ISTANBUL, Turkey – When faced with one of the toughest scenarios in wrestling, pick oneself up after a demoralizing loss and wrestle back for third place, Zain Retherford more than met the moment. He inspired.

The 28-year-old native of Benton, Pa., overcame four desperate international opponents in rapid succession on Sunday evening at Istanbul’s Başakşehir Gençlik ve Spor Tesisleri to become the sixth and final American to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in men’s freestyle wrestling.

With a condensed final day of action at the World Olympic Games Qualifier in play, Retherford wrestled the equivalent of a full World Championships event in a matter of three hours and 28 minutes. This comes after wrestling three rigorous matches yesterday, adding to the extraordinary nature of his achievement. If anyone could match the pace necessary to run this gauntlet, Retherford was fittingly him.

At 3:12 p.m. local time Retherford took the mat against 2021 U20 bronze medalist Alibeg Alibegov of Bahrain to launch his journey through the 65 kg wrestle-backs. Retherford got off to a promising start by pinning Alibegov in 2:37, accessing his folkstyle top prowess to score the pin by sliding off a right-side flanker into a half nelson.

Fast-forward 43 minutes and Retherford was back on the mat for repechage round two against 2023 U23 Asian Championships gold medalist Abdulmazhid Kudiev of Tajikistan. This match was slightly closer, but Retherford controlled the pace throughout to a 5-2 decision.

He advanced to the bronze medal match against India’s Sujeet Sujeet, a 2020 U20 bronze medalist, which wound up being his toughest test of the day. 53 minutes after ending his bout with Kudiev, Retherford was back at it with Olympic stakes on the line. Both men scored counter takedowns, Sujeet in the first period off a Retherford low-level single leg attempt, and Retherford in the second period with a pressurized go-behind. The match came down to criteria, which Retherford owned by scoring last.

Retherford’s bronze medal match against Sujeet mirrored his round-of-16 defeat at the hands of Tokyo Olympian and 2021 World bronze medalist Tulga Tumur Ochir of Mongolia. In both bouts Retherford held a 2-2 lead on criteria with less than one minute left in the match. Yesterday he let the match get away from him in crunch time. Today was a different story.

By passing the bronze medal test on his side of the bracket, Retherford entered a true-bronze Olympic playoff match against Individual Neutral Athlete Niurgun Skriabin of Belarus, who earned the bronze medal on the opposite side.

You know the drill—one hour and nine minutes following his exhaustive test from Sujeet, Retherford ran up the steps to center mat for one final go. He wouldn’t be denied, scoring a pair of dynamic takedowns and a nasty turn on top to comfortably take the match and the final Paris Olympic quota at 65 kg, 7-0.

Retherford secured the right to travel to Istanbul by claiming the top spot at 65 kg at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials 22 days ago, dethroning 2023 World Team member and Nittany Lion Wrestling Club teammate Nick Lee in the best-of-three championship series. Impressively, Lee was in Istanbul helping Retherford prepare throughout the event.

With the pressure of qualifying the weight removed, Retherford can dial in on final preparations for Paris. He has demonstrated elite success on the international stage as a 2023 World champion at 70 kg, two-time World finalist, four-time U.S. Senior World Team member and 2012 U17 World champion.

Retherford is a three-time NCAA champion and three-time Big Ten champion for Penn State and a two-time recipient of the Dan Hodge Trophy presented annually to the nation’s top college wrestler.

The original post by Richard Immel can be found at: