The 2023 US Nationals/Olympic Team Trials this past weekend in Fort Worth, Texas delivered to the United States Greco-Roman program their roster for the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier that is scheduled for February in Mexico. The event also ushered in over a dozen new athletes for the country’s Olympic Team Trials as well as solidified the delegation list for an impending trip to Croatia coming up shortly after the New Year.
There were plenty of exciting matches, both on the championship and consolation sides of each bracket, and several young competitors who are just beginning to gain footholds in their careers displayed glimpses of outstanding ability that will only expand as they continue to gather experience. These two facets of the event were just as important to the its success as the completion of the procedural implications involved with regards to Paris ’24 concerns.
But there were also several heartbreaking injuries that certainly put a damper on the proceedings.
In the quarterfinal round for 77 kg on Friday, ’22 National Champion Britton Holmes (Army/WCAP) re-injured his right knee following a lift from eventual tournament runner-up Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS) — the same knee on which Holmes had surgery during the spring. He had only recently returned to competition. Earlier this month, Holmes was one of four wrestlers to represent the US at the CISM Military World Championships in Azerbaijan. Although that event carried with it an air of significance, it was seen as more of a warm-up leading to the Nationals, particularly for Holmes, who prior to the CISM Worlds had not competed in a match since last April. The sort of thing that just, unfortunately, happens. Holmes was trailing Peak 8-3 and had a caution levied against him when Peak received another chance to get a lock from par terre top. At the whistle, Peak hoisted and lifted Holmes towards the edge — and as full impact was about to become realized, Holmes’ right foot landed first, which in turn torqued his right knee.
In an instant, everyone watching who was already familiar with Holmes’ recent plight understood the seriousness of the situation. His right foot had touched down in awkward fashion, he was clearly in agony, and the scene did not require an expertise in orthopedics to comprehend what had just occurred. The match would have been over, anyway, as Peak had scored the requisite number of points to win by way of technical fall. But Holmes still had a lot of wrestling left, both in this tournament and throughout the season as a whole. That could still be the case. Holmes is likely to soon receive definitive word regarding whether or not his ’23-’24 campaign has been cut short. As of press time, his official prognosis is unknown. But it did not and does not look good. The hope is that no matter what the news actually is, Holmes — one of the country’s fiercest competitors and an athlete who exhibits integrity on and off the mat — will fitfully heal and recover so that he can resume what has thus far been an impressive career in the toughest style of wrestling on the planet.
Two-time National runner-up West Cathcart (130 kg, NYAC) feels Holmes’ pain. Literally.
Cathcart had to miss all of the ’23 World Team selection season due to having endured surgery and rehabilitation related to injuries suffered the year prior (his right arm had been a key problem, as well). His first tournament back was the Bill Farrell Memorial in November where he took losses to ’22 U20 World bronze Aden Attao (Beaver Dam RTC) and ’21 National champ Malcolm Allen (LOG). Cathcart’s timing was off in New York, he had a layer or two of rust that needed to be eradicated. But there was a marked difference in him over the weekend in Fort Worth.
Cathcart was moving with more fluidity and had appeared to rediscover his feel for the brutish mechanics which are most prominently witnessed in the heavyweight class. He had a win under his belt entering the tournament’s second round but was edged by Donny Longendyke (Minnesota Storm) and thus received a ticket to the consolation bracket. Cathcart then pinned Daimon Altamirano (505 WC) inside of :30 — which put him in the consolation semifinal opposite Attao with the winner guaranteeing themselves a spot in the Olympic Team Trials. And unlike their previous match-up, in which Attao was able to negotiate throwable positions as if automated, Cathcart observed a more convicted posture and stalked with increased patience as they jousted through the preamble. He scored a step-out, and Attao answered in kind with his own step-out point. After the restart, Cathcart pursued Attao once more to collect another point and held a tenuous 2-1 lead. But following the next reset, Attao off-balanced Cathcart on the line and pounced as the latter’s right knee twisted and crumpled underneath the combined girth of the two monsters.
As Holmes had no choice but to roar in excruciation upon landing, the same can be said of Cathcart, who had immediately begun clutching his damaged knee before NYAC/MWC coach Zac Dominguez alerted the training staff. The match was called in short order, with Attao moving on to the consolation final and scoring a big 6-3 decision over Longendyke. Cathcart’s status and the exact severity of his injury are to be determined. But, again, it didn’t look good.
Lenny Merkin (67 kg, NYAC, and who was present in Cathcart’s corner against Attao) also suffered an injury. Merkin and eventual tournament runner-up Robert Perez III (Sunkist) were embroiled in a tense struggle on Friday when the former’s right shoulder began giving him problems. Later in the bout, Merkin landed directly on the joint and required assistance from the trainer but continued the match. Perez wound up prevailing via tech after securing a trapped-arm gutwrench. Merkin’s shoulder has been an on-again/off-again problem and was operated on previously. However, and although he was put in a sling after the match, the ’19 U23 World Team member may still be ready to go when the Last Chance OTT Qualifier arrives in the spring.
And then there was ’23 Final X runner-up Ryan Epps (Army/WCAP), who is said to be waiting to have an image done on either his right shoulder, his latissimus dorsi muscle (better known as the “lat), or both. It happened during the 87 kg quarters between Epps and stablemate Rich Carlson (Minnesota Storm), one of the bracket’s big match-ups. Carlson, trailing 2-0, executed a sterling arm throw that scored five (a rarity for the technique in the US) and instinctively transitioned to head-an-arm on the mat while Epps was caught on his back. They went back to work after the reset and continued wrestling midway into the second period, when, just prior to a restart, Epps grabbed at his right side. Suddenly, the pain in the area appeared to become all-encompassing, because Epps — widely recognized for his toughness — could hardly stand straight. The training staff tended to him, a question or two was asked, and Epps opted to continue the match. Once the whistle blew for the restart, it was obvious that he had been severely compromised and it was not long before he was forced to default. As it is with Holmes, Cathcart, and Merkin, the severity of Epps’ injury is not yet known. If he is cleared to return within the next two months, the expectation is that Epps will compete for Army at the Armed Forces Championships (February) in effort to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
’23 Nationals Undercover Stars
This edition of “Undercover Stars” presents a list of athletes from the 2023 US Nationals/Olympic Team Trials Qualifier along with brief descriptions of their performances and placements (where applicable).
Max Black (NMU/NTS, 3rd) — Technically, Black placed second at 60 since it was one of three challenge brackets accompanied by a wrestler who had a bye to the final (in this case, Ildar Hafizov). Black and Hayden Tuma (NYAC) both won in the semifinals, so it was their job to fight it out to determine which of the two faced Hafizov on Saturday. That man was Tuma, but Black had already strung together three victories before their Friday afternoon showdown. The NMU’er had cut down Peter Del Gallo (South Side WC) and ’23 World Team member Brady Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) — which set the stage for yet another dustup between Black and Trials-qualified Randon Miranda (NYAC), who was dominant up until the semifinal round. And it was Miranda who held a 1-0 passive lead heading into the second when Black countered a throw attempt from his rival and adjusted for a land-on-top that gave him two points and, ultimately, the win.
Paxton Creese (Minnesota Storm) — It was supposed to be in New York, instead it was in Fort Worth where young Mr. Creese made his Senior-level debut — and he wrestled well. His general mechanics on the feet require maturation (positional miscues, folkstyle habits, backing up, etc.), and Mitch Brown (Air Force RTC) appeared to have gotten hosed out of points in the first period of their opening-round match; but Creese then went on to stage quite a comeback against two-time U23 World Team member Phillip Moomey (Spartan Combat RTC). He was down 7-0 and chipped away when late in the second period he came up with a takedown and turn to snare the lead. Creese sandwiched a win over Del Gallo between losses to both Brady and Dylan Koontz (TMWC/Dubuque RTC) after that. But a) he was in fantastic condition and b) he has the makings of a reliable reverse lift that he can either bomb to grab four’s or pull-over for simple exposure. A very promising start.
Colton Parduhn (Interior Grappling Academy) — Par terre is commonly referred to as “the equalizer”. Because, it does not matter how proficient an athlete might be on-the-feet, if or when passivity is called, PT can balance the scales for the opposition. This is what happened for Parduhn against ’22 US Open runner-up Aidan Nutter (NYAC/NTS). Nutter, leading 1-0 in the second period, might not have been piling up points but he was certainly much slicker and purposeful when the two were standing. Passivity on Nutter in the second washed away his advantages. Parduhn executed a big lift for four and followed with consecutive gutwrenches to secure a, rather jolting, 9-1 VSU at the expense of a more-established top prospect. Parduhn was ahead of ’23 National Champion Justus Scott (Army/WCAP) 3-1 entering the second period, as well, and aggression from par terre played a role in the score (prior to Scott engineering a 12-3 TF). The Alaskan eeked past Morgan Flaharty (NYAC) to move forward in the consolation bracket but recent Fargo champ Brett Back (Dubuque RTC) ended his run. Nevertheless, Parduhn had some standout moments and therefore must be taken seriously as he continues to make improvements.
Danny Braunagel (IRTC, 3rd) — He did not have the opportunity to wrestle his last two matches (forfeit wins in both, including for third place) but it’s still hard to top Braunagel’s performance in the non-champion department. A technical fall victory over Quinlan Nelson (IL) gave way to a decision against National Team member Noah Wachsmuth (NYAC), and that match was not an easy one. Towards the end of the first period, Wachsmuth took a 5-3 lead after countering an arm throw, forcing Braunagel to play from behind in the second. A takedown provided the chance for a gutwrench, which Wachsmuth almost defended until his right elbow made contact with the mat, allowing for the rotation. Braunagel then hustled another takedown to walk away the 9-5 winner. After getting aced by Aliakdandr Kikiniou (NYAC) in the semis, Braunagel hit a nice arm spin for four and closed out ’22 U23 World Teamer Ty Cunningham (MWC) in short order and survived a stiff test from Riley Briggs (NMU/NTS) before ending up with the two forfeits (theme of the tournament, unfortunately, in nearly every weight class). None of this is difficult to comprehend: similar to his twin brother, Zac Braunagel, Danny B is out there relentlessly chasing down scores by relying on (a lot of) movement, physicality, and terrific overall wrestling skills that, at least in the meantime, are being sharpened for this particular style. A very dangerous character.
Aydin Rix-McElhinney (Northern Colorado WC, 5th) — A delicate balance exists in this sport between patience and aggression, so much so that the concept has in recent years become a trope on this platform. It is still an apt description of the most common approach to Greco-Roman, particularly when it comes to technical-types like Rix-McElhinney, who competed impressively by adhering to this principle. When there were windows to score, he did; and when his opponents over-extended or telegraphed attacks, he countered. One of Rix-McElhinney’s most useful weapons is his ability to observe this fine line and take advantage of each opportunity that is presented to him. He went 2-1 on the front-side of the bracket — with one of his victories a takedown-happy affair against Cunningham. On the backside, Rix-McElhinney decisioned both Wachsmuth and ’23 U23 World Team member Tyler Eischens (CARTC). Kikiniou quickly dashed any hopes for bronze, and the great RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC, and who had downed Rix-McElhinney in the quarterfinal) had to forfeit the 5th/6th round due to a legitimate injury. So, Rix-McElhinney’s story in Fort Worth ended with him having earned a spot in the Olympic Trials. Considering the field he had to navigate, it is well-deserved.
Tommy Brackett (NYAC, 7th) — Not much more can be asked of Brackett, who after five years on the top-level, still has the most textbook position on-the-feet, and still wears down opponents because he doggedly fights each miniature war in the ties to properly gain said position. After defeating down-in-weight Christian Rouleau (Minnesota Storm), Brackett fell on criteria 1-1 to ’20 Olympic Team member/’23 Military World bronze John Stefanowicz (Navy WC). He then rebounded with a tight win over Tyler “Truck” Hannah (Combat WC) and took a 5-0 decision against Fritz Schierl (Minnesota Storm). The athlete below halted him from having a chance to qualify for the OTT; but Brackett concluded his two days in Fort Worth by edging the wrestler who has often served as his main domestic rival, ’18 Junior World silver Andrew Berreyesa (NYAC/Northern Colorado WC).
Terrence Zaleski (Marines, 5th) — He had not competed in over two-and-a-half years, was out-of-shape, and, probably, appreciated being in the tournament more than anyone else. Zaleski — one of the cogs of the vaunted All-Marine Wrestling Team under Jason Loukides prior to the program being cut in ’21 — claimed at the event that he had not trained. At all. It is hard to believe on one hand because his body composition still looked the same; on the other, it is very easy to believe because the man constantly found himself involuntarily gobbling up oxygen during his matches. He endured two losses in Fort Worth, and both of them were to Zac Braunagel. In between, Zaleski picked up three wins (all three via VSU) with the third coming against Brackett. Former (or in a sense, current) teammate Stefanowicz forfeited to Zaleski in the 5th/6th qualifying round, in large part because Stefanowicz entered the tournament pre-qualified for the Trials and Zaleski was not. But, now he is. Zaleski had been around for more than a minute on the Senior circuit before the Marine team shut down and at that time was beginning to realize his potential. Should there be any availability for him to actually prepare for the Trials, it is obvious that his presence would pose a significant obstacle for others.
Mike Altomer (Curby 3-Style, 5th) — “Muscle” Mike accomplished a rare feat. Yes, he qualified for the Olympic Trials, but that’s not it. Or not just it. By choosing to go 97, Altomer managed to make a dent in his third weight category of the year. The New York native earned spots on both the ’23 U20 and U23 World rosters at 82 and 87 kg, respectively. More importantly, he simply wrestled well. Very well. Altomer went 1-1 in the championship bracket, falling to two-time World rep Alan Vera (NYAC) — but on the consolation side of the chart, he defeated Austin Craig (Navy) and longtime competitor Orry Elor (NYAC) ahead of losing an exciting, high-scoring match to two-time National champ “Big” Nick Boykin (Sunkist). In his last match of the event — and with an Olympic Trials berth hanging in the balance — Altomer outlasted the ’23 Final X runner-up in this weight class and #2 seed Christian DuLaney (Minnesota Storm) via 13-10 decision.
David Tate Orndorff (TMWC, 3rd) — Orndorff — who is down in weight this season from 130 kg — earned his Trials spot by having to come all the way back after losing to Boykin on criteria in the quarterfinal. He had first gotten past Eli Pannell (Dubuque RTC) before meeting up with Boykin for a second time this season (NYAC last month). On the bracket’s back-side, Orndorff downed both Anthony Brown-Garcia (505 WC), Mac Kukowski (Minnesota Storm) and then caught and pinned DuLaney. Boykin forfeited the 3rd/4th match to Orndorff but that does not take away from what was undoubtedly a very encouraging showing.
Aden Attao (Beaver Dam RTC, 3rd) — He has no other option but to wear the “hype” label each time his name is in a bracket. That’s the price to pay when you are a U20 World medalist (’22) and NCAA Division I recruit. When put that way, there is nothing “undercover” about Attao, but he still warrants mention on this list. Heavyweight at Senior is not a pleasant playground. Aside from the variety of hardened competitors who comprise this weight class in the US, there is also the matter of a younger wrestler such as Attao having to adjust his style to the more closed-off machinations which are par for the course. And yet, he manages to score, and score big, anyway. Attao dominated in his first two bouts (with a fall against tough Kaleb Reeves included) and then was on the receiving end of a VSU from ’18 World silver and tournament runner-up Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen). Following the mess with Cathcart, Attao came away victorious over Longendyke for third, which was a nice parting gift to take with him to the airport.
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