legends who make a huge difference in the direction of the sport. We lost two of these giants in 2012, with the passing of Hall of Famers Bill Farrell and Jeff Blatnick. Both were amazing people, and were good friends of mine and my family. Farrell, through his roles as athlete, coach and leader with the New York Athletic Club for decades, changed the direction of wrestling. He coached the legendary 1972 Olympic freestyle team, led by champions Dan Gable, Ben Peterson and Wayne Wells, and also impacted the sport with his management of wrestling marketing for ASICS. Farrell passed away at age 82. Jeff Blatnick was among the most public of wrestlers, winning the 1984 Olympic Games in Greco-Roman after defeating cancer. He made two Olympic teams and helped raise the level of U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling. He also had big impact as a TV announcer for wrestling, working the Olympics, the NCAAs and other major events. Jeff was a grassroots leader in USA Wrestling as New York’s state chairperson. His unexpected passing at age 55 was a shock to wrestling and Olympic communities. As with every year, we lost many important people, including Hall of Famers Lee Allen, Josiah Henson and Les Anderson. Lee Allen made a huge impact on USA Wrestling as a coach, truly a major leader in the development of our women’s program. Others who we lost this year who were prominent in our sport included Eddie Urbano, Dave Porter, Bob Blessing, Rich Sofman, Ron Pineda and others. We salute all of the wrestling family members who we lost this year.

8. Kyle Dake, three NCAA titles in three different weights – What more can you say about Kyle Dake? Cornell’s talented, driven and fearless star continues to push the boundaries of the sport, doing it all with a passion and excellence which is memorable. Dake won his third NCAA title in March at 157 pounds, joining an elite group of three-timers. However, he is the only athlete to claim NCAA titles in three different weights, climbing from 141 to 149 to 157 each season. In the spring, Dake had a great run at the Olympic Trials, placing an impressive fourth and scoring a memorable pin over 165-pound NCAA champion David Taylor in the wrestlebacks. Dake went with the Olympic Team as a training partner in London, adding more experience to his ledger. This fall, Dake went up another weight to 165 pounds for his senior year, going for four NCAA titles in four weights. He beat top challenger Taylor in the NWCA All-Star Classic early on, and remains unbeaten at the holidays with a No. 1 ranking at his new weight. Can Dake become only the third four-time NCAA champion? Is there anything Dake can’t do? Those stories will be told in 2013 and beyond.

9. Age-group World champions for the United States – The highest level of achievement in wrestling is winning a Senior World or Olympic title, and we celebrated the American Senior champions in previous stories – Burroughs and Varner in London, and Pirozhkova and Gray in Canada. However, on the age-group levels, the story is the same. A World title is the absolute best a wrestler can do. Beating the world’s best in your weight class is a rare achievement, indeed. In that spirit, we honor these U.S. wrestlers who won age-group World titles: Cadet World champions (for ages 15-17) Marina Doi of California at 38 kg in women’s freestyle and Zain Retherford of Pennsylvania at 63 kg in men’s freestyle, as well as University World champions Adeline Gray at 72 kg in women’s freestyle and Max Nowry at 55 kg in Greco-Roman. Special note goes to Gray, who won a pair of World titles within a week, taking her Senior World gold in Canada then following it up the next week with a University World gold in Finland.

10. Living the Dream Medal Fund gives out $550,000 in Olympic wrestling bonuses – Mike Novogratz, who helped spearhead the amazing Living the Dream Medal Fund, told the media prior to the Olympics that he hoped to be the poorest but happiest man at the London Games. With the help of a number of other stewards, as well as a national fundraising effort led by Al Bevilacqua, the Medal Fund set some high rewards for success at the 2012 Olympics. Novogratz got his wish, because a strong U.S. effort cost the fund $550,000 in bonuses. Winning $250,000 each with Olympic titles were Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner, and snagging $25,000 each with Olympic bronzes were Coleman Scott and Clarissa Chun. Over the four-year Olympic cycle, a remarkable $750,000 was given to medal-winning American wrestlers. No other sport on the U.S. Olympic scene was anywhere close to wrestling in its bonus program for elite athletes. The good news is that the stewards are working on a plan to keep the fund going through the next Olympic cycle, and perhaps finding a way to make it continue beyond that. Burroughs has announced he plans on wrestling through Rio in 2016, a sign that the incentives may be a factor in keeping our best on the mats.

There were many other big stories in wrestling, but in my mind, these were the 10 which stood above the rest.

In no particular order, here are other big stories from 2012 which made it a year to remember.

• Logan Stieber, freshman NCAA champ and tough freestyler – It’s not easy winning the NCAA Championships as freshman, but Ohio State’s Logan Stieber was able to do it, while knocking off a returning NCAA champion along the way. Stieber had a great redshirt year leading into the college season, winning a Junior World silver medal in freestyle and establishing himself on the Senior level as well. Stieber’s freshman year at 133 pounds was capped off with 4-3 victory in the NCAA finals over 2011 champion Jordan Oliver of Oklahoma State. In freestyle, he worked out daily with past World Team members Shawn Bunch and Reece Humphrey, gaining in experience and ability. At the Olympic Trials, Stieber reached the finals series, losing to eventual Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott. Back as a sophomore this fall, Stieber is No. 1 again this college season at 133 pounds, but won’t face Oliver again, as the Cowboy star has jumped up two weights. This year was a just a taste of the potential Stieber has at the highest levels of wrestling and many expect a special career ahead.

• Beat the Streets Gala and Olympic Trials Wrestle-off in Times Square – The wrestling community has made a commitment to promote and market the sport in new ways. Mike Novogratz and the Beat the Streets people in New York have been moving the bar with creative things with their fundraising Gala, first holding an all-star dual on the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier, then hosting the first sports event held live in Times Square. This year, the Beat the Streets Gala once again featured a USA vs. Russia freestyle dual meet in Times Square, but had an added bonus. The 60 kg Wrestle-off for the U.S. Olympic Team in freestyle wrestling was added on, giving the event even more importance and sizzle. This event met expectations. Team USA beat the Russians again in the dual, then Coleman Scott had a big day in the Olympic Wrestle-off, first beating Reece Humphrey, then stopping Shawn Bunch in a best-of-three series for the Olympic spot. Scott’s five-point throw to finish off match #3 is one of those memories which will last a long time in our sport. Another big deal was that NBC telecast the show on their new NBC Sports Network, and provided a live stream on Universal Sports.

• Jack Pinto, six-year-old wrestler, among victims in Connecticut school shooting – This story is only a little over a week old, yet deserves mention because of the importance of this tragedy to our nation. Everybody in our country was shocked and saddened with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. which took the lives of 20 young students and six adult staff there. One of the victims was one of our own, six-year old wrestler Jack Pinto of the Newtown Youth Wrestling Association. There has already been some wrestling-related memorials in Jack’s honor, including a moment of silence at the Grapple at the Garden, George Mason wrestling team wearing Jack’s name on their headgear, and his teammates competing the following weekend in Jack’s honor. A story was published that Jack lost a tooth during wrestling practice, handed it to his coach, and went right back to wrestling. It is for the young athletes in the sport that we work so hard providing opportunities, and the loss of one of our youth athletes in this tragedy is a huge loss for the sport.

• Ellis Coleman, from Flying Squirrel to the Olympic Games – Last year, the world found out about Ellis Coleman after he nailed a wild move, the Flying Squirrel, at the Junior World Championships in Greco-Roman, a video which went viral. Going into the Olympic year, the Flying Squirrel became a popular story with the media. However, Coleman had higher aspirations. He made the most of his first Olympic Trials quest, dropping down to 60 kg and making the Olympic Team with a strong effort at the Trials in Iowa City. Coleman fell short of his goal of an Olympic medal in London, but he will no longer just be known for his creative, athletic move. He will forever be known as an Olympian.

• Justin Ruiz retires after long Olympic quest falls short – One of the true class acts in our sport is Justin Ruiz, the 1995 World bronze medalist in Greco-Roman who has been one of our nation’s top stars for a decade. Ruiz fell short of making two Olympic teams, in 2004 losing to 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Garrett Lowney for the team, then in 2008 losing in the Trials finals to eventual Olympic bronze medalist Adam Wheeler. This time around, Ruiz came in at No. 1 in the USA, but was unable to go to the Olympics this time because he was unable to get the 100 kg weight qualified. Ruiz had four shots at it, first at the 2011 Worlds, then at the 2012 Pan American Olympic Qualifier, then at two last chance Olympic qualifiers overseas. It ended up being the only class the USA didn’t get for London, as our nation had the most wrestling qualifiers of all nations with 17. Ruiz competed one more time after the qualification process ended, scoring a pin over his opponent from Georgia at the Curby Cup. He was able to leave his shoes in retirement to the applause of the fans. Ruiz was a great athlete and an even better person, and we wish him well in his coaching career, as he accepted an assistant job for Utah Valley University.

• Jeff Monson wins Grappling World title – Winning his third World Grappling title for the USA was MMA star Jeff “the Snowman” Monson, who claimed the superheavyweight title in No-Gi Grappling in Poland this fall. The USA placed third as a nation in No-Gi Grappling, a great effort considering the challenges faced by the team in just being involved. Only a few weeks before the Grappling Worlds were to be held by FILA in Moscow, Russia, after all the airline tickets had been purchased, FILA moved the event to Poland. Coaches Sheldon Marr and Ricardo Liborio pulled it all together, and led the U.S. team to a strong performance in a highly competitive World meet.

• Stephany Lee loses Olympic berth on failed doping test – Not all the big news in wrestling this year was good news. One of the champions from the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials was unable to compete in London, when 72 kg champion Stephany Lee accepted a one-year suspension for failing her drug test in Iowa City. The spot went to Trials runner-up Ali Bernard, who competed on her second Olympic team.

• Fargo Triple Crown winners in Cadet and Junior level – It was a big year for Triple Crown winners in Fargo, N.D. at the combined ASICS/Vaughan Junior and Cadet Nationals. The Cadet division had four athletes who won USA Wrestling national titles in freestyle, Greco-Roman and folkstyle during the same year. They were Hunter Marko of Wisconsin, Aaron Pico of California, Bo Nickal of Texas and Lance Benick of Minnesota. Adan Coon of Michigan became only the fourth Junior Triple Crown winner with his dominant effort at heavyweight. One big Triple Crown attempt fell short on the Junior level, as 2011 Junior Triple Crown winner Nkosi Moody of Illinois won the folkstyle and Greco titles but was upset in the freestyle finals by New Mexico’s Paul Mascarenas.

• Jeff Buxton leaves Blair, now at Lehigh Valley AC – The big news in American high school wrestling was not based upon a specific athlete or team, but was about a coaching change. After coaching the nation’s top high school team at Blair Academy (N.J.) to 30 National Prep titles, Jeff Buxton left as head coach at Blair unexpectedly this fall. One of the top producers of wrestling talent for the college and international levels, Buxton tutored Olympian Steve Mocco, a two-time NCAA champion, along with other two-time college champions Mark Perry and Kellen Russell. It wasn’t long before Buxton got right back into coaching at a high level, taking over as head coach of the Lehigh Valley Athletic Club and mentoring its Olympic hopefuls.

• Big-time promotions of wrestling getting fans out to watch – Everybody marvels at how some college programs, such as Iowa and Penn State, have been able to consistently draw large crowds for their home meets. It seems that the wrestling world is learning that making a big deal out of selected events can help attract fans and grow the sport. The expansion of the National Duals into two weekends of action was created for fan interest. The NWCA All-Star Classic this year was a sell-out at American University, fueled by the match between Kyle Dake and David Taylor. The world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, took a chance with college wrestling and held the Grapple at the Garden in December, which was successful enough that word is they will do this again. The Beat the Streets Gala, the Curby Cup and other events which are geared towards the fans have given our sport a boost on the national scene.

• Oklahoma City wins fourth straight WCWA title – Archie Randall and his OCU Stars have become the dominant force in women’s college wrestling. Led by six individual champions, Oklahoma City won its fourth straight WCWA title with a dominant effort at the nationals held at King College. The team featured three-time WCWA champions Michaela Hutchison and Brittany Delgado, two-time champion Kristie Davis and first-time champions Emily Webster, Joey Miller and Jennifer Page. The Stars have reloaded and hold the No. 1 spot in the new season going into the holidays.

• Gable inducted into FILA International Hall of Fame – American wrestling hero Dan Gable was among the 2012 inductees into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame. He became the seventh American inducted into the Hall, and the first American in the “Legends” category. With one World title and one Olympic title, Gable did not have the level of achievement that many of the others enshrined had as an athlete. However, his overall impact on wrestling as an athlete, coach, leader and inspiration made him very, very worthy. He was honored in London, and many of the international wrestling people wanted their pictures taken with Gable, an indication of his status worldwide.

• Elena Pirozhkova “picks up” First Lady Michelle Obama – The sport of wrestling got all kinds of national and international media coverage during the Olympic year. Some was expected, while some just kind of happened. This week, we learned that the NBC TODAY Show piece with Matt Lauer and Al Roker doing Greco-Roman wrestling was voted the funniest segment of the year on that popular show. Jordan Burroughs was one of only five Olympic heroes to be interviewed by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. Perhaps the most interesting media hit that went viral was when First Lady Michelle Obama visited with the Olympic team prior to the start of the Games in London. Instead of hugging her, like all of the other athletes, women’s freestyle wrestler Elena Pirozhkova asked permission and lifted the First Lady up into her arms. Photos of this incident went worldwide through Facebook, with the first image shot by one of Elena’s teammates and then the official White House photo to follow. Elena didn’t want to do what everybody else did when she met the First Lady, and her surprise body lift made the news.

• FILA names American folkstyle as an international style – Although this decision to recognize American folkstyle wrestling as a traditional style within international wrestling has not made an impact yet, this story could grow as USA Wrestling moves forward to sharing our most popular wrestling style with the rest of the world. Stay tuned.

What stories do you believe deserve consideration as the most important in 2012? Please visit the college wrestling page on our Message Boards and give your thoughts. I am sure I missed some great ideas, and encourage your input.

Here’s to a great 2013, the start of the new Olympic four-year cycle. May you and your family have a blessed holiday season.
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