IOWA CITY – Rulon Gardner is too overweight to wrestle. Henry Cejudo might not be good enough to win. Their counterparts don’t care one bit. This is their chance for glory.
More than 200 competitors in men’s freestyle and Greco-Roman and women’s freestyle, including 55 tied to the Colorado Springs area, will step on the mat Saturday and Sunday at the U.S. Olympic trials, with 18 earning berths in the London Games this summer.
A 2000 Olympic gold medalist who works out of the Olympic Training Center, Gardner didn’t show Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for weigh-ins, as medical problems forced doctors to shut down his weight cut with Gardner within five pounds of the 264.5-pound Greco-Roman heavyweight limit. A Coronado High School graduate, Cejudo hasn’t been tested – and hasn’t practiced that much – since he won an Olympic freestyle title in 2008.
Gunning for return trips to the Olympics are OTC residents Dremiel Byers, Clarissa Chun and Spenser Mango – Byers and Chun are in this weekend’s best-of-three championship series, along with Elena Pirozhkova of the OTC. The U.S. has qualified all but two weight classes for London, and it’s hoping for a rebound after the disaster of 2008, when only Cejudo and the now-retired Randi Miller and Adam Wheeler, both with bronzes, hit the podium.
Event organizers report a record 12,000-plus tickets are sold for both days – the capacity of Iowa’s on-campus arena is 15,500, however, hundreds of seats have been knocked out because of the venue layout. “What a weekend for our sport,” USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said, adding he believes the Olympic trials are “the purest pursuit in all of sport – an American wrestler trying to win a gold medal for his country.”
For freestyle, “It’s pretty simple: We want to win gold medals (in London) – that’s what America is about,” U.S. coach Zeke Jones said. “It’s their dreams. You’re talking about the dreams of the American wrestlers. … We want to dominate.” In Greco-Roman, “We hope the team has our best guys – a combination of young blood and some experienced warriors,” U.S. coach Momir Petkovic said. “Definitely bring some gold medals back to the country and kind of bring Greco back on track and prove again we really can do it.”
A decade ago, the U.S. had no more than 2,000 women’s wrestlers, and now, there are an estimated 7,000, with the number of women’s college teams rising from five to 20. “We want to go to London and bring home four pieces of hardware, and we have the team that can do that,” U.S. coach Terry Steiner said. “This weekend, hopefully those people that are most capable of bringing back medals are the ones standing at the end of the day.”
Even with a bye past the challenge bracket, the priority for Chun is “polishing everything and making myself a better wrestler. I never train to beat one particular person,” she said. “My preparation is the same, and I just go out there and wrestle.” Still, Chun said, having already been to the Olympics makes the trials “a little different because I have that target on my back. For someone to make the Olympic team, they have to come through me.”
The trials don’t carry pressure for R.C. Johnson, an OTC resident in Greco-Roman. “It’s just another tournament,” Johnson said. “Every tournament is the same thing.” Freestyle wrestler Brent Metcalf said, “There’s a lot on the line. … It’s time to go do it.”