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Abbott Blog: Top 10 wrestling stories of 2023

by Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling

The 2023 World Team champions in men's freestyle, the United States of America (Photo by Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors)

Easily one of my favorite assignments each year is writing up the Top 10 wrestling stories of the year. The holiday season provides a perfect chance to look back at the year gone by, identify those athletes and stories which made the year special, then look ahead at the year ahead in the sport.


The year ahead is an Olympic year, which is a special time for our sport. Every four years, the world gets together for the greatest activity on earth, the Olympic Games. During the Games, the general public will get a peak at many sports on the Olympic program which may not get this kind of attention in the non-Olympic years. What is great about the year before the Games is that the Olympic quest is already underway. For instance, there are 181 wrestlers already qualified for the April 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling at Penn State, and only a few more spots available in early 2024. Many of the top stories in 2023 are connected to 2024 Olympic Games in Paris in some way. Even better, the United States is competing at a high level leading into Paris. It should be a fantastic year ahead for wrestling fans.


So what were my biggest stories of 2023? Here we go….


1. USA men’s freestyle team wins back-to-back World titles for first time – This year’s top story was a team, the 2023 U.S. Senior men’s freestyle squad. The USA came into Belgrade as the returning team champions, after beating Iran in the 2022 final standings. What was different in 2023 is that Russian and Belarussian athletes were permitted to compete as neutral athletes, making this the strongest field possible. It was also the first and most important qualifiers for the 2024 Paris Olympics. In addition, Team USA had six first-time Senior World Team members competing in men’s freestyle, adding additional questions about the team strength. It didn’t matter. Team USA started its first day putting all four from Group One in the semifinals and three into the finals and never looked back. When it ended, Team USA won seven medals and beat runner-up Iran by 40 points, the first back-to-back titles in U.S. history and the fifth all-time. Although Russia’s points were not counted due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the USA would have also beaten Russia had their points as Independent Neutral Athletes been counted. Golds were won by Vitali Arujau (61 kg), Zain Retherford (70 kg) and David Taylor (86 kg), a silver from Kyle Dake (74 kg) and bronze medals by Zahid Valencia (92 kg), Kyle Snyder (97 kg) and Mason Parris (125 kg). Three of the medals were won by first-timers. The USA punched four of the six Olympic weights into the Paris Games, with just 57 kg and 65 kg left to qualify in 2023. Kudos go to National Coaches Bill Zadick and Joe Russell, plus the clubs and Regional Training Centers which supported this team of talents. This was a remarkable performance by the American men’s freestylers, the biggest story of 2023.


2. Amazing Amit Elor wins three World titles for second straight year – Amit Elor made history in 2022 by becoming the first U.S. athlete (and only second in World history) to win three age-group World titles in the same year. Since Elor was only 19 when she won 2022 World golds as a U20, U23 and Senior athlete, she was age-eligible to compete in all three World Championships again in 2023. Amit Elor loves to compete, and she set a goal to sweep all three once again. And Amit went out and did it once again. Her toughest victory may have been the first one, the U20 Worlds in Amman, Jordan, when Elor got sick along with many of her teammates. In spite of being greatly impacted by illness, Elor won all four bouts handily, getting three technical falls and a pin and not allowing a point. Next came the Senior Worlds, and Elor was again dominant, shutting out her first two opponents, getting a semifinals technical fall, then finishing it off with an 8-2 win over Enkh Amar of Mongolia in the finals. At the U23 Worlds, she was unbeatable, claiming two pins, a technical fall and a 5-0 shutout. This gives Elor eight UWW World titles during her career (actually nine if you count her U17 World Beach title). The biggest question is where will Elor wrestle in the Olympic year. By throwing her hat into the Pan American Olympic Qualifier wrestle-offs at 68 kg, the answer seems to be that she will drop down in weight for her run at the Paris Games.


3. David Taylor wins Worlds beating Hassan Yazdani again – Wrestling is an individual sport, and there is nothing better than a fierce rivalry between two of the World’s greatest stars. That is what happens every time that 2020 Olympic champion David Taylor of the United States and 2016 Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani of Iran battle it out at 86 kg in men’s freestyle. The finals of the 2023 World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, gave wrestling fans another chance to see these talented warriors fight it out for World supremacy. Taylor beat Yazdani in the 2020 Olympics, but Yazdani flipped the result by beating Taylor in the 2021 World finals. Since then, it has been all David Taylor, who won the matchup in the 2022 World finals. In the finals in Belgrade this year, Taylor led 5-3 at the break and extended the lead to 7-3, before ultimately pinning Yazdani. That gives Taylor three World titles and an Olympic title. It seems Taylor has Yazdani’s number, but don’t expect David to take this dominance for granted. Should Taylor and Yazdani meet again, perhaps at the Paris Olympics this summer, Taylor knows he will need to be at his absolute best to beat Yazdani once more.


4. Yianni Diakomihalis wins fourth NCAA title – Only a select few have ever won four NCAA Div. I titles in their careers, and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis added his name to a list of legends: Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson, Kyle Dake and Logan Stieber. Diakomihalis’ journey was a bit crazier than the others, missing two full college seasons, one on Olympic redshirt and another when the Ivy League cancelled the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic. Yianni lost one match early during his senior season to Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez in a dual meet, then ran off 21 straight victories to end his college career. Diakomihalis beat Sammy Sasso of Ohio State, 4-2, in the 2023 NCAA Championships finals at 149 pounds in Tulsa, allowing him to raise four fingers in victory. While Diakomihalis was concentrating on his freestyle career, including a World silver medal in 2022, he was still able to become one of the greatest folkstyle wrestlers in history.


5. Penn State dominates NCAA Championships again – Cael Sanderson continues to build a coaching career which could make him the greatest in the history of the sport. His 2023 Penn State wrestling team was dominant again, scoring 137.5 points at the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, a full 55 points ahead of runner-up Iowa with 82.5 points. The Nittany Lions pushed five athletes into the finals, with individual champions Carter Starrocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184), plus runners-up Levi Haines (157), Greg Kerkvliet (285) and Roman Bravo-Young (133). Add in third-place winners Beau Bartlett (141) and Shayne Van Ness (149), plus seventh-place Max Dean (197) and the Nittany Lions were once again the best of college wrestling, by a big margin. In his 14 years as Penn State head coach, Sanderson has won 10 NCAA team titles and an NCAA second place team trophy, with one season lost to the pandemic. So far in the 2023-24 season, Penn State has been No. 1 since the season started, and could add another team title for the Nittany Lions in March at the NCAAs in Kansas City.


6. NCAA Div. III North Central wins NCWWC Women’s Nationals – Women’s college wrestling has been around since the 1990’s and continues to be like the Wild-Wild-West when it comes to the sport’s development. The first college national championship was held in 2004, won by NAIA trailblazer Missouri Valley College. In 2023, for the first time in women’s college history, an NCAA Div. III non-scholarship program won a national team title. North Central College from Illinois, coached by Joe Norton, won the National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships (NCWWC) in Cedar Rapids with 198 points, ahead of King with 163 points. This is the annual college national championships for NCAA schools. The Cardinals were led by three individual champions, Madison Avila (101), Jaslynn Gallegos (116) and USA Wrestling Women’s College Wrestler of the Year Yelena Makoyed (170), along with three runners-up. Two other North Central wrestlers placed third and the team had 14 total All-Americans. It is amazing that North Central has been able to recruit so many talented athletes with no scholarships offered. Equally impressive is just how much these athletes have developed since going to North Central. A championship culture has been created on campus, and North Central has the fire-power in 2024 to repeat as champions, even with Power Five Iowa currently holding the No. 1 ranking.


7. Vito Arujau wins NCAAs and World Championships in same year – Although this has been achieved in the past, Vito Arujau’s achievement of winning an NCAA title and a Senior World title in the same season is worthy of special mention. His 2023 season began with at the college level for Cornell, where he was a No. 3 seed at the NCAAs in Tulsa at 133 pounds. Arujau tore through the field, with wins over No. 2 seed Daton Fix of Oklahoma State in the semifinals, and a victory over No. 1 seed and two-time NCAA champion Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State in the finals. Arujau told media that his biggest goals are winning World and Olympic titles, but getting the NCAA title was fun for him. His freestyle season was equally stunning. Arujau won the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in April with a finals win over Austin DeSanto, then made his first Senior World Team at Final X in June with two wins over Nahshon Garrett. At the Senior Worlds in Belgrade, Arujau got on a roll, winning three of his first four bouts by technical fall. In the championship finals, he faced 2021 World champion Abasgadzhi Magomedov of AIN-Russia. In a wildly entertaining match, with the bout tied at 7-7, Arujau scored a takedown and a step out and went on to win 10-9. He celebrated in the media mixed zone with his father Vougar Orudjev, a two-time World champion and Olympic medalist for the former Soviet Union.


8. Adeline Gray wins another World medal a year after having twins – Adeline Gray is one of the greatest women’s wrestlers in history from any nation. Her six Senior World titles and 2020 Olympic silver medal set the standard for USA women on the mat. In 2022, Gray missed the season as she became a mother, giving birth to twins. Coming back as an athlete was her plan during throughout the year away. Less than a year later, Gray entered the U.S. Open and placed second, losing to young star Kennedy Blades in the finals. Just a few weeks later, Gray looked considerably sharper in winning the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament in Colorado Springs, beating a pair of past World Team members Kylie Welker and Dymond Guilford. In Final X, she beat Blades in two straight, including a pin in the second match. Returning to the Senior Worlds in Belgrade, Gray showed she was still one of the world’s top stars, claiming a bronze medal. Her only loss came in the quarterfinals to Japan’s Yuka Kagami. It was Gray’s ninth career World medal, tying her with Kristie Davis for most Senior World medals by a U.S. woman. Add in her Olympic medal, and her 10 World and Olympic medals are a new U.S. women’s record.


9. Kyle Snyder runs consecutive medal streak to nine years – No athlete in U.S. history has been a more consistent medal winner than Kyle Snyder. At the 2023 Senior Worlds in Belgrade, Snyder won a bronze medal at 97 kg. It was his record ninth straight year of winning a World or Olympic medal for the United States. The previous record was eight straight medals by Bruce Baumgartner from 1983-1990. Included in Snyder’s medal haul are four gold medals, the 2016 Olympic title and three Senior World titles. He burst onto the World scene in 2015, becoming the youngest U.S. wrestler to win a World title, then became the youngest U.S. wrestler to win an Olympic title in 2016 at the Rio Olympics. Now only 28 years old, with no signs of slowing down, Snyder could challenge Baumgartner’s record 13 World and Olympic medals some time in the future. To add to his consistency, later in the season, Snyder won a Pan American Games gold for a record third time. Only Snyder, Baumgartner, Russ Hellickson and Jordan Burroughs have won three Pan American Games titles for the USA. Kyle Snyder loves to compete, and truly shows up when the stakes are at the highest.


10. USA U23 World Team wins men’s freestyle team title with four champions – Of the four UWW World age groups (U17, U20, U23, Senior), the USA has faced its most challenges at the U23 level. With the event being held in the late fall each year, right at the start of the college season, Team USA has not shown consistent excellence in comparison to the other ages. A change in the qualifying procedures the last two years allowed age-eligible Senior National Team members to compete at the U23 Worlds if they choose. The 2023 U.S. men’s freestyle U23 World Team had a historic event, winning six medals (including four champions) and claiming the World Team title for the first time. Team USA had 148 points, with Turkey next with 113 points in Tirana, Albania. Golds went to Keegan O’Toole (74 kg), Aaron Brooks (86 kg), Isaac Trumble (97 kg) and Wyatt Hendrickson (125 kg). Brock Hardy (65 kg) and Jacob Cardenas (92 kg) added bronzes. Add in three women’s freestyle medals, and the USA had a record nine over-all medals at the U23 Worlds. Things are looking up at the U23 level, for sure.  

Here are some other big stories that deserve recognition from a memorable year:


Bommarito becomes first U.S. Beach World champion – Since the USA began competing in UWW World-level Beach Wrestling events in 2007, Team USA had never won a gold medal at a Senior Beach World Championships or World Series event. That barrier was blown away in 2023 by Eliana Bommarito, who not only won three Beach gold medals but was also crowned overall Beach World champion at women’s Over 70 kg. At the Beach World Series event in Constanta, Romania, Bommarito won her first gold medal of the season, breaking the U.S. gold-medal drought. Two days later, she added a U20 Beach World gold medal, her first age-group title. At the final Beach World Series event in Mugla, Turkey, Bommarito won gold again. Over the course of the five-event Beach World Series, Bommarito scored 55,800 points at Over 70 kg, and was named Beach World Champion, edging runner-up Liudmyla Pavlovets Tychyna of Ukraine with 54,500 points.


Zain Retherford reaches top of World podium at 70 kg – Zain Retherford won a World gold medal in the first UWW Championship he ever entered, when he was the Cadet (U17) World champion at 63 kg in men’s freestyle in 2012. He went on to win three NCAA titles for Penn State. In Senior freestyle, Retherford made World Teams in 2017, 2019 and 2022, with a 70 kg World silver medal in 2022 his top achievement. Rather than change to an Olympic weight, Retherford stayed at 70 kg in 2023 to seek a World title. He made the U.S. team with a two-match sweep over Tyler Berger in Final X. In Belgrade, Retherford returned to the finals after three straight decision victories. He battled Amirmohammad Yazdani of Iran in the finals, another past World silver medalist. Retherford scored two second-period takedowns and a step out, leading to an 8-5 victory. He was part of a great day for Team USA, with three champions (Retherford, David Taylor, Vito Arujau) and a bronze from Mason Parris on the same day.


Three-point takedown implemented in men’s college wrestling – A big news story in wrestling is still unfolding, as college men’s wrestling was shaken up with a number of rule changes intended to add excitement and scoring to college folkstyle. The biggest change was the decision to award three points for a takedown, instead of two points. Since the college season began in November, wrestling fans are now seeing just how the new rules have changed the sport. Rewarding takedowns is a good thing, and has changed strategy in comparison to two-point takedowns. Other rules encouraging athletes to work for turns from the top were included in the adjustments. Let’s wait for a full year to assess what the changes have done for the sport. Some of us might suggest that if we wanted to improve men’s college wrestling to just switch it to freestyle. (That is another conversation for another day).


Spencer Lee is back, with Bill Farrell and Senior National titles – There is no doubt that Spencer Lee has been one of the most exciting athletes of his generation. As a high school star from Pennsylvania, he won three age-group World titles in a dominant fashion. At Iowa, Lee won three NCAA titles, but fell short in his final season in 2023 when he lost in the semifinals. Lee’s toughest challenge has been overcoming major injuries, something which threatens his chance to excel at the Senior level. Just in time for the 2024 Olympic Games, Lee is back on the mat and winning. He claimed titles at the Bill Farrell Memorial International in New York in November, then the U.S. Senior Nationals in Fort World in December. In the finals of both events, he beat talented Nico Megaludis. It remains to be seen if Lee can be the best at 57 kg at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but his return at a high level adds more excitement to the sport.


Russia allowed back in wrestling competitions, with Olympic Games also possible – It might be fair to say that wrestling is Russia’s best Olympic sport, so the sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus after the invasion of Ukraine has impacted international wrestling at a high level. The big talk at the International Olympic Committee levels in 2023 was the road to bringing Russia and Belarus athletes back into the Olympic family in time for the 2024 Paris Games. Decisions started at the international federation level, and wrestling was one of the first to bring back Russia and Belarus as Individual Neutral Athletes, first at the age-group World Championships, then at the 2023 Senior Worlds. Russia had an uneven performance at the 2023 Wrestling Worlds, qualifying at four weights for the Paris Olympics (all in men’s freestyle). In December, the IOC announced that Individual Neutral Athletes from Russia and Belarus had been approved to compete in the Paris Olympics, under some very strict conditions. There are questions about whether Russia will accept these conditions and allow their athletes to go to Paris. Russia has the opportunity to add wrestling qualifiers at the European Olympic Qualifier and the World Olympic Qualifier. In addition to getting more athletes, the big question is whether Russia can return to wrestling dominance in time for the Paris tournament.

 

Shilson, Kimber become the first two four-time NCWWC champions – The 2020 season was the first in which the NCAA women’s college programs went away from colleges in other divisions to host its NCAA-only championships. In 2023, the first two four-time NCWWC champions were crowned, Emily Shilson of McKendree (109) and Sydnee Kimber of McKendree (191). Kimber was No. 1 most of the season, and closed out her fourth title with a pin over Traeh Haynes of North Central in the finals. Shilson did not compete in the first semester, then transferred from Augsburg to McKendree, where she only wrestled in the post-season. She pinned King’s Sage Mortimer in the NCWWC finals to become a four-timer. (Add in her 2020 WCWA national title, and Shilson boasts five women’s college titles.) There were four WCWA national champions before the organizations split their national competitions, Victoria Anthony, Helen Maroulis, Emily Webster and Kayla Miracle. Add Shilson and Kimber into the special club of four-timers among women.


Andrew Alirez wins NCAA title and becomes Senior Nationals champion – Another athlete with some amazing performances in 2023 was Northern Colorado star Andrew Alirez. After an unbeaten regular season, Alirez became Northern Colorado’s first NCAA Div. I champion of the modern era with a strong run at 141 pounds. Alirez won all five NCAA matches, including big wins over Beau Bartlett of Penn State in the semifinals and No. 1 seed Real Woods of Iowa in the finals. Alirez’ best style is probably freestyle, and he has taken an Olympic redshirt year in 2023-24. At the Senior Nationals in Fort Worth in December, Alirez claimed the gold medal at 65 kg, beating Bartlett in the finals, 8-0. It was his second Senior Nationals title (along with 2020). Alirez was named Outstanding Wrestler in men’s freestyle in Fort Worth. With 65 kg a wide-open race for Team USA, can Andrew Alirez win the Olympic Team Trials? It will be fun to see how far he can climb.


49 World medals in 2023 ties U.S. record, including 18 World champions – It has been a historic time for USA Wrestling in terms of winning World medals at all age groups. In 2022, the USA set a new record for combined World medals with 49 across all four ages and all three disciplines. The 2023 season matched that record World medal haul with 49 medals for the second straight year. One area of improvement came in the number of World champions from the USA, which included 18 gold medals, up from 16 gold medals in 2022. We may be in the golden age of American international wrestling, with great hopes for future success based upon age-group success.


Weyhrich becomes first woman to coach college national champion team – For the first time in history, a woman has coached a college women’s wrestling team to a national title. In her first year as head coach at Southern Oregon, Gabrielle Weyhrich led the Raiders to the NAIA Women’s Wrestling national team title with 160 points, ahead of Life with 139.5 points. The team was led by three NAIA champions, Carolina Moreno (123), Emily Se (143) and Grace Kristoff (191) among seven All-Americans, all in the top four. It was the first year of an official NAIA Women’s Nationals. In women’s college history, going back to the first event in 2004, a woman had never been the head coach of a national champion team. Weyhrich was named 2023 NAIA Coach of the Year in women’s wrestling. Prior to coming to SOU, she was an assistant for three NCWWC national champion teams at McKendree. With Weyhrich in the record books, which woman head coach will be the next to lead a college national team?


Pan American Games medal haul features two gold medals in Greco-Roman – The Pan American Games happen every four years, a prestigious multi-sport continental event which is one year prior to the Olympic Games. The USA is traditionally strong at the Pan Am Games in wrestling, and the 2023 version held in Santiago, Chile was no exception. In men’s freestyle, Team USA had four champions: Kyle Snyder (97 kg), Zane Richards (57 kg), Tyler Berger (74 kg) and Mason Parris (125 kg). The USA added a women’s freestyle champion in Forrest Molinari (68 kg). It was the performance of the Greco-Roman athletes, which included gold-medal victories by Ildar Hafizov (57 kg) and Kamal Bey (77 kg), that was noteworthy. Both who defeated tough Cuban athletes on the way to their gold medals. With the USA seeking to bolster its Greco-Roman performance, the Pan American Games was an encouraging sign.


Up to 44 states with girls high school state championships – It was just a few years ago when there were only six high school state associations which hosted official girls state high school championships. Then the flood gates opened, as opportunity became available all over the nation. Much of the leadership came from USA Wrestling’s Girls High School Development Committee, co-chaired by Joan Fulp and Andrea Yamamoro. As we head into 2024, there are now 44 state associations which run girls high school championships. What that means is that there are only six states remaining who have not added state tournaments for girls. Wrestling for girls and women has grown quickly, led by growth at the high school level.


Gable Steveson returns to win U.S. Open and Final X, but skips Senior Worlds – 2020 Olympic champion Gable Steveson, who turned his attention to his career in the WWE last season, made a brief comeback to Senior freestyle wrestling this spring. Steveson decided to enter the U.S. Open in April, working his way to the finals, where he beat two-time World medalist Nick Gwiazdowski in the finals. In June, Steveson returned to Final X, stopping Hodge Trophy winner and NCAA champion Mason Parris in the finals in two straight matches. Just as suddenly as Steveson reappeared, he has also gone away, turning down his berth on the 2023 Senior World team. Parris went to Belgrade and qualified the weight class with a bronze medal. The lingering question is whether we have now already seen Gable’s last freestyle match.


Have I missed any major stories from this year’s Top Stories list? I usually do. Fans are encouraged to email me with anything that is deserving and was left out at gabbott@usawrestling.org

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