US wrestlers looking to regain dominance
The U.S. freestyle men's wrestling team used to be the squad everyone was worried about.
After winning one medal in the Beijing Olympics, the Americans don't seem nearly as scary as they used to be.
The U.S. is the home of a staggering 109 freestyle medals overall, by far the most of any nation. But the country has won a single freestyle gold in each of the last three Olympics and boasts only one clear favorite for the London Games in Jordan Burroughs.
The Living the Dream program, which launched in 2009 to prop up wrestling in the states, has guaranteed $250,000 to any American who wins a gold in London. Officials are hoping this year's team will give them a reason to break out the checkbook.
''The goals and expectations of the program are always high. It's the American wrestling program. We have a tremendous history and tradition,'' national coach Zeke Jones said. ''We want to be the best team in the world. It's pretty simple.''
But even Jones acknowledges the Russians are the favorites when the freestyle competition starts Aug. 10, followed by Iran and Azerbaijan.
If there's one wrestler the U.S. might be able can count on, it's Burroughs at 74 kilograms.
The 24-year-old New Jersey native burst onto the American scene with an NCAA title in 2009. He injured his left knee that December, but came back and was honored as the nation's best overall collegian in 2011.
He has won 34 straight freestyle matches since the spring of 2011, including a victory over two-time world champion Denis Tsargush of Russia en route to the world title last year in his first try.
Just one look at Burroughs' Twitter handle, alliseeisgold, shows he's embracing the expectations.
''I don't want to look at it as a pressure situation. I already hold myself to a high standard, so I expect to win a gold medal every time I step on the mat,'' said Burroughs, who insists he plans to stick around for the Rio Games in 2016 before pursuing a potential career in mixed martial arts. ''A lot of people expect me to win. I expect me to win. My family expects me to win, so I got to get it done.''
Though Burroughs is the lone favorite in a U.S. singlet, the Americans have plenty of serious medal threats.
Jake Varner, a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State, trains with former Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson in State College, Pa., and placed third at 96 kg during the 2011 world championships. Varner likely will have to go through Iranian Reza Yazdani, the reigning world champion, for a shot at gold.
Jake Herbert, whose road to the U.S. berth at 84 kg was made easier by Sanderson's decision to remain retired, is making his third appearance on the world stage. Herbert won a world silver in 2009, though Sanderson took the worlds spot from him a year ago.
There's also significant buzz about the medal chances of heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev, who seems to be peaking at the perfect time.
Dlagnev, who didn't even pick up the sport until his sophomore year of high school in Texas and wrestled at Division II Nebraska-Kearney, took out two-time Olympic champion Artur Taymazov in the quarterfinals of last year's world championships and wound up finishing fifth.
Plenty of reasons are cited for the recent dip by the U.S., including a deeper pool of contenders following the breakup of the wrestling-mad Soviet Union. The rise of mixed martial arts has likely thinned the talent pool, and having past champions like Sanderson and Henry Cejudo wrestle in just one Olympic cycle doesn't help either.
But as recently as the Atlanta Games in 1996, the U.S. won three golds, a silver and a bronze.
The Americans likely won't repeat that performance in London, but they're hoping they don't repeat what they did in Beijing either.
''Each guy is capable and wants to win a gold medal, and our hope is that happens,'' Jones said. ''But I get it and I'm realistic. We want to win as many medals as possible.''