The three US wrestlers gearing up to compete at the 1st OG Greco Qualifier in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Friday are not there by accident. For one, each of them is a 2016 Olympic Trials champion. Jesse Thielke (59 kg, NYAC), RaVaughn Perkins (66 kg, NYAC), and Joe Rau (98 kg, Minnesota Storm) did not win a raffle which gave them the chance to fly across the world. Instead, they endured and persevered through what was undoubtedly one of the most challenging days in each of their young lives. Thielke defeated not one, but two Olympians to earn his spot; Perkins was called upon to get by friend and former Olympian Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) before coming back against Pat Smith (Minnesota Storm); and Rau impressively breezed through his bracket until he was tossed and pinned by Caylor Williams (Army/WCAP), finding himself down 1-0 before the flashbulbs popping off around the arena had fully died down.
These three athletes also knew that they would be traveling to Mongolia before the Olympic Trials had even taken place. In fact, they wanted to do it. And then they continued to train and prepare for what went down in Iowa City. But now that’s over and the assignment could not be any clearer: punch the tickets. At the 1st OG Greco Qualifier, the top three wrestlers in each weight qualify it for their NOC. The competition will be fierce, the atmosphere, electric. However, in order to make it to Rio, it is all just another stepping stone. One last shot looms in Turkey two weeks later, but that is a trip the US contingent certainly prefers to avoid.
On the surface, it might appear to be an uphill battle for the American wrestlers, as there are plenty of accomplished, more experienced international competitors still in need of qualifying for their own countries. But the argument could be made that if there are Olympic medals to eventually be won, this is the kind of test that needs to be passed. Each of the US’s representatives have the capability to achieve this objective.
US Wrestlers at the 1st OG Greco Qualifier
Jesse Thielke (NYAC, 59 kg)
The 2016 Olympic Trials might seem as if it was the 23-year old’s proverbial coming-out party, but the truth is Thielke had been simmering long before the boil that took place in Iowa City. Going back to his first appearances on the senior level, the Wisconsin native has steadily climbed in stature. An eye-opening silver medal at the 2010 Sunkist was the first sign Thielke had what it took to hang with the big boys. Every year since has provided an uptick in his overall ability. His startling turn at the 2013 World Team Trials made everyone believers in what he was made of, but just when the momentum began to pick up steam, college wrestling interrupted the proceedings.
It would be a full year’s cycle worth of competition before Thielke would make his presence felt again. 2015 allowed another peek at what was in store for the future thanks to a bronze medal performance at the Golden Grand Prix as well as a runner-up finish at the Open. Remember, this was Thielke barely on full throttle. Once he committed to Greco completely, the results began to flourish. Wrestling up a weight overseas, he still took it to the competition. A 66 kg bronze in Croatia at the tough Zagreb Grand Prix in January should have been the first clue that this was a motivated Jesse Thielke who was more than just a threat to his stateside rivals.
Why Thielke Can Qualify:
There may be plenty of seasoned competitors waiting for him in Mongolia, but few of them can match the dynamics Thielke brings to the table. When he’s on point, there is no stiffness. There is no hesitation. Working for Thielke is that he not only has the skillset on his feet to be a problem, he also isn’t afraid to wrestle the way he wants, regardless of the situation.
Some of the wrestlers in this weight class may have higher billing (Soryan, Amoyan, Tasmuradov, Berge) and at least appear to be major obstacles, but not one of them chains kinetic energy quite the same way as Thielke. If these guys are going to want to hand-fight the entire time and resist opening up by slowing down the action in the ties, that will be where Thielke can capitalize using his movement and unique ability to get inside off his ducks and sidesteps. It’s par terre that could prove to be the equalizer, making the American’s defense all-the-more critical.
RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC, 66 kg)
You would have to look far and wide to find a Greco Roman wrestler who has more physical tools than Perkins. At 5’11, Perkins is a tall, rangy cobweb of issues. It is a physical trait he has worked into his game rather than let it hold him back. Perkins was a beast of a high school wrestler at home in Nebraska, but it’s a different story when you zero in on Greco. Age-group success doesn’t automatically translate. Perkins worked on his body position from the ties and figured out his own ways of creating scoring opportunities using his considerable reach. US fans got their real first taste of this in 2012 when Perkins took the NYAC by wrapping up Azis Beishaliev (KG) ahead of brushing past Japan’s Kazuhiko Naruse in the final.
But it was 2014 and the updated rule-set when Ravaughn Perkins really began coming into form. He took the Open first, pinning Coleman in an entertaining affair. Then he went ahead and won the World Team Trials, defeating Bryce Saddoris (Marines) in two straight matches to claim the crown. It was that second match that will always be noteworthy, as Perkins was down 7-0 in the second period before hitting a twisting bodylock to grapple Saddoris down for a surprising pin (Perkins would later test positive for a diuretic, removing him from the World Team). He served his time and has been strong ever since, aside from Frisco where he originally failed to qualify. However, a gutty showing at the Olympic Trials should be all the evidence anyone needs to determine how badly Perkins really wants this.
Why Perkins Can Qualify:
Like Thielke, RaVaughn Perkins is an athletic freak who has become more and more adept at quantifying the appropriate pace for action whilst looking for windows to climb through. His reaction time is so fast on his feet that it’s amazing he doesn’t just windmill opponents into oblivion. Plus, he’s so long that when he does get the chance to wrap around a foe’s body, it is often a precursor to some big points.
Finding the necessary positioning against some of the faces in the crowd at 66 kg in the 1st OG Greco Qualifier won’t be easy. But it’s not supposed to be at this juncture. Between Demyankov, Bernatek, and Tallroth, there aren’t a lot of would-be candidates at 66 kg who will be caught asleep at the wheel. The action can’t be forced. It’s just that that’s the beauty of Perkins. He doesn’t need to turn any of his matches into a plodding game of chess. All he needs is a window. And he’s too in-the-game by now not to find one. So long as he is aggressive when appropriate, he can match up well with anyone in this bracket regardless of the draws.
Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm, 98 kg)
What do you get when you have a wrestler who a) loves the sport more than he loves oxygen and b) has finally found the key to the success that previously eluded him? Answer: Joe Rau over the past seven months.
Not too long ago, Joe Rau was a capable 85 kg off-shoot who wrestled well at times, but also seemed to be missing a little something. The solution? Move up in weight. No longer shackled by the nuisance of weight-cutting, Rau positively blossomed in 2015. It wasn’t all because he stopped drying out. Make no mistake about it – Rau is a machine when he needs to be. He adjusts in the middle of matches as well as anyone in the higher weight classes and what’s more, has grown more and more confident because of it.
His wins over Caylor Williams are important, especially given Williams’s previous dominance at 98. But you can’t discount Rau’s other performances. A Grand Prix Zagreb Open championship along with a hard-earned bronze at the Hungarian should be enough to convince anyone just how devoted the Illinois native actually is. For further proof look at Frisco, where he lost to Yasmany Cabrera (CUB, world no. 13) via fall and battled back for a bronze. It may not have qualified the weight, but it was just another example of Rau not getting down on himself despite a setback. A guy that keeps believing in what he can do is dangerous, even more so when it gets to crunch time, which is exactly where we are now.
Why Rau Can Qualify:
Don’t let some of the experts fool you about the depth at 98 in the 1st OG Greco Qualifier: there are some very skilled, very solid wrestlers to be found at this tournament. Oehler, Nuriev, and Ildem are savvy competitors who know their way around an event like this. But for all the “Joe Rau has heart” talk there is something quite legitimate going on here not enough people are paying attention to: Rau is as good as anyone he might meet up with.
Take a look at anyone in the upper weights and most of the time, you will see sagging, crossed-feet, and the occasional lazy tie-up. Rau doesn’t do any of that. Whether it’s coaching, confidence, or more experience, Rau sets up his footwork with a purpose. He also doesn’t “reach out” nearly as much as other 98’s. Rather, he is like a boxer who stays in the pocket picking his shots. If a lift chance is there, he’ll go for it. If it’s a slide-by or arm-drag just to disrupt his opponent’s balance but not score, he’s good for that, too. Rau’s constant improvement and past experiences have given him a wrestler’s IQ that meets his physical output, and it’s an advantage that will hopefully serve him well tomorrow morning.
This is the Opportunity These Wrestlers Have Been Waiting For
All three athletes have had something to prove. Thielke was a highly-touted prospect dating back to his teens, but it isn’t as if once he entered senior domestic competition it was all automatic. It took some time. College wrestling may have been a detour, but this was also the case of an athlete discovering for himself what everyone else had already seen in him. His success throughout the year overseas as well as his jarring victories over Mango and Hafizov speak to that.
Perkins has always had the talent, but his momentum was severely derailed following his suspension. During his absence, Saddoris assumed control of 66 kg while rising contenders such as Alejandro Sancho (NYAC), Dylan Ness (Minnesota Storm), Smith, and Brian Graham (Minnesota Storm) began to assert influence, as well. It was like Perkins was starting from square one all over again which in a way, he was. So what did he do about it? Stay poised through a madhouse of a 66 kg bracket in Iowa City to make the team.
And though he looks like such a natural fit at 98 kg, it is a weight Rau had to become comfortable in. It didn’t take him too long to find his footing at the higher weight class, it’s just that initially there was a prevailing consensus that despite Rau’s seeming ability, this division belonged to the multiple-time World team member Williams. Not only did Rau completely smash that perception, he jumped into the 2016 Open, a tournament he didn’t even need to enter to qualify for the Olympic Trials, and not only won it, but did so looking energetic and powerful. He’s just a dude who loves a challenge.
Which is what this all leads to. The three men who will be on-deck in just a few hours are nobody’s victims. They have a job to do and the circumstances are such that time is of the essence. It is not a complex situation. Few observers picked Thielke, Perkins, and Rau to emerge from the Trials. All three logged memorable performances. The gauntlet has been thrown down and now is as good a time as any to silence the critics. It is their opportunity to seize the moment and show that they are the next generation many of us have been wondering about. The tools are easy to see. The talent just as clear. All that matters now is the fire.
It’s burning in Ulaanbaatar.
The 1st OG Greco Qualifier begins Friday morning at 9:00 am, which is 8:00pm Thursday evening for those living in EST. United World Wrestling will be providing streams along with updated results throughout. We will be offering extended coverage here, so be sure to stay tuned!