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U.S. Nationals preview at 55 kg/121 lbs. in men's freestyle wrestling

So what if Sammie Henson is 35 years old.

So what if most of the guys his age already have placed their shoes on the center of the mat years ago and called it a career. The former World champion and Olympic silver medalist is as hungry and is wrestling as well as he ever has.

He is wrestling with the same fire, passion and desire that burned in him when he was regarded one of the world's best freestyle wrestlers. The powerful 5-foot-4 Henson enters the U.S. Nationals as the favorite to repeat as the freestyle champion at 55 kg/121 pounds.

Henson, an assistant coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga who competes for the Sunkist Kids, is off to a very impressive start this year. He knocked off some of the world's best competitors while capturing the Uzbekistan Independence Cup Grand Prix on March 11 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Henson opened the tournament by beating a fierce rival, 2000 Olympic champion Namik Abduallaev of Uzbekistan, 1-2, 2-1, 5-1. Abduallaev beat Henson in the gold-medal match at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Henson won his next two matches to qualify for the finals, stopping Alymbaev Altynbek of Kazakhstan, then beating 1999 World silver medalist Adham Achilov of Uzbekistan, 6-0, 1-0. In the gold-medal finals, Henson beat 2003 and 2005 World champion Dilshod Mansurov of Uzbekistan, 0-1, 1-0, 6-0.

Henson, a 1998 World champ and 2000 Olympic silver medalist, came out of retirement and finished second to Stephen Abas at the 2004 Olympic Trials. Abas went on to win a silver medal in Athens. Abas bumped a weight class last year and Henson grabbed a spot on the World team last year.

Another graybeard in this class is veteran Eric Akin, Henson's long-time rival who made the 1999 World team. Akin, also 35, wrestled well last summer and placed second to Henson at the World Team Trials in Ames, Iowa. Akin, who wrestles for the Cyclone Wrestling Club, has not competed this year. If he does enter in Vegas, Akin still has the skills and the savvy to be a force in this division.

Michigan State junior Nick Simmons placed third at the World Team Trials last year and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed at 125 before placing fourth. Long and lanky with excellent leverage, Simmons presents a tough matchup for his opponents and is difficult to score on. He competed at the World University Games last summer, placing fifth.

A rising star in this class definitely is former Iowa State All-American Matt Azevedo, who fell to Henson 2-0, 5-0 in the finals last year in Las Vegas. He's been a busy man this season, winning the Dave Schultz Memorial Open and the recent Poland Open International. He also was third at the Sunkist Kids meet and is 13-1 this season.

Keep an eye on high-school stud Henry Cejudo of Colorado Springs. Cejudo has climbed to No. 6 in the national rankings. Cejudo knocked off Jason Powell, a 2004 NCAA champion for Nebraska, at the Sunkist Kids International Open. He also won the New York Athletic Club Holiday International, where he beat 2005 Junior World champion Besik Kudukhov of Russia.

Powell, who is with the Gator Wrestling Club, also is still in the mix as is former Iowa All-American Luke Eustice.

Eustice, an NCAA runner-up in 2002, also has been picking up momentum this season. Known for his aggressive style and superior conditioning, Eustice, who wrestles for the Hawkeye Training Club, was second at the Sunkist Kids meet and took third at the Dave Schultz Memorial Open.

Also ranked in the top 10 at 121 are No. 8 Jess Zobeck, No. 9 Mark McKnight and No. 10 Michael Martinez.

Zobeck, who is with the Hawkeye Training Club, was fourth at the New York Athletic Club Holiday Championships in November. He defeated McKnight in that event. McKnight, a collegian who has transferred from Buffalo to Penn State, is wrestling well in freestyle this year.

Others to watch include 1998 Junior World champion T.J. Hill, who always is a contender when he enters. Also placing in the top eight at last year's U.S. Nationals were Collin Cudd (seventh) and Roger Stewart (eighth). Another contender for All-American honors is young Michael Martinez, who currently is training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

On paper, it looks like the veteran stars may continue to rule here. But this could be the year that younger athletes like Azevedo, Simmons and Cejudo break through in this division.

1st - Sammie Henson, St. Louis, Mo. (Sunkist Kids) dec. Matt Azevedo, San Luis Obispo, Calif. (Sunkist Kids), 2-0, 5-0
3rd - Nick Simmons, Williamston, Mich. (Michigan WC) won by injury default over Jason Powell, Lincoln, Neb. (Gator WC)
5th - Luke Eustice, Coralville, Iowa (Hawkeye WC) won by injury default over T.J. Hill, Farmington, Mo. (Missouri)
7th - Collin Cudd, River Falls, Wis. (Wisconsin) dec. Roger Stewart, Dumfries, Va. (Gunston WC), 6-0, 7-0

1. Sammie Henson, Flintstone, Ga. (Sunkist Kits)
2. Eric Akin, Gardner, Kan. (Cyclone WC)
3. Nick Simmons, Williamsston, Mich. (Michigan WC)
4. Matt Azevedo, Arroyo Grande, Calif. (Sunkist Kids)
5. Luke Eustice, Coralville, Iowa (Hawkeye TC)
6. Henry Cejudo, Colorado Springs, Colo. (Sunkist Kids)
7. Jason Powell, Lincoln, NE (Gator WC)
8. Jess Zobeck, Denver, Colo. (Grapplers Edge)
9. Mark McKnight, McDonald, Pa. (New York AC)
10. Michael Martinez, Colorado Springs, Colo. (unattached)
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