CORALVILLE, Iowa – The U.S. Olympic Team Trials could have been a final showcase for the elder statesmen of American wrestling.
Instead, this weekend's meet in Iowa City is shaping up to be a celebration and validation of the nation's vibrant young talent.
Former champions Cael Sanderson, Kurt Angle and Rulon Gardner are out. Youngsters Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner are in — and even 2008 gold medalist Henry Cejudo is a relative comeback kid at just 25.
The U.S. is hoping for a strong showing from its youngsters as it eyes a better performance at the London Games than the lone gold medal it earned in Beijing four years ago.
"We've got a great group of young guys that are going to be around not just this cycle, the next cycle too. We're not an aging team by any means. We've put a lot of energy into our pipeline," U.S. men's freestyle coach Zeke Jones said.
Angle and Sanderson pulled out in recent weeks, and the 40-year-old Gardner ended his quest by declining to weigh in on Friday.
The brightest young star the U.S. has to offer is Burroughs, the 23-year-old native of New Jersey who broke through by winning last year's world crown at 74 kilograms in freestyle.
Burroughs, who has already advanced to the best-of-three-championship series, is barely a year removed from winning his second NCAA title for Nebraska. Burroughs made the transition from college to freestyle as quickly as possible, winning the U.S. Open just three weeks after his last match for the Huskers.
Burroughs hasn't lost a tournament since he hit the international scene. He and Varner, by virtue of the world medals they earned in 2011, get a free pass to a best-of-three championship series. Even if they lose this weekend, Burroughs and Varner can still earn the bid to London if they finish higher than the trials champion at an overseas tournament in the near future.
Cejudo used to be the nation's next big thing, but he's barely competed since winning America's only gold medal in 2008. Cejudo could very well be the best America has to offer at freestyle 55 kg, but it's just impossible to know his fitness level until he hits the mat at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Nick Simmons has since emerged as the leading American in Cejudo's weight class, finishing a respectable fifth at last year's worlds.
Sanderson cut his comeback short after realizing his duties as head coach at Penn State overrode his desire to win a second gold medal. One of Sanderson's top pupils has been Varner, who looks like the clear favorite at 96 kg freestyle and a serious medal contender.
Varner, 26, won an NCAA title for Sanderson when the two were at Iowa State. Varner stayed with the Cyclones and won another collegiate crown before moving to Happy Valley to train under Sanderson.
Varner won bronze at the 2011 world championships in Istanbul. He and heavyweight Tervel Dlagnev are among the best hopes for freestyle medals in London, but they have to get there first.
"Veterans are veterans for a reason. They're crafty, so we could see some of our veterans stepping up this weekend too. But regardless, we're going to have a good American wrestling team. We're going to work hard at it," Jones said.
Gardner declined to discuss why he didn't weigh in on Friday. But he was always a longshot to get past longtime friend and rival, Dremiel Byers, who like Burroughs and Varner has a free pass to the best-of-three championship series.
On the women's side, Clarissa Chun and Ali Bernard will attempt to become the first two-time U.S. Olympians after both finished fifth in Beijing. Chun is the top lightweight at 48 kg, while Bernard is the favorite at 72 kg.
There doesn't appear to be much room for drama in women's freestyle. Chun, Bernard, Helen Maroulis (55 kg) and Elena Pirozhkova (63 kg) have all earned spots in a best-of-three championship series and will be fresher than whoever earns the chance to face them.
Still, it promises to be a showcase for women's wrestling. With an Olympic Trials record of over 12,000 tickets sold, this weekend will likely mark the biggest crowd ever to see women's wrestling.
"Our goals are pretty simple. We want to go home to London and bring home four pieces of hardware," U.S. women's freestyle coach Terry Steiner said. "I believe we have the team that can do that, and this weekend hopefully those people most capable of bringing back medals are the ones standing at the end of the day."
The U.S. has already qualified for a spot in London in all but two of the 18 weight classes — men's 60 kg freestyle and 96 kg Greco-Roman. USA Wrestling is holding out its brightest hopes for those classes this weekend so they can prepare for international Olympic qualifying events.