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WRESTLING: U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Wrestling in Indianapolis, Ind., May 21-23 - Men's freestyle preview

Who will represent the United States in men’s freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece? Four years of training and competition will culminate with one shot at glory.

Of the seven 2004 U.S. Nationals champions, only one is a past Olympian, Kerry McCoy at 120 kg/264.5 lbs. Actually, only two other past Olympians are even in the field in Indianapolis this year, Olympic silver medalist Sammie Henson at 55 kg/121 lbs. and two-time Olympian Melvin Douglas at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. What that means is that regardless of the results this weekend, a majority of the U.S. team will be competing in its first Olympic Games.

The top eight placewinners from the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas have qualified for this event, along with champions of five Regional Olympic Team Trials.

The USA won four medals in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Olympics, including a gold medal (Brandon Slay), a silver medal (Henson) and two bronze medals (Terry Brands, Lincoln McIlravy).

The coaches for the 2004 U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team will be National Freestyle Coach Kevin Jackson, plus Tom Brands, Zeke Jones and Bobby Douglas.

55 KG/121 LBS.

Stephen Abas has been the No. 1 man for three straight years in this division. His fifth place at the 2003 World Championships was his best finish to date. Abas owns gold medals in major events, such as the World Cup, Pan American Games and Junior World Championships, but still seeks that elusive World-level medal. His victory at the 2004 U.S. Nationals gives him the No. 1 seed this weekend, where he will await who emerges from the Challenge Tournament. Abas has improved all aspects of his game.

Making a strong comeback from retirement was 2000 Olympic silver medalist Sammie Henson, who also boasts a 1998 World gold medal. Henson worked through the talented field to reach the national finals against Abas, but he was unable to get his offense going. Placing third at the U.S. Nationals is veteran Teague Moore, a former U.S. Nationals champion with great freestyle skills.

Young Matt Azevedo has quickly developed into a contender, placing fourth at the U.S. Nationals and showing improvement in all areas. Jeremy Hunter is coming off a good season, and reached the semifinals at the nationals this year. Mike Mena placed second behind Abas at the 2003 World Team Trials and has the exprience and skill to battle for the Challenge Tournament title again. The final placewinners at the U.S. Nationals were veteran Tim Dernlan and college star Nick Simmons, who is pursuing an Olympic redshirt. Simmons won the North Regional Trials, as well. Other Regional Trials winners included T.J. Hill, Eric Albarracin, Mark McKnight and Angel Alegre. Hill was a Junior World champion down at 50 kg and has a great fighting spirit.

The Challenge Tournament should be very competitive, with a number of athletes capable of winning. Whoever emerges will have to find a new strategy to slow down Abas, who has continued his dominance at this weight division.

60 KG/132 LBS.

Eric Guerrero has also been a dominant athlete, making the last three U.S. World Teams and keeping an edge over a weight class with many talents. In a similar situation to Abas, he has many international achievements, but no World-level medals. His performance at the U.S. Nationals shows that he continues to have the attitude of a champion.

Coming in as U.S. Nationals runner-up is young star Mike Zadick, who also placed second at the 2003 World Team Trials. On the Senior circuit a short time, Zadick has learned quickly and has shown strong skills in freestyle. Another young wrestler just out of college, Ryan Lewis, placed third at U.S. Nationals. Lewis was also the North Regional Trials champion. Both Zadick and Lewis are hoping that they have arrived right when it most matters, during the Olympic year.

Veteran Danny Felix, a past U.S. Nationals runner-up, placed fourth at this year’s national tournament. Felix also captured the West Regional Trials. Another seasoned talent is Yero Washington, a former national team member who captured fifth in Las Vegas. Jesus Wilson, a Cuban immigrant who was sixth in the 1993 World Championships, came in at sixth at the U.S. Nationals. Wilson placed second behind Guerrero in a fierce battle at the 2002 World Team Trials. The other two qualifiers emerging from the U.S. Nationals were 2004 NCAA champion Zach Roberson, and veteran freestyle specialist Scott Schatzman.

A threat in this division is two-time Olympic Trials runner-up Eric Akin, who has moved up a weight class. Akin was second at this weight at the 2003 U.S. Nationals, and is a past U.S. World Team member. Capturing spots in the field by winning Regional Trials events were Jason Kutz (East) and Nate Gallick (South). Kutz was third on the U.S. national team this year, and is capable of making a run at the Olympic Trials.

Zadick has been on a roll for more than a year here, and hopes to maintain that edge by winning the Challenge Tournament. A number of athletes have legitimate chances to emerge from the field. Whoever gets through faces the difficult task of beating a proven winner in the finals, the talented and motivated Guerrero.

66 KG/145.5 LBS.

A year ago, his victory at the World Team Trials was considered an upset. Today, heading into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, he is in the new role as the favorite. Jamill Kelly, who has paid his dues for some time in freestyle, has the talent and confidence to move to the front of this division. He is now only two wins away from being in the Olympic Games. Never a state champion or NCAA All-American, Kelly has found his niche in international freestyle.

Two-time World Team member Chris Bono is the top challenger here, taking second to Kelly at both the 2003 World Team Trials and 2004 U.S. Nationals. Bono went overseas and qualified this division for the Olympics for the nation. He also has wins over some of the world’s top stars. Coming on strong this season has been Jared Frayer, who was third at the U.S. Nationals and has won a number of medals at international events. Taking fourth in Las Vegas is another talented young star, Eric Larkin, who dropped two matches to Frayer at the nationals. Larkin was third at the 2000 Olympic Trials, and has gotten even better.

This division is stacked with talent. Coming out of the college ranks has been the exciting Jared Lawrence, fifth at U.S. Nationals as well as North Regional champion. Doug Schwab has been a consistent performer, with a knack at givinig Bono fits in their battles. Even at No. 6 coming in, Schwab is capable of running the table in the Challenge Tournament. The final two qualifiers from Las Vegas were tough Tony Davis and veteran Celso DeAnda. Past World Team member Bill Zadick, who was No. 3 on the national team this year, qualified through the final event, the South Regional Trials. Zadick has struggled some in 2004, but is capable of beating anyone in this division. Others emerging as Regional Trials champions were DeAnda, plus Jeremy Ensrud (West), Jeff Ratliff (East).

This weight class will have a fierce Challenge Tournament that should be very entertaining for fans. Whoever survives will face a fresh and rested Kelly in the Championship Series, a talent who gets harder to beat as he goes along.

74 KG/163 LBS.

The top star in this division has been Joe Williams, No. 1 at his weight for four of the last five years. He had a disappointing 2000 season, losing his top spot and placing third at the Olympic Trials. Since then, he has dominated his U.S. foes. Williams was third in the 2001 World meet, but did not place at the World Championships in New York last year, another setback that has motivated him. A champion his entire career, Williams brings experience and great physical skills to each match.

For two seasons, the top challenger for Williams has been Joe Heskett, who reached the finals at both the U.S. Nationals and World Team Trials. Heskett has been strong in freestyle since high school, and has taken off since finishing college. Placing third at the U.S. Nationals was Casey Cunningham, the No. 2 athlete behind Williams in 2002, who seems to have revived his career with a strong showing in Las Vegas. Cunningham is capable of beating all challengers when wrestling well.

Veteran Ramico Blackmon, a past U.S. Nationals champion, placed fourth in Las Vegas and is always somewhere near the top of the standings. Donny Pritzlaff, a past Junior World champion and two-time NCAA champion, remains a force at this weight. Exciting Yoshi Nakamura, who has slick technique, placed sixth in Las Vegas and adds style to the mix. Kirk White, who was No. 3 on Freestyle Team USA this season, dropped to seventh at the U.S. Nationals, but is capable of higher achievements. Also qualifying through the U.S. Nationals was veteran Sean Harrington. Joining the field through the Regional events were NCAA champion Matt Lackey (South), Greco-Roman Olympian David Zuniga (North) and young Bryce Hasseman (East).

The star at this division is Williams, who has made his mark on the world level and has very high goals. He will face the winner of the Challenge Tournament, who will have worked through a talented field to make the finals. Heskett and Cunningham are the top hopefuls there, but others have a chance. Beating Williams twice will be very difficult, especially after such a competitive Challenge Tournament.

84 KG/185 LBS.

Putting it all together at the right time is Lee Fullhart, the veteran who won his first U.S. Nationals title this year. Fullhart upset 2003 World silver medalist Cael Sanderson in the national finals, controlling the match. He placed second behind Sanderson at the major events the last two seasons. He had a good run at the 2000 Olympic Trials, an experience that should help him now. The win in Las Vegas takes him out of the Challenge Tournament mess, and he will wait for one challenger.

Sanderson has won three straight World Team Trials and U.S. Nationals at this division, after the greatest college career in history. He will be known for his four NCAA titles and unbeaten record at Iowa State. He wants to add Olympic champion to his legacy. A win over the 2000 Olympic champion shows that he is capable. The loss to Fullhart will be a test of his character. Placing third at the U.S. Nationals is young Muhammed Lawal, who blasted onto the freestyle scene after finishing his college career a season ago. Lawal is quickly learning the art of freestyle and wrestles with power and passion.

Nick Preston has recently dropped to this division and placed an impressive fourth at the U.S. Nationals and won the Central Regional Trials. 2001 World silver medalist Brandon Eggum placed fifth in Las Vegas, but is fully capable of winning the Challenge Tournament. The rest of the placewinners in Las Vegas will be longshots in this field, Clint Wattenberg, collegian Ben Askren and Nate Patrick. The Regional Trials champion are all very skilled. The two most successful have been former national team member Aaron Simpson (South), along with Andy Hrovat (East). Completing the field are Regional winners Tony Gansen (West) and Sean Salmon (North).

The Challenge Tournament will be a test for Sanderson, who is in an underdog role for the first time in a long time. Athletes like Lawal, Preston and Eggum all have confidence going into the event. Should Sanderson emerge, he gets the chance to avenge his loss to Fullhart, who will be in top condition and peaking with his skills. Fullhart has paid his dues and is looking to cash in, adding drama to a strong division.

96 KG/211.5 LBS.

One of the most exciting stars on the U.S. scene is Daniel Cormier, who won the U.S. Nationals again this season. Cormier was fifth in the 2003 World Championships and won a gold at the Pan American Games. He has the ability to win matches with big throws, or with solid basic moves. He has been able to hold onto this weight class, but has had some close battles with the other contenders.

U.S. Nationals runner-up Dean Morrison lost to Cormier in a three-match battle in a Special Wrestle-off last summer, which went down to the final seconds. In Las Vegas this year, only one point separated him from a win over Cormier. A veteran, this may be Morrison’s last chance for an Olympic spot, and he will be ready. Coming in at No. 3 and No. 4 from the U.S. Nationals are college stars Damion Hahn and Tommy Rowlands. Both completed their folkstyle careers as two-time NCAA champions, and both have extensive freestyle backgrounds from the age-group levels.

Tim Hartung, a 2002 World Team member, has a win over Morrison this year and has considerable international experience. After losing in the U.S. Nationals semifinals, he did not contest the wrestlebacks. 1993 World Champion and two-time Olympian Melvin Douglas made a comeback at 40 years old. Douglas has won four World medals and has more experience than anybody. Also qualifying through the U.S. Nationals were Wes Hand and Mark Munoz, both who have had good seasons. Munoz is a past Junior World silver medalist. Past World Team member Dominic Black is also qualified, and was second to Douglas at the 2000 Olympic Trials. The Regional events included some prominent winners, including Dawid Rechul (East), Chad Lamer (West), Ryan Tobin (South), Jon Trenge (Central) and Carlos Eason (North). Lamer has been as high as No. 2 in this division just a few seasons ago.

Cormier awaits one challenger from a deep field of contenders. Morrison has had a number of close matches with the other top opponents. Hartung and Douglas know what it takes to become No. 1 and will be difficult to beat. College stars Hahn and Rowlands have bright futures. Whoever comes through the field will need to be wrestling their best to beat Cormier, who seems to improve each season.

120 KG/264.5 LBS.

2000 Olympian Kerry McCoy has been No. 1 here for four straight years, and comes off his best year with a 2003 World silver medal. McCoy was fifth at the 2000 Olympics and has been motivated for another chance to win an Olympic gold. He has won the major events along the way including the World Cup and Pan American Games. He has all the tools - speed, power, technique. As national champion, he only has to beat one other wrestler to make his second Olympic team.

The big news has been the emergence of Steven Mocco as the top challenger to McCoy. Mocco is taking an Olympic redshirt season after winning the 2003 NCAA title. He has wrestled many international bouts this year, including wins over some top foreign stars. Mocco was not able to score on McCoy in Las Vegas. Taking No. 3 at U.S. Nationals is former U.S. Nationals champion Tolly Thompson, who has considerable experience. Thompson was upset early in Las Vegas, and did not get the chance to wrestle Mocco yet.

The rest of the field will look to knock off Mocco or Thompson in the Challenge Tournament. Taking eighth at U.S. Nationals, although injured is veteran Brian Keck, who was No. 3 on the national team last season. Other placewinners from Las Vegas were Billy Blunt, Kevin Hoy, Kellen Fluckiger and Justin Moody. Veteran Angelo Borzio, a former national team member, won the South Regional Trials. Other Regional winners were Mike Faust (Central), Pat Cummins (East) and Max Lossen (North), all three from the college ranks.

Fans may be excited about a McCoy vs. Mocco rematch in the finals, but first comes the task of the Challenge Tournament. Mocco may have his anticipated match with Thompson there, pitting youth against experience. Others will look to disrupt their plans. McCoy waits for one rival, and will bring his best stuff with him. It could be an exciting and interesting finals series.

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