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An Appreciation of Frank Molinaro’s Career

Molinaro_Frank

photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com

On Tuesday, 2016 Olympian and 2012 NCAA champion Frank Molinaro told the crew on FloWrestling’s FRL that he was retiring from the sport since the Olympic Games have been moved to 2021. This decision comes just a week after the International Olympic Committee, along with the Prime Minister of Japan, announced that the 2020 Olympics, which were set to have been hosted by Tokyo in late-July, would be pushed back to 2021 due to concerns arising from the COVID-19 global pandemic. Molinaro cited his weight cut to 65 kg as one of the primary reasons for the decision, along with his desire to further a coaching career that has been on hold since December 2018 when he left Virginia Tech to train at the Oklahoma RTC. At 31years old, with “700-800” workouts in between now and 2021 and a “15-25 lb weight cut”, Molinaro decided to hang up his shoes rather than go all-in for another year. 

Frank’s final performance came in December at Senior Nationals, where he finished fifth at the 65 kg weight class. The top five finishers in men’s freestyle automatically qualified for the Olympic Trials; however, Molinaro was already guaranteed a spot at the Trials due to his status as a 2016 Olympian. At Senior Nationals, Molinaro was defeated in his first match of the tournament, then battled back through Matt Kolodzik, Jaydin Eierman, Ben Whitford, and Evan Henderson, before reaching the consolation semis.   This weekend was supposed to be Molinaro’s last performance on American soil as it was the original date of the Trials. The synergy would have been perfect as Frank’s alma mater, Penn State, was set to host the event at the Bryce Jordan Center. With the delays due to COVID-19, it’s uncertain the date or location for the Trials, only that they have been moved to 2021, as well.

While I’m sad to see Frank gone from competing at the Senior level and wish he could have gone out on his own terms at the 2020 Trials or Olympic Games, let’s take the opportunity to celebrate his long and illustrious career. I was fortunate enough to talk with Frank before the 2016 Olympic Trials about his collegiate days at Penn State for a project that never quite made it off the ground, but he provided plenty of quotes that have stuck with me, all this time later. 

For this project, I interviewed many of our sport’s greats and closed with the same question, “How would you like for people to remember you and your career”. Frank’s reply was, “As a world champ. I still think I have a lot of wrestling left in me. I want to continue to get better each year and continue to get better at each competition and, at the same time, be a successful coach. So, just as a guy that wrestled really hard, trained really hard, and kept getting better.” 

Nowhere do those comments ring more true than when analyzing Molinaro’s amazing run through the 2016 Olympic Trials. Frank qualified for the Trials after placing sixth at the US Open, which netted him the ninth seed at the event. No worries though, as Molinaro teched fellow New Jersey-native Kellen Russell in his first bout, setting up a meeting with the top seed, four-time World Team member, Brent Metcalf. Frank shocked Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a 3-3 win on criteria. That wasn’t it, though. In the semifinals, he got by four-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber 5-5, also on criteria. The win propelled Molinaro into the best-of-three finals versus young prodigy, Aaron Pico. Pico took the first match, but with his back against the wall, Frank swept the next two bouts and clinched his place on the Olympic Team. 

Though he won the Trials, Molinaro’s work was far from done. The United States had not qualified the 65 kg weight class for the Olympics, so Frank needed to travel to Mongolia for the World Qualifier. Molinaro went 1-1 at that tournament, which sent him to Turkey for the Last Chance Qualifier. After falling to NCAA runner-up Boris Novachkov (competing for Bulgaria), Molinaro was doomed to repechage and seemed to have his dreams of competing in the Olympics crushed. Frank did what he knew best and fought back with a pair of wins and the bronze medal at the tournament. That final win was huge, though it wasn’t known at the time, just over a week later, two wrestlers that had qualified for the Games had doping violations. They were out of the Olympics and Frank was in. 

As Molinaro stated to me less than a year earlier, he was getting better, little by little, every time he stepped on the mat. That could be seen a month later when he went undefeated at the World Cup. In Rio, at the Olympics, Frank advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to the eventual Silver medalist, Toghrul Asgarov of Azerbaijan. That allowed him to compete for the bronze medal in the repechage series. A win over a Ukrainian opponent set up a bronze medal match between Molinaro and Frank Chamizo. Just a year before, the Italian had won a world championship at 70 kg and has captured another since. Molinaro was literally inches away from capturing the gold as he finished the match on top of Chamizo, yet needed the Italian’s knees to touch the mat for the winning takedown. 

The loss to Chamizo, while heartbreaking, showed just how far Frank had come in only about four months. He was not viewed as a serious threat at the Olympic Trials, yet improved to the point where he had a world champion on the ropes and was maybe a second or two away from an Olympic medal. How did he do it? By an unwavering belief in himself and a work ethic and workout regime that is hard to top, even in a sport full of workout warriors. 

Frank’s run through the Olympic Trials, along with his perseverance in the qualifying process, coupled with his growth to a medal threat, are certainly some ways that his fans will remember him. But it’s not limited to that. Here are some other positive memories from Frank’s time on the mat.

During my interviews with greats in our sport, I spoke with Oklahoma State national champion Zack Esposito, and something he said really resonated with me to this date. “When it’s all said and done, fans will remember more about how their favorite wrestlers competed and what they did on the mat, rather than how many titles they won.” Molinaro personifies that statement. You knew, when Frank stepped on the mat, we may be one hard club away from an international incident. He competed with such intensity and physicality that inevitably the official would have broken out the “finger wag of doom” to warn him for his hand-fighting or the opponent for retaliating. Frank wasn’t dirty, but he wasn’t out there trying to make friends and Instagram buddies, either. He was going to fight and scrap for every single point, possible. 

Frank, along with Quentin Wright, are two prominent figures that help bridge the gap between the pre-Cael years at Penn State and their current state, as one of college wrestling’s superpowers. While Molinaro was recruited by and wrestled for the previous staff, led by Troy Sunderland, he thrived under Sanderson. Each year at Penn State, he improved going from eighth as a freshman to fifth, then making the finals his last two years, with a championship as a senior. Being one of the leaders of those teams “was really special. I was a little bit older than everyone on the team, so I kind of felt like I had an influential role on some of the younger guys and it kept me sharp.” 

Not all memories are good. One that has been beaten like a dead horse is Frank’s decision to take bottom on Kyle Dake in the 2011 NCAA Finals despite Dake amassing two and a half minutes of riding time in the first period alone. Molinaro explained this decision to me, “it was probably not the right position, but I think I’d still probably choose down. I don’t care what people think about it. I figured it would have been easier to get out and get a takedown, opposed to taking Kyle Dake down two, maybe even three times”. While his decision was mocked more times than Lebron James’ original “Decision”, you have to admit, his options weren’t great. 

A year later, Frank capped off his collegiate career with an undefeated record and a national title over Minnesota’s Dylan Ness. Initially, Molinaro thought his title hopes may be dashed in the second round after suffering a lateral MCL tear in his knee during a match with Scott Sakaguchi of Oregon State. “I thought, at first, I was going to lose everything that I worked for my whole life. But Coach Cael really brought me back to reality. He always knew what to say to me, when I really needed it the most. I’m glad he was in the locker room at that time, because I was warming up for my quarterfinal match and I remember breaking down, because I couldn’t even take a shot. I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, but he gave me the confidence and made me refocus.” 

After Frank’s 4-1 win over Ness in the finals he, “felt like the world was lifted off my shoulders. I had put a lot of pressure on myself that year. It was just the culmination of five years of hard work and always believing that I’d be able to win. 

From a technical standpoint, most remember the lefty, high-crotch as Frank’s most dangerous weapon from neutral. He started to use it frequently as a high school freshman and, to the best of his recollection, was introduced to it at a Jeff Jordan Camp. “I would just find different ways to get to my tie-ups and I would just force my will with the shot. I always felt I could get it if I needed it and I still feel like if there’s 30 seconds left and I need a takedown, I’m going to the high-crotch”. 

On a more humorous note, Frank’s different hair choices have always been a favorite of fans. One of our great wrestling photographers, Justin Hoch, tweeted in 2019 and compared three different hairstyles of Molinaro’s to “The Beatles”, “Circus Strongman”, and “Little Nicky”. However he wore his hair, or if he had any at all, Frank still brought the fight to every match. It just became another point that endeared him to fans. 

So, as one chapter closes for Frank, another one opens. He’s expressed his desire to get back into coaching, and he once told me, “I think it will be a good milestone in my career if I can be a successful coach, as well.” After seeing Frank in action during his tenure at Virginia Tech, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll bring that same intensity and drive to whichever college decides to bring him onto their staff and, in turn, be a successful coach. 

The Open Mat would like to congratulate Frank Molinaro on such a remarkable career and wish him luck in his future endeavors.

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