ATLANTA (AP) — It is tough enough taking on Russia, Turkey, Iran and Cuba in a sport these nations have long dominated internationally. Now the U.S. Olympic wrestling team finds itself headlocked by high expectations.
The 1992 U.S. freestyle team won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, and anything less on home soil in Atlanta will be a disappointment.
Former Gophers Dave Zuniga and Gordy Morgan and current Minnesota team member Brandon Paulson are among the wrestlers on both the freestyle and Greco-Roman teams who will try to live up to the expectations.
The United States has won 41 freestyle gold medals, but many came before the former Soviet Union’s 30-year domination of the sport. The U.S.S.R. won every world championship from 1962-92.
The Soviet powerhouse has since splintered into teams representing Russia and the U.S.S.R.’s former republics. And, despite the Soviet breakup, the United States has still not regained its stature as a world wrestling superpower.
“We have some strong points, but some of our guys don’t have much experience,” said Kenny Monday, a three-time Olympian at 163 pounds.
Of the 10 freestyle team members only Bruce Baumgartner and Monday have won Olympic medals (one gold, one silver). Only two others — Townsend Saunders (149 pounds) and Kendall Cross (125 pounds) — even possess Olympic experience.
Coming off its most successful world championships since the Soviet breakup, the American team figured to be deeper and more experienced. But Cross, a 1992 Olympian, and 180-pounder Les Gutches each upset reigning world champions in the U.S. trials.
Two-time world champion Terry Brands lost to Cross. Gutches knocked off 1992 Olympic champion Kenny Jackson, a reigning world champion.
“I think we have an excellent team,” said U.S. freestyle coach Joe Seay. “When you have two world champions fail to make the team, you know it’s deep.”
Deep, but also unpredictable.
The United States has only two gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, which prohibits holds below the waist.
The former Soviet Union excelled in Greco-Roman, winning 208 medals in a format that features throwing, body slams and flurries of scoring. Super heavyweight Alexander Karelin of Russia may be the best Greco-Roman wrestler of all time.
Dennis Hall’s gold medal at 125 pounds in last year’s world championships — only the second won by an American — encouraged U.S. Greco-Roman coach Rob Hermann to set a goal of six Olympic medals.
“We want to set our goals high,” he said. “This is the Olympics in our country. The fans are going to be behind us.”