Nine days. Nine. That is a little over a week and much less than a month, which is when this countdown first began. We can now measure the time in hours. Heck, even minutes, if you’re mental enough. The mind really doesn’t do well to calculate time this way, it kind of puts our brains on bit of a hamster wheel. Nevertheless, this is where we are. Stuck waiting, yet still moving.
Once you toss it into the context of what has taken place over the last five months, nine days seems even shorter. For just as recently as March, no one really knew much of anything about what the 2016 US Olympic Greco Roman Team might look like. Obviously, Andy Bisek (75 kg) and Robby Smith (130 kg) were big favorites heading into the Trials in Iowa City and both won their respective weights fairly handedly (with Bisek enjoying a bye all the way to the finals, no less).
From there, it was all a little fuzzy. 59 kilograms was thought to be a two-horse battle between the ever-enduring two-time Olympian Spenser Mango and fellow former Olympian Ildar Hafizov. At 66 kg, Bryce Saddoris seemed like a pretty safe pick for many. Three-time World Team member Jordan Holm had been such a dominant force nationally that it was easy for fans to point directly at him for the 85 kg crown. And up until Joe Rau decided 98 was where he belonged, Caylor Williams presided over that weight class with unflinching authority.
So…here’s what happened. Jesse Thielke surprised Mango in the semifinals and then thrashed Hafizov to take two straight matches to claim his spot. RaVaughn Perkins, the last US wrestler to defeat Saddoris before this year’s Olympic Trials, elevated past fan-favorite Patrick Smith, coming back from one match down to win the next two. 2012 Olympian Ben Provisor, remade and reinvigorated, shut down Holm in their semis bout before winning two in a row over Jake Clark. And Rau got up off the deck in his first match with Williams, fighting back hard in the last pair of bouts for his inaugural place on an Olympic Team.
The immediate aftermath and the qualification process
“Bisek and Robby”, a sort of partners-in-crime dynamic, took off to Alaska to teach at a camp. Then they both spent time training in Europe — Smith in Hungary, Bisek in Austria. Meanwhile, “the remaining three”, Thielke, Perkins, and Rau, were called upon to qualify their weights for the Rio Games. It was a wrestling odyssey. A trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and the 1st World Qualifier represented serious business. The qualifying process, even if it is accomplished at the previous year’s World Championships (Bisek and Smith), is never not a priority in an Olympic Year. Outside of actually holding the Trials and forming a team, nothing can reasonably approach it in terms of importance.
The 1st World Qualifier being held a mere two weeks and change following the events in Iowa City and taking place on the other side of the globe was undoubtedly a rough first assignment. Thielke appeared completely in control throughout his first round battle with Guarav Sharma (India), but wound up being defeated in stunning fashion with only 15 seconds left. Rau faced off with eventual Rio qualifier Fredrik Schoen (SWE), a man he had defeated once before. Unfortunately, the American couldn’t replicate that performance, dropping a 4-1 decision.
The bright spot in Mongolia for the US was RaVaughn Perkins, who wrestled inspired and brilliantly throughout the tournament. Perkins won his first two matches, lost in the quarterfinals, and then won his next two to come within a victory of nailing down qualification. Unfortunately, that was as close as he’d get, losing to 2012 Olympian Edgaras Venckaitis (LTU) in the match to decide the true third.
Thielke’s statement in Istanbul
Thielke, Perkins, and Rau regrouped in Hungary before trekking to Istanbul, Turkey, the site of the 2nd OG World Qualifier. This was it. The legitimate last chance. In order to qualify, each wrestler had to reach the finals. Finishing top three wasn’t going to cut it. And to compound matters further, the field was certainly not thin, as plenty of the world’s most accomplished athletes were still in need of locking down slots for their nations.
All three athletes won their first bouts. Thielke ran over 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Peter Modos (HUN); Perkins dispatched of Pan Zheng (CHN); and Rau found little trouble beating down Narek Setaghyan of Spain. Things started off looking pretty good, but a few bumps were inevitable.
Thielke’s opposition in his next match was 2012 Olympic silver medalist, Revaz Lashki (GEO). Once again, it was another startling display of dominance. Thielke seemed as though any time he really wanted to impose his will, he could. Even after Lashki had tied the bout at 6-6, it didn’t feel like Thielke was in any serious trouble (this, despite the fact the officials screwed him out of at least six other points in the first period, but anyway). Momentum started to build. It was inescapable. Thielke destroying two Olympic medalists back-to-back in the biggest tournament of his life provided hope that more was to come. It did.
Perkins won his second round match against Vladmiros Matias (GRE) by taking the initiative when there was no other choice. Down 4-1 in the second period, he needed to pull something out. With two minutes remaining, Perkins hit a four-pointer to go up 5-4. He then closed things out with another two as time expired for a final score of 7-4.
Similar to what happened in Turkey, Rau had the chance to beat another previous opponent a second consecutive time in Honduran Kevin Mejia Castillo. This one was heartbreaking. Castillo caught a bodylock against Rau, who fought it with everything he could. He might have fought too hard. Because as soon as Castillo got Rau down on the mat his arm was trapped, leading to a quick few gutwrenches and a shocking second-round defeat for the American.
Like Rau, Perkins’s qualifying bid also fell short.
Matched up with Kyrgyzstan’s Ruslan Tsarev, Perkins struggled to make anything happen. Tsarev played as tight of a game as is practically allowed, even being penalized for his refusal to oblige to the rule-set. It was all part of his strategy: Play the waiting game, stymie any and all scoring chances, and then take advantage of a par terre chance. Perkins tried pressing the issue, but Tsarev had already received the points he needed from a couple of lifts. Tsarev did wind up pulling Perkins into the repechage (the Kyrgyzstan wrestler would finish second to 2014 World Champion Ruslan Chunayev [AZE]), but his goal of qualifying for the Games was done.
A completed mission
Though disappointing for the US squad, none of this affected Thielke’s approach. Against Farunze Harutyunyan (SWE), the Wisconsinite was belly down trying to avoid being lifted one second and then the next, hitting a hip-heist and taking Harutyunyan over and onto his back. Thielke held on for dear, sweet life, earning a pin and also, a trip the semifinals. It was yet another blistering showing and it put Thielke in the semifinals versus Moldavian Donior Islamov, with the winner punching his ticket to Rio.
Islamov, an angular, opportunistic combatant with a penchant for arm throws, broke one out against Thielke right away. Down 4-0, Thielke was intent on chipping away to stay in the match. But as soon as Thielke closed the gap to 4-3, Islamov landed yet another arm throw. That made the score 8-3, only three points away from a technical superiority defeat for Thielke. There was just no way that was going to happen. Not here, not now.
What took place next will live on in the annals of US Greco Roman wrestling history for years to come. Thielke cinched a takedown for two — 8-5. Following the reset, he then hit one of his patented ducks, which led to a trap-arm gut for another four. Thielke was now leading! With the score 9-8 heading into the second, he was just getting his engine warmed up.
To start the final frame, Thielke found another bodylock and ran it down for another four-point play. 13-8. Islamov had no idea what was going on, nor how to stop it. He had nothing in his arsenal to slow the American down. Thielke came forward and clashed into his foe one more time, leading to another bodylock and turn to seal the match and also, clinch his Olympic spot.
In the finals, Thielke had the pleasure of greeting six-time World Champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Hamid Soryan. This one wouldn’t go in Thielke’s favor. Soryan bullied Thielke to the mat, gutted him over three times and that was that. Considering the day Thielke had just enjoyed and also, that the finals really didn’t have a ton of relevance outside of offering the opportunity for him to compete against one of the best wrestlers of this generation, there wasn’t much to take away from the result. Plus, if Thielke wants another crack at Soryan, Rio is the best place for that to happen.
The middle of May saw the opening of the Concord Greco Camp, which took place at the Community Youth Center in Concord, California. This allowed for the Olympic athletes and other Seniors to come together as a team and also, train alongside some of the nation’s top Junior talent. It was also when the annual Beat the Streets gala happened. Andy Bisek, the lone US Greco Roman wrestler to compete in the event, went toe-to-toe with 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2013 World Champion Kim Hyeon-Woo (KOR). Kim received two points off of an arm-throw early on and another point for a step-out to earn a 3-0 victory in the exhibition.
Following the Concord training camp and a brief respite, the 2016 US Olympic Greco Roman Team along with a few other rising Senior athletes traveled to Azerbaijan for an intensive three-week camp. The first week was spent in Baku and then it was off to scenic Goygol for the final two. This camp included plenty of live wrestling, full matches, conditioning, and also, another opportunity for the unit to bond as a fully-functional team. In addition, Andy Bisek did what he does, and that is push someone to the edge of sanity where they begin to reconsider their life choices.
After the team arrived back home in July, another short break was allowed so that the athletes could recoup in time for the beginning of Olympic Camp in Colorado Springs. This training camp centered around building back up their conditioning levels and as such, measuring effective methods to sustain them. It also meant the further indoctrination of “Rio Matches”, where each Olympian does battle with a fresh partner each minute for six minutes, the length of an official match. The practices, intended to nurture peak conditioning and encourage personalized skill-sharpening, became shorter in overall duration but not intensity.
And now we’re here. This week, athletes from Korea and Algeria have been at the Olympic Training Center working in with the US team as everyone gets in their last days of hard training for Rio. The 2016 US Olympic Greco Roman Team leaves for Brazil next Wednesday, August 10th. Competition for Thielke and Bisek will be on Sunday, August 14th. Provisor and Smith hit the mats in Rio on Monday, August 15th.
There is nothing like an Olympic Year. Sure, you could dice this all up and say that what we’re seeing now really began to take shape at last September’s Worlds or the US Nationals/Olympic Trials Qualifier, but that might be belaboring the point just a little. These four men who make up the 2016 US Olympic Greco Roman Team may have started their journeys months and even years prior, but it is has only been over the last four months when this all started to gel. Calendars flipped, trees grew leaves, pools opened, and schools closed. That’s how summer works. This year, the change in seasons has meant something else entirely. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t paying attention then so long as you’re paying attention now.