The Rio Olympics might be months away, but after this weekend, several US Greco-Roman athletes may feel as though it is much further down the road.
The result coming out of Frisco, Texas was not a bust. There were strong performances and confidence-building matches that could make a difference later on. Jordan Holm (85 kg, Minnesota Storm) saved the day with his dominating showing. Joe Rau (98 kg, Minnesota Storm) seemed poised to get the job done — and despite falling short in the semis, offered a glimpse of the kind of fighting spirit that has underscored his career thus far. Even Ildar Hafizov (59 kg, Army/WCAP), who didn’t find his way to the podium, showed he still knows how to score points.
The problem is in the process more so than the results. Qualifying weight classes for the Olympics is a pressurized task.
Short of an Olympic Trials final, or an Olympic final, the stakes are at their highest. The competition is suitably fierce. Olympic qualifiers, even in this current era of Pan American Greco where only two nations seem to dominate, are not filled with second-tier talent looking for experience. Each country that sends a contingent is putting forth their strongest candidates. And in case anyone requires a reminder, the competition level is increasing.
When qualifying is on the line, be it at the Worlds or the handful of events later on in the season, the responsibility is often interpreted as burdensome. Athletes become beholden to two job descriptions: 1) perform to their highest maximum capability in an effort to strive for the individual goals which represent their entire reason for competing in the first place; 2) stamp down their weight category for their nation without any guarantee in or whatsoever that if successful, they will reap the fruits of their labor at the Olympic Games.
In this case, that is no longer such an issue — it has been deemed by the US program that the three Olympic Trials champs at the as-of-yet unqualified weights (59, 66, and 98 kg) will carry the ball into Mongolia, and if necessary, Turkey.
For the US Greco-Roman program, 59 kilograms is of particular interest in this regard. Spenser Mango (Army/WCAP), he of the Hall of Fame resume, has been forced to reconcile the addition of Hafizov to WCAP towards the end of (what is expected to be) the final quad of his remarkable career. Everyone got a good look at the awkward nature in which this is going to unfold back in December. Hafizov has fared well against Mango in the past, at least when he was not a resident of these shores.
But it is different now. They operate in the same space, breathe the same workout room air. And after this weekend (and rightfully so), some are left wondering whether Mango would have been better-suited to represent the flag in Frisco, given the unique circumstances at play and Mango’s familiarity with the landscape. Jesse Thielke (NYAC), who is the hottest lightweight in the country this season, also has folks second-guessing Hafizov’s insertion (despite his immense skill-set).
66 kilos? A wealth of talent. Bryce Saddoris (Marines) is going to be difficult to unseat, but RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) has demonstrated he is more than capable of passing that test. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) will be down at 66 for the Trials and is likewise considered a very threatening contender.
As for 98 kilos, this weight is going to get qualified. Rau is perhaps the most game upper-weight in the country, and has proven overseas that he understands how to deal with foreigners. But should Rau not make it past multi-time World Teamer Caylor Williams (Army/WCAP) next month, the conviction remains the same. Between Mongolia and Turkey, 98 for the US is likely to become secured.
But getting back to Rau, this is one wrestler whose trajectory is pointing straight up. He had already established himself prior to this year with his rise up the ranks in ’14; and now without having to be dragged down by slogging his weight and drying out, he has nothing but competition on which to focus. This is a gift, one that Rau seems to be enjoying. If he makes it to the Rio Olympics, he could very well stand as one of Team USA’s biggest favorites to snag a medal. Again, however, the Trials come first, and nothing in that tournament is ever a safe bet.
Alas, it’s not the Trials or even the Rio Olympics occupying the fanbase’s attention. Not following Frisco. Instead, it is Mongolia and finding out who will be called upon to get this whole nasty business of qualifying out of the way. From a spectator’s perspective, this is what makes these weight categories that much more fascinating to watch. They may not feel that way in Colorado Springs, though if true, they would be wise to change their tunes since Greco could use any heat it can get, even if it is not by definition “good heat”.