Johnson wrestles to victory, now waits on Olympics

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2012 - 11:29 PM

The Plymouth native captured the 96-kilogram title Sunday, but U.S. still has to qualify in that weight class.

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IOWA CITY - R.C. Johnson accomplished everything he could Sunday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Plymouth native won the championship in the 96-kilogram Greco-Roman class at the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials, sweeping his best-of-three-match series against Pete Gounaridis.

The rest of the equation is out of his hands. Because the United States has not qualified to compete in his weight class at the London Olympics, Johnson became an Olympic trials winner without an Olympic berth. Now, he must wait as countryman Justin Ruiz tries to earn the U.S. a place in the Summer Games -- and if Ruiz succeeds, he and Johnson will battle each other to see who will go to London.

Ruiz can secure the berth with a top-three finish this weekend at a qualifier in China. If he does not, he will go to Finland for the final Olympic qualifier in May. Johnson can only watch, wait and train, taking satisfaction in winning the trials championship for the first time in his career.

Johnson was the only one of six wrestlers with Minnesota ties to reach the finals on Sunday. Olympic berths were awarded to eight other victors, joining the eight who earned their spots on the team Saturday -- including St. Michael native Chas Betts in the Greco-Roman 84 kg class. The U.S. also has not qualified an Olympic spot in the men's 60 kg freestyle class and will send two wrestlers to chase it down in China and Finland.

"That's wrestling,'' said Johnson, a graduate of Armstrong High School who lives and trains in Colorado Springs. "There's not really much you can do about it. These are the rules that have been set forth. You do the best you can to get through it and train hard when the time comes.

"I feel pretty good. All in all, I think I wrestled pretty solid. When I get back home, it'll be right back at it.''

Of the 19 trials competitors with Minnesota ties, five reached the finals: Johnson, Betts, Northfield native Jordan Holm (second, Greco-Roman 84 kg), former Gopher C.P. Schlatter (second, Greco-Roman 66 kg) and Ali Bernard of New Ulm (second, 72 kg women's freestyle). Paul Tellgren of Anoka finished third in the Greco-Roman 55 kg class, while Nick Severson of Pine Island finished fourth in the Greco-Roman 120 kg class.

Johnson, 29, defeated Gounaridis 0-1, 1-0, 1-0 in Sunday's first match and 1-0, 0-1, 1-0 in the second. He is a graduate of Northern Michigan University, which has one of the nation's best training centers for Greco-Roman wrestling, and moved to Colorado Springs after college to continue his development at the Olympic Training Center. His parents still reside in the Twin Cities.

Since finishing third at the 2008 Olympic trials, Johnson has gained more international experience and was a member of the U.S. team that competed at the 2009 world championships. If Ruiz qualifies the U.S. for the Olympics, he and Johnson will compete in a best-of-three series, with the date and site to be determined. Ruiz was a world bronze medalist in 2005 and has competed in six world championships.

Five others with Minnesota connections competed Sunday. Chaska native Andy Bisek entered the 74 kg Greco-Roman class as the No. 2 seed and received a bye into the quarterfinals, where he was upset by No. 7 seed Jonathan Anderson.

Bisek won the first period 1-0, then lost the next two by the same score. "I didn't wrestle like I should have,'' said Bisek, who won two consolation matches. "The match was mine to win, and I didn't.''

The Gophers' Zach Sanders (55 kg freestyle), former Gopher Dustin Schlatter (66 kg freestyle) and Monticello native Donovan DePatto (60 kg Greco-Roman) all won their first-round matches, then lost in the quarterfinals. Schlatter sprained a knee and did not compete in the consolation bracket. Gophers graduate assistant Kevin LeValley wrestled in the 66 kg freestyle class and lost both of his matches.

Another wrestler with Minnesota ancestry, Sam Hazewinkel, also made the Olympic team in the 55 kg freestyle class. Hazewinkel's father, Dave, and uncle, Jim, both competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics; they grew up in Coon Rapids and wrestled at St. Cloud State.

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