Last summer, college wrestling stars Kyle Dake and Jordan Oliver were so excited at the London Olympics that they toyed with the idea of wrestling each other at a different weight class.
The 165-pound Dake and Oliver, who competes at 149 pounds, kicked around the idea of wrestling each other at 157 pounds. After watching Jordan Burroughs win a gold medal, Dake and Oliver got so fired up that they nearly skipped the celebration for a late-night training session.
"Kyle (and I) were ready to strap up and go back to the hotel and work out. We were so amped up to be back on the mat," Oliver recalled.
The enthusiasm of the U.S. wrestlers — and all of their teammates — is now accompanied by a sense of urgency. With the International Olympic Committee's recent recommendation to drop the sport from the 2020 Olympics, America's collegiate wrestlers are on notice: The Rio games in 2016 could be their only chance for Olympic gold.
That means wrestlers who might have targeted 2020 as their most realistic shot to make the U.S. Olympic team have to start training immediately in hopes of being ready in just 3½ years.
"We've got great people working on it, and they're going to take care of it. I'm confident we'll get it back. But in the meantime, we've got to propel our goals sooner. We've got to think 2016, and think that's it's our last shot," said Dake, who attends Cornell. "So after this season, I'm going to be going at it full time."
Such urgency is, in a way, a positive for a U.S. freestyle team that's on an upswing. The squad could soon absorb a ton of young talent concerned it might only have one Olympic cycle left.
Earlier this month, Dake became the first wrestler in the NCAA history to win four national titles in four different weight classes when he beat Penn State's David Taylor at 165 pounds. Taylor himself is a legitimate Olympic contender, having won the Hodge Trophy as the nation's best wrestler in 2012.
Oliver is a two-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma State with a strong freestyle skill set. Penn State's Ed Ruth will head into his senior season at 184 pounds with a 68-match winning streak and two straight NCAA titles.
Ohio State's Logan Stieber has won the national title in each of his first two seasons and nearly beat Coleman Scott in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City last spring.
Of course, there's a clear difference between domestic and international titles. But Burroughs showed it can be done by winning a gold medal just 18 months after winning an NCAA championship.
Penn State coach and past Olympic champion Cael Sanderson said it is clear the ancient sport has adapted and thrived.
"Wrestling is doing well. Excellent matches. Our kids are getting better and better technically. This is a different generation. This is a generation that's growing up with full wrestling on YouTube, and they can see technique, and they can watch every match. We're seeing that in their technique," Sanderson said.
The popularity for the sport remains strong in the U.S. While the more popular NCAA men's basketball tournament saw swaths of empty seats for some of its early sessions, every ticket for the six sessions of the NCAA championships in Des Moines was sold months in advance. The event included public appearances from the American-based Committee to Preserve Olympic Wrestling.
Still, one of the main concerns in the sport is the negative impact that a potential Olympic snub could have on future generations of wrestlers. For now, all they can do is train as though 2016 will be the final Olympic wrestling tournament.
"We've got to attack it like it's our last shot to win the Olympics," Oliver said. "I don't think they'll hold wrestling out of the 2020 Olympics. It's something that's in the process, but I think we'll get it back. I think we just need to focus on attacking the 2016 Olympics."
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