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Notes from Friday's action at USA Wrestling events in Las Vegas



Different views of U.S. Nationals for World medalists Smith and Ruiz

Two of last year's top international wrestling stars, World Champion Iris Smith of the U.S. Army in women's wrestling, and World bronze medalist Justin Ruiz of the New York AC in men's Greco-Roman wrestling, have totally different viewpoints coming into the U.S. National Championships this year. Both were named 2005 USA Wrestling Wrestlers of the Year in their respective styles.

Smith is injured and is here watching the action and supporting her teammates. Ruiz is in top shape and is getting prepared to attempt to win a third straight U.S. Nationals title. Both seek to improve upon last year's performance, however.

Smith injured her knee in a tournament in Russia this winter and has not yet healed enough to be able to compete here at 158.5 pounds. She is optimistic that she will be ready for the Women's World Team Trials in June. However, for the first time in over a decade of wrestling on the Senior level, Smith will not be wrestling in this tournament.

"It's killing me already," said Smith of having to sit out of the tournament. "I'm here to support the U.S. Army team. This is the first year I have missed nationals since I've started. It is real weird. I have just been cleared to drill. I'll be ready for the Trials."

Smith finds motivation in her success last year, and is focused on proving that she can do it again.

"It motivates me. I want to hang onto the World title. I don't want one and then out. My main objective is to get to the Olympic Games. I don't get depressed that I am not wrestling here today. I am feeling better physically than I did just a month ago."

Ruiz is coming off a busy winter tour season where he competed overseas many times at 211.5 pounds. He had some ups and downs in these events, including a loss to another American, Adam Wheeler, at the Dave Schultz Memorial. However, Ruiz is upbeat about his wrestling, as well as his prospects for the year.

"This tournament is real important," said Ruiz. "I'm feeling good right now. Winning this puts me in a good spot for the World Team Trials. I am training hard and putting the time in."

Ruiz says he has continued to improve since winning his World medal last fall.

"I've made some changes and fixed some things, so I can do better at Worlds this year. Getting there is a challenge in itself," said Ruiz. "I feel like I am getting better. Last year, with the old rules, I did better on the winter tours than this year. This winter, I made some mistakes. I have been learning every tournament, then taking what I learn back to the wrestling room."

New U.S. citizen Okot proud to compete in her first U.S. National Championships

For many years, Julieta Okot represented her native Bulgaria at the World Championships and other major international events. But ever since Okot moved to the United States in 1996, a decade ago, she wanted to compete at the U.S. National Championships . After gaining her citizenship this winter, Okot is now an American, and is eligible to compete in this tournament for the first time.

"I feel very good. I am pumped up and excited. I earned the right to wrestle here," said Okot.

For a number of years, Okot served as a coach for other athletes wrestling in this tournament. When she lived in the San Francisco Bay area, she helped coach the SF Peninsula Grapplers to a pair of women's U.S. Nationals team titles. Since moving to New York City, she has been very active with the women wrestlers on her club team, the New York Athletic Club.

"It is more exciting to be in the action," said Okot. "I have been here with the girls for many years. I've been involved for a long time. The paperwork did not allow me to compete."

At 38 years old, Okot is one of the oldest competitors at the tournament, but she feels good about her chances. She was second at the Dave Schultz Memorial in February, her first tournament as an American citizen.

"I have to wrestle with myself. I am a mental person. I need a little push, and can't afford to make mistakes," she said. "Being an American gets me more pumped up. I have pride. The mentality is different for me now. I try to wrestle to have fun now. "

Dantzler looks for first U.S. Nationals title after long career

Although he has competed for the United States three times at the World Championships, and had many other achievements on the international level, T.C. Dantzler of the Gator WC still has not won a U.S. Nationals title. This year, he aims to correct that situation and leave Las Vegas with his first national Greco-Roman crown at 74 kg/163 lbs.

Dantzler has been second at the U.S. Nationals three times, just missing out on taking the crown (1998, 2001, 2002). Last year, he took third in Las Vegas, and considered ending his career.

However, the rule changes in Greco-Roman suited Dantzler's throwing style very well, and he won the 2005 World Team Trials in Ames, Iowa to earn another trip to the World Championships. This year, he intends to finally get that missing national crown.

"I've done my training through the nationals to get the results at the World Team Trials," said Dantzler. "This year, I am set on winning at the U.S. Nationals. This is something I am missing. I have had a lot different preparation this time."

Busy weekend for college coaches at U.S. Nationals

The week of the U.S. Nationals is one of the busiest in the nation each week for the wrestling community. Not only are the Senior athletes in all three styles competing in their national tournaments, but there are three other major events held alongside the competition at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The Veterans Nationals in freestyle and Greco-Roman is held during the week. In addition, the FILA Junior Nationals in freestyle and Greco-Roman (for athletes 17-20 years old) are held, as well as the Western Junior Regionals in freestyle and Greco-Roman.

Among the busiest people during the week are the college wrestling coaches, who often have involvement in many of these levels.

Some of the top coaches are involved with coaching athletes on the Senior level, coaching their college wrestlers who compete at the FILA Junior Nationals, and watching their incoming recruits compete in both the FILA Juniors and the Western Juniors.

Three of the nation's top college coaches, Zeke Jones of Penn, Rob Koll of Cornell and Kerry McCoy of Stanford sat together during one of the sessions and talked about how hectic this week can be. All three were world-class athletes and have won the U.S. Senior Nationals many times in the past. But as coaches, they now have much more going on than when they were entered in the tournament as athletes.

Koll explained how he had two of his Cornell wrestlers competing in the FILA Juniors in Greco-Roman and a number more who entered the FILA Juniors in freestyle. He also had two athletes who had signed with Cornell competing in the Junior Regionals.

"I'm busy the whole time here," said Jones. "Having all of this at once is tough. But it is better than having to travel five weeks in a row."

Women wrestlers changing weights from previous years

One of the noticeable differences at the U.S. Nationals this year is the fact that many of the prominent women wrestlers have changed weight classes from last year.

There are many changes in the two lightest weight classes, at 105.5 pounds and 112.25 pounds. The two women who wrestled in the World Championships, Jenny Wong of the Sunkist Kids and Stephanie Murata of the Sunkist Kids, have switched weight classes.

Wong wrestled at 105.5 pounds and Murata was at 112.25 pounds at the 2005 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. This year, they changed weights, with Murata down at 105.5 pounds and Wong up at 112.25 pounds.

An added twist in these weight classes is the return of 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Patricia Miranda of the Sunkist Kids. Miranda won her Olympic medal down at 105.5 pounds, but is wrestling up at 112.25 pounds.

"It will be a strong bracket," said Wong of the 112.25-pound class this year. "A lot of us haven't wrestled each other for awhile. It will be a good show. I feel better at this weight now. It goes year to year for me."

Another weight class that is affected by a weight change is at 147.5 pounds, where 2005 World bronze medalist Katie Downing of the Sunkist Kids was expecting to have to wrestle her longtime rival Kristie Marano of the New York AC, who is a two-time World champion. However, Marano moved up to 158.5 pounds this week, and the showdown between Downing and Marano won't happen here in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The U.S. Nationals is the qualifying event for the U.S. team that will compete at the World Cup later this spring.

"I am pumped, because that could mean that none just one of us gets to go to the World Cup," said Downing. "It is a little disappointing, because I also want another chance to wrestle here. But it is a relief, also. I know I will probably wrestle her again in two months at the World Team Trials, so it is not over yet. That is one more pressure to wait until later to worry about. But I am excited that we can both be on the World Cup team."

New level, new dream for Pascoe

Travis Pascoe's dream in college was to win a NCAA title for Nebraska. He came within an eyelash of reaching the 184-pound finals at nationals in 2005 before finishing sixth as a senior.

Now an assistant coach at Fresno State, Pascoe is chasing a new dream by trying to make a splash on the international level in freestyle.

Pascoe advanced to Saturday's U.S. Nationals by sweeping Iowa State's David Bertolino on Friday afternoon in an 84 kg/185 pound match. The athletic Pascoe, who excels on his feet, seems well-suited for freestyle.

"I feel real confident with this style," Pascoe said. "I've got a little bit of momentum going into tomorrow and there really isn't much pressure on me. Plus I've wrestled a lot of these guys already, so I have a good idea of what to expect. It's a big opportunity to knock somebody off."

Pascoe said he was not sure what to think of the new format where the top eight seeds gain an automatic berth into Saturday's final round.

"I guess we'll find out tomorrow," he said. "I only wrestled three matches for a total of about seven minutes, so I think I will be ready to go."

Will to Winn

You won't see many 189-pound Junior wrestlers who are shorter than Deron Winn. You also won't see many guys his size that are any tougher or stronger than the powerful 5-foot-5 competitor from Liberty, Mo.

Winn, a double Cadet National champion, captured the Western Junior Regional Freestyle title on Friday. Winn beat Clyaton Foster of Idaho 5-2, 3-9, 7-2 in the finals.

"I came out strong in the first period and I was able to come back in the third period and pull it out," said Winn, a high school junior. "It was a real difficult match."

The move up to Juniors has been adjustment for Winn, but he's made a smooth transition. He plans to wrestle at Junior Nationals this summer in Fargo, N.D.

"I pretty much dominated Cadets," he said. "This is a whole new level and a whole new challenge. The guys are a lot stronger, but I think I'm ready for this level."

The stocky Winn said there is an advantage to being shorter than his opponents.

"I can go underneath them and get in on their legs," he said.

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