For the first time since 2008, the U.S. Olympic Team will have an Iowa flavor -- former Iowa wrestler Dan Dennis, a two-time All-American at 133 lbs, beat Tony Ramos, 2-1 and 10-0, in the Best-of-Three Championship Series at 57 KG. The wins mean that Dennis will be the United States wrestler at 57 KG at the Summer Olympics in Rio this August.
Dennis' win was bittersweet, which was always going to be the case after an Iowa versus Iowa match-up in the finals -- one man would earn the opportunity of a lifetime, while the other would miss out on something he'd been working towards for years -- but it became even moreso in the aftermath of the matches when Ramos made some very contentious comments after his losses. But we'll cover those here; for now, let's celebrate Dennis' excellent achievement.
Dennis and Ramos made it to the Best-of-Three finals by navigating the Challenge Tournament bracket earlier in the day. Of the two, Ramos had the much nervier path to Sunday night's finals. Ramos had a bye in the first round, then faced Nahshon Garrett, the reigning NCAA Champion at 133 lbs (who beat current Iowa wrestler Cory Clark in the finals to win that NCAA title). Garrett took a 3-0 lead into the break, but Ramos was able to prevail 3-3 on tiebreaking criteria after scoring a takedown in the second period and getting a point when Garrett was penalized for fleeing the hold. Because each man had the same number of two-point scoring moves (one apiece), the tiebreaking criteria went to who scored last, which was Ramos. The feeling the hold call was controversial, mainly because it was called so late in the match (there were just 10-15 seconds remaining), but Garrett did spend a good portion of the second period with his track shoes on, so it was difficult to argue that the penalty wasn't deserved.
Ramos faced Coleman Scott in the next round; Scott was on the 2012 Olympic Team at 60 KG (a weight that is no longer contested at the Olympic Games). Again, Ramos spotted his opponent an early lead -- Scott got a point when Ramos was penalized for passivity and another point when he was able to push Ramos out of bounds. Ramos responded with a pair of takedowns in the second period to take a 4-2 lead, but Scott got a takedown of his own in the closing seconds of the match to tie it at 4-4. There was initial confusion about who won on the tiebreaking criteria -- Scott scored the last points in the match, but that was trumped by the fact that Ramos had more two-point moves (2) than Scott had (1).
On the other side of the bracket, Dennis gave up an early takedown against Alan Waters but then rattled off nine points in a row to win 9-2. He gave up an early takedown in his next match, against Tyler Graff, but once again Dennis picked up the scoring after that, scoring six straight to win 6-2.
That set up the finals matchup between Dennis and Ramos later in the night. The first match was incredibly dull and short on action -- Dennis won 2-1 and all three points were scored off passivity. Ramos was put on the shot clock twice and failed to score, while Dennis was put on the shot clock once and failed to score. Neither wrestler took any real shot attempts or came close to scoring. It was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the sport. The second match, on the other hand, featured early fireworks -- Dennis got a takedown off a go-behind and when he was able to sink in a gut-wrench, the match was over. He put on a series of rolls that racked up exposure points in a hurry. That made the score 10-0 just over a minute in, which was enough to lock up a win for Dennis via technical superiority.
Dennis' incredible win(s) add another chapter to his already-incredible story. Andy Hamilton documented the many ups and downs of that story and the trials and tribulations he'd faced along the way in a spectacular story for Hawk Central last week. If you haven't read it yet, I'd heartily encourage you to do so now. To see him come out of nowhere to win the spot at 57 KG and get a chance to wrestle in the Olympics is absolutely incredible.
I can still vividly recall Dennis' last-second loss to Minnesota's Jayson Ness in the NCAA Tournament finals at 133 lbs in 2010. It remains one of the most painful and gut-wrenching losses I've seen in wrestling. Dennis was a two-time All-American at Iowa, but he never won an NCAA title. He never won a Big Ten title. He never even won an Illinois state championship as a high schooler, finishing runner-up twice. Before yesterday, his biggest individual win might have been a championship at the 2008 Midlands Championship. Suffice to say, winning the Olympic Team Trials is just a bit bigger deal than that. To see him rise up and finally get that big win... it was an incredibly gratifying and satisfying experience. Here's hoping that there's still another amazing chapter to write in his story and that he'll be able to come home from Rio with a medal in his possession.
In addition to the bitterness surrounding Ramos' loss to Dennis in the finals, there was another cloud hanging over the performance of former Iowa wrestlers at the Olympic Trials this weekend. Brent Metcalf, who suffered heartbreak in Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials, losing in the Best-of-3 finals to Jared Frayer, suffered even more heartbreak this weekend, losing in the second round to Frank Molinaro. Molinaro won 3-3 and the tiebreaking criteria favored him because they had the same number of two-point scoring moves (one) and he scored the final point of the match (a push-out near the end of the second period). It was a stunning loss for Metcalf, widely expected to win the Olympic Team spot at 65 KG -- or at the very least to make the finals. (Molinaro himself went out on to win the spot at 65 KG, if that serves as any silver lining to Metcalf's loss.) Metcalf also suffered a 9-7 loss to Minnesota's Jayson Ness in the consolation bracket, but that loss was forgettable after the one that kicked him out of a chance to contend for the Olympic Team spot. In the aftermath of his loss, Metcalf was predictably distraught.
That interview is painful to watch, due to the rawness of his emotions. As good as Dennis' win felt on Sunday night, seeing Metcalf come up short in his quest to achieve something that he's sought so hard to get for six years now felt just as awful. Metcalf will be 30 this summer, so while it's not impossible to envision him contending for an Olympic Team spot in 2020 at age 34, it also doesn't seem very likely. This was in all likelihood his last chance to make an Olympic Team -- and he came up short. That is brutal and painful and as someone who's gotten great joy out of watching Metcalf wrestle over the last eight years, first for Iowa and then for the United States, it really stinks. I don't know what's next for Metcalf -- he doesn't sound like someone interested in calling it quits on competition (and I can understand why not; hanging up his shoes after the bitter taste that this event left in his mouth would be very dissatisfying), so he certainly could still continue to compete for spots on the World Teams heading to the World Championships in the next few years. I don't know if he'll be able to rebound from this loss or if he'll be able to hold off some of the hard-changing younger guys at this weight, like Logan Stieber, Zain Retherford, and Aaron Pico, but if he does continue to compete, I hope he's able to achieve a bit more success. And if he decides not to compete, I thank him for his years of incredible performances and wish him well in his next steps.
In 2008, there were three wrestlers with Iowa backgrounds on the U.S. team competing at the Summer Olympics. Mike Zadick manned the 60 KG spot while Doug Schwab manned the 66 KG spot. Steve Mocco, who began his career at Iowa and finished it at Oklahoma State, was the man for the U.S. at 120 KG. No former Iowa wrestler made the Olympic Team in 2012 -- Brent Metcalf lost, two matches to none, in the Best-of-3 Championship Series to Jared Frayer in the Olympic Trials that year. The last time a former Iowa wrestler won a medal at the Summer Olympics was in 2000; Terry Brands won a bronze medal at 58 KG and Lincoln McIlravy won a bronze medal at 69 KG.
The full men's United States team heading to the Olympics in freestyle competition is below:
57 KG: Daniel Dennis (Iowa)
65 KG: Frank Molinaro (Penn State)
74 KG: Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska)
86 KG: J'Den Cox (Missouri)
97 KG: Kyle Snyder (Ohio State)
120 KG: Tervel Dlagnev (University of Nebraska at Kearney -- Division II)
Cox and Snyder are, remarkably, current collegians. Youth will be served.