“He’s gotta earn it, though. It’s not that he ‘deserves’ it. He doesn’t deserve anything. The only thing you deserve is what you earn.” --Tom Brands, 1996 Olympic Champion (USA)
Prior to the Olympic Team Trials, the US had qualified half of the 18 Olympic weights for the Games. The Qualified 9 were able to rest-assured that they were headed to Rio. This luxury was not available for the remaining half of the team, as they had two final, “last chance” attempts to punch their ticket to Rio for a chance at Olympic Gold.
At MFS86KG, J’Den Cox may have shocked the weight-class back to life for the United States at the Olympic Team Trials. The 2x NCAA champion and University of Missouri junior won a hard-fought 7-7 criteria win over past US national teamer Clayton Foster. In the quarterfinals, Cox trumped 2009 World Silver and 2012 Olympian Jake Herbert 8-1, overpowering Herbert and neutralizing the Olympian’s offensive attempts. Cox then beat 2013 World Teamer Keith Gavin in a close 3-1 match, setting up a final series against the only wrestler to win four D1 titles at four different weight-classes, Kyle Dake. Of note, Dake started his college career at 141lbs, Cox started his career at 197lbs. The size difference was apparent as Dake was moving up from 74KG to 86KG, but Dake was ever-game and the series went the distance. After Cox won 8-1 in match one, Dake tied the series at 1-a-piece with a 5-3 win. Cox, however, would ice the series, winning 5-3 himself in the final match to earn his #1 spot on the Olympic ladder for the USA.
J’Den would fly to Mongolia with the other unqualified competitors, seeking to earn his Rio bid at the First World Olympic Games Qualifier. In the first and second rounds of the tournament, Cox dominated his opponents, winning 11-0 Tech Fall over Shamir Atyan of Armernia and 10-0 TF over Greece’s Timofei Xenidis. In the subsequent quarter- and semi-final rounds, Cox’s opponents sought to slow the pace in an attempt to inhibit his offense. Not to be deterred, Cox showed tactical-soundness and poise, beating Poland’s Baranowski 4-1 and Uzbekistan’s Ismanov 5-2. In both matches, Cox only led by 1pt before scoring a late 2pt takedown to secure the wins.
Particularly in the Olympic qualifying semi-final round, Cox was forced to show his gamesmanship as he entered a technical battle against Ismanov. Both men traded near takedowns in the first period. First, Ismanov was as close to a 2pt takedown as one could be as he nearly completed a 2-on-1 counter-shuck. Not to be outdone, Cox set up a beautiful misdirection single-leg that Ismanov was able to scramble out of, forcing a stalemate (no score). After giving up a Caution-1pt shot-clock violation, Cox persistently looked for his single-leg, earning a takedown to close the first period and lead 2*-1 (an asterisk (*) denotes a caution, 3 cautions lead to a disqualification). In the second and final period, Cox kept the pressure on, shooting Ismanov out of bounds to earn a 1pt pushout and lead 3*-1. With two minutes remaining in the match, Cox was hit again for passivity and gave up another Caution-1pt shot-clock violation. Unfazed, he got an angle again on Ismanov and scored another 2pt takedown to defeat Ismanov 5**-2 to become an Olympian. In the finals, J’Den shutout Pan-Am rival Pedro Francisco Ceballos Fuentes 6-0 to earn the gold.
Watch J’Den’s Olympic Qualifying performance here:
(Haley Augello; Photo: UnitedWorldWrestling)
At WFS48KG,Haley Augello, a 2x WCWA National Champion for King University on an Olympic redshirt, made her first World team after she navigated a field loaded with multiple World/ Olympic medals. On Bonus Pointsep. 40 with Richard Immel, Augello revealed that this was her first competition down at 48KG, and the scuttlebutt prior to the Olympic Trials questioned how well she would compete at 105.6lbs (over 10lbs lighter than 116lbs, where Augello won both her national titles). Augello was not phased by the weight cut, beating Candace Workman 11-0 Tech Fall in the first round before matching-up with 3x Junior World Medalist and 2013 National Teamer Erin Golston. Augello dispatched Golston 6-1, setting up a meeting with the 3x-incumbent World Team representative, 2x World Bronze (once-a-piece at 51KG and 48KG), 2014 World 5th Alyssa Lampe. Augello was able to beat the veteran outright, 7-6, to reach the best-of-3 final. There, Augello would face Victoria Anthony, a decorated wrestler to say the least. Anthony, a 2x Junior World Champion, 4x WCWA National Champion, and 2013 World 5th at 51KG, knocked off veteran Clarissa Chun (a 2008 World champion, 2012 London Games Bronze and, from 2008-2015, the only person other than Alyssa Lampe to represent the US at 48KG) in her semi-final to reach the finals. In the final series, Augello went the distance with Anthony, splitting the first two matches (6-4, 6-11) before taking out Anthony by an 8-2 score to make her first World team. In the deciding third match, Augello displayed great freestyle prowess, scoring four of her eight points via counter-exposures.
(Haley Augello, red, looks to score counter-exposure on 2014 World Bronze Hyon Gyong Kim in the First World Olympic Qualifier finals; Photo: UnitedWorldWrestling)
However, WFS48KG had not yet been qualified, so Augello was to suit up for Mongolia. There, Augello continued to set the competition aflame and earned herself a Silver medal. Augello’s path started with Belarus’s Chyryk. After the first period, Augello led 8-1 via 3x2pt exposures and a 2pt takedown. Two more 2pt exposures would close out the technical fall performance, with Augello prevailing 12-1. In the quarters, Augello met Finland grappler Sarianne Savola. Though the match had multiple blood-time stoppages, Augello was able to dominate into the semi-finals via 10-0 TF in 2:34. In the Olympic qualifying semi-final, Haley Augello met Maria Livach of Ukraine. There, Augello embodied 1972 Olympic Champion Dan Gable’s saying, “I shoot, I score. [She] shoots, I score,” as she marched to a beautiful 10-0 TF to earn her ticket to Rio.
Watch Haley’s Olympic Qualifying performance here:
4x WCWA National Champion, 2011 World 5th, 2012 Silver, 2014 Bronze, and 2015 World Champion at WFS55KG, Helen Maroulis showed no sign of fatigue from the drop to WFS53KG, dominating her opponents from Iowa City to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. At the Olympic Trials, the World Champion rattled off three-straight tech falls on her way to the final series. She trumped Christina Powell 10-0, 2011 National Teamer Sharon Jacobson 13-2 in the quarters, and 2012 Olympic Alternate Katherine Fulp-Allen 10-0 in the semi-finals. In the final series, Maroulis met a solid opponent in 2015 Pan-Am Games champion, 3x World teamer (and 2x-incumbent at 53KG) Whitney Condor. Maroulis would continue her run, however, taking the #1 spot on the Olympic team via 10-0, 11-0 tech falls.
Maroulis continued her dominance at the First World Olympic Qualifier. Round one, she met a gamer in Mexico’s 2015 Pan-Am Games Silver, Alma Jane Valencia Escoto. Valencia Escoto scored a beautiful double-leg takedown on Maroulis off a false arm-drag set-up that blew Maroulis off her feet. Maroulis, however, would score a hard-fought takedown right into a flawless leglace to take a 4-2 lead. Maroulis made it 8-unanswered, winning an 8-2 decision.
Maroulis’s first round apparently warmed up her bonus-points engine, as she tallied another tech fall, this time a 10-0 win over 2012 World Bronze (at 51KG), 2015 World quarterfinalist (at 53KG) Babita Kumari of India.
In the Olympic qualifying round, Maroulis looked to waste no time. Facing Lilya Horishna of Ukraine, Maroulis put on overwhelming pressure, almost forcing Horishna into a throw-by attempt that Maroulis countered. Horishna was able to scramble out without giving up a score, but gave up a 2-on-1 tie, which Maroulis used perfectly, setting up a 4pt back-trip to a navy-ride to qualify for Rio via 4-0 FALL in under 30 seconds.
In her finals match, Helen Maroulis met 2011 Junior World Bronze, 2012 World Bronze and Olympian, 2014 World Beach Wrestling Champion Maria Prevolakari of Greece. Though the match was tactical, the result was familiar: 10-0 Tech Fall for gold.
Istanbul, Turkey -- Last Chance
Jesse “Filthy” Thielke, GR59KG, got the job done at the Final Last Chance World Olympic Games Qualifier in Istanbul, Turkey, qualifying for the Rio Games by taking Silver after navigating a loaded bracket. To get to Turkey, though, the Wisconsin-native’s journey started in Iowa City. At the Olympic Trials, Thielke topped 5x National Team member Jermaine Hodge 8-4. Hodge would be Thielke’s closest match of the day. In the semi-finals, Thielke topped 8x World/Olympic Team Member, 2x World 5th Spencer Mango by tech-fall 8-0, to meet the expatriate from Uzbekistan, 2008 Olympian at GR55KG, Ildar Hafizov in the final best-of-3 series. In match one, Thielke sparked the crowd as he powered Hafizov to the mat with a huge 5pt bodylock, winning by 10-0 Tech-Fall after a slow, tightly contested start to the match. In match two, the exchanges between Thielke and Hafizov would again intensify, with Thielke’s par terre defense and savvy giving him a 4-1 lead with short time on the clock. With time expiring, Hafizov went for broke, attempting a lateral throw, that would initially be scored 2 Hafizov, making the score 4-3. After a failed challenge and rescore, Thielke would earn his spot at the US rep at GR59KG via 9-3 score, taking the series in two straight matches.
The USA expected Thielke to get the job done at the First World Olympic Games Qualifier in Mongolia, and all was going well in the opening round of the qualifier as Thielke led 5-0 on his opponent from India. However, when India threw the kitchen sink to close the match and beat Thielke 5-6, the anxiety of not qualifying crept in.
The draw the USA would get in Istanbul would not be favorable. First round, Jesse Thielke met London Games Bronze medalist at GR55KG Peter Modos of Hungary. After a scoreless 2 minutes, Thielke scored a 2pt takedown via a beautiful (dare I say, American-folkstyle inspired?) duck-under.
Staying on the offense, Thielke scored another takedown via an arm-drag go-behind before rolling up the Olympic Bronze with a tight-waist cross-wrist, winning by tech-fall 8-0. In the next round, Thielke wasted no time, scoring 6pts off a feet-to-back bodylock right into a gut wrench off the whistle on London Games Silver at GR60KG Revaz Lashkhi of Georgia. The lead would hold until near the 5:00 mark in the match, as Lashkhi’s grit earned him a beautiful 4pt suplay and gutwrench, to cut tie the score at 6-6 a piece. Showing his resolve (and perhaps learning from his experience in Mongolia), Thielke answered with a beautiful back-arch that would eventually earn him 4+1pts after a failed challenge by the Georgian corner. Thielke would score on another takedown before the match’s end, advancing to the quarterfinals 13-6 over the Olympic Silver.
Next, Thielke met Frunze Harutyunyan of Sweden (who wrestled in the 2015 World Championships at GR66KG). After tense exchanges for most of the match, Thielke would trail 2-2 on criteria and be put down in par terre for passivity with less than 1:30 to go in the match. After giving up a 2pt gut-wrench, Thielke created a scramble off the bottom and turned into the Swedish wrestler, catching his opponent on his back and getting the ultimate victory in wrestling-- the FALL.
In the Olympic qualifying semi-finals, Thielke would meet 2012 University World Champion and 2014 Bronze Donoir Islamov of Moldova in an exciting ‘winner-take-all’ match. In the first period, Islamov scored a beautiful opening arm-throw, to lead 4-0. Thielke would show his mettle, though, as every time Moldova would score in the first period, Thielke would answer. At the end of the first, the score read 9-8 Thielke, as Islamov scored 2x4pts on arm-throws, while Thielke scored 3x2pt takedowns, a 1pt pushout, and a 2pt exposure. Taking his momentum into the final frame, Thielke launched Islamov for 4pts to take a commanding 13-8 lead at the midway point of the match. With less than a minute, Thielke got to his bodylock and scored another takedown+exposure to win by 17-8 Technical Fall.
Watch Jesse’s Olympic Qualifying performance here:
Finally, Frank Molinaro at MFS65KG was blessed by his own grit and tenacity when he qualified for the Olympic Games after doping legislation vacated previously qualified Olympic “licenses” (i.e., qualification bids earned by a wrestler for a country at a specific weight-class). As I mentioned in Last Chance, rumors surrounded the MFS65KG weight-class pertaining to doping sanctions, presenting a sliver of hope that Molinaro would be grandfathered into a qualification license.
Altogether, Molinaro had an odyssey to become an Olympian. At the Olympic Trials, 2012 NCAA Champion and 4x All-American Frank “The Tank” Molinaro entered in the deepest weight competed in Iowa City. First round, Molinaro faced 2x NCAA champion Kellen Russell, who he beat by 14-1 TF. Molinaro then fought against an opposing crowd as he took on 3x-incumbent World teamer (and 2012 Olympic trials runner-up) Brent Metcalf. Metcalf was a 2x NCAA Champion and Hodge Trophy winner during his time at the University of Iowa, the host of the Olympic Trials in both 2012 and 2016. Both men are known for their strong, aggressive styles and the match was a physical affair. After the first period, Metcalf led 2-0 over Molinaro on the strength of a shot-clock violation and a pushout. Early in the second period, Molinaro countered Metcalf’s lefty high-c shot attempt and was able to tie the lead and take criteria, 2-2.
Metcalf would score again on a shot-clock violation, to make it 3-2 Metcalf with less than a minute. With time expiring, Molinaro got in on his own lefty high-c. He would convert this into what would be a match deciding 1pt pushout, to win 3-3 on criteria. Into the semi-finals, 4x NCAA Champion Logan Stieber and Molinaro scrapped to another close bout for Molinaro, who would prevail 5-5 on criteria, again in an exciting match. Down 1-3 in the second period, Molinaro scored a big 4pt feet-to-back takedown to take the lead and hold criteria.
In the final series, Molinaro faced 2014 Junior World Silver, 2015 Bronze, and soon-to-be BellatorMMA fighter Aaron Pico. The series went the distance, as Pico would secure match one, 4-2. Molinaro would rattle off two straight, 4-3 and 4-4, to earn his spot on TeamUSA.
Frank then went to both World Olympic Games Qualifiers in an attempt to qualify the United States for 65KG. In Mongolia, Molinaro started well, earning a 12-0 TF over Vietnam. However, he would run into 2015 World Bronze (at 70KG) Yakup Gor of Turkey, losing 4-6 and eventually being eliminated from competition when Gor failed to make the finals. In Turkey, Molinaro beat 2013 World Champion Devid Safaryan (Armenia) in a close 3-2 win before taking on the young star, 2015 Junior World Silver medalist Yuhi Fujinami (Japan). Again, Molinaro found himself in a firefight, with his big guns powering him to victory, as he scored a crucial 4pt throw.
In the fateful quarterfinals, Molinaro would lose 2-5 to California prep and Cal-Poly All-American Borislav Novachkov (Bulgaria). When Novachkov made the finals (qualifying for the Olympics), Molinaro was given a chance to wrestle for one of two bronze medals. Coach Bruce Burnett is said to have informed Molinaro of the vague possibility he could qualify (despite not making the finals of the tournament) based on potential doping violations from other competitors. Defaulting to the ‘fight’ he had inside himself, Molinaro trekked on, winning 4-1 over Kazakhstan’s Zhumagaziev before facing Azamat Nurykau (2014 and 2015 World 5th) of Belarus. A now notorious wrestler known for trying to win without wrestling (if you catch my drift), Molinaro was ready and willing to fight through any shady attempts by Nurykau. Despite the antics, Molinaro never gave up any offensive points, leading 5-0** with less than a minute. When Molinaro was called for passivity and fleeing, he gave up 2x1pt Cautions, holding on for the win 5**-2**. Frank Molinaro’s cool head prevailed and it would ultimately award him a spot in the 2016 Olympic Games. When UnitedWorldWrestling issued sanctions in response to failed drug-screenings from competitors (which may be associated to the larger, international controversy surrounding meldonium), Frank was granted a qualification by virtue of losing only to two eventual qualifiers (in Gor and Novachkov). It is a complicated situation that I may fail to do justice to. Here’s an article by TakedownWrestling’s Dan Lobdell that clarifies the details of how Molinaro was able to earn his Olympian title.
With all qualification tournaments complete, the USA has qualified 14/18 weight for the Olympic Games. The goal in August will be 14 Gold Medals.(Artwork by Daryk Cochran/ @Mocs190. Used with permission.)