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Spencer Lee, Zain Retherford round out U.S. Olympic wrestling team for Paris

Spencer Lee and Zain Retherford earned the last two spots on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team through a last-chance international qualifying tournament over the weekend, rounding out a star-studded men’s freestyle roster.

Lee and Retherford won the Olympic Trials on April 20 at 57kg and 65kg, respectively, but those were the only freestyle weight classes where the U.S. had yet to clinch an Olympic quota spot through international results.

So Lee and Retherford flew to Turkiye, where they had to finish in the top three of their divisions to go to Paris.

Lee, a 25-year-old who won three NCAA titles at Iowa and three world junior championships, swept his four opponents on Saturday to clinch his first Olympic berth.

MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Paris Olympics

Lee’s parents were judo athletes who never competed at the Olympics.

Lee himself went to his first Olympics as a rising high school senior in 2016, traveling to Rio as a training partner for Olympian Daniel Dennis.

“It was a big deal, for the family, to get that next step, too, to be an Olympian,” Lee said.

In total, Lee won all eight of his matches over a three-week stretch -- four at the Olympic Trials and four Saturday in his first tournament against global competition in eight years.

“It’s great and all, but to me, Olympian doesn’t really mean a whole lot unless you come back with that prize, a gold medal, right?” he said.

Lee has credited his success to those close to him, which starts with his parents, who met in France.

As Lee tells it: While on a judo trip to Japan more than 30 years ago, dad Larry was invited by a French coach to visit France. Once there, he met another judo athlete, Cathy, who challenged him to fight.

“My mom threw him on his head,” Lee said.

A planned two-week stay turned into nine months. They got married the next year. Cathy was later an alternate for the 1992 U.S. Olympic judo team.

Cathy gained a new level of fame at the 2023 NCAA Wrestling Championships, when she reacted to her son’s Iowa Hawkeye career-ending loss by mangling her glasses.

Lee picked up wrestling as a kid — judo wasn’t as common in Pennsylvania — and won age-group world championships in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Before that third junior world title, Lee got his first taste of the Olympics. He was invited to be a training partner for Dennis at the Rio Games. Dennis, who now helps coach Lee, said in Turkiye on Saturday that Lee even beat him in practice in summer 2016.

Lee then went off to the University of Iowa, one of the nation’s most storied wrestling programs, and won NCAA titles in 2018, 2019 and 2021. He also took a medical redshirt year in 2021-22 and had surgery on both knees.

Lee said if it wasn’t for support from the Hawkeye program, he’d probably be retired.

“I’ve had such a tough time staying healthy and trying to compete to the best of my ability,” he said at Olympic Trials on April 20. “I’m still not healthy, but I’m healthy enough to wrestle hard.”

Like Lee, Retherford was a three-time NCAA champion, but at Penn State from 2016-18.

He broke through internationally in 2022 and 2023, winning silver and gold medals at the world championships at 70kg. But 70kg is not an Olympic weight class.

Retherford was very unsure of his ability to cut down to the Olympic weight of 65kg (an 11-pound drop).

He toyed with the idea of instead moving up to 74kg, where he would have had to beat four-time world champion Kyle Dake to make the team for Paris.

By last November, Retherford thought he was done. He even went into coach Cody Sanderson’s office at Penn State and said as much. He was married with a 10-month-old son and a finance job lined up at ABR Dynamic Funds in New York City.

Yet Retherford kept training. In January, he committed to one more Olympic Trials run at 65kg.

“I just had a pulling on my heart, like I couldn’t explain it,” he said after winning trials on April 20.

Retherford won nine of 10 matches between Olympic Trials and the last-chance qualifier. After losing on Saturday in Turkiye, he was pulled back into Sunday’s repechage. He won four consecutive matches on Sunday to grab the last Olympic spot.

Also at the last-chance Olympic qualifier in Turkiye, Americans Kamal Bey, Ellis Coleman and Dalton Roberts were eliminated in Greco-Roman competition.

The U.S. Olympic wrestling roster for Paris includes 15 athletes across the 18 events (women’s freestyle, men’s freestyle, Greco-Roman). The team includes 2016 Olympic gold medalists Helen Maroulis and Kyle Snyder.

The six men’s freestyle team members own a combined 18 NCAA titles. Every one of them has won at least one world championship (junior or senior level).

Kyle Dake won the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials and can complete a decade-plus journey at the Paris Games.