To make an Olympic team requires a special commitment from a special athlete. Usually that commitment includes a full-time dedication to that particular discipline.
In other words, rarely do American high schoolers or collegians make the United States’ freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling squads.
Case in point: In freestyle, not since 1988 has a wrestler still with college eligibility made the U.S. national team. It’s happened just three times in Greco-Roman since that same Olympic cycle.
Jake Deitchler and Garrett Lowney could be considered “special.”
In 2008 Deitchler, a native of Minnesota, won a high school state championship, then a few months later shocked the wrestling community by rolling to the 145.5-pound title in Greco at the Olympic Trials. He did not earn a medal in Bejing.
“It was a special year for me,” said Deitchler, who has since retired from the sport due to ongoing injury issues. “I don’t exactly know how I did it but I know I worked my butt off. I wrestled really well [at the Trials]. It was an amazing weekend for me.”
Deitchler enrolled at Minnesota a year after the Olympics but his collegiate career was cut short last December.
Lowney, a native of Wisconsin, made the 2000 U.S. Olympic squad while also at UM. He redshirted in first year on campus and earned the 213.75-pound Greco spot during an Olympic redshirt year. He brought home a bronze medal and added two All-America seasons for the Gophers before making the 2004 Olympic squad. The “big man on campus” at the time had dinner with then-Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.
Another U.S. Greco-Roman star, Brandon Paulson competed in the 1996 Olympics, earning a silver medal at 114.5 pounds in Atlanta. Two years later he was an All-American 118-pounder for Minnesota’s Gophers.
In freestyle it just doesn’t happen.
“There’s a reason,” John Smith said. “Because it isn’t easy.”
Smith, now the head coach at Oklahoma State, set a standard a quarter century ago when he won four World Championships and two Olympic gold medals from 1988 to 1992. At Oklahoma State in 1985, Smith was an NCAA runner-up. He took a redshirt year during the 1985-86 campaign and came back to win a national title in March of 1987. A few months later he was a World champion in freestyle at 136.5 pounds in France.
Another NCAA title came in March of 1988. Smith then made the Olympic squad and claimed a gold medal in South Korea.
“What coach Smith did was amazing,” Jordan Oliver said. “To do all that while still in college … I don’t know how he did it.”
Oliver, coming off his junior season at Oklahoma State, is one of many wrestlers in this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City who hope to earn a trip to London for the 2012 Olympics.
History shows the difficulty.
“You have to wrestle your best when it counts,” said Cornell’s Kyle Dake, a three-time NCAA champion with another year of eligibility remaining. “Everybody goes there to win. If they don’t think they can win they probably shouldn’t be there.”
A who’s who in college wrestling will suit up in freestyle and Greco-Roman.
Dake is one of five collegians in the freestyle 163-pound field. Tyler Caldwell, a two-time All-American from Oklahoma, 2012 NCAA champion David Taylor of Penn State and Matt Brown, expected to start next season for the Nittany Lions, will also be a part of a large group with the task of unseating 2011 World Champion Jordan Burroughs, who completed his collegiate career in 2011. The second-ranked 163-pounder is Andrew Howe, a national champion in 2010 who still has one more year to wrestle at Wisconsin.
Iowa’s Matt McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion, is in the 121-pound freestyle field.
Ohio State’s Logan Stieber joins Oliver and Wisconsin’s Tyler Graff in the 132-pound bracket. Stieber is coming off a redshirt-freshman season in which he beat Oliver in the NCAA final. Graff was an All-American in 2011 who took an Olympic redshirt this season.
“The goal is to win a national title and then go make the Olympic team,” said Stieber, a former Junior World medalist along with Oliver. “It’s been done, just not very often.”
Boise State’s Jason Chamberlain will compete at 145.5 pounds. He did not compete for BSU this season, taking an Olympic redshirt.
Two NCAA champions from Penn State will go at 185 pounds — Ed Ruth and Quentin Wright. Ruth is coming off an undefeated sophomore campaign at 174 pounds while Wright, an NCAA champion in 2011, was a runner-up in 2012.
At 211.5 pounds, Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore, an NCAA champ in 2011, and Oregon State’s Chad Hanke will try to earn a spot.
Heavyweight, 264 pounds at the international level, is expected to include Missouri’s Dom Bradley and Central Michigan’s Jarod Trice, both All-Americans in 2011.
Nick Simmons, a four-time All-American for Michigan State during his collegiate days, won the U.S. Team Trials in 2011 at 121 pounds. The favorite at 121, however, is probably 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, who has, for the most part, been off the mat the last three years.
The 132-pound weight class is not yet qualified for the 2012 Olympics. Two qualifiers remain – in China and Finland – in the weeks after the U.S. Trials. If an American earns a spot in one of those qualifiers, he would compete against the Trials champion for the Olympic spot sometime during the next few months. Former Ohio State star Reece Humphrey and Shawn Bunch of Edinboro are the top two at the weight and will not be in Iowa City. They will compete in the overseas qualifiers.
Maybe as wide open as any weight, 132 includes a handful of veterans including former Hawkeye Mike Zadick and OSU Cowboy Coleman Scott. Stieber, Oliver and 2012 NCAA champion at 141 pounds Kellen Russell all have a shot.
The top dogs at 145.5 are 2011 Trials champion Teyon Ware, Brent Metcalf and Jared Frayer.
Cael Sanderson, an Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and the 2011 Trials champion, announced last week that he would not compete at 185 pounds this year. That puts 2009 World silver medalist Jake Herbert as the one to beat with a long list of challengers in the field.
The favorite at 211.5 pounds is Jake Varner, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa State who now trains with Sanderson in State College, Pa. Varner won a bronze medal in 2011.
The 264.5-pound class should be one of the most competitive of the weekend.
Tervel Dlagnev, a two-time Division II champion for Nebraska-Kearney, won a bronze medal at the 2009 World Championships and was fifth a year ago. Steve Mocco competed in the 2008 Olympics and lost to Dlagnev in last year’s Trials final. Les Sigman, a four-time DII national champion, is also a threat along with Bradley, Trice and former Wartburg (Division III) champion John Helgerson.
A different animal
The Greco-Roman discipline provides different alternatives for athletes. A number of wrestlers head right for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., while some attend the USOEC at Northern Michigan. The military also includes a number of the United States’ top Greco wrestlers. There are also several entries this weekend with college eligibility remaining.
Wyoming’s Tyler Cox will compete 121 pounds.
Among the field at 132 is Wisconsin native Jesse Thielke, one of the nation’s top junior Greco stars the past few years. He is expected to attend Wisconsin next year where he will join Travis Rutt, who took an Olympic redshirt in 2011-12 to compete this weekend at 185 pounds.
Two heavyweights, Niko Bogojevic (Division III Augsburg) and Jake Kettler (Minnesota), are expected to wrestle this weekend. Both took Olympic redshirt years in 2011-12.
The biggest news in Greco may revolve around former Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner, who is expected to lace up the shoes again.