Jake Varner
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Olympic champ, World champ may vie for one U.S. Olympic wrestling spot

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Jake Varner gets no breaks as a reigning Olympic champion at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on Sunday.

To get to Rio, Varner must advance through a qualification bracket and then defeat the rested reigning World champion Kyle Snyder in the best-of-three finals.

A matchup of reigning Olympic and World gold medalists has happened before at the U.S. Olympic Trials — when John Smith defeated Randy Lewis in 1988.

USA Wrestling couldn’t name an instance since, making a possible Varner-Snyder finals matchup arguably the most anticipated showdown of the entire two-day event in Iowa City.

“As much as he’s preparing for me, I’m preparing for everybody else,” said Snyder, who at 20 is 10 years younger than Varner. “The feeling that I had winning at the Worlds only makes me want it more.”

Snyder also remembers the feeling in 2012, inspired by watching Varner take 96kg gold at the London 2012 Games.

Snyder and Varner went head-to-head for the first time a little over one year later in practice at an Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.

Varner dominated.

“It was kind of like, he’s a man, I’m a boy,” said Snyder, then a high school senior coming off a 179-0 record in three seasons at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Maryland.

MORE: Olympic Wrestling Trials Broadcast Schedule

Over time, Snyder closed the gap on the Olympic champion in training camp sessions. The turning point came about one year ago.

“I was able to shut down pretty much his offense and get to my attacks when I needed to,” said Snyder, then an Ohio State freshman.

By May, Snyder found himself grappling with Varner in the finals of the U.S. Open. And winning 2-1.

Snyder had lost in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships finals in March and then beat the reigning Olympic champion two months later.

He proved it was no fluke in June, sweeping Varner 4-1, 3-0 at the World Championships Team Trials.

Then, on Sept. 12 in Las Vegas, Snyder became the youngest American to win a World Wrestling Championship, upsetting the defending World champion 97kg freestyler from Russia via a tiebreaker.

By earning a medal of any color, Snyder also earned a bye into the Olympic Trials final.

Everyone else, including the Olympic champion Varner, must go through a qualifying bracket on Sunday morning and afternoon for the right to face a fully rested Snyder in the finals (7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra).

“[Snyder] puts some depth in our weight class, but I’m coming to win another gold medal,” Varner said on the Big Ten Network in February. “I’ve got to go through the [Olympic Trials] tournament, that’s fine. It’s just like going through the Olympics, through the Worlds, and then you’ve got to beat [Snyder] two out of three. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. A little harder is sometimes the way it’s got to be done.”

Snyder originally planned to sit out the 2015-16 NCAA season to focus on preparing for the Olympic Trials. The format of NCAA wrestling — folkstyle — is slightly different from international freestyle wrestling.

But then, at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Snyder and Ohio State surprised the wrestling community by announcing he would rejoin the program mid-season.

“The more matches I get, the more I can learn from quality opponents and the more I can grow as a wrestler,” Snyder reasoned.

He claimed Big Ten and NCAA titles for the first time as a sophomore, capping the abbreviated campaign with an epic NCAA Championships heavyweight final win over NC State’s Nick Gwiazdowski, ending an 88-match win streak on March 19.

Afterward, Snyder said he made the right decision to compete for the Buckeyes, even if he would have lost to Gwiazdowski.

“And hopefully I can prove that April 10,” he said.

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Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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