The USA Freestyle wrestling team entered the 2014 United World Wrestling World Championships with high hopes, and left with disappointment.
In freestyle competition, the USA only notched two top-five finishers, no finalists and a ninth-place team result. This year's squad featured more talent and experience than the 2013 World Championship team which finished just a few points out of third place, and I thought, for good reason, that this year might produce a group of Americans who could pass Iran for second place in the world.
Any time an athletic venture falls far short of expectations fans tend to clamor for Earth-shaking reforms. In American wrestling's case, this clamoring is particularly loud, and largely misguided. Most of the calls for a top-down shakeup of the entire American wrestling program conveniently ignore the fact that the USA is a mere two years removed from a fantastic performance at the Olympics, where two American wrestlers won gold medals, and finished third in the unofficial team race. They also fail to acknowledge that Jordan Burroughs' historic string of medals still continues, and that the USA claims a wealth of future international wrestling stars in the 20-and-under (Junior) and 18-and-under (Cadet) age groups.
Some very vocal critics still field the tired old complain that American wrestling training focuses too much on strength and conditioning, and not enough on technique. I can say with a fair bit of certainty that these self-styled experts haven't spent very long watching the extensive technical instruction which takes place on a daily basis in the wrestling rooms of most top college programs and regional training centers. The "Americans aren't technical enough" crowd also fails to notice the huge gains in strength and conditioning made by many foreign wrestlers in the last years; apparently, those wrestlers commit generous amounts of time to their fitness as well. If someone thinks American wrestlers are spending too much of their time tending to their shape, I suggest they check out what takes place during wrestling practices in Japan and Korea.
Other commenters have observations of a bit more value. Same knowledgeable wrestling fans maintain that high school and college wrestling programs should shed American folk style, and adopt freestyle as the interscholastic rule set. I've resisted this idea in the past, due in large part for my love of folk style, but the switch to the international format just makes more and more sense every year, particularly as the evolving rules play increasingly to the tastes of American wrestlers and American wrestling fans.
In the past, I have rejected the need to make a full switch to freestyle, correctly making the observation that American wrestlers aren't typically losing matches due to the differences in folk style or freestyle. Americans usually lose on the international stage by getting the worst of situations which common to both folk and free. I have now come to realize that this observation is insufficient. Were wrestlers from the United States to train exclusively in freestyle from a young age, however, they would be able to spend more time practicing these positions, as they would not have to worry about developing the intricate skill sets demanded by folk style's mat wrestling.
If American interscholastic wrestling switched to freestyle, our wrestlers would leave college better prepared for international competition for two reason. First, they would develop from an early age into true freestyle wrestlers, not just folk style wrestlers pretending to be freestylers. Second, far more top international wrestlers would travel to the USA to earn top-level educations while competing in their natural wrestling style, and the more elite international competition our wrestlers see in college, the more ready they will be when they see them on an even grander stage.
Furthermore, if the freestyle switch occurred, more American would suddenly pay attention to international wrestling. College wrestling in the United States claims a much larger fan base than freestyle, and many college wrestling fans barely keep tabs on their favorite wrestlers after they hit the Senior Freestyle circuit because they feel a bit disconnected by the differences in the rule sets. If freestyle became the American style, perhaps the USA World Team Trials would fill giant arenas just like the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
Finally, 18 year old Russian Abdulrashid Sadulaev won his first World Championship this week in dominating fashion. The United States well never have a wrestler this good on the international level while this young, unless American kids stop wasting their time with folk style.
Sadly I'm pretty certain that the switch from folk style to freestyle won't happen, or even receive serious consideration, in my life time; the powers that be in the American scholastic wrestling scene are entrenched and inflexible. Until the change does occur, and even if USA Freestyle Wrestling 2014 performance was the aberration I think it was, the average performance of an American wrestling team at the freestyle World Championships will probably fall in the 4-7th place range.
After something of a sub par World Championships in Budapest last year, the American Women came storming back for a nice performance in 2014. Three American women earned medals: Adeline Gray at 75 kg (gold), Elena Pirozkova at 63 kg (silver) and Helen Maroulis at 55 kg (bronze). As a team they wound up in third place, which in women's wrestling is essentially second place because nobody is ever going to beat Japan and its army of cold-blooded lady assassins.
All in all, our women's program has a nice core of dependable veterans, and they should have plenty of momentum, and improved publicity, heading into the Rio Games in 2016.
God bless Matt Lindland. The Olympic runner up and longtime MMA standout asked for the position of the USA's head Greco Roman wrestling coach, he got it and now he has one hell of a tough job on his hands.
As it stands right now, Lindland has to deal with a lack of interest in Greco; what audience the style had ran away in droves after attempting to watch the abominable non sport on the mats in London. Even though the recent reforms have made Greco much more viewer friendly, it will be while before people associate Greco-Roman wrestling with excitement.
Lindland also must contend with the fact that the lion's share of American Olympic style wrestling talent chooses freestyle. Freestyle just represents a simpler transition from folk style. Until now, only a few major talents have entered the American Greco-Roman ranks. Most of the other full-time practitioners of this style are weird Greco specialists, and guys who just weren't quite good enough to make it on the freestyle side. If Lindland is going to lead American Greco to a similar success level as American Freestyle (yes, our Greco team won a team World Championship in 2007, but that was one of the craziest results ever in the history of sports, Wonka ticket crazy) he has to sell his program to the big names.
With all these obstacles in mind, combined with the short amount of time Lindland has spent at the reigns, our Greco-Roman team did relatively decently at the 2014 World Championships. One wrestler wrestler won Bronze, Joe Bisek at 75 kg, and one wrestler came heartrendingly close to a medal, Spenser Mango at 59 kg. No other wrestlers placed in the top ten (heavyweight Robbie Smith came in at 11th), but, like I said, USA Greco has a ways to go before it reclaims its position as one of the world's elite programs.
I have a ton of respect for Lindland on a personal level, so I hope he excels in this new post. Fortunately, Greco seems to be a sport where quick turnarounds can happen, so drastic improvement might not be far into the future.