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Olympic Wrestling Trials preview: Eyes on U.S. golden generation

This week’s U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials are not only a crucible — only one wrestler per division can go to Paris — but they are also a reminder to savor a golden generation of American legends.

Winners of 13 of the 18 weight classes qualify for the Paris Olympics — six divisions each in men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle and men’s Greco-Roman.

The other five winners in classes not yet qualified for Paris advance to a last-chance international Olympic qualifying tournament in May in Turkiye.

Early rounds start Friday with finals Saturday at Penn State University, live on Peacock and USA Network.

WRESTLING TRIALS: Broadcast Schedule

In 2009 and 2010, the U.S. wrestling team totaled five medals — and zero golds — between two editions of the world championships.

It was a nadir, after annually winning handfuls of medals or at least one gold — usually both — at the Olympics and worlds.

The next year in 2011, U.S. wrestling began its climb back. Not coincidentally, a 23-year-old Jordan Burroughs and a 20-year-old Adeline Gray won their first senior world medals that year.

The duo now shares the most decorated world championships medal collection in U.S. history: six golds and nine total medals for each. Burroughs won Olympic gold in 2012. Gray took Olympic silver in 2021.

Over the 2010s decade, as Burroughs and Gray accumulated accolades, more Americans started making podiums.

In 2015 and 2016, Kyle Snyder became the youngest American wrestler to win a world title and the youngest American wrestler to win an Olympic title. He won a medal at the last nine global championships.

In 2016, Helen Maroulis became the first U.S. female wrestler to win Olympic gold during a three-year stretch where she went 79-1 and didn’t give up a point in back-to-back world championships.

She briefly retired in 2019 due to concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder, then came back to win Olympic bronze in Tokyo and a world medal of every color the last three years.

David Taylor won his first of three world titles in 2018, bagged Tokyo Olympic gold and goes into these trials as arguably the world’s best pound-for-pound male wrestler. Taylor, 33, mulled retirement after Tokyo.

As a group, this week may mark the final time that Burroughs, Gray, Snyder, Maroulis and Taylor compete at a trials together.

It could be the final Team USA bid for Burroughs, who is now 35.

“That’s been mentioned, we’ve had that conversation, but I would say that’s not something we talk about all the time,” said Brandon Slay, Burroughs’ coach at the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center in Philadelphia. “Now is not the time to talk about after Paris or anything else. It’s really time to put all our focus on State College, Pennsylvania, April 19-20, and then focus on the Paris Olympics in August.”

For the first time in his fourth Olympic Trials, Burroughs does not have a bye into the finals that is awarded to reigning world medalists at Olympic weights or wrestlers who earned the U.S. an Olympic quota spot at a Pan American qualifier.

Burroughs must advance through Friday’s early rounds to earn a spot in Saturday’s best-of-three finals in the 74kg freestyle division. Olympic bronze medalist and four-time world champion Kyle Dake will be waiting with his bye. Three years ago, Dake dethroned Burroughs at Olympic Trials, and the two have not faced each other since.

“If he does that,” Slay said of Burroughs making this Olympic team, “that would be more impressive to me than anything he’s done in the past.”

Gray, Maroulis, Snyder and Taylor all have byes into Saturday’s finals as 2023 World medalists.

Gray, 33, and Maroulis, 32, will bid to become the first U.S. female wrestlers older than 30 to compete at an Olympics.

Gray returned from having twins in July 2022 to win world championships bronze in September 2023.

“I was literally breastfeeding two babies in the middle of the night watching this tournament last year,” she said at worlds. “I was like 50 pounds overweight. I had two little munchkins that wouldn’t let me sleep more than 45 minutes at a time. No, at that moment, I wasn’t even sure if I was coming back.”

Asked last year, a USA Wrestling spokesperson could not think of a mom who previously made an Olympic team, but couldn’t say for sure.

At trials, Gray’s top challengers in the 76kg freestyle division include two women who are 13 years younger than her: Kennedy Blades and Kylie Welker, part of an emerging new generation of American wrestlers that’s led by another 20-year-old, world champion Amit Elor, who wrestles at 68kg.

Maroulis, a 57kg freestyler, hasn’t been beaten for an Olympic or world team spot since the 2012 Olympic Trials.

Snyder could be part of the most anticipated finals series of the trials in the men’s 97kg division. That’s if J’den Cox, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and two-time world champion at lighter weights, can advance through Friday’s early rounds.

A Snyder-Cox matchup didn’t materialize at the Tokyo Olympic Trials after Cox didn’t make weight. They were due to face off for a 2023 World team spot until Cox withdrew beforehand due to injury.

Taylor, an NCAA Wrestler of the Year at Penn State in 2012 and 2014, sits out until the 86kg freestyle finals.

A contender to fill the other finals spot is fellow Nittany Lion Aaron Brooks, the 2024 NCAA Wrestler of the Year and one of at least eight men at 86kg who have made a prior world championships team or won an NCAA title — a testament to the depth developed in U.S. wrestling.

“You’re five, six, seven opponents deep that could go and win a medal at the Olympics, and only one person goes,” Taylor said of trials. “The process of getting to the Olympics is pretty challenging in the United States.”

Chance Marsteller, a former teen phenom wrestler whose life was marred by addiction, is going to his first senior world championships after defeating Jordan Burroughs, the American record holder with seven global titles.