U.S. 2012 Olympic Wrestling Qualifiers: Rulon Gardner and the Top Storylines

Jeff Chase@@Real_Jeff_ChaseSenior Analyst IIApril 18, 2012

U.S. 2012 Olympic Wrestling Qualifiers: Rulon Gardner and the Top Storylines

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    Rulon Gardner's comeback bid headlines the U.S. Olympic qualifying meet for wrestlers in Iowa City this weekend.

    The field took a hit for general sports fans when former gold medalist Kurt Angle dropped out, but Gardner, who became famous with his Greco-Roman gold-medal run at the 2000 Sydney Games, is just one of the athletes worth watching (update: if he makes it through the weigh-in).

Event and TV Schedule

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    This weekend's event takes place in the headquarters of wrestling, as Iowa City will host this year's trials. 

    In the end, 18 wrestlers will represent the United States Olympic wrestling team, each coming from a different weight class in the two disciplines.

    More information can be found on the official site of the meet.

    Saturday - Session I (9 a.m.-3 p.m. Central time) and Session II (6 p.m.-9 p.m.)

    Men's Freestyle: 60 KG, 74 KG, 96 KG

    Greco-Roman: 55 KG, 66 KG, 84 KG, 120 KG

    Women's Freestyle: 55 KG, 72 KG

    The TV broadcast from this session airs on tape delay: Sunday from 3-6 p.m. Central on the NBC Sports Network.

    Sunday - Session III (9 a.m.-3 p.m. Central time) and Session IV (6 p.m.-9 p.m.)

    Men's Freestyle: 55 KG, 66 KG, 84 KG, 120 KG

    Greco-Roman: 60 KG, 74 KG, 96 KG

    Women's Freestyle: 48 KG, 63 KG

    The TV broadcast from this session airs on Monday from 2-5 p.m. Central on the NBC Sports Network.

    Preliminary matches from both sessions will be available from NBCOlympics.com, but the finals will not be.

What Happened to Kurt Angle?

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    Unfortunately for wrestling fans, former Olympic gold medalist turned professional wrestler Kurt Angle had to pull out of from this year's qualifier.

    According to the Associated Press, Angle decided to take himself out of contention for a spot at the 2012 London Games due to injuries in both his hamstring and knee.

    The 43-year-old Angle was planning on competing for a spot on the U.S. freestyle team headed to the London Games this summer. But Angle says on his Twitter page that hamstring and knee injuries forced him to pull out of the trials.

    While it was quite exciting for some to potentially see the 1996 Olympic's gold medalist return to the mat, the likelihood that he would have had success was rather low considering his age and condition.

Can Jordan Burroughs Continue to Dominate?

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    New Jersey native Jordan Burroughs had a great 2011 to set himself up as the No. 1 hope for U.S. Olympic wrestling gold in London.

    First, he has to make the U.S. team. He will be competing in the freestyle 74 kg class, seeking his first Olympic berth.

    Burroughs has already accomplished so much in his career, but according to an article by Sports Illustrated's Stephen Boyle, he wants more.

    "What I love to do is win. I want to stay in it and continue to win." Burroughs said. "We haven't had a guy who's been able to compete for a long time."

    The former University of Nebraska wrestler won the NCAA title in both 2009 and 2011, but his accomplishments last year on the national and world stage were even more impressive.

    In 2011, Burroughs won titles at the Pan American games, U.S. Open, U.S. World Team trials and most impressively, at the World Championships in Istanbul. He is the only reigning U.S. world champ.

    According to Bleacher Report contributor Soven Bery, "Burroughs in a word is dominant. He has won every tournament he entered since the beginning of the 2009 season."

    There is no doubt that we are convinced, but nothing is set in stone.

The Olympic Movement vs. MMA

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    It is no secret—MMA is taking the world by storm. But fans of wrestling can only hope that it won't take down their sport.

    In a Sports Illustrated piece about attempts to keep wrestlers in the sport, Stephen Boyle writes that athletes are tempted to move to organizations such as the UFC, where fighting has become much more lucrative than ordinary wrestling.

    Johny Hendricks is a two-time NCAA wrestling champion. On August 6 he made $44,000 for beating Mike Pierce in a UFC fight with no title implications; he was guaranteed half of the purse just for competing. In 2011 he fought three times, earning more than $150,000 from the UFC.

    It is hard to argue against that, but according to the story, the Living the Dream Medal foundation is looking to put an end to this trend.

    Their founders in Mike Novogratz and David Barry were both former college wrestlers, and now have committed themselves to making sure today's wrestlers stay in the game they came from.

    However, if Burroughs wins an Olympic medal in 2012, he'll be one of the highest paid athletes in the United States. The Living the Dream Medal Fund, the nonprofit program that gave Burroughs $50,000 for winning a gold medal at the 2011 world championships, will make wrestlers the highest paid American medalists at the 2012 Olympics. Olympic gold medalists in freestyle, Greco-Roman and women's wrestling will earn $250,000, silver medalists will receive $50,000 and bronze medalists will get $25,000.

    The wrestling world has already seen former Olympians such as Ben Askren switch to MMA after competing in the 2008 games. Askren has seen quite a bit of success thus far, as reported by the AP, putting together a record of 10-0 since making the jump.

    These fighters are without a doubt skilled, but many would like to see them stay in the sport they came from.

Will Henry Cejudo Prove He Made the Right Choice?

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    Speaking of MMA, 2008's 55 kg freestyle gold medalist Henry Cejudo considered the idea of leaving the sport of wrestling, but ultimately decided to come back to take a shot at repeating in 2012. His decision was addressed in the SI piece on funding for wrestlers.

    The program may have come just in time to keep the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo involved in the sport of wrestling. Cejudo says he was one week away from signing with the Bellator Fighting Championships, a mixed martial arts promotion, when USA Wrestling approached him about a comeback. Cejudo did not explicitly say he was wrestling for the money, but he did say if the fund had existed in 2008 he probably would have retired from wrestling permanently after winning the large Olympic purse.

    Cejudo could have definitely taken the profitable route, and could have potentially been a hit in the MMA world. Now he will have to prove to the sport of wrestling that he can still dominate like he did four years ago, and age shouldn't stand his way at just 25 years old. He has wrestled three times since coming out of retirement after the Beijing Games, according to a USA Today story about his comeback.

    Despite his past success—most notably being the only American to medal in the 2008 freestyle events—Cejudo must still get through the new cream of the crop to return to the Olympics for a second straight time.

    Cejudo was one of the great "American Dream" stories of the 2008 Games, the son of illegal immigrants. Hopefully, his dreams won't end early, as he continues to fight for another Olympic gold.

Rulon Gardner Returns?

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    New update: Friday, April 20 at 5 p.m. ET

    The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.), citing unnamed sources, says Rulon Gardner "isn't expected to make weight."

    Update: Friday, April 20 at 12:32 p.m. ET

    According to LAtimes.com's Helene Elliott, Rulon Gardner said over a phone interview Thursday that he was still 15 lbs over the 264.5 lbs limit to qualify for his weight class.

    Gardner said Thursday in a phone interview that he was about 280 pounds, about 15 over the 264.5-pound weight limit for his division, but he was confident he would sweat the pounds off in time for a Friday weigh-in. He must get under the limit in order to compete for the one U.S. Olympic team berth in his class for the London Games.

    Previously posted:

    The comeback of Gardner isn't entirely complete, but the 2000 Greco-Roman gold medalist is doing all he can to make one last push in his storied career.

    Gardner is most famous for his defeat over Russian star Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Summer Games in the 130 kg class in Sydney. The win was a shocker, as Karelin was easily considered the best in the sport.

    At this second Olympic Games in 2004, Gardner came up short, just earning the bronze in the 120 kg class. 

    Gardner would become extremely overweight, reaching a high of 474 lbs., as noted in a USA Today recap of his stint on The Biggest Loser.

    Now at 40 years old, Gardner is fighting for a last shot, battling obesity and age to once again potentially hoist the American flags.

    According to the Associated Press, Gardner was nearing his return to the 120 kg class, but still had to shed off another 25 lbs as of April 6.

    The deadline for Gardner's unlikely and somewhat mysterious comeback as a Greco-Roman heavyweight is April 20. That's when the 40-year-old Gardner -- known lately for his stint on NBC's "The Biggest Loser" -- must weigh no more than 264.5 pounds to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City, Iowa.

    Gardner told The Associated Press in a phone interview ... that he's "close to 290" pounds, which is slightly above his goal with two weeks to go.