The last time world wrestling champion Adeline Gray competed, she fractured ribs at mid-March’s Pan American Championships in Ottawa, one of the last international sporting events held at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, that kind of injury could debilitate hopes of qualifying for an Olympic team. Normally.
But the Olympic Trials had already been postponed from their early April date. And Gray, as a reigning world medalist with a bye into the trials finals, had the option of postponing her competition due to injury anyway.
Then, a week after Pan Ams, the Tokyo Games were postponed, later rescheduled for the same June/July dates in 2021.
Gray, the American record holder with five world wrestling titles, returns to the competition mat on Saturday at the U.S. Championships in Coralville, Iowa.
The meet has no bearing on next year’s Olympics or Olympic Trials.
It could help determine a U.S. team for a newly scheduled world championships in Belgrade in December, “in the event that [United World Wrestling] keeps the 2020 Senior World Championships on the calendar and USA Wrestling plans to send teams,” USA Wrestling posted on the meet website.
“I feel like every tournament I enter, my career’s on the line,” said Gray, who in 2016 had a two-year win streak snapped in the quarterfinals of her Olympic debut in Rio. “It’s whether or not I make an Olympic team. It’s whether or not I win my next world championship, and breaking history. It’s a lot of pressure each time. This tournament has none of that. I could go out there and lose first round and not have any sweat or lack of confidence going into Olympic Trials. I’m going to open up and take a few more risks and just kind of use it as some training.”
Most of the top U.S. wrestlers did not enter nationals, such as world champions Jordan Burroughs, J’den Cox, Kyle Dake, Helen Maroulis, Tamyra Mensah-Stock and Jacarra Winchester.
Gray and Rio gold medalist and two-time world champion Kyle Snyder are the co-headliners. But there’s another intriguing name in Gray’s 76kg division — Geneva Gray, one of Adeline’s three younger sisters.
Nationals will be Geneva’s first competition in nine years, since high school in Colorado. She went to Northern Colorado on a soccer scholarship, then got into coaching wrestling and has been a training partner with her older sister off and on for a few years.
“[Adeline] kind of put the little bug in my ear and said why don’t you just compete at nationals,” Geneva said. “My dad overheard, and he thought that would have been the best idea ever.
“We decided there’s really nothing to lose here. It’s a chance for me to compete again.”
Though the Grays spent months off mats during the pandemic, they’ve recently practiced — cautiously — at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, along with Mensah-Stock. Restrictions have been such that the sisters, who live together, had to get a special waiver to drive in the same car into the campus.
“I told [Geneva] this is the best time that she possibly could [compete] because a lot of people had their training disrupted, and she’s at least had some consistency,” said Adeline, whose years-long motto has been “Gray to Gold,” part of her social media bios. “We’re hoping that we’ve rubbed off on her enough and not beat her confidence up too bad. It kind of sucks to get your ass kicked every day, but she’s been taking it like a champ and working hard.”
A bracket hasn’t been published, but Geneva said she would probably forfeit if she advanced to a final against her older sister.
“Neither of us would have anything to gain by wrestling each other,” Geneva said. “I wouldn’t want to expose any areas that she might need to still be working on. Then I wouldn’t want to get embarrassed, because she’s really good.
“I just want to prove that I deserve to be out there and that I can hang with the best in the world because I’ve been training with them.”
For Adeline, the return to more regular training and now competition has been a light after a stressful six months. The week after fracturing her ribs in Ottawa, she was displaced when the Olympic Training Center’s facilities closed, including athlete dormitories.
“I had to steal the bed sheets from the training center and kept those until we [Adeline and husband Damaris Sanders] bought an empty house and then could get our stuff delivered,” she said, noting one of her teammates is still couch surfing.
While training in a living room and a backyard, the Grays and other Olympic hopeful wrestlers connected via Zoom calls for stance and motion classes.
“Carpet burns are a little bit worse than mat burns,” Adeline joked in a United World Wrestling video interview this week.
The months off the mat weren’t all that unfamiliar. She underwent shoulder and knee surgeries in January 2017 and went 11 months between matches before returning to become, arguably, the most dominant wrestler in the world.
“Wrestling, obviously, is the most unfriendly Covid game,” she said. “So we are trying to tiptoe around and be as safe as we can.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post miscredited an image of Gray. It is from Tony Rotundo for United World Wrestling.
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