Heading into last weekend the Grand Prix of Spain looked like it was going to be a dynamite tournament. As the last big international event before the Olympics, it had the potential to be an excellent test for many athletes preparing for Rio. The preliminary entry list was a who’s who of medal contenders, especially on the women’s side. Unfortunately, many of those entrants failed to materialize in Madrid once weigh-ins took place and brackets surfaced.
One of the biggest offenders was Team USA. The four Olympians in women’s freestyle were all initially touted to be competing by USA Wrestling. The preliminary entry list showed two of them, Haley Augello and Adeline Gray. In the end, none of them competed, though they are reportedly in Spain for a training camp and there were other American women in the brackets. It was a letdown.
Now, this is not overly surprising for international tournaments. The lack of information, and often getting information that is flat out wrong, is just a hurdle fans and media have to deal with. Typically USA Wrestling’s information is solid, but even they don’t always get it right. In this case, I don’t know why our female Olympians did not compete. However, while speculating why, I noticed something interesting. American wrestlers don’t wrestle up.
That absolute statement, as with most absolutes, isn’t 100% accurate. There are a few cases over the years where an athlete or two competed a weight class above normal. However, compared to most of the world class wrestlers around the world, Team USA seems to be far too attached to their proper class.
Looking through the wrestlers who medaled at last year’s world championships, there are very few who have not wrestled two or more international tournaments above their usual weight class in 2015 and 2016. Even Purevjavyn Onorbat of Mongolia, the runner-up to Jordan Burroughs at last year’s world championships, who wrestles a weight (74 kg) where the next weight up is 25 pounds above, bumped up for the first two tournaments of 2016. Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez of Cuba, one of the most exciting wrestlers you’ll see, wrestled 65 kg on Saturday. You’ll see him at 57 kg in Rio.
There are a lot of complaints that our athletes, especially after our top one or two, don’t get enough international experience. One of the often cited reasons for that is the difficulty of making the international weight cut too many times. Wrestling up solves that problem. The fact that we don’t see our athletes wrestling up while other countries are getting more reps by doing so is concerning.
There are other issues getting our wrestlers international reps, of course. Wrestling up is not a silver bullet. However, when you see so many other fantastic wrestlers doing something and American wrestlers almost never do the same, it is fair to wonder why. More reps isn’t just good for wrestlers to gain experience. It is also good for the sport because it means we see our best athletes more often and get bigger match-ups as wrestlers move around to various weights.
In the end, how to approach a wrestling career is an intensely personal decision. Every wrestler is different. Their life circumstances are different. What gets them to their highest level when the world championships or Olympic Games comes around is different. Not everyone is going to thrive getting more matches by bumping. However, some likely would and to see all of Team USA sticking to their goal weight class like glue while the rest of the world bounces around suggests we aren’t exploring that option enough. When Team USA Head Freestyle Coach Bruce Burnett suggests the best way to get better at wrestling matches is to wrestle matches it seems like this is something Team USA would pursue. It makes me scratch my head as to why competition records reflect that we don’t.