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Wrestling Mailbag: Olympic Trials recap, J'den Cox, USA Wrestling, women's freestyle, more

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

FORT WORTH, Texas — The end of the wrestling season is always weird, because it's never really the end, at least for some of us.

The U.S. Olympic Trials, in a normal year, marks the end of domestic competition at the Senior level. Those who make the teams turn their attention to the Olympics, and everybody (usually) gets in line to support them, because Team USA.

This year is a little different.

The Olympics are set to begin July 23. The wrestling competition will run Aug. 1-7. There's also a Senior-level world championships this year, too, in Norway in October, which means USA Wrestling will have another world team trials event in September.

Those who compete in the Olympics and win medals will have the opportunity to compete again at the world championships if they wish, at least for those on Team USA. If they don't want to, there will be another trials process to figure out the rep.

Even more, in a normal, non-Olympic year, there are 10 weights that compete at the world championships, so there will at least be four weights that'll be decided in September, and possibly more, depending on what happens in Tokyo.

Kind of weird, right?

G'Angelo Hancock celebrates with an American flag after winning at 97 kg in the finals during the fourth session of the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

But this summer is also exciting because we'll get everything back that we're used to getting, too.

For high-schoolers, there's various age-level competitions, like the Cadet world team trials later this month; the winners go to the Cadet world championships in July. The Junior and 16U national duals and national championships are in June and July, too.

For the college wrestlers, the UWW Junior and U23 world team trials are presumably going to be scheduled because they also have world championships this year, in August and November, respectively. 

Here in Iowa, the freestyle and greco state tournaments are set for early May, which will determine who qualifies for the national dual teams and who competes at the national tournaments later this summer.

The COVID-19 pandemic robbed wrestling fans of all that last spring and summer. A year later, we're (hopefully) closer to the end of this thing than we were last year, and we can return to something resembling normal sooner rather than later.

That's a long-winded way of saying, yes, the U.S. Olympic Trials felt like the culmination and some sort of finish line — and in some ways, it was.

But in many other ways, the spring and summer wrestling fun is really just beginning.

Now, then. On to the mailbag. This is the last wrestling mailbag this season, but, as you just read, wrestling coverage will continue in various forms in the months ahead. So buckle up, because it's going to be a blast.

Please give me a follow on Twitter (@codygoodwin) and on Instagram (@codyjgoodwin) and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week as well. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

From @carreras_ted: What happened in the J'den Cox weigh in situation?

I was in the building when J'den Cox was weighing in. Here's what I saw:

I walked in a little before 8 a.m. I'll be honest, I had no idea weigh-ins were still going on when I walked in the building. I was granted Tier 1 access to this event, which meant I could be underneath with all the athletes and coaches and had a seat on the floor. I planned to take full advantage of that opportunity, so I arrived early.

I get there, and athletes are walking back from the scales or already eating after having made weight. I take my time walking to the floor because I know some people are still making weight and it's really not my place to be there while they're stepping on the scale. Anybody who's ever made weight knows it's a chaotic scene sometimes.

But I walk out onto the floor right around 8 a.m., and I see J'den Cox and Kevin Jackson both over by the scales. I don't think much of it and am more focused on finding my seat. I do that, but I still see J'den and KJ over by the scales. Naturally, I'm curious.

Colored lights circle around the arena before the second session of the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Friday, April 2, 2021, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

It's after 8 a.m. at this point, which I learned is when weigh-ins closed. But J'den is running around the floor and doing sprints to work off whatever little weight he had left to work off. KJ is pleading with the weigh-in officials to try and give him more time, presumably because he had told J'den the wrong time.

The officials listen to him. It's devastating to hear. There's legit worry in KJ's voice. J'den, meanwhile, is just going about his business. He doesn't look terribly worried at this point. I get the vibe that if he hurries and steps on the scale, the officials might give it to him, but I can't be for certain. I'm a good ways away from the conversation.

A USA Wrestling employee calls my phone at 8:06 a.m. KJ and J'den are still on the floor. I see J'den get on the scale again, and I'm not sure that he makes weight because he goes back to working weight off again while KJ continues to plead with the officials. This is about the time when I realize that something big is happening.

The last time I look at my phone, it's 8:10 a.m., and a few minutes after, J'den steps on the scale and presumably makes weight. Then he steps on another, and presumably makes weight again. Then another. The officials say something to KJ and I can't hear it but he's not happy. J'den sits in a nearby chair. The officials walk off the floor.

I see KJ console J'den and then they, too, walk off the floor. A few more minutes pass and a USA Wrestling employee comes up to me. I asked what's next. A committee is going to decide J'den's fate, they tell me. Cool. Let's see what happens. 

About an hour later, I'm working on some pre-tournament stuff when I hear that the committee voted no. I don't know who's on the committee or how many people are on it. I double check with a few USA Wrestling employees who would know about the final decision. They tell me it's a no. I check the brackets. J'den's not there.

So I send out the tweet. A few minutes later, USA Wrestling posts their announcement that he's not competing

And just like that, one of the most exciting days for our sport gets off to a rough start.

► MORE WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE REGISTER

I really don't think he will, because what process exists that makes sense?

It would make far more sense if J'den was already in the best-of-three finals at an Olympic weight, but he wasn't. And while, yes, a lot of us expected J'den to navigate the challenge tournament on Friday, there is no guarantee that would've happened.

The thing that maybe makes sense would be to have J'den wrestle the national team members: Kyven Gadson, Kollin Moore and, if he gets there, Kyle Snyder in a best-of-three series for the spot. But that's a slap in the face to Ty Walz and Mike Macchiavello and others who actually made weight on time and competed over the weekend.

There's just not really a fair way to make this happen, and that stinks because a lot of us, myself included, were very excited to see J'den compete this weekend and felt he had a great shot at making the team.

Part of making these teams and wrestling on these stages is making weight on time and following the rules just like everybody else. He didn't do that. I watched him fail to do that. USA Wrestling needs to enforce those rules. If you make an exception for one, you have to make exceptions for all.

J'den Cox did not make weight on time at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials.

The other thing to consider here, too: Would the International Olympic Committee in Tokyo, or even those at United World Wrestling during the world championships, make an exception like this? The answer is a resounding no. If you miss weigh-in times, you don't compete. The IOC and UWW don't care how good you are. Rules are rules.

Why should USA Wrestling operate any differently?

It would set a bad precedent and there would be a TON of mad wrestlers and coaches if J'den was granted a process to wrestle for the spot. Kudos to those on the committee who gave a thumbs down on Friday, even if that was probably a tough decision. 

If it's found that Kevin Jackson was the one who told J'den the wrong times, then yeah, I think a small reprimand is in order.

But I don't think he should lose his job.

This part of the thing, which is maybe a bigger deal than I'm making it, seems to be that time management and knowledge of the basics (when do weigh-ins close) was heavily miscommunicated in some form. Coaches should know when weigh-ins close, but athletes should, too. They're the ones who have to make weight. That's day one stuff.

Kevin Jackson used to coach at Iowa State. Now he coaches at USA Wrestling.

Jackson, as a USA Wrestling coach and employee, should know these things. Cox, as a USA Wrestling athlete, should know, too. I know Cox was blaming Jackson and Jackson was accepting it after Cox didn't make weight on time, but pinning this solely on Jackson seems silly.

Cox should know better. He's won three NCAA titles, two world titles, and won Olympic bronze in 2016. He's been wrestling long enough to know to ALWAYS double check when weigh-ins close. A lot of things are at fault in this scenario, but Cox shoulders the majority of it, in my opinion.

Does KJ deserve some blame? Sure. He should know when weigh-ins close. But the athletes should know first and foremost. They're the ones stepping on the scale.

Previous wrestling mailbag: Freestyle and Greco, Spencer Lee, Olympic Trials, Jordan Burroughs, and more

Honestly not sure. I think both guys had as good a chance of making the team as anybody else in the bracket.

Before Nick Suriano tested positive for COVID-19 and withdrew, he was the 5-seed, which means he would've wrestled Seth Gross in the quarterfinals and Thomas Gilman in the semifinals. That semifinal matchup between him and Gilman would've been one of the most highly anticipated matches of the entire tournament. 

Spencer Lee wasn't pre-seeded, but my gut says he would've been the 3-seed. That pushes Vito Arujau to the 4, Gross to the 5, Suriano to the 6, Joe Colon to the 7, and on and on. That means Lee would've wrestled Suriano in the quarters and Daton Fix, the 2-seed, in the semifinals, then Gilman in the finals, if all the seeds held.

I don't know what those results would look like.

Lee beat Suriano in the NCAA finals, but that was folkstyle and three years ago. Fix has freestyle wins over Lee in the past. But if Lee is healthy, I wouldn't bet against him. A lot of my recent freestyle viewing of Lee stems from his run at the U.S. senior men's freestyle national championships back in 2019. He looked tremendous that weekend.

Thomas Gilman, left, wrestles Vito Arujau at 57 kg during the fourth session of the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

It's so hard to say, which is why looking back at these things and wondering "what if" always seem like a fool's errand to me. I would've picked him to make the team if he had entered and was fully healthy, sure, but it's hard for me to sit here and say that he would've sliced through the tournament like so many people think.

I just don't know. That's the beautiful thing about tournaments like this. The athletes figure that out for us. I think a lot of people thought Zain Retherford, for example, was going to make the finals at 65 kilograms, but Joey McKenna had other plans. Same on the other side of that bracket with Yianni Diakomihalis, but Jordan Oliver stepped up.

I think Spencer Lee and Nick Suriano would've been contenders to make the team. It wouldn't have surprised me if either of them did make the team. I would've loved to have see either of them wrestle the version of Thomas Gilman we saw this weekend.

But they didn't compete, so I don't know, and there's really no reason to worry about it now.

The top three finishers at each weight last weekend made USA Wrestling's national team. That opens up a bunch of opportunities for them, such as:

  • training opportunities at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
  • sponsored trips for training camps and competitions overseas.
  • monthly stipends from USA Wrestling.
  • probably more that I'm just not thinking of right now.

That's a pretty sweet deal.

And college-aged kids can take advantage of it. Two of them are on the national team in men's freestyle: Cornell's Vito Arujau, at 57 kg, and Minnesota's Gable Steveson, at 125 kg.

It is my understanding, after asking people who know better and doing a little bit of research, that they are allowed to take the stipend money from USA Wrestling specifically for living and training expenses, not unlike a scholarship. In that sense, USA Wrestling can also cover their expenses on various trips and training opportunities.

Even more, if Steveson wins gold this summer, he'll be in line for a BIG payday from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Wrestling.

Gable Steveson does a back flip after winning his second match at 125 kg during the fourth session of the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

The USOC created a grant called "Operation Gold" that hands out cash awards for athletes who win medals at international and Olympic competitions. It's normally $50,000 for a gold medal, $25,000 for silver, $15,000 for bronze. College athletes are eligible for these awards under NCAA rules.

Even more, USA Wrestling created an additional fund in 2009 called "Living The Dream Medal Fund" which bolsters those checks for wrestlers who win medals at the Olympics. It's a pretty hefty sum, too: $250,000 for Olympic gold, $50,000 for Olympic silver, $25,000 for Olympic bronze.

So Kyle Snyder, for example, won $250,000 for winning Olympic gold in 2016, and $50,000 each for his world titles in 2015 and 2017, all while continuing to be a student at Ohio State, and everything was a-OK. Steveson could do the same this summer.

It, quite literally, pays to be an Olympic-level athlete.

US Olympic Wrestling Trials: Recap from Saturday's best-of-three championship finals

They followed Mark Perry to Arizona State and the Sunkist Kids.

Wrestlers follow their coaches. We see it all the time. When Tom Brands left Virginia Tech to come to Iowa, Brent Metcalf, Jay Borschel and others followed. When Cael Sanderson left Iowa State for Penn State, David Taylor and others followed. When Chris Bono left South Dakota State for Wisconsin, Seth Gross followed.

You see it in other sports, too, like basketball and football. Those guys and gals are recruited by a coach, and once that coach moves, they want to continue to play for that coach. Most athletes commit to the coach rather than the institution. A large chunk of recruiting is about relationships.

So, yeah, when Mark Perry saw a coaching opportunity at Arizona State, he jumped at it. Part of that opportunity meant getting to coach the Sunkist Kids. So all those women who were part of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club — Kayla Miracle, Alli Ragan, Forrest Molinari, Michaela Beck — decided to go with him.

Kayla Miracle smiles while doing an interview after her match at 62 kg in the finals during the fourth session of the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Saturday, April 3, 2021, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

Beck has since moved to the Wisconsin RTC, but Miracle, Ragan and Molinari all finished out this Olympic cycle with Perry down in Arizona. Miracle made the women's freestyle Olympic team at 62 kilos (136 pounds). Molinari made the national team at 68 kilos (150). Ragan lost in the challenge finals at 57 kilos (125).

It was fun to see them compete in-person again. I had gotten to know them a little when they were in Iowa City. They're a great group of women, and great ambassadors for the sport. It was awesome to see Miracle take a step closer to a lifelong dream. 

But athletes have coaches they favor and want to learn from and compete for, just like we have bosses that we favor in whatever our profession is. They went where they were comfortable.

Props to Mark Perry for having that kind of impact. Says a lot about his coaching abilities and the confidence he instills in his athletes.

The women's freestyle tournament was full of tremendous stories.

Jenna Burkert, a week removed from her mom's passing, blew through the challenge tournament and gave our country's only women's wrestling Olympic gold medalist a gritty fight for the spot in Tokyo.

A youth movement that's long been building came alive in the form of Macey Kilty, Kennedy Blades and Kylie Welker. Kilty is 20, and Blades and Welker are both 17, and they all made Saturday night's championship finals. Had the Trials happened on schedule, in April 2020, neither Blades nor Welker would've been old enough to compete.

There's also Ronna Heaton storming out of the 5-spot to pin both Dominique Parrish and Katherine Shai to make the finals at 53 kg, and Victoria Anthony showcasing her electric wrestling style once again en route to another Olympic Trials finals appearance.

Olympic Wrestling Trials: Results from Friday's challenge tournament semifinals, finals

Burkert's run was the story of the tournament, and it wasn't particularly close, in my opinion. The amount of mental courage and physical fortitude it takes to wrestle one week after your mom dies is immeasurable. Her mom died after complications from a heart surgery so that she could watch Jenna compete. I can't even imagine.

Then she goes out and records back-to-back 11-0 technical falls, a first-period pin, and takes Helen Maroulis to a third match during Saturday's championship finals. Maroulis pinned her quickly in that final match, and the image of Burkert crying and saying, "I'm sorry, Mom" on the mat afterward is one that'll stick with me forever.

It would've been a heck of a story if Burkert had completed her tremendous run and made the team. USA Wrestling sold fan cut-outs for the Trials and someone had a cut-out of Burkert's mom sitting front and center. But the fact that she competed at all says so much, and then to do what she did … unbelievable inspiration and guts.

Jenna Burkert reacts after scoring a fall  in the championship tournament finals at 57 kg during the second session of the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Friday, April 2, 2021, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

The performances from Kilty, Blades and Welker was the latest example of how much women's wrestling has continually grown in recent years. Blades and Welker looked more like seasoned vets than 17-year-olds. We've watched Kilty win age-level medals for years, so her run maybe wasn't as surprising, but it was still impressive.

The crazy part is, for Kilty, Blades and Welker, this next Olympic cycle is shorter. The next Olympics is in 2024. Kilty will be just 23, and Blades and Welker will be just 20. They're all going to win big on the women's Senior-level for two or three more quads, if not longer.

This weekend was one heck of an introduction.

You're hanging out with Carter Happel too much, Abe, but I appreciate the collective commitment to this bit. I wore an all-black Nike quarter-zip Monday. I'm still in Texas, and it's too warm for a quarter-zip today. I do need some new ones, though.

This was the last wrestling mailbag for the '20-'21 season. The constant interaction and ongoing wrestling conversation throughout the last few months is always fun for me. I hope you guys enjoy it, too. 

Wrestling coverage will continue with more freestyle and greco competitions coming in the months ahead. We'll also do some podcast mailbags in the offseason, but we'll pick up this version of the mailbag once the '21-'22 season begins again in the fall. 

Until then, sincerely, thank you.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.