The journey to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will run through State College, Pennsylvania, home of the 2019 NCAA champion Penn State Nittany Lions and a fitting battleground for a competitive trials.
The Nittany Lion Wrestling Club is expected to field a deep team and championship contenders at every weight class. But they'll face strong competition, particularly from the school that will likely be their biggest threat for the 2020 NCAA title: Iowa.
For some top-ranked college athletes like Iowa's Spencer Lee, Penn State's Anthony Cassar and Arizona State's Zahid Valencia, the NCAA season offers the perfect preparation for the trials.
But for other 2019 NCAA champions such as Nick Suriano, Yianni Diakomihalis and Mekhi Lewis, the opportunity to take an Olympic redshirt season gives them the chance to focus solely on wrestling, and prepare their bodies for competition outside of college tournaments and duals.
However, the Olympic redshirt process is complicated, and its implications are intricate. The Olympic trials and the Olympics will both be conducted in freestyle, a style used on the international stage and one that deviates from the folk-style competition seen in college duals and tournaments.
The Olympic redshirt year gives athletes a chance to concentrate on freestyle, if they so choose, as opposed to balancing both styles to meet collegiate and international expectations.
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Let's break down what this situation means for these athletes, and how the Olympic redshirt will impact the 2020 NCAA tournament in Minneapolis this March.
What is an Olympic redshirt?
An Olympic redshirt means that an athlete can spend a year training away from the team in an effort to focus exclusively on preparing for the Olympic Trials and Olympic Games. Athletes utilizing the Olympic redshirt will not compete in college duals and will not be eligible to compete in the conference or national tournaments at the end of the year.
However, like a regular redshirt, an athlete or coach can choose to pull an Olympic redshirt at any point throughout the season and enter the athlete into collegiate duals and tournaments. In 2016, Ohio State's Kyle Snyder initially announced his intention to take an Olympic redshirt year to qualify and win gold in Rio.
But he and head coach Tom Ryan pulled that redshirt before the Nebraska dual on Jan. 17 of that year. Snyder went on to win the Big Ten and NCAA tournament at heavyweight, and then took home top honors at the Olympics.
Athletes such as Jaydin Eierman of Iowa or Nick Suriano of Rutgers, for example, could opt for a similar move in 2020. Or they may choose to remain in their redshirt year, rather than using a year of eligibility. Anyone who takes an Olympic redshirt year can also rejoin collegiate competition in the second semester and opt out of the redshirt.
But such a situation is unlikely, unless an athlete wants to chase an individual or team title this year, rather than waiting another season.
How do you qualify for an Olympic redshirt?
The Olympic redshirt is only available during Olympic years to athletes who meet one (or more) of these criteria:
1.) Past National Team members (Top 3 from the World or Olympic Team Trials)
2.) Top 8 at the 2019 Senior U.S. Open
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3.) Top 3 at the 2019 NCAA wrestling championship or NCAA champion from a previous year and top 2 from the 2019 U23 World Team Trials (must accomplish both)
4.) Previous Cadet, Junior, U23 World Medalist
Which 2019 All-Americans have decided to take an Olympic redshirt?
The Olympics will feature six weights for men's wrestling, so current college athletes must decided which of the following weights best suits their body and would lead to optimal performance: 57 kilograms (125 pounds), 65 kilograms (143 pounds), 74 kilograms (163 pounds), 86 kilograms (190 pounds), 97 kilograms (214 pounds), 125 kilograms (276 pounds).
For lightweight wrestlers like Vito Arujau of Cornell, 57 kilograms is the natural weight, as Arujau wrestled 125 pounds last season and finished fourth at the NCAA tournament. Arujau is one of four Cornell wrestlers who have opted to take Olympic redshirts, including two-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis, 2019 NCAA finalist Max Dean and 2018 UWW Junior World Team Member Andrew Berreyesa.
Arujau will have to compete for his Olympic spot against NCAA champions Nick Suriano, Seth Gross, Spencer Lee, Darian Cruz, Nathan Tomasello, and Nahshon Garrett, as well as a slew of former national champions and finalists who will make their way to State College with an Olympic dream.
One finalist from 2019 taking an Olympic redshirt who could make a serious run for the U.S. Olympic spot at 57kg is Oklahoma State's Daton Fix. He won Final X this summer to earn a spot on the Senior World Team at that very weight. Fix is dangerous, and this Olympic redshirt year could give him all the time he needs to make the necessary progress that would allow him to run through what is expected to be one of the deepest brackets at the Olympic trials.
2019 NCAA All-American Jaydin Eierman will also be contending for a spot on the Olympic team, but he'll be up a weight class from Arujau at 65 kilograms where he'll have to compete with Diakomihalis, as well as others.
Eierman recently transferred from Missouri to Iowa and will be a dangerous cog in the Hawkeye wheel when he returns to collegiate competition either this spring or next fall. Eierman and Diakomihalis are the only 141-pound All-Americans from 2019 opting for the Olympic redshirt option.
But another athletes from the 149-pound podium will utilize his Olympic redshirt option to prepare for State College. Princeton's Matthew Kolodzik finished fifth in the NCAA tournament last year, and became the first three-time NCAA All-American in program history with that result.
He's opted to wait a year before chasing that fourth and final top-eight finish, and will instead concentrate his efforts on freestyle this season and battle some of the best of the best at State College for the trials instead of Minneapolis for NCAA nationals.
At 74 kilograms, Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis will be the third NCAA champion from 2019 to maximize his Olympic redshirt option. The 165-pound winner from last year's tournament has already competed in both the Bill Ferrell Memorial Open and senior nationals in an effort to qualify for the trials.
His second-place finish to Logan Massa at senior nationals qualified him for the trials where he could potentially face the wrestler he battled in the NCAA finals, Vincenzo Joseph, on Joseph's home turf. The 74 kilogram weight class is a deep group to watch.
It includes the most decorated active wrestler in men's freestyle, Jordan Jordan Burroughs, as well as two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez, three-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf, and senior national champ Logan Massa. A current Michigan wrestler, Massa earned All-American honors in 2017 and is also currently taking an Olympic redshirt.
Which current college athletes have already qualified for the Olympics?
Three current NCAA wrestlers have already punched their tickets to Rio, with two of those athletes representing the University of Michigan and both of them currently taking an Olympic redshirt year.
Stevan Micic, a graduate student and three-time NCAA All-American, became the first athlete in history to represent Serbia in the Olympic Games when he finished fifth at the 2019 World Championships in Kazakhstan. Micic's finish qualified Serbia to compete at 57 kilograms in the Olympics. Though born in the United States, Micic has ties to Serbia on his father's side of the family and will represent the country on the Olympic stage this summer.
His teammate Myles Amine will join him in Tokyo as a member of the San Marino Olympic Team after earning his spot with a fifth-place finish. He will wrestle at 86 kilograms. Amine is also a three-time NCAA All-American and will wrestle for the country of his mother's family.
Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera, who finished third at the NCAA tournament last year at 125 and is not taking an Olympic redshirt year, is the most recent qualifier. He's already qualified to represent Puerto Rico in the 2020 Olympics at 57kg.
Rivera came off his Olympic qualifying tournament and rolled right into Midlands, where he finished third behind Seth Gross of Wisconsin (who has already qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials) and Iowa's Austin DeSanto. Rivera will look to chase an NCAA title this year at 133 pounds, and can do so with the confidence of knowing that his Olympic spot is already locked up.