USA Greco

Jacobson, Rau, Coleman, & Coon Advance to Olympic Trials Finals

joe rau, 97 kg, 2024 olympic team trials
Joe Rau -- Photo: Tony Rotundo

STATE COLLEGE, PA — It is a tournament of separation. In phases it occurs, round by round. There is no confusion with regards to this function. The selection of the Olympic Team is determined by survival, for when it comes to competition, survival and victory are synonymous. Just to be standing at the end is a cause for celebration.

The only promise kept in an event like this one is pain. The only difference between the athletes involved is discovering whether or not that pain is followed, even if temporarily, by feelings of joy.

not all roads lead to gold, parent edition, jim gruenwald

Session II of the 2024 US Olympic Team Trials began at 6:30pm inside of the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania and streamed live on Peacock.

Friday evening was divided into two sections: semifinal rounds in each of the six weight categories; and challenge bracket finals in just three — 87, 97, and 130 kg. That is because these weight classes have already been qualified for the United States by three wrestlers — Spencer Woods (Army/WCAP), Alan Vera (NYAC), and Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist), respectively. Woods, Vera, and Schultz each have byes to Saturday night’s best-of-three series, allowing them a day to absorb the action, rest, and manage concerns with the scale, supposing that such a thing is necessary.

In keeping with the theme of the lead-up to this version of the Olympic Trials, 87 kilograms offered a significant brand of drama.

It began in the semifinal round for the top half of the bracket. ’20 Olympic Team member John Stefanowicz (Navy WC) held a 2-0 lead entering the second period against top seed Mahmoud Sebie (NYAC) and added a passive point to widen his margin to 3-0. Stefanowicz controlled most of the action and forced Sebie to look for openings that simply were not there. The former All-Marine Team representative held firm his ground and had his hand raised when the last whistle blew.

Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS) was simultaneously busy operating on the next mat against ’23 World Team member Zac Braunagel (IRTC). Jacobson and Braunagel met one another’s intensity with neither giving an inch early in the bout. Braunagel had a short arm drag that looked inviting but it was Jacobson who eventually got the first score after creating enough motion to secure a takedown. Passivity soon rang on Braunagel and it was 3-0 for the NMU wrestler heading into Period 2. Jacobson carried the same momentum into the stanza but Braunagel was still very much in it and equally ready for battle. Still, with offense for either party not materializing, the officials dinged Braunagel for a second passivity. Jacobson could not negotiate a turn in the first period’s passivity/par terre. He did this time, and the result was a 6-0 lead on the board that would not change before time expired.

That set the stage for Stefanowicz and Jacobson in the challenge final. They did not combine to produce a bevy of points. Nor was that the expectation. Rather, the anticipation was a snug yet tactical duel, and that is exactly what they delivered.

Jacobson utilized his shorter stature with an air of expertise as he jutted up and forward in the ties, his legs stoutly dug into the foam to do his bidding. Stefanowicz aptly and eagerly hawked over the shoulder and flung inside the arms as their brutal waltz commenced with an understated degree of ferocity. Despite the lack of frenetic movement, there was no mistaking the presence of violence.

The officials were left with no choice but to have their say by invoking passivity. The first period knock went against Jacobson, who defended Stefanowicz’s lock to bring about a restart. Once they returned standing, the clashing continued, though creases to nudge actionable positions were hard to discern.

When the second period got underway, the duo resumed jousting for position. It was anyone’s game. Stefanowicz owned a 1-0 passive lead; given the nature of the rule-set, he would have very likely needed to gain a score, of any variety, within the first :90 of the frame in order to avoid the officials nabbing him for a passive call. Jacobson, to his credit, did not hesitate to try and gobble up ground in the trenches, and so he was indeed rewarded with his own point and an opportunity to make a dent from par terre top. He was able to achieve a lock, but Stefanowicz could not be budged and a reset was ordered.

Upon standing, Jacobson worked to engulf all of the space between him and his opponent, thus limiting Stefanowicz’s ability to snare an arm or gather a fruitful lock around the body. Jacobson dutifully chugged his legs in the race in an effort to control the tempo while grains of sand began piling up on the bottom of the hourglass. Time was, as they say, a factor, and Stefanowicz was still working for an entry that could potentially catalyze a scoring chance. With a minute remaining in the contest, a third passivity was offered and subsequently confirmed. Jacobson was picked to hit the deck in par terre bottom, which was the referees’ way of telling him that if he wanted to win, then he would have to earn it cleanly. Likewise for Stefanowicz, it was his best and, probably last, opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Stefanowicz did not wish to waste any more precious ticks of the clock as he zeroed in on his gutwrench. He cranked with his arms and tried kick-starting a rotation with his legs, but Jacobson’s defense was impenetrable. One more restart was called, and, aside from a desperation leap on Stefanowicz’s part, there were no bullets left on this night to fire. Payton Jacobson, who as recently as this winter was pegged to contend in the 77 kg division, had risen above the field in the challenge bracket and will tomorrow night challenge Woods with a spot in the Paris Olympics on the line.

Matthew 20 Graphic v2

Rau & Coon

Joe Rau (97 kg, TMWC) and ’18 World silver Adam Coon (130 kg, NYAC/Cliff Keen) were also called upon to pull double duty for Friday’s evening session.

Rau, a three-time Senior World Team member, encountered ’19 U23 World Team member David Tate Orndorff (TMWC/Ohio RTC) in the semifinal and emerged victorious 5-1. Orndorff was cited for passivity in the first period, and Rau seized on a gutwrench that yielded two turns and a 5-0 cushion. Orndorff came up with a point in the second, but Rau retained command of the contest nonetheless.

Things were much more kinetic for two-time National Champion Nick Boykin (Sunkist) on the bottom side of the bracket. Boykin put up four points in a hurry against Diante Cooper (Air Force), but Cooper reversed position and scored a turn to make the score 4-3. An injury time-out created a lull, as the Air Force wrestler had required attention on what appeared to be his ankle. Wrestling eventually continued and, admirably, Cooper soon sought a bodylock. Unfortunately for him, Boykin was well-prepared for the attack. Cooper threw with gusto, but “Big Nick” immediately adjusted to land-on-top and held Cooper still to record the win via fall.

The result was the third meeting between Boykin and Rau within a 12-month span. Rau downed Boykin in the ’23 US Open final last April, and again this past December in semifinal round of the Fort Worth Nationals.

Rau had rarely been tested by Boykin through their initial two bouts and it seemed as though their match on Friday night would observe the same pattern. And to be sure, Rau was awarded the first passivity/PT and raked Boykin twice to go up 5-0; however, on the second rotation, Boykin stepped over Rau’s lock and received two exposure points. By the end of the first period, the score was 5-2 for Rau.

Boykin was within striking distance.

The two-on-one is an oft-used and effective weapon for Rau, and it was featured prominently as the duo generated static in the second period. Actionable attempts were sparse, compelling the officials to call passivity on Rau. Now behind 5-3, Boykin had a shot to assume the lead. He worked hard to pressurize his lock but Rau had reached back with his left arm and wrapped around Boykin’s waist. The tactic proved useful, for Boykin was unable to get a proper bite on his hold. Back to the feet they went with the second period ebbing towards it conclusion. Rau was in fine form as he jostled Boykin’s upper appendages in the hand-fight. His cause was beyond disruption and the 5-3 decision victory cemented his third-straight Olympic Trials best-of-three appearance.

Coon Over Longendyke & Attao

Coon’s mission to set up yet another face-off with Schultz was both successful and brief — just like the heavyweight bracket itself. The most disappointing component of the 2024 Olympic Trials for Greco-Roman wrestling has been the 130 kg field, which included a paltry number of six participants.

Therefore, Coon did not have to punch his time card in this tournament until Friday night. That was not true for Donny Longendyke (Minnesota Storm), who actually did have a match in the opening session, a decision win at the expense of Jeremiah Imonode (Army/WCAP). With the nod, Longendyke had assured himself of a match against Coon. The skilled and underrated Minnesotan heavyweight had competed against Coon numerous times previously over the course of the past eight years but success in this area had eluded him.

And still does.

Coon zipped past Longendyke in the semifinal thanks mainly to par terre. From the position, Coon engineered a string of gutwrenches and rang up a 9-0 VSU. The tournament ran the rest of the semifinals, which were then followed by the first two challenge bracket finals. Coon was paired with ’22 U20 World bronze Aden Attao (Beaver Dam WC). Attao had impressively scorched the surging Courtney Denzel Freeman (Marines) in the semifinal round, an offensive display that was punctuated by a picturesque throw.

Attao had danced with Coon only once before, which came in the December Nationals. That match went to Coon via technical superiority. This one unfolded in a similar manner. Coon downed Attao again by a 9-0 score, thus ensuring that the mainstream wrestling audience in attendance will be treated to at least one more series between the two best heavyweights in the country.

Ellis the Top Story for Lightweights

The comeback tale for ’12 Olympian/multi-time World Team member Ellis Coleman (67 kg, Army/WCAP) continued during Session II. Earlier in the day, Coleman had defeated teammate Pete Ogunsanya before blanking ’23 National champ Robert Perez III (Sunkist) 4-0 — an especially important test that he passed with flying colors. His assignment in the semifinal round was just as daunting — ’23 World Teamer Xavier Johnson, the former Marine who blitzed Peyton Omania (OCRTC) in the quarterfinal by unleashing consecutive thunderous lifts.

Coleman and Johnson — stablemates at Army/WCAP — figured to combine for a haul of points. And they did. But a match that was expected to be close initially wasn’t, as Coleman raced ahead to a sizeable lead on the heels of big throw. Johnson fought his way back into the match and by the second period trailed only by a score of 6-5. Coleman scored one more point for a little extra breathing room and made it to the winner’s circle to earn a crack at Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) on Saturday night.

Coleman, 32, was a two-time Junior World bronze medalist before becoming an Olympian in ’12. He fell in the semifinal round of the ’16 Olympic Trials to friend RaVaughn Perkins (77 kg, NYAC) but rebounded by making the US World Team the next three years. At the ’21 Olympic Trials, Sancho, long his chief domestic rival, defeated Coleman in the best-of-three final.

After a wrongful suspension levied by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in early ’22 (a situation in which Coleman had received permission, if not complete enthusiastic endorsement, from two trusted medical professionals to use a brain health supplement), he returned to action this past February at the Armed Forces Championships where he went 2-0. Last month, Coleman ventured to Croatia in preparation for this tournament.

Familiarity at 60 kg; Sancho, Bey, & Kikiniou

Coon versus Schultz has become the rivalry favored by casuals. But those inside of Greco know that the most serious rivalry exists between Ildar Hafizov and Dalton Roberts.

Any thoughts of a fifth best-of-three series featuring the two Army wrestlers failing to materialize were put to rest midway through Session II. Hafizov was called upon to face two-time World Team member “Wildman Sam” Sammy Jones (Sunkist/CTT), as tough and intriguing of a match-up as it gets for 60 kilograms. Jones got on the board first via passivity and went for a lift before resorting to a gutwrench. Hafizov defended, but was still in the red entering the second period. When his chance from top came in the next frame, the outcome was decided. From top, Hafizov achieved his high-gut lock and waterfalled Jones the requisite number of times to seal a surprising early stoppage.

On the bracket’s bottom side, Roberts sauntered into battle against two-time U20 World Team member Max Black of Northern Michigan University. Black had earlier gotten past Dylan Gregerson (Minnesota Storm). Roberts, aka “The Swarm”, aggressively checked into the ties but was met with fierce resistance on the part of Black. Alas, points, despite being at a premium, were there for the taking, and it was Roberts who collected them en-route to a 5-2 decision.

Sancho Edges Smith; 77 KG Results

Sancho and four-time World Team member Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) were responsible for completing the top half of the 67 kg bracket. The two have had some history, but not lately. Smith clipped Sancho for bronze at Thor Masters in ’17; one year later, Sancho was “cautioned out” against Smith in the US Open semifinal. Both of those bouts occurred in the old 71 kg class.

Thus, Friday was a different deal altogether. Smith — who dropped down from 72 kg for this Olympic Year — needed to adjust to 67 as well as the same-day weigh-in. This was evident at the December Nationals, where he placed 5th. On Friday, Smith presented a fuller picture and his body has seemed to agree more heartily with the weight cut. A grueling but crisp 4-2 win over tremendous competitor David Stepanyan (NYAC/NTS) showed that Smith was wrestling with plenty of reserves.

He would need them against Sancho. Heavy on the two-on-one was Smith after the whistle. They clashed hard, but with purpose, and Sancho angled himself inside to fight for his own ties. Smith’s legs did most of the talking, however, and he was soon given a passivity/PT chance. A lift was the call, then a gut, but Sancho defended well. After the reset, Sancho tried to rope a headlock; Smith saw it coming and hung back tightly to avoid giving up points. It was close to being a takedown for Smith but the officials ruled it a slip.

Sancho got on his horse in short order and notched a step-out point to take the lead on criteria. As time in the match began to wane, Smith answered with his own step-out point and had an outright 2-1 advantage. Tick, tick, tick went the clock. Smith was on the cusp of the spot of appearing opposite Coleman in the finals. But — with time about to expire, Sancho — who is known for his late-match scoring prowess — dashed in on Smith and forced him out of bounds. With immediacy, Smith gestured that Sancho had pushed him off the boundary instead of the action having been the result of an organic attempt. The Minnesota Storm corner quickly tossed the challenged brick. Upon review, the call on the mat was upheld and Sancho had put himself in a second-straight Olympic Trials best-of-three final.

Kamal on Precipice; Kikiniou Survives Peak

If there were one match-up that many could not wait to see in the 77 kg bracket, it was two-time World Team member and international sensation Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP) versus ’18 World Team rep RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC). Once training partners dating back to when Bey was a mere 18-year-old fireballer, they had never competed against one another outside of the wrestling room. That changed on Friday and their time together on the mat was as tactical and tight as most had pictured it would be.

For Bey to be successful, he knew that he would have to try to negate Perkins’ excellent pummeling skills. As the match started, Bey stayed active on the hands until Perkins lasered an arm drag. The attempt did not result in anything other than a resetting of the feet, but it momentarily caught Bey’s attention.

Bey was dinged for passivity and Perkins went to work first around the head prior to settling in for a lock around the waist. He briefly thought lift but a gutwrench was a more amenable option. Bey shrewdly pasted himself to the tarp and did not risk trying to amble up and out of Perkins’ grip.

It was 1-0 for Perkins entering Period 2. Both appeared fresh for the conclusive three-minutes that hung on the board. Movement generated by Bey in the form of a drag caused Perkins to deftly scramble out of danger — but the action had gone out of bounds and the step-out point belonged to Bey. When par terre entered the conversation, Bey netted a second-effort turn to increase his lead to 6-1. Perkins was still alive even with the deficit. Bey understood that, so he balanced a natural inclination to score with a need to avoid too risky of a maneuver. A late exchange near the edge had Bey earn another step-out along with a 7-1 lead that he would not relinquish. With class and care they behaved after the whistle as Perkins congratulated Bey on his advancement to Saturday night’s main event.


’09 World bronze medalist Aliaksandr Kikiniou (77 kg, NYAC) got the memo. The Trials is about survival, and survive is what he did opposed by Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS), who once again provided an inspiring reminder of his passion, drive, and toughness.

Although, Kikiniou nearly bypassed having to engage in a match that would necessitate each and every ounce of his available energy. When passivity arrived in the first period, the 44-year-old grappler turned Peak twice with a gutwrench for a 5-0 gash and, if real estate were not an issue, he might have had a chance to do even more damage. As it were, Peak still stiffened in defense as the action careened towards the line.

The second period is when the match took on an entirely different light. Peak pecked and prodded in the ties to be gifted a chance from top par terre. He wanted a lift and attempted to elevate his lock; Kikiniou pronounced “Kiki-nov”) forced his body languid as “Mr. Fantastic” went to execute the hold. It did not land, but Peak finished off the boundary to grab a point. Down 5-2, Peak then slid an arm drag that resulted in a step-out point — and Kikiniou was penalized on the action for fleeing, thus rendering the sequence a two-point yield for Peak.

Stamina, energy, oxygen… They were of short supply, particularly for Kikiniou. But, he was still ahead by a point. Rather than dig in on the wrists and look to stall, him and Peak engaged one another in a bodylock. Kikiniou had nestled his arms in tight for the classic hold — and the scene itself was reminiscent of how their match at the December Nationals transpired. In that contest, Kikiniou had a bodylock and arched, but the 6’1 Peak re-gripped with forward urgency and landed on top. The sequence on Friday night was virtually identical, even down to the area of the mat that they were occupying. But there was a difference this time around. As Kikiniou locked and loaded, and as Peak bear-hugged in response, the finish of the move was executed in Kikiniou’s favor. Two correct hold points was the call following a challenge from NMU and Kikiniou’s lead had become 7-4.

Peak was hardly out of it. He had more left in the tank and hurriedly and hotly pursued a takedown. He did not struggle mightily to get one. An arm drag to go-behind brought him within a point, and he was chasing down another with the buzzer about to sound. Kikiniou mustered every drop of strength plausible to avoid succumbing to the pressure bearing down on him.

At last, the blow of the referee’s whistle pierced the air and former Belarusian Kikiniou collapsed on the mat after having endured a most grueling test. Peak himself was lying beside his vanquisher. One man’s lungs billowed in relief, while the breaths inhaled by the other man teemed with disappointment and pain, this despite an exhibition of uncommon heart and effort that are known only to those who themselves have courted greatness in the face of sincere and unrelenting adversity.

Remaining 2024 Olympic Trials Schedule

— All times ET.
— Live streaming available on Peacock (subscription required).
— USA Network will carry both the best-of-three finals (Saturday).

10:00am-2:30pm — Session III
6:30pm-10:00pm — Finals for 60, 67, 87, 97, & 130 kg

NOTE: The schedule for Saturday was originally reported incorrectly. Finals for weight categories in which Olympic weights were not qualified will see the first two rounds completed. Finals in weight categories that are qualified (87, 97, and 130 kg) will have the first match of those series.

2024 US Olympic Trials

April 19-20 — State College, PA


87 kg: Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS) def. John Stefanowicz (Navy WC) 1-1
97 kg: Joe Rau (TMWC) def. Nick Boykin (Sunkist) 5-3
130 kg: Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen) def. Aden Attao (Beaver Dam RTC) 9-0, TF


60 kg

Ildar Hafizov (Army/WCAP) def. Sammy Jones (Sunkist/CTT) 9-1, TF
Dalton Roberts (Army/WCAP) def. Max Black (NMU/NTS) 5-2

67 kg

Alex Sancho (Army/WCAP) def. Patrick Smith (Minnesota Storm) 2-1
Ellis Coleman (Army/WCAP) def. Xavier Johnson (Army/WCAP) 7-6

77 kg

Kamal Bey (Army/WCAP) def. RaVaughn Perkins (NYAC) 7-1
Aliaksandr Kikiniou (NYAC) def. Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS) 7-6

87 kg

John Stefanowicz (Navy WC) def. Mahmoud Sebie (NYAC) 3-0
Payton Jacobson (Sunkist/NTS) def. Zac Braunagel (IRTC) 6-0

97 kg

Joe Rau (TMWC) def. David Tate Orndorff (TMWC/Ohio RTC) 5-1
Nick Boykin (Sunkist) def. George Sikes (NYAC/NTS) 3-2

130 kg

Adam Coon (NYAC/Cliff Keen WC) def. Donny Longendyke (Minnesota Storm) 9-0, TF
Aden Attao (Beaver Dam RTC) def. Courtney Denzel Freeman (Marines) 10-2, TF

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Listen to “5PM57: Kamal Bey and David Stepanyan” on Spreaker.

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Listen to “5PM55: Recapping Final X with Dennis Hall with words from Koontz, Braunagel and Hafizov” on Spreaker.

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