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Nelson Strikes Gold, Japan Team Champs Again on Day Four of 2017 Junior World Championships

Maya Nelson, Ronna Heaton

Photos by Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

The final day of women’s freestyle competition at the 2017 Junior World Championships in Tampere, Finland featured highly entertaining wrestling, drama, and a world title for Team USA. Cuba’s women continued to make their first trip to a Junior World Championship a productive one, sending their second wrestler to the finals and picking up their second silver medal, the second women’s freestyle medal for the country at any level of World Championship.  Kyrgyzstan also made history, claiming their first World Championship gold medal in women’s freestyle, at any level, in the final bout of the night. Greco takes over the next two days as Finland’s favorite style closes the competition.

Match of the Day: Mariia Kuznetsova (Russia) vs. Yukako Kawai (JPN), 63 kg

This was one of those matches that if they put it in a movie, you’d roll your eyes and think it over the top. Kawai has been making a name for herself on the Senior-level over the last couple of years, largely eschewing age group competition. Kuznetsova finished fifth here in 2016 after picking up a bronze medal the year before. Unfortunately for the Russian, an early four-point move gave her the lead, but also saw her injured, needing a fair amount of time before she could continue. When she did, there was pain on her face exacerbated a minute later by Kawai hooking up a leg-lace, torquing the Russian’s tender knee. Kuznetsova could not resist the lace, but Japan miscalculated, letting up on the edge after four exposures which only put her ahead by nine, 13-4. Given the Russian’s condition and the direction of the bout, that seemed inconsequential. However, a text book lateral drop turned the tide, landing Kawai on her back, and, when the fall was confirmed, earning Kuznetsova a stunning victory.

Team Race

Entering the day, Japan stood atop the standings as they almost always do in women’s freestyle. However, the fact that they lost to China at the Junior Asian Championships and looked somewhat vulnerable on day one left the door open for China or Russia to mount a challenge. In the end, the fact that the Japanese women were still ahead in spite of some day one disappointment should have told us all we needed to know. When they pushed three wrestlers through to the finals, Japan locked up yet another team crown before the medal matches began. With two more champions, giving them four overall, the final margin was 19 points as Japan finished with 63. Russia got past China for second, 44-41. The United States finished fifth with 29 points.

McKayla Campbell, 48 kg

After her trip to the 2016 Junior World Championships ended in a first match loss, Campbell was out to stick around a bit longer this time around. Unfortunately, Ankush Ankush (IND), a 2015 Cadet world silver medalist, had other plans. Using a punishing underhook, the Indian bullied Campbell, building a 6-0 lead before the American won a scramble just before the break for a takedown of her own. That would be Campbell’s only score as Ankush continued to build the lead and secured the tech, 12-2. When Kazakhstan’s Marina Zakshevskaya nipped the Indian, 3-2, in the next round, Campbell was out.

Ronna Heaton, 55 kg

The two-time Cadet World finalist opened her day looking well prepared to challenge for a Junior medal. A pair of takedowns in the first three minutes staked Heaton to a 4-0 lead. After the break, it was more of the same with Heaton converting on a single leg and her opponent, Anastasia Korzh (NZL), growing more desperate. As the New Zealander opened up, Heaton picked her off on counters, finishing the 10-0 tech to move into the round of 16. Waiting for her there was Viktoriia Vaulina (RUS), a sparkplug who won a Cadet World title just as Heaton did two years ago and added Junior European silver earlier this year. Vaulina’s strength advantage was apparent throughout as Heaton struggled to move the Russian. After an opening takedown for Vaulina, the South Dakotan fought off a fireman’s attempt for a takedown to level the score, but it was all Russia after that. It was 4-2 halfway through the first when Vaulina found her third takedown and transitioned to a trapped arm gut for an 8-2 lead. She would wrap it up, 12-2, before the end of the first. After seeing such a dominant performance, Heaton must have thought she would see the repechage, but Lianna De Montero Herrera (CUB) knocked off the Russian in the semi-finals, ending Heaton’s medal hopes.

Maya Nelson, 63 kg

By the time Nelson, a 2016 Junior World bronze medalist, took the mat, all of her teammates had fallen. Where some of her peers had struggled with the physicality of their opponents, Nelson imposed her will, racing past Junior Asian bronze medalist Ying Zhang (CHN), 12-1, in her first bout. In the quarterfinals, Junior Pan American gold medalist Nicole Depa (CAN) jumped on top with the first takedown, but Nelson bounced back, methodically building a 7-2 lead at the break. Nelson wouldn’t need three more minutes as she caught Depa coming in and pancaked the Canadian for the fall. With a spot in the Junior World finals on the line, Maya faced a familiar opponent. Last year, she defeated Mariia Kuznetsova (RUS), 9-4, in the bronze medal bout here. This time, it would be even closer as neither competitor gave the other an inch throughout the six minutes. Nelson had the lone score, a low single in the opening frame, entering the final 15 seconds before Kuznetsova, who is also the reigning Junior European champion, found her way to Nelson’s leg. With eight seconds remaining, the Russian had gotten to her feet, driving Nelson towards the boundary. Despite her foot being on the Russian’s shoulder, Nelson somehow shook loose and tight-roped the edge of the mat. With Kuznetsova stunned, Maya pounced for a takedown of her own at the buzzer. The thrilling sequence gave Nelson the 4-0 win and a spot in the gold medal match.

Entering the final, all signs pointed to Nelson being the favorite. As she began grappling with Junior European bronze medalist Yuliana Yaneva (BUL), Nelson proved to be the better wrestler on this day as well. After an early sweep single gave her a 2-0 lead, Maya pushed Yaneva around the mat, holding center and staying out of trouble. After the break, as it became clear that Yaneva was hoping to make one move late, Nelson went back on the attack, putting on a chain-wrestling clinic, transitioning from a front-headlock working for a go behind into a single, then doubling off and planting Yaneva on the edge of the mat for four. That forced the Bulgarian to attack, but when she did Nelson had every answer. 6-0 was the final as Nelson became Team USA’s first women’s freestyle Junior World champion since Victoria Anthony won her second in 2010.

Rachel Watters, 72 kg

In her third trip to the Junior World Championships, nothing would come easy for Watters. A tight, tense affair in her opener against 2014 Cadet World silver medalist Natalia Strzalka (POL) saw the Iowan who wrestles for Oklahoma City University put on the shot clock twice leading to a 2-0 deficit as time ticked down. With 10 seconds remaining, Strzalka was clinging to a leg as Watters frantically searched for points. She found them on a crotch lift that just did score. When the inevitable challenge went the American’s way, Watters was a winner, 3-2. In the round of 16, Watters and Hui Chang (TPE) exchanged takedowns before Chang found a second with 30 seconds to go. For a moment, it appeared Rachel might steal another late victory when she was awarded a takedown as time expired despite Chang doing well to hold her off. Chinese Taipei challenged and the call was overturned. Watters fell 4-2 and was eliminated when Yashua Matsuyuki (JPN) crushed Chang, 10-0, in the next round. Chang would enter the repechage where she would claim the first Junior women’s medal ever for her country.

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