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Olympic trials, tribulations — and triumphs: Minnesota wrestlers make team; runner Tollefson advances

Coaches -- and former Olympians -- Dan Chandler, left, and Brandon Paulson intently watch wrestling phenom Jake Deitchler at the Olympic trials in Las Vegas.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Coaches — and former Olympians — Dan Chandler, left, and Brandon Paulson intently watch wrestling phenom Jake Deitchler at the Olympic trials in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS, NEV. — Wrestling is not stupid. I know, you think it is.

If you’re a casual sports fan, you think the worst of the sport, televised, painted-faced wackos named The Hulk or The Body. (Boy, that dates me.) Then there’s all this Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fight Championship stuff, where strangling and leg-breaking is de rigueur. Violence seems to be glorified.

Politically, the sport has been dipped in anti-Title IX rhetoric, led locally and nationally by University of Minnesota coach J Robinson. Way too often, as universities unfairly drop wrestling, they blame the rise of women’s sports, not the excesses of football. It’s been a very guy sport.

But Olympic-style wrestling is engrossing. Even if the rules are complex, for someone who lives his life left-of-center and who shops at REI, I’m coming around to believing that wrestling might be the most intense, pure and equitable sport out there.

It’s fair as fair can be. Little pistol guys wrestle other little pistol guys. Big honkin’ Baby Hueys grunt against other Big Honkin’ Baby Hueys. There are no mismatches — except on who works the hardest and whose heart is the biggest. Some Olympic sports are called “country club” sports . . . swimming, gymnastics, fencing. Not wrestling. It is a rainbow sport.

It is a gut-wrenching sport, too.

At the U.S. Olympic Trials here this weekend, big boys did cry.

They cried when they got to the finals of the Trials and lost by one point, their energy and emotions spent, years of training falling just short. They cried when they got to the finals and won by flipping an opponent on his head like a ragdoll, one victory catapulting them to the largest stage they have, an Olympics.

Of course, women wrestle against women now in the Olympics. That started in 2004.  Witness New Ulm’s Ali Bernard, who made the U.S. Olympic team Friday night. A new generation of young women emerged in Vegas, showing great technical progress.

Ali Bernard, of New Ulm, is interviewed by a radio station about making the Olympic wrestling team at weekend trials.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Ali Bernard, of New Ulm, is interviewed by a radio station about making the Olympic wrestling team at weekend trials.

Finally, sport embracing women wrestlers
Here’s what’s fascinating about the evolution of wrestling over the past decade. Despite that taint of anti-Title IX-ism of some coaches and, in years past, the sometimes strident pronouncements coming from USA Wrestling’s home office and Web site, the national governing body of the sport has truly embraced the women.

It’s good for broadening the base of the sport, as other more glitzy sports — such as BMX bike racing or triathlon — creep into the Olympics.

In Vegas, I asked USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender about the political divide, between the old guys with the cauliflower ears who might scoff  “at the girls” and the reality of gender equity.

“We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about them,” Bender said of the noisemakers who have resisted women’s wrestling. Calmly, with his daughter at his side on Father’s Day, Bender said: “We look at the women on our Olympic team, and they’ve made the same sacrifices as the men. There’s no difference … When our international federation decided to offer a women’s program, we decided we’re going to be the best in the world.”

Applause.

Always — always — there are upsets at trials, at Olympics, as energy overpowers experience, as exuberance pins overconfidence. Note Jake Deitchler, of Ramsey, the phenom who stormed through the trials and made national headlines Saturday, only the third high-schooler to ever make a U.S. team.

First, Bernard.

Bernard’s Canada ‘trip’ pays off
A quiet, private woman of 22, she had to go to Canada to find a collegiate women’s wrestling program of note. That’s not right. And Bender agrees. He is among the new breed of wrestling administrators who believe there should be women’s wrestling programs at every school that has men’s programs. Take that, J Robinson.

Bernard is your typical young Olympian. Friday night after making the Olympic team, she did what every world class athlete does in Vegas. She went to Papa John’s and ordered a beef pizza. Stardom has its rewards.

And then Deitchler.

Impressive. Exciting. Explosive. Admittedly “young and dumb.” Right now, THE Minnesotan to watch in Beijing.

Bigger than life, Anoka High School graduate Jake Deitchler appears on the scoreboard at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas during an interview, following his stunning upset to win a place on the wrestling team.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Bigger than life, Anoka High School graduate Jake Deitchler appears on the scoreboard at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas during an interview, following his stunning upset to win a place on the wrestling team.

He grapples on the shoulders of a noble Greco-Roman tradition in Minnesota. If you were here last weekend, you could have seen three of those generations all in one corner: Deitchler, Dan Chandler and Brandon Paulson.

All went to Anoka High School. There was Chandler, the carrier of the ancient wrestling style, a 1980 Olympian who was boycotted out of competing in Moscow. As a coach and administrator, he has maintained the health of Greco-Roman wrestling in Minnesota, where it owns a remarkable niche.

There stood Paulson, screaming and banging the mat and waving his arms. The 1996 Olympic silver medalist, 34 years old now, is Deitchler’s coach and inspiration.

When Deitchler shocked the wrestling world Saturday and beat Harry Lester, the top American, Paulson couldn’t contain himself. It was as if he were on the mat, as if he were heading to Beijing. He stood in a tunnel, hundreds of feet from the mat where Dietchler was making history and, before he could speak, he bent over, his fingers holding his eyes.

A grown man was crying with joy. A wrestler at heart, he didn’t want to show it. But it was OK. It was necessary. Crying, too, because there were memories. Paulson won a silver medal as a phenom himself in Atlanta. But Paulson then lost twice at Olympic trials in 2000 and 2004. In 2000, he’d named his daughter Sydney, assuming he’d compete there. In ’04, he made a comeback, only to see it dashed. Painful, very painful.

Now, Paulson was living through Deitchler. He called the kid “psycho.” He said the kid reminded him of himself.

I’m telling you, wrestling is sweet. Wrestling is sweaty. It’s a Minnesota gem. Even if you sip a latte or drive a Prius, respect it. The Olympic trials confirmed that it’s as diverse and authentic as sports get.

* * * *

We wrote about Bernard, Deitchler, R.C. Johnson of Fridley and former Gophers NCAA champ Cole Konrad last week. Johnson and Konrad didn’t make the U.S. team.

* * * *

Tollefson one step closer to Olympics … barely, it seems

Carrie Tollefson seems to get to the Olympics — and now the Olympic track and field trials — by the hair on her chinny chin-chin.

Tollefson’s road back to the Olympics after horrific surgery has been chronicled here.

And then another hiccup along the way.

Carrie Tollefson
Photo by Victah Sailer
Carrie Tollefson

Today is the deadline for her and other track athletes to meet minimum standards to compete at the U.S. Olympic track trials. Sneaking in under the wire, she raced in a 1,500-meter event in Indianapolis Saturday night to earn a spot at the trials, which begin later this month in Eugene, Ore.

She needed to run a relatively slow 4:19.5 to meet the so-called “B” standard that gets her a spot at the trials’ starting line. At that Saturday race, she turned in a 4:16.56.

That’s a full 10 seconds slower than her personal best, which she set four years ago. It’s nowhere near where she needs to be to make the team.

But, unless more than 30 American women post times faster than that when it’s all calculated today by USA Track and Field, Tollefson will get to the starting line in Eugene. And she’ll get the chance she wants.

Sunday, after returning to her St. Paul home, Tollefson told MinnPost, “I’m sure people will be surprised that a 4:16 is a step in the right direction for me, but I’ll have to take what I can get.”

She might run another race or two before the trials. But one thing is sure and troublesome. In 2004, when she won the trials but didn’t have the Olympic qualifying time, the international track federation let her chase after the time. She eventually got it.

This year, she’s been told, no chasing. You either meet the Olympic standard — 4:07 or 4:08, depending on some other factors — by the end of the trials, or you don’t go.

She figures the U.S. winner at trials will be in that 4:07 range.

“I truly believe I have more in me,” she said.

We’ll know for sure on July 3, the first round of the 1,500 at the trials.

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