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U.S. Olympic Team Trials preview at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. in men's freestyle wrestling

5/14/2004 Gary Abbott/USA Wrestling

The 96 kg/211.5 lbs. division in the Olympic Trials in freestyle wrestling has a ton of drama. The weight class features many athletes who have either been very successful in the past, or are projected to be big international stars in the future. Qualifying for this weight class was quite difficult. It will be a great show of some very powerful and skilled big men.

The top dog in the group is Daniel Cormier, who placed fifth at the 2003 World Championships and returned this year to defend his U.S. Nationals title. Cormier has exciting skills, not only with the ability to pop a throw for a pin but also with solid, basic winning technique. He has shown a knack for freestyle, going back even to his days as a college wrestling star. He also has a compelling personal story, losing his infant child in an auto accident last year prior to the World Team Trials, and finding the courage and focus to return to the mat, win a Wrestle-off, then compete well on the World level. Cormier is also driven by his loss at the World Championships to a former World Champion from Iran, a tough lesson that will motivate him to even higher achievement if he gets another chance at that level.

Cormier is developing a fierce rivalry with No. 2 Dean Morrison, who he edged 4-3 in the U.S. Nationals finals. It was Morrison who Cormier beat in that Special Wrestle-off in Fargo, N.D. last year, a drag-out battle that went the full three matches and was not determined until the final seconds. Morrison has a knack of getting ahead of Cormier, and then seeing things get away from him. In order to get another chance at Cormier, Morrison will have to survive a true test in the Challenge Tournament. Morrison is older than most of his opponents, but is wrestling as well or better than he has ever done before. His move to the Olympic Training Center, as well as the decision to jump up to 96 kg and fill out his huge frame, have had spectacular results. He seems to win the close matches against all of his rivals, except for Cormier.

A pair of talented young NCAA champions placed in the next two spots in Las Vegas, Damion Hahn in third and Tommy Rowlands in fourth. Both finished their college careers this season as two-time champions, Hahn competing at 197 pounds and Rowlands at 285 pounds. (Of course, Rowlands regularly gave up weight competing at super heavyweight). Both had tremendous age-group careers, representing the U.S. at the Junior World level. Their match for third was very competitive, won by Hahn late with a gut wrench turn. If they are not ready for this Olympics, both will be considered top hopefuls for the next one in Beijing, China.

To get this far, Hahn and Rowlands has tremendous tournaments is Las Vegas. Neither were seeded, as the coaches chose only to go to No. 8 in the seeding. Rowlands got an unfavorable draw, getting No. 1 Cormier in the first round and losing 5-1. Rowlands proceeded to win eight straight times before meeting up with Hahn, including wins over some very well respected wrestlers. Hahn won three matches before losing to Cormier in the quarterfinals, 6-0, then won his final four rounds. It was an impressive showing of youth over experience.

The next two placewinners at the U.S. Nationals need no introduction, world-class wrestlers Melvin Douglas and Tim Hartung, who were declared co-winners of fifth place. Both qualified for the semifinals in Las Vegas where they lost, then defaulted out of the wrestleback rounds. Douglas was pinned by Cormier, while Hartung lost to Morrison, 3-2.

Hartung has reached the top of this weight class, winning the World Team Trials in 2002. His chance to wrestle at the World Championships was taken away when the U.S. was unable to compete in Iran due to threats of violence. The emergence of Cormier and Morrison happened in 2003, and Hartung has been trying since to overturn some very difficult losses. Hartung did score a victory over Morrison at the Dave Schultz International, which was reversed in the Las Vegas semifinals. It would not be a surprise to see Hartung win the entire thing in Indianapolis.

Douglas is the George Foreman of wrestling, a 40-year old who is trying to beat Father Time and defeat the younger stars. He competed on the last two Olympic Teams, was a World Champion back in 1993 and has won four World medals. He took more than three years off after the 2000 Olympics. His comeback was taken seriously immediately when he almost won his first tournament at 120 kg in a controversial loss to young star Steven Mocco. His loss to Cormier should not discourage him, as Douglas has won in the clutch many times over his career. It is a feel-good story, but is backed up by strong wrestling skills. Nobody in the division considers the Douglas comeback a joke.

The final two qualifiers from Las Vegas are also respected, but will still be considered longshots at this weight class, seventh place Wes Hand and eighth place Mark Munoz. Hand wrestled heavyweight in college, where he was a NCAA runner-up. Munoz was a NCAA champion and a former Junior World silver medalist. Both lost close matches to Morrison in the championship bracket in Las Vegas. Munoz drew Morrison in the first round, and the match went into overtime, where there was controversy regarding the clinch position. Morrison finally got the win by taking down Munoz. Hand lost to Morrison 3-1 in the quarterfinals. Munoz had six straight wrestleback wins to earn his trip to Indianapolis.

The other wrestlers to qualify for the Challenge Tournament are also quite impressive. One that you won’t see on the list below is past U.S. World Team member Dominic Black, who qualified for the Olympic Trials by winning a Regional Trials up at 120 kg. Black wrestled at 96 kg in the U.S. Nationals but did not place, losing bouts to Dawid Rechul and Rowlands. Black’s experience should be a positive during the Olympic Trials. He was beaten by Douglas in the finals of the 2000 Olympic Trials, and has remained in the sport for another shot at making an Olympic team.

Other prominent Regional Trials winners at 96 kg include Rechul (East), Chad Lamer (West), Ryan Tobin (South) and Jon Trenge (Central). The final qualifier was a bit of a surprise, Carlos Eason, a former star at Cornell who had not been active on the freestyle circuit. They all wrestled in Las Vegas, but could not survive the grueling field in the wrestlebacks.

Lamer has the strongest background in this group, reaching as high as No. 2 on Freestyle Team USA in the past. Lamer has had some challenges in this field the past two seasons, but has the experience to pull off some big wins if he gets things going.

Trenge is pursuing an Olympic redshirt year from Lehigh Univ., where he was a two-time NCAA runner-up. He is a past Junior World Team member and always had strong freestyle skills. Trenge has an eye injury which may ultimately affect the longevity of his career, so this may be his chance to achieve a dream of being an Olympian.

Rechul wrestled heavyweight for Harvard, but has come on strong since moving to this division on the Senior level and training out in Colorado Springs. Both Trenge and Rechul have wins over Douglas this season. Rowlands knocked out Trenge in the wrestlebacks and Munoz put Rechul out of the tournament in Las Vegas.

Tobin is also a veteran, an athlete who has competed on the national scene for many years and has both experience and skill.

Right from the start, the Challenge Tournament at 96 kg in men’s freestyle should be exciting and competitive. Nobody should have an easy match. The favorite to survive is Morrison, who has found a way to beat keep an edge over the field. Past World team members Hartung and Douglas are certain that they can win the Challenge Tournament, looking forward to possibly facing Morrison. Young stars Hahn and Rowlands believe their future is right now. Sitting and waiting to see who emerges is Cormier, who has world-class abilities and has confidence. He has had very close battles with Morrison, but has to be prepared for a number of possibilities. This one should be very entertaining for the fans.

2004 U.S. OLYMPIC TEAM TRIALS QUALIFIERS IN MEN’S FREESTYLE AT 96 KG/211.5 POUNDS

U.S. Nationals Champion - Daniel Cormier, Stillwater, Okla. (Gator WC)

U.S. Nationals, second place - Dean Morrison, Colorado Springs, Colo. (New York AC)

U.S. Nationals, third place - Damion Hahn, Lakewood, N.J. (Minn. Storm)

U.S. Nationals, fourth place - Tommy Rowlands, Columbus, Ohio (Dave Schultz WC)

U.S. Nationals, fifth place (tie)- Melvin Douglas, Mesa, Ariz. (Sunkist Kids)

U.S. Nationals, fifth place (tie) - Tim Hartung, St. Paul, Minn. (Minnesota Storm)

U.S. Nationals, seventh place - Wes Hand, Blacksburg, Va. (Sunkist Kids)

U.S. Nationals, eighth place - Mark Munoz, Stillwater, Okla. (Gator WC)

South Regional Trials Champion - Ryan Tobin, Philadelphia, Pa. (Dave Schultz WC)

West Regional Trials Champion - Chad Lamer, Iowa City, Iowa (Hawkeye WC)

North Regional Trials Champion -Carlos Eason, Chesapeake, Va.(unattached)

East Regional Trials Champion - Dawid Rechul, Colorado Springs, Colo. (New York AC)

Central Regional Trials Champion -Jon Trenge, Bethlehem, Pa. (New York AC)

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