Spencer Lee in action at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in State College, Pa.
Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors

Spencer Lee in action at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in State College, Pa.


Lee, Retherford among freestyle favorites at World Olympic Games Qualifier

by Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The U.S. men’s freestyle duo of Spencer Lee and Zain Retherford take the mats on Saturday morning at the World Olympic Games Qualifier. Both men recently won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Lee at 57 kg and Retherford at 65 kg, and are one solid performance from cementing themselves as 2024 Olympians.

The festivities in Istanbul will decide the final set of countries qualified to compete at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France. The top three finishers per weight class earn a coveted quota for his or her nation in Paris. For the rest, it’s a long four-year wait for another attempt at the sport’s highest honor. The U.S. has qualified the four heaviest men’s freestyle weights for the Paris Games. The Olympic dream for the two American lightweights passes through Istanbul.

Let’s take a deeper look at the men’s freestyle weight classes of interest for those following Team USA. Each weight class preview is based on the preliminary entry list provided by United World Wrestling. Final entries are subject to change pending weigh-ins.

Spencer Lee, 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials champion at 57 kg (Photo by Richard Immel, USA Wrestling)

Men’s Freestyle 57 kg

U.S. entry – Spencer Lee (Iowa City, Iowa/Hawkeye WC/Titan Mercury WC)

From an American standpoint, it’s not a jump to predict Spencer Lee will crack the top three at 57 kg in Turkey. He has an extensive track record of international success with three age-group World titles. Not to mention his masterful performance at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials that culminated with a two-match sweep of 2020 Olympic bronze medalist and past World champion Thomas Gilman.

Lee took seven years away from the international circuit to focus on his collegiate career with Iowa, where he was a three-time NCAA champion and two-time Dan Hodge Trophy winner. He did compete at the Bill Farrell Memorial International last winter, cruising to the gold medal, and followed it up with Pan American title. So, it’s not as if Lee heads to Istanbul without a recent international test. The question here is how critical the absence of international feels, particularly against the unique European and Asian styles, will impact the American superstar.

There is quite a list of contenders that will challenge Lee this weekend, including one Olympian, three World medalists and a bevy of up-and-comers entering their primes.

Bulgaria’s entry, Georgi Vangelov, finished in fifth place at the Tokyo Olympics. He also holds a fifth-place finish at the 2022 World Championships and is a two-time European medalist. The Bulgarian lost in the European Olympic Games Qualifier semifinals, 7-3, to 2021 World bronze medalist Aryan Tsiutryn, an Individual Neutral Athlete formerly of Belarus.

World medalists in the bracket include Alireza Sarlak of Iran, Zanabazar Zandanbud of Mongolia and Andrii Yatsenko of Ukraine. Sarlak was runner-up to Gilman at the 2021 World Championships. Zandanbud finished with a bronze at the 2022 Worlds, also losing to Gilman. Both Sarlak and Zandanbud are Asian silver medalists. Yatsenko won his only World medal back in 2017, taking bronze. He was a two-time U17 World champion over a decade ago. A run to the top three in Istanbul would appear more likely from either Sarlak or Zandanbud as opposed to Yatsenko.

Even though their representatives haven’t made a Senior World podium, the Asian countries of India and China might have the top two threats to Lee at the weight class.

Aman Aman of India, a 2022 U23 World champion and three-time U17 World medalist, is a serious threat to all comers. He was the 2023 Asian champion and Asian Games bronze medalist. He was pinned in the semifinals of the Asian Olympic Games Qualifier by Tokyo Olympian Gulomjon Abdullaev of Uzbekistan.

Placing in the top ten at the past two World Championships, China’s Wanhao Zou is another athlete to watch at 57 kg. He was a U23 World bronze medalist in 2018. Zou was upended in the Asian Olympic Games Qualifier quarterfinals, 3-2, by two-time U23 World bronze medalist Bekzat Almazbek Uulu of Kyrgyzstan, who went on to earn the Olympic quota. For further U.S. context, Zou took an 8-2 loss to Gilman at the 2022 World Championships.

2024 European medalists Roberti Dingashvili of Georgia and Muhammet Karavus of Turkey are also in the mix.

The 2024 Zagreb Open Ranking Series event is a notable bracket to examine for this group. All four medalists from Zagreb are entered in the Istanbul field. Aman was the champion, with Zou taking silver, and Vangelov and Karavus earning the bronzes. Fifth-place finishers were Dingashvili and Germany’s Horst Lehr, who is also expected to compete in Istanbul. 2023 U.S. World Team member Zane Richards also competed in the event, finishing in seventh place with losses to Aman, 11-0, and Karavus, 17-8.

Zain Retherford, 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials champion at 65 kg (Photo by Richard Immel, USA Wrestling)

Men’s Freestyle 65 kg

U.S. entry – Zain Retherford (State College, Pa./Nittany Lion WC/Titan Mercury WC)

The only Senior World champion listed in the 65 kg men’s freestyle entries for Istanbul is American powerhouse Zain Retherford. The reigning 70 kg World champion is among the favorites to place top three at this weight class in Istanbul.

Retherford moved down to 65 kg to win the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, dethroning 2023 U.S. World Team member Nick Lee in the championship series. He is a two-time World medalist at 70 kg, earning silver in 2022 before topping the podium last summer in Belgrade, Serbia. Additionally, he made two U.S. World Team’s at 65 kg earlier in his Senior-level career and was a U17 World champion in 2012. Retherford is a three-time NCAA champion for Penn State and a two-time recipient of the Dan Hodge Trophy.

Although a strong favorite to emerge with an Olympic quota, Retherford doesn’t have any recent results against the other top contenders at 65 kg. It’ll be interesting to see how Retherford adjusts to a new crop of international opponents.

Mongolia’s Tulga Tumur Ochir is the only Olympian in the field. He finished in ninth place at the Tokyo Olympics and was a World bronze medalist in 2021. He holds a gold medal from the prestigious Asian Games and is a two-time silver medalist at the Asian Championships.

Several other Asian countries are going to make things interesting with credentialed entrants. Past U20 and U17 World champion Umidjon Jalolov of Uzbekistan is looking to take the next step at the Senior level with an Olympic bid. Kazakhstan will be represented by three-time age-group World medalist Adlan Askarov. North Korea is shipping 2023 Asian Games bronze medalist Kwang Jin Kim to Istanbul. Not to mention, former Russian upstart Abdulmazhid Kudiev, who was ninth at last year’s World Championships, will represent Tajikistan.

Finishing one win away from the Olympic quota at the Asian Olympic Games Qualifier were Kwang and China’s Shaohua Yuan. Kwang dropped a tight 5-3 decision to two-time World medalist Ernazar Akmataliev of Kyrgyzstan in the deciding bout. Alternatively, Yuan was tuned up, 11-0, by Kotaro Kiyooka of Japan in the other semifinal contest.

The Europeans will no doubt have their say come tournament time. 2024 European champion and two-time U23 World bronze medalist Islam Dudaev of Albania is the likely top contender from the continent. He came up three points short to three-time World champion Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan in the European Olympic Games Qualifier semifinals.

The other man to finish with a semifinal loss at the European Qualifier was two-time U23 World medalist Maxim Sacultan of Moldova, who has been on the doorstep of a Paris Olympic berth on multiple occasions. He finished one win away from the Olympic quota at the 2023 World Championships after being edged by Iran’s Rahman Amouzadkhalili in the true-fifth place match at 65 kg. Most recently, it was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Georgia’s Goderdzi Dzebisashvili keeping Sacultan from a Paris appearance. Perhaps the third time will prove the right time for Sacultan.

Other European wrestlers to make note of are 2022 U23 World silver medalist Ahmet Duman of Turkey and 2022 U20 World bronze medalist Khamzat Arsamerzouev of France.

Follow Team USA in Turkey

The World Olympic Games Qualifier will be held at Istanbul’s Başakşehir Gençlik ve Spor Tesisleri, May 9-12. Greco-Roman will kick off the festivities on Thursday, followed by women’s freestyle on Friday and men’s freestyle on Saturday. Each style will wrestle over the course of two days. A complete schedule of events can be found below.

The U.S. audience can watch the event live on Flowrestling.com starting at 10 a.m. local time/3 a.m. (ET) each day. Brackets and real-time results will be available on UWW Arena.

For more information about the World Olympic Games Qualifier please visit the official event website at uww.org. USA Wrestling will provide complete coverage of the event on TheMat.com and its social media platforms. Join the conversation using #WrestleIstanbul.

Event Schedule

10 a.m. – Preliminary rounds (GR 60-67-77-87-97-130 kg)

6 p.m. – Semifinals (GR 60-67-77-87-97-130 kg)

10 a.m. – Repechage (GR 60-67-77-87-97-130 kg), Preliminary rounds (WFS 50-53-57-62-68-76 kg)

4:45 p.m. – Bronze medal matches (GR 60-67-77-87-97-130 kg)

6 p.m. – Semifinals (WFS 50-53-57-62-68-76 kg)

8:30 p.m. – True-bronze medal matches (GR 60-67-77-87-97-130 kg)

10 a.m. – Repechage (WFS 50-53-57-62-68-76 kg), Preliminary rounds (MFS 57-65-74-86-97-125 kg)

4:45 p.m. – Bronze medal matches (WFS 50-53-57-62-68-76 kg)

6 p.m. – Semifinals (MFS 57-65-74-86-97-125 kg)

8:30 p.m. – True-bronze medal matches (WFS 50-53-57-62-68-76 kg)

3 p.m. – Repechage (MFS 57-65-74-86-97-125 kg)

4:45 p.m. – Bronze medal matches (MFS 57-65-74-86-97-125 kg)

6 p.m. – True-bronze medal matches (MFS 57-65-74-86-97-125 kg)

*All times listed are local to Istanbul, Turkey, which is seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time.