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ABBOTT COLUMN: Top 10 wrestling stories of 2011



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.

Looking back, 2011 was an active and interesting year within wrestling, helping line up what should be a spectacular Olympic year ahead. On every level of wrestling, there were some great stories and amazing achievements.

Here are my top 10 stories for 2011. As always, I encourage you to go down memory lane for this past year and identify which stories stand out in your mind. There are no wrong answers; we sure had a lot to pick from this past year.

1. Jordan Burroughs amazing rise to the top of the world – Coming into 2011, everybody knew that Nebraska star Jordan Burroughs was talented and had a bright future in the sport. I am not sure anybody knew just how quickly he would take that great talent and championship desire and become the best wrestler in the world. Burroughs dominated the college season, winning his second NCAA title as a senior and rightfully earning the Dan Hodge Trophy as the top college wrestler. But is was his assault on freestyle wrestling, something he had not done since the 2008 Junior World Championships, which was the most amazing feat.

Burroughs ran off a winning streak which continues into the new year. He won his first U.S. Open title in Cleveland, beating a talented Nick Marable in the finals. He beat the Russian in the USA v. Russia World Dual meet in Times Square. Burroughs made his first World Team by stopping another young stud, Andrew Howe, in the finals series. He captured a gold medal at the Ukrainian Memorial International during the summer. He went to the World Championships in Turkey and tore through the field with five straight victories. Big wins included an early defeat of two-time World champion Denis Tsargush of Russia, and a gold-medal win over last year’s World silver medalist Sadegh Goudarzi of Iran. Rather than take a break, Burroughs went down to the Pan American Games and won another gold, stopping a tough new Cuban for the title. Burroughs’ success did not go unnoticed. His coach Mark Manning was named FILA Freestyle Coach of the Year for his mentorship of this young star. The interesting part is that Burroughs is still learning, still making mistakes, still growing in freestyle. His future could be amazing. Like the true greats in U.S. history, such as John Smith, Kenny Monday, Dave Schultz, Kevin Jackson and others, he won a World or Olympic title on his first try.

2. Cael Sanderson comeback and Jake Varner World medal – This is truly a story of two champions, about a legendary hero who has returned and the talented young star that he mentors. When Jake Varner finished winning two NCAA titles at Iowa State, he followed his previous coach Cael Sanderson to Penn State and decided to make his Olympic run with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. He would have 2004 Olympic champion Sanderson as his mentor and training partner. He made a World team in 2009, but fell short in 2010. This was the year in which Varner took the next step forward in his career.

Sanderson got the wrestling world buzzing in March, a week after winning the NCAA title as a coach, when he entered the Northeast Regionals in Brockport and won three matches by technical fall up at 96 kg. All Sanderson would say is he wrestled for fun. He was not on the mat at the U.S. Open, but was there to help Varner, who ran away with the title at 96 kg, allowing only one point to be scored on him the entire day. It was not until early June that we knew if Sanderson’s comeback was real or not. When he was in Stillwater, Okla. for his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, he told Sports Illustrated that he was truly an athlete again. A few days later at the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City, he showed that he had not lost much during his seven-year retirement, marching through the Challenge Tournament at 84 kg, then beating 2009 World silver medalist Jake Herbert handily in the championship series. Varner continued his improvement, again dominating the World Team Trials field, beating college surprise Chad Henke in the finals.

Training side by side, Sanderson and Varner won a tournament in Romania during the summer. When they went to the World Championships, both competed on the same day in Turkey. It was a crazy day, with Sanderson losing his second match to Sharif Sharifov of Uzbekistan, then getting a new chance in the repechage when Sharifov made the finals. Sanderson showed his talent and grit by winning three repechage bouts in a very short time frame to qualify for the bronze-medal bout. Varner also went on a run of his own, but dropped a match to Turkey’s Serhat Balci, getting back into the draw when the Turk made the finals. Varner also won in the repechage, putting both Sanderson and Varner in the bronze round on the same night.

It was an interesting conclusion for both. Sanderson dropped a controversial match to Russian Albert Saritov, losing a clinch when he was on offense then having a close call go the wrong way. Varner came out and won his bronze, stopping tough Taimuraz Tigiyev of Kazakhstan for his first World medal. Sanderson was disappointed in his effort, but found true joy in the success that Varner had. Since then, Sanderson is silent about the Olympic year. Varner continued his success with a gold at the Pan Am Games. 2012 could again be a year where Sanderson and Varner make news side-by-side.

3. Penn State winning NCAA team title – Sanderson played a major role in the top college story of the year, leading Penn State to the team title at the NCAA Championships in only his second year as head coach for the Nittany Lions. It took a full team effort for Penn State to win the only its second NCAA crown, and its first since 1953. In a close team race at the NCAA meet in Philadelphia, the Lions won the key matches needed to walk off with the title. Quentin Wright bounced back from a challenging early season to peak when it counted, winning the 184 pound title with an impressive showing, knocking off four seeds on his march to gold. Silver medals came from Frank Molinaro at 149 pounds and freshman sensation David Taylor at 157 pounds. The team got some key points when transfer Andrew Long took third at 133 pounds. Young star Ed Ruth made a nice run in the consis to take third at 174 pounds. The Nittany Lions truly roared in 2011, and with the quality youth in the program, should be a title contender for the next few seasons.

4. Beat the Streets dual in Times Square captivates public – It was billed as the Battle on Broadway on Cinco De Mayo, the latest wrestling extravaganza cooked up by Mike Novogratz as a fundraiser for the New York City Beat the Streets effort. They got permission to host the first sports event ever in Times Square, one of the world’s great locations and invited the mighty Russians to come over to battle Team USA out under to bright lights on May 5. The event turned out to be even better than imagined. The setting itself was captivating. Then Team USA had a dominant performance, winning 5-2. Henry Cejudo won his first match since the 2008 Olympic finals, and was followed by strong performances by Brent Metcalf, Jordan Burroughs, Jake Varner and Tervel Dlagnev. Those who were there, including celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Matt Modine, had a great time. It also was filmed for a national television broadcast, and Sports Illustrated gave it a two-page photo spread for its next issue. After wrestling on the U.S.S. Intrepid in 2010, then doing up Times Square in 2011, it is hard to imagine how they will beat this one in 2012. The best part was that $1 million was raised for youth wrestling in the city.

5. Anthony Robles inspires the nation – The wrestling community knew about the amazing Anthony Robles story for many years, how a young man who was missing a leg was able to transform himself into a successful wrestler. Robles entered his senior year at Arizona State with All-American honors, but set his sights on winning an NCAA title. The rest of the world learned about his story when Robles reached his goal. He defeated returning NCAA champion Matt McDonough of Iowa in the 125-pound NCAA finals in Philadelphia live on ESPN, and the rest of the world watched in awe as this amazing young hero did what he does best. Robles did a wonderful job handling all the attention, serving as a true ambassador for the sport. He won an ESPY award, and recently was selected as next year’s inductee for the Medal of Courage by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Robles retired as an athlete, but is now a coach for his alma mater. He is also spreading his inspiring message as a public speaker, bringing the story to more people across the nation. You can’t help but feel good about Robles.

6. Freestyle Team USA’s return to prominence – The 2010 year was a big downer for Freestyle Team USA, which fell short of the top 20 at the World Championships in Russia without a single medalist. There was an amazing turnaround just one year later, when National Freestyle Coach Zeke Jones stood on the podium with the third place team trophy in Istanbul, and was literally a match or two away from being the team champions. Burroughs’ gold and Varner’s bronze were supported by fifth-place finishes by Nick Simmons (55kg), Sanderson and Tervel Dlagnev (120kg), and the athletes competed with the intensity and swagger of previous strong U.S. World Teams. It has been a good year on the winter tour schedule, but the performance in Turkey gives great hope that no matter who makes the U.S. Olympic Team in 2012 that the U.S. freestylers have the potential to bring home a number of medals. Coach Jones said the plan in 2011 was the same as in 2010, but the hard work and focus had paid its dividends this time.

7. Women’s World medalists Gray and Bernard – Women’s Team USA just missed out on getting a trophy in Istanbul, finishing in a tie for third with Mongolia, but losing the tiebreaker. That became possible with a great effort in the upper weights, as Adeline Gray (67 kg) and Ali Bernard (72 kg) won their first career Senior World medals on the final day of women’s action in Turkey. Both had some memorable wins. Gray lost early but beat three-time World champion and six-time World finalist Martine Dugrenier in the consolation rounds than finished off by beating a hometown hero, Burcu Orskaya of Turkey for the medal. Bernard defeated two athletes who had beaten her in the past, 2008 Olympic champion Jiao Wang of China and 2010 World silver medalist Ohenawa Akuffo of Canada along the way. The win over China was amazing, down a period and just one point short of losing the second by technical fall, yet Bernard kept coming back for the win. In the bronze medal match, Bernard pinned tough Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan to finish with a flourish. The team qualified for the Olympics in three of the four Olympic weight classes, giving the program a boost heading into the Olympic year.

8. The year of the comeback – We already mentioned the comebacks by Cael Sanderson and Henry Cejudo, but the entire 2011 season was full of drama from those returning to the mat for another Olympic run. Cejudo has competed two more times since the Beat the Streets bout, winning a gold-medal at Sunkist and a silver medal in France. It is interesting that gold medalists from the last four Olympics intend to compete in the Trials this year. 2011 started with Rulon Gardner on the Biggest Loser television show, shedding hundreds of pounds with millions watching each week. Gardner, a 2000 Olympic champion, has returned to the Olympic Training Center and has told the media he will be competing in 2012. Another who announced a comeback is 1996 Olympic champion Kurt Angle, who has been in entertainment wrestling for many years but says that he has been training for another try in freestyle wrestling. We also saw 2000 Olympian Cary Kolat win a silver medal at the U.S. Open in freestyle. Three-time World medalist Andre Metzger, who is in his 50’s, wrestled in three events this fall. 2004 Olympic Oscar Wood is back on the mats in Greco-Roman. Each add some additional interest to the Olympic year, even if they don’t reach their goals.

9. Ellis Coleman’s Flying Squirrel goes viral – Americans may have seen young Greco-Roman star Ellis Coleman try a move he calls the Flying Squirrel. Coleman jumps over his opponent, lands on the mat and tries to throw his rival. He tried one unsuccessfully at the 2010 Junior Worlds, and gave it a try at a few domestic events. But nobody was expecting it at the 2011 Junior Worlds in Bucharest, Romania, when Coleman trailed in the first period against Iran’s Mehdi Zeidvand. This time, Coleman nailed it right before the buzzer. He flipped over, landed and made a seamless three-point throw on the amazed opponent. Both the Iranian and his coach were shaking their heads during the break. Coleman lost that period, but rallied to win the next two and move on, ultimately taking a bronze medal. Romanian television captured the throw, and it was posted on YouTube, going viral. The number of views of this clip is now approaching 4.5 million. TheMat.tv also got the throw and the match, with almost 33,000 views of the entire bout. Coleman was featured on ESPN, which interviewed him about the throw. So many people, both wrestlers and non-wrestlers, have seen this throw. It was an amazing way to promote our sport, and one of our top young stars who invented it.

10. Kyle Dake wins again, Cornell places second – One of the true stars of college wrestling has been Cornell’s Kyle Dake, who always seems to get better and better and better. Dake won the NCAAs as a freshman at 141 pounds a year ago, then moved up to 149 pounds for the 2010-11 season. He seems to be at his best at the big events, entering the NCAAs as the No. 4 seed but powering through the field to win his second national title. Dake beat Frank Molinaro of Penn State in the gold-medal bout. It was also an interesting season for Cornell, which started the year ranked No. 1 and was aiming to become the first Ivy League school to win the team title. Rob Koll’s troops were experienced and talented, but could not put it all together in Philadelphia, placing second behind Penn State, led by five All-Americans. The Big Red has been close before, and even though losing a bunch of starters, should be a challenger again this year. Meanwhile, Dake has moved up in weight again, and will pursue title No. 3 at 157 pounds. He entered the holiday season ranked No. 1 at his new weight.

I also like to include some additional stories that did not make the top 10, but are deserving of note and respect. Here are a few which come to mind.

* A World title is a World title – Any time an athlete from the United States wins a World title, regardless of the age level or style, it is a story to enjoy and celebrate. For the first time since 1999, FILA hosted a FILA Cadet World Championships, for wrestlers who are 15-17 years old. Team USA came home with two golds from this event, held in Szombathely, Hungary in late August. Big Adam Coon of Michigan dominated the men’s freestyle field for the 100 kg title, and Haley Augello won the women’s freestyle title at 46 kg. Both are athletes to watch in the future. Augello has grown almost 20 pounds since, yet was the only high school athlete to qualify for the Olympic Trials with her seventh place at the U.S. Open in Texas in December. We should also not forget the U.S. gold medals in Grappling this summer, as Lisa Ellis, Brandon Ruiz and Jason Soares came back from Belgrade, Serbia with World gold medals in No-Gi Grappling. Ruiz has truly paid his dues, winning two past World silver medals, but getting it all together this time.

* Olympic Trials awarded to Iowa City – This is a big story, which is expected to be even bigger in 2012. USA Wrestling had some great cities and local organizers to choose from, but decided to bring its most important event every four years to Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the University of Iowa, as the U.S. Olympic Team Trials will be held there, April 21-22. This has been the site for so much wrestling history on the college level, and now has a chance to carve some Olympic history into its legacy. The local hosts have already sold more tickets in advance than any previous Trials and has set a goal of packing the house when our Olympic hopefuls come to town in April.

* UNO drops wrestling, Maryville brings it back – The most disheartening news in wrestling came on the day when the Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha won its third straight NCAA Div. II title in Kearney, Nebraska, only to find out that Athletic Director Trev Alberts and President John Christensen decided to drop wrestling as part of its move up to Div. I athletics. The outcry from the campus and the local community was tremendous, as was the immediate reaction of support from the national wrestling community. Regardless, UNO ignored the urgent plea for sanity and threw one of the best college wrestling teams and one of its most legendary coaches on the scrap heap. An amazing development occurred when Maryville College in Missouri, which had been discussing adding wrestling, hired Denney and brought in a number of his Maverick wrestlers for a new wrestling program. It did not make up for the loss of UNO, but showed that somebody out there truly valued both Denney’s longtime contribution as well as the value of the sport. Maryville can count on the support of the wrestling community moving forward because of its courage and foresight in giving Denney a chance to continue his legacy.

* Justin Lester tops U.S. Greco-Roman effort – Harry Lester had stopped wrestling for awhile, after winning two World medals and stepping forward as a leader for Greco-Roman Team USA. In 2011, he made a return, joining the U.S. Army World Class Athlete program, changing his first name back to Justin (which is on his birth certificate) and making the move back down to 66 kg. The decision has been very fruitful. Lester made another World team and placed a strong fifth at the 2011 World Championships. He was just short of winning another medal. Lester was the only U.S. Greco-Roman athlete to qualify his weight class for the Olympics based upon his effort in Istanbul. He is still seeking his first Olympic team berth, which should make the 2012 Olympic Trials in his weight interesting and entertaining.

* Bubba Jenkins ends career with a bang – Nobody ever questioned Bubba Jenkins’ skills as a wrestler. The Virginia native started his college career with Penn State, placing second at the NCAA Championships and winning a Junior World freestyle title in 2007 for the USA. However, things did not work out when Cael Sanderson came in as the new coach for the Nittany Lions, and Jenkins was soon off the team and shopping for a different home. He settled in at Arizona State, and finished out his career in the desert at 157 pounds. Jenkins earned another chance at an NCAA title when he reached the finals, facing undefeated freshman star David Taylor of Penn State in his last college match. Jenkins trailed the match when he locked Taylor up in a cradle to score a stunning pin, and joyously reached the top of the NCAA podium. He has taken his skills into a career in MMA.

* Oklahoma City continues to dominate women’s college wrestling –Archie Randall’s OCU Stars has become a dynasty in women’s college wrestling, winning its third straight WCWA Women’s National title in January. OCU had four individual champions – Brittany Delgado, Kristie Davis, Ashley Hudson and Nicole Woody. The team has been even stronger in the 2011-12 season, wiping out all of its top rivals in dual meets and entering the holiday season with seven No. 1 athletes. The 2012 WCWA Nationals in late January at King College is also an Olympic Trials qualifier.

* Wrestling artifact enhances world history – It was a special day in October when the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Columbia University held a special ceremony in New York City to display the oldest sports manual ever located, which ended up being about the great sport of wrestling. The manual was written in Greek and found in a dump in Egypt, over 2,000 years old. Many of wrestling’s legendary leaders were there for the unveiling, which once again showed that Ed Aliverti was right when he said that wrestling is the world’s oldest and greatest sport.

* Curby Cup brings new excitement to Greco-Roman – Dr. Dave Curby spent a year organizing the 2011 Curby Cup, a competition held in memory of his son, the late Jacob Curby. This year, the format changed to a USA vs. the World dual meet event in Greco-Roman, and many of the world’s top athletes came to Illinois to participate. A big crowd was there when Team USA won 4-3, sweeping the last three matches. Justin Lester got it started at 66 kg for the USA, but the event turned around at 84 kg when Jordan Holm edged World champion Hristo Marinov of Bulgaria. Justin Ruiz and Dremiel Byers followed with wins to make it a great day for the home team.

* Social media explosion – USA Wrestling has been making an impact through the social media, something which grew dramatically in 2011. The USA Wrestling Facebook page went over 100,000 fans in February, now well over 180,000. The USA Wrestling Twitter page also grew and was active all year. It was a year which saw the creation of TheMat.tv, which is USA Wrestling’s video portal, as well as the new digital edition of USA Wrestler. USA Wrestling also has a new app which can be used in a variety of media. As technology advances, there are more opportunities to promote our sport, something we aim to expand year after year after year.

* The Morgan McIntosh year – The consensus star of high school wrestling this past season was Morgan McIntosh of Calvary Chapel High School California, who swept the major awards as the nation’s top prep athlete. A Junior National freestyle champion in 2010, McIntosh won his third California title last year. He was named the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award winner and the ASICS High School Wrestler of the Year. At Junior Nationals, he went up a weight and won again. He has taken his skills to Penn State, where he is already in the starting lineup for the Nittany Lions.

* Losses of some great athletes and heroes – 2011 marked the loss of a number of wrestling heroes and legends. The most shocking was the unexpected death of 2006 Greco-Roman World bronze medalist Lindsey Durlacher, who passed away in his sleep at age 36. Durlacher had an immense impact on many lives, and USA Wrestling saluted his life at a special memorial at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. We also lost some Hall of Fame legends this year, 1960 Olympic champion Doug Blubaugh, Olympic referee Dr. Vince Zuaro, Olympic athlete and coach Jim Peckham and Oklahoma State legend Joe McDaniel. All were giants in our sport and helped move the sport forward. I had close friendships with Peckham and Zuaro going way back to my high school and college years. FILA President Milan Ercegan, who ran our sport for 30 years internationally, was also a loss for our sport this year. Roman Ruderman, a coach with the New York AC, also died unexpectedly. A tough loss for me was the shooting death of Ramie Mohlman in Florida, an athlete in Greco-Roman and Sombo who lived life with a great spirit and passion for wrestling. All are already missed.

* Triple Crown winners in Fargo – There were two new Triple Crown winners at the ASICS Junior and Cadet Nationals in Fargo this past summer. Nkosi Moody of Illinois became the third wrestler to win a Junior Triple Crown, as a national champion in freestyle, Greco-Roman and folkstyle the same year. He swept those titles at 98 pounds. A new Cadet Triple Crown winner was Minnesota’s Gannon Volk at 91 pounds. Both added to the legacy of this great high school event.

* Saunders induction into FILA Hall of Fame – America’s greatest women’s wrestler, four-time World champion Tricia Saunders, became the first U.S. women inducted into the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame in Istanbul, Turkey, prior to the World Championships held there in September. Saunders was a true trailblazer for women’s wrestling, both in the USA and internationally. She remains a great role model, and one of the fiercest U.S. competitors ever, regardless of style.

* Dan Gable’s retirement, kind of – The University of Iowa held a big retirement party for Dan Gable, who left his position with the University athletic department this year. Wrestling legends and leaders all came to Iowa City to salute one of the true heroes of our sport. Gable has never really retired, though, even if he is not at Carver-Hawkeye Arena quite as much. Gable serves as an ambassador for the sport, making appearances constantly to help protect our sport. He helped bring together the Amateur Wrestling Alliance to improve the relationship between wrestling leaders. He is the key spokesman for the upcoming Olympic Trials, and is working tirelessly to help fill the arena there in April. He hosted our Women’s Team USA at his house in December, creating a new generation of athletes who look up to him as a hero. Dan Gable still lives and breathes wrestling, something we can celebrate and count on. Gable’s impact can not be measured.

This is my attempt to capture highlights of the 2011 year. Do you have some for the list? Feel free to add them on our message boards. Thanks for your support of USA Wrestling and wrestling.

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