(Las Vegas, NV) Making a U.S. Olympic Team for wrestling is an amazing achievement, which takes a lifetime of training and preparation. Making a U.S. Olympic Team twice or more puts an athlete in an elite category, alongside many of the greatest competitors in wrestling history.
There will be eight members of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team who are expected to be in the field at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling in Las Vegas, Nev., June 13-15. Their quest to earn a trip to the Beijing Olympic Games adds tremendous drama to the event.
In men’s freestyle, the three 2004 Olympians who seek a return trip to the Olympics are Stephen Abas of the Sunkist Kids at 55 kg/121 lbs., Joe Williams of the Sunkist Kids at 84 kg/185 lbs. and Daniel Cormier of the Gator WC at 96 kg/211.5 lbs.
Abas is the only returning medalist from this group, after capturing a silver medal with a memorable performance at the Athens Games. Since winning that silver medal, however, Abas has faced many challenges on the road to Beijing. He has missed most of the last three seasons with various injuries that have kept him off the mat. Each season, he was not able to compete for a spot on the U.S. World Team. Abas has recovered from his most recent surgery, and wrestled for the first time in two years at the Dave Schultz Memorial International in February.
Cormier and Williams just missed winning a medal in Athens. Cormier lost in the bronze-medal match at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. to place fourth, and Williams finished in fifth at 74 kg/163 lbs.
Since then, Cormier has dominated his weight division within the United States, earning a spot on all three U.S. World Teams this Olympic cycle. He has been No. 1 in his weight domestically for five straight years. Cormier won his first World medal in 2007, a bronze.
Williams made the 2005 U.S. World Team and captured a bronze medal, his second career World medal. In 2006, he had a disappointing season and did not place at the World Team Trials. He returned in 2007 and moved up a weight class to 84 kg/185 lbs. Williams was energized at the new weight, winning the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials to claim the No. 1 spot. An injury at the Trials put Williams on the sideline most of the summer, but he healed up enough to place fifth at 2007 World Championships.
In Greco-Roman, the returning Olympians this year are Jim Gruenwald of the Sunkist Kids at 60 kg/132 lbs., Oscar Wood of the U.S. Army at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. and Brad Vering of the New York AC at 84 kg/185 lbs. None of these Olympians were able to win a medal in Athens, so each seek another chance to bring home some hardware from Beijing.
Of the three, Vering has been the most successful since competing at the 2004 Olympics. Vering won a World silver medal in 2007, helping lead the U.S. Greco-Roman team to its first World Team title. He was also a member of the 2005 U.S. World Team.
Gruenwald has already been on two U.S. Olympic Teams, and is seeking to be one of the few three-time Olympians in USA Wrestling history. He retired shortly after the Athens Games, taking an assistant coaching position at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan Univ. In the fall of 2007, at the age of 37, Gruenwald announced his return to the mats, with a goal of winning an elusive Olympic medal.
Wood had his best international season in 2004, when he was able to become a U.S. Nationals champion, then defeated 2000 Olympic Kevin Bracken for the spot on the Olympic Team. Wood has not been top-ranked since, competing in a division where two-time World medalist Harry Lester has emerged. Wood has already won the Sunkist Open this season, and hopes to rise to the occasion again during the Olympic Trials process.
Both of the women wrestlers who return from Athens were Olympic medalists, Sara McMann of the Sunkist Kids at 63 kg/138.75 lbs. and Patricia Miranda of the Sunkist Kids at 48 kg/105.5 lbs. McMann won a silver medal and Miranda won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, the first time that women’s wrestling was included at the Games.
McMann has won two World bronze medals in the years since Athens and has remained No. 1 on Women’s Team USA all three seasons. McMann has also won a second career Pan American Games title during this period.
Miranda took the 2005 season off to concentrate on Yale Law School, but returned in 2006 to claim a World bronze medal at 51 kg/112.25 lbs. Miranda qualified to compete in the 2007 World meet, but an injury kept her off the team. She has since returned to action, and has worked back down to the 48 kg/105.5 lbs. division.
These experienced athletes, who already have substantial Olympic exposure, know what it takes to win the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, under the tremendous pressure to perform at that event. We can expect them to all be at their best when the whistles blow in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas in June, and another berth on the U.S. Olympic Team is up for grabs. The question remains, just how many of the eight will be left standing when the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling is held, June 13-15.