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.

MORE: Burroughs left with clearer path to Rio after rivals change divisions

With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Maddie Bowman, first Olympic ski halfpipe champion, ends competitive career

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Maddie Bowman knows she has been very fortunate. She just turned 26 years old and has already accomplished everything she wanted in her sport, halfpipe skiing.

Bowman, who won the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi in 2014, recently decided to retire from competition.

“I’ve really given the sport everything I could that was positive, and I knew the sport would be in great hands when I walked away,” she said. “So I decided it was my time to be done.

“I just felt like I couldn’t give anything else to the sport because I was a little bit afraid [of injury], but also it’s mentally exhausting. It drained my mental health for sure, but I loved doing it, and I still love skiing. Competition just isn’t for me anymore.”

The decision weighed on the South Lake Tahoe native last season. She competed at the Winter X Games for the last time, taking fifth place. She earned medals each of the previous seven years, including five golds, despite undergoing two major knee surgeries in that span.

“I was thinking [last year] that this is really hard, and I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get into the right mental state again. It’s painful. My knees hurt, but I was torn. I was torn between wanting to walk away and the love I had for the people I was around, people I competed against and just the lifestyle. I worked really hard on opening up other doors for myself besides skiing, which is making my transition a lot smoother.”

Those opportunities include activism, spreading awareness around climate change for Protect Our Winters. Bowman wants to finish her college degree and teach high school biology and health. She aims to continue public speaking regarding motivational talks and mental health.

Bowman struggled with depression between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. She is equally proud of her second Olympic performance — finishing 11th in South Korea — as her landmark gold medal in Russia. While in PyeongChang, she believed it would likely be her last Olympics.

“I had doubts if I would even make it to PyeongChang, and making it there was one of my huge accomplishments,” Bowman said. “It was such a special event. Even though I only got 11th, I skied my freakin’ heart out. I gave it everything I had.”

Bowman, the daughter of two former professional skiers, took gold in Sochi as the youngest finalist. She landed back-to-back 900s for the first time in her career (by accident after having to improvise her opening run). She did so in front of family that included 78-year-old Lorna Perpall, who wore a T-shirt that read “badass grandma.”

Afterward, Bowman spoke about friend Sarah Burke, the Canadian ski halfpipe pioneer who died after a training accident in 2012.

“It means so much for us to be able to show the world what our sport is,” Bowman said that night in Russia. “She’s here with us.

“I sure hope I, and everyone else, made her proud because we would not be here without her.”

Bowman has her own place in history. No matter how long ski halfpipe is in the Olympics, she will always be the first woman to earn gold.

“I know as our sport gets more solidified into the Olympic Games, it can become pretty national, cutthroat and competitive,” she said. “I would love to see it stay this free-spirited work of art, something beautiful like that.”

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