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By Timmy Hands
On Friday in Ottawa, Canada, four Greco-Roman athletes from the United States won their matches in the semifinal round at the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier. And, when they did, they secured guaranteed berths for the US at the 2020 Olympics in their respective weight categories.
But that’s not all.
What these wrestlers also managed to accomplish was -- certainly for the most part -- to force the black cloud that had been following the US program since the conclusion of the ‘19 World Championships to evaporate.
No, it wasn’t a banner day for every American athlete. There were two who fell short of accomplishing the mission, which now means that the US will in fact be sending two Olympic Trials Champions to Bulgaria in June.
Still, four out of six? They’ll take it. And the task for several was daunting from the outset. There were comebacks. When a comeback wasn’t necessary, white-knuckled suspense still hung in the air. This was to be expected, because if wrestling is good for anything, it is using incentive-laden stipulations as a mechanism to deliver more drama than any other sport in existence.
The athletes are charged with navigating all of the peripherals. It is they who accept the circumstances, for better or worse. The questionable calls, the neuron misfires, the waxing and waning of adrenaline, and the conviction that is exclusive to betting on one’s self in the face of mounting pressure and fluctuating expectations.
This, make no mistake, is what they sign up for. Not qualifying weight classes. That’s only part of it, and as a whole, a small part.
They simply raise their hands for the opportunity to make a stand. Greco in the US right now is far less about the individual than it is about firmly, finally, beginning to take back pieces of its legacy that have long been obscured by negative, misguided optics.
It has been a program operating in darkness, and the results from Friday encompassed a long stride towards the sunlight.
The 4 Who Qualified Their Weights
An in-depth look at the four US athletes who crossed the season’s most important objective off the list. Their actual tournament placings (three silvers, one gold) are represented next to each name.
Strange times. It’s not every day six American Greco wrestlers medal at the same international tournament and it becomes a secondary storyline.
60 kg: Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) -- silver
Tension surrounded Hafizov's round-of-16 bout with Andres Montano Arroyo (ECU). An Olympian in '16 as well as the reigning Pan Am Games gold (among other credentials), Montano Arroyo was naturally seen as a bracket favorite, and potentially one of Hafizov's stiffest challenges.
Trailing 1-0 in the second, Hafizov was precariously close to letting the match slip away when Montano Arroyo flashed a throw-by that led to a takedown. But in the midst of the melee, Hafizov scrambled and exposed Montano for two, and then collected a step-out to jump in front via criteria. It was the turning point of the match.
Later in the second, Montano ducked under for another attempt at the body; but as he did, Hafizov reflexively locked and threw, causing Montano to go off the line. It was to be points either way, though the officials initially had it backwards. After a US challenge, the scoring was updated with Hafizo enjoying an outright 4-3 lead, which he held onto until the conclusive whistle.
The quarterfinals saw Hafizov use his first-period passivity against Marat Garipov (BRA) to run a string of gutwrenches en route to a 9-0 tech. That put him in the semifinals, and one win away from qualifying the weight category.
In stepped Samuel Gurria Vigueras (MEX). An opponent who on any other day in any other situation might be overlooked was not today. When Hafizov became the recipient of the first passivity point, he capitalized from par terre with a merciless gutwrench. Vigueras wriggled free, and was next greeted by another Hafizov score. And another.
It was 7-0 for the American before a questionable caution trimmed it down to 7-2. But for all intents and purposes, the book had been written.
Vigueras plied a game effort through the second period, but so did Hafizov, who never appeared to take a moment off. He had desired the opportunity to correct the record for quite a spell, ever since disappointment at this very tournament four years ago seemed to consume a chunk of his competitive confidence.
Hafizov retained control till the conclusive whistle -- and for the first time as an American athlete, was able to breathe a satisfying breath of relief.
67 kg: Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) -- silver
He wasn’t even supposed to be there. Not really.
When Ellis Coleman nailed down his third straight spot on the World Team at Final X last year, he automatically became committed to the long road to Olympic Qualification. Such was the way the US program structured this critical objective. All ‘19 World Team members occupying the six Olympic weights were predestined to appear in yesterday’s tournament. It was a decision that had been made 18 months prior.
But Coleman, the stately workhorse who has morphed into one of the US Team’s most respected athlete leaders, endured a triceps tear during the fall on the heels of the World Championships. He had done everything possible to return in time for Ottawa -- and even made the trip. Unfortunately for him, he was not all the way ready to go physically on Friday; so Sancho got the nod, and came through with his most clutch performance yet.
It should be noted that confidence in Sancho was extremely high. No one was actually surprised by what transpired. Due to his offensive ability, particularly pertaining to lifts, as well as his experience and track record (both domestically and abroad), the US felt very comfortable sending him into battle.
First was a 7-1 decision at the expense of Enyer Feliciano (DOM). Feliciano had a sense of the man standing across, and wedged tight so as to avoid the openness Sancho prefers. Passivity served to break the ice. Sancho took top par terre, gutted Feliciano and stepped to lift. The back-end attempt didn’t convert, but he did coax Feliciano out of bounds for an additional point and it was 4-0 midway through the opening period. A caution on Feliciano for fingers tacked on two more, allowing the native Miamian to cruise the rest of the way.
One down. One to go.
Manuel Lopez Salcedo (MEX) was next. Seasoned, strong, and clearly motivated, Salcedo did not appear all that impressed with what Sancho brought to the table. The early exchanges were indicative of an athlete who wasn’t taking anything for granted, even as Sancho fluidly moved from angle to angle and tie-up to tie-up in an effort to dictate the pace. Even with that, Salcedo received the first passivity chance -- and worked extremely hard on a gutwrench. Sancho not only survived the onslaught, he scored a takedown as soon as they returned to the feet.
Just before the end of the first period, Sancho’s lead widened thanks to a lift that netted four enormous points. Immediately following that sequence, Salcedo, rightfully or not, was penalized with a caution. The score had gone from 6-1 to 8-1, and by then the outcome was hardly in doubt.
They fought it out for the remaining three minutes. It’s easier said than done. Athletes who enjoy big leads have to keep pressing forward, lest they risk catastrophe (or interference from the officials). Sancho knew he had it in the bag but had to walk a fine line between avoiding trouble and doing his part to engage. He did so expertly, with both his and the US program’s back against the wall.
When the whistle blew, you could almost see the weight fall from his shoulders, and he quickly flexed his muscles to mark the moment.
87 kg: Joe Rau (TMWC/Chicago RTC) -- gold
United World Wrestling’s directive to include top-2 seeding at continental Olympic qualifiers this year may mean something in Europe and Asia, where the six brackets feature a long list of nations (and credentialed athletes), but for Pan-American competition it is mostly window dressing. 87 kilograms is a great example of the kind of compression that renders even just two top seeds nearly useless.
When Joe Rau won the Pan Am Championships last week, he gained the #2 seed. He had also defeated the bracket’s de-facto favorite, Pan Am Games champ Luis Avendano Rojas (VEN) in the first round.
Holding that #2 seed didn’t save Rau from a tough opening-round contest yesterday. In fact, he drew Avendano as his first bout for the second week in a row.
As a refresher, Avendano tech’ed Rau at the ‘19 Games in a bout that was sloppy, strange, and uncharacteristic of Rau’s style or overall approach. In Ottawa last Friday, Rau looked like a completely different human, and proceeded to punish Avendano virtually every time they made contact. It was a wall-to-wall display of dominance that even for a competitor like Avendano, had to be tough to forget, especially with only a week between tournaments.
Except, Avendano did enter action yesterday with a renewed spirit. Not only that, he was able to invite tentativeness on the part of Rau in the first period as he engineered a 4-0 lead. Avendano had barred Rau’s arm in par terre to crank a quick gut, and later hustled a step-out point. The whole thing was going south for Rau by the second period.
The “grind factor” is what proved the difference. A refusal to lose. Rau finally began accessing his stubbornness, and asserting himself more in the ties. Be it two-on-ones or occasional clashes, the message started getting through to Avendano. Passivity, it played a role. Rau gritted his teeth for a gut on his second try, and got one. He also narrowed the gap to 4-3.
Precious seconds were disappearing from the clock. A single point separated Rau from victory, or devastation. He had to compel an agreement with his adversary. Avendano was wearing down quickly; his legs lost their juice, his shoulders began to sag ever-so-slightly. Whether Rau saw or felt his opponent wavering was immaterial. It wasn’t going to be given to him, he would have to take it.
With just over :30 to go, Rau rushed Avendano off the line. The action provided one point and the lead on criteria. A slip-up from then on was not an option. It also wasn’t an impending danger. Avendano was finished. His body wanted oxygen, therefore his brain no longer willed for combat. Rau had assumed full command of the waltz,and had once again vanquished his biggest threat.
One match still awaited. Rau didn’t have too much trouble defeating Lesyan Otomuro (JAM) last week, and even less so yesterday. He was called for passive first, for no clear reason. The only harm done was a flimsy 1-0 advantage for Otomuro early on. Rau got to his two-on-one towards the end of the frame and plowed Otomuro down and out of bounds. Just before the buzzer history repeated itself, only this time, Otomuro took a little swing at Rau coming off of the exchange, a common symptom for an athlete who knows the other guy has his number.
Following a passive call on Otomuro in the second period, Rau found his lock and rotated one gutwrench; he then re-locked for a high-gut-lift and two more turns. The match wasn’t the only thing that had ended.
So too was the burden of disappointment Rau had been carrying for four years. Like Hafizov, he had come up short in ‘16 at the Pan Am Qualifier. To compound matters, and unlike Hafizov, Rau won the ‘16 Olympic Trials and was unable to secure qualification in two subsequent overseas attempts. The soon-to-be 29-year-old has never been shy about sharing the mental toll that took on him, which is why yesterday’s achievement was as much about redemption as it was helping re-ignite the program’s international standing.
97 kg: G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist) -- silver
Entering the tournament, Hancock was seen as the American squad’s “sure thing”. For as seasoned and viable as the rest of the group are, including the three others who qualified, there were very legitimate reasons for potential consternation. And in the interest of fairness, if this were as recently as two years ago, Hancock would not have been immune to question mark status, either. But -- that’s a long time ago.
The only wrestler drawn into pool competition, Hancock had to win four matches in order to qualify 97 kilograms, more than any of his teammates. Hafizov had to win three; Sancho, two; and Rau, two.
He indeed won those four matches.
All by technical superiority. All without surrendering a single point.
And it was Hancock who picked up the first victory for a US athlete in the tournament. He folded a game but overmatched Luis Rivera Alvarado (MEX) quickly, the first of his four tech wins.
Hancock’s second opponent actually offered a semblance of concern. Luillys Perez Mora (VEN) delivered a stiffer than expected challenge in the Pan Am Championships last week, a match that Hancock survived via 3-0 decision.
Whatever concern that may have existed was dealt with in short order. Hancock jetted out to a 5-0 lead, collected two more from an arm spin counter, and sealed the deal when Perez Mora went for another arm spin. Credit goes to the Venezuelan for attempting actual offensive maneuvers, which were rare a week ago, but his zeal proved costly against an opponent of Hancock’s caliber.
Match #3 for Hancock welcomed in Thomas Barreiro (CAN). They had met several times previously, all with the same result -- Hancock victorious via tech. The story did not change on Friday, as Hancock piled on for a 9-0 win that put him firmly in the driver’s seat.
The deciding bout for Hancock in terms of qualification brought with it a tinge of sentimental value.
When Hancock was a teenage upstart in the winter of ‘16, it was Kevin Mejia Castillo (HON) who provided the introduction to international Senior competition. A stout wrestler, experienced and powerful, Castillo dished out shop-worn lessons to Hancock that would help set the tone for the youth’s attitude towards the Senior circuit. And though Hancock would (within a year) begin to defeat Castillo, there was a little something extra involved to their fourth-round pairing in Ottawa.
That doesn’t mean it lasted too long.
The first-period passivity chance for Hancock yielded a four-point bomb. Shortly thereafter, Hancock snapped and gutted Castillo right out of dodge. 97 kilograms was promptly and dominantly qualified for the US by Hancock; that it came against an opponent who was around for the beginning of Hancock’s journey added a nice touch, even if such a footnote was missed by the masses.
What Happened Next
Only one of the four US athletes who qualified their respective weight categories in Ottawa prevailed in the finals -- Joe Rau, who won via forfeit over Daniel Gregorich Hechavarria (CUB).
Hafizov hung in there with Luis Orta Sanchez (CUB) but the match just didn’t develop into the kind of battle Hafizov relishes. There was one egregious call in the second period that certainly didn’t help, but all in all, Orta Sanchez was a step ahead throughout most of the bout, winning 7-0.
Sancho fell to Julian Horta Acevedo (COL) 4-0, with all of the points for Acevedo being scored in the first :30 of the bout. The only thing that stung about this match is the fact Sancho decimated Acevedo without prejudice a week ago.
Hancock and ‘19 Junior World Champ Gabriel Rosillo (CUB) put on an absolute classic. It was the one finals match that did not suffer from an anticlimactic vibe. They both came out of their corners looking to trade scores, and Hancock nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a last-second throw. But, time had run out and the Cuban walked away with the 11-8 decision.
Four gold medals would have been celebrated accordingly. All the same, it was hard not to detect the possibility of a collective letdown in the immediate aftermath of the semifinals. The mission objective was made crystal clear dating as far back to the 2018-19 season, and was at once extended following the ‘19 World Championships.
The Olympic Trials, whenever they occur, will see four champions who instantly become Olympians. And two more who will receive an opportunity to provide the kind of day these four athletes did on Friday.
Patrick Smith & Adam Coon
Patrick Smith (77 kg, Minnesota Storm) got off to a promising start by bullying John Yeats (CAN) around the mat to the tune of an 8-0 tech that was the result of one-sided physicality. Smith forced a series of step-outs, received two from a caution, and a passivity to exhaust Yeats and put him away in the second period.
In his semifinal/qualification bout, Smith faced Yosvanys Pena Flores (CUB). Smith and the Cuban went 1-1 against each other last week, with both matches ending the same way (second-period passivity and gutwrench). On Friday, Pena created a troubling amount of distance early, capitalizing on the first passivity/par terre chance by running a pair of gutwrenches. Smith had a shot in the second when he received his own passive, but Pena defended and held on to secure the victory.
Smith, undoubtedly disappointed, sucked it up and recovered in style when faced with a very tough opponent in the bronze round. Jair Cuero Munoz (COL) had been a thorn in the American’s side the past season (especially), and was again Friday afternoon. A crucial takedown for the Minnesotan towards the end of the first period wound up the clincher in the 3-2 decision. The bronze might not have put a smile on Smith’s face, but to grab that type of victory considering the circumstances further exemplifies his uncommon character.
Even though ‘18 World silver Coon was the #2 seed, everyone pretty much expected that he would draw ‘17 World bronze Yasmany Acosta Fernandez (CHI), which is exactly what happened. They do not share a relevant competitive history with one another. Just one match -- an Acosta victory last year at the Pan Am Games.
But since the Chilean-by-way-of-Cuba was seen as the bracket favorite -- but carried no “ranking points” -- it just made sense that the random draw would spit him out onto Coon’s bracket placement.
Acosta’s points came from two passivities and a Coon step-out. Coon’s came from a caution-and-two on Acosta. That was really it. There appeared an opportunity for Coon in the second period as Acosta was visibly beginning to sag, but no offensive overtures were made, relegating 130 kilograms to uncertainty following the Olympic Trials.
One item Coon is not given enough credit for is his improved gutwrench, and Leo Santana Heredia (DOM) found out why in the most painful way possible.
Coon carried a 1-1 criteria lead into the second period when he added a few more due to a step-out/fleeing call and passivity. From top par terre, Coon latched around Santana and retained constriction through two rotations. By the time Santana had returned to his stomach he was in searing pain. The training staff gave it a look and quickly called a halt to the bout. Speculation says at least one of Santana’s ribs were broken.