Cuba is an indisputable global wrestling powerhouse; as demonstrated by its six gold, five silver and seven bronze medals, placing it 15th on the discipline’s historic Olympic medal chart, with only seven appearances since the Montreal 1976 edition.
Russia (80-31-23), the United States (50-43-32), Sweden (28-27-29), Japan (28-17-17) and Turkey (28-16-14) occupy the top five spots. Thus understandably, our gladiators have high hopes of qualifying for the Río de Janeiro Games
The 2015 World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas, was the first event where Cuban competitors had the opportunity to fulfill this goal, with Greco-Roman style fighters Ismael Borrero (59 kg) and Mijaín López (130) emerging victorious, winning gold and silver medals, respectively. The second qualifying event is scheduled to take place in the U.S. city of Frisco, Texas, site of the Pan American Championships (February 26-28) and Pan American Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament (March 4-6), where finalists will secure their tickets to Brazil.
As it happens, the recently concluded national competition held in Sala Yayabo, in the Central Cuban province of Sancti Spiritus, marked the starting point on the road to Frisco, and helped clear up any doubts as to the favorites in each division.
Raúl Trujillo, head coach of the Greco-Roman discipline, explained that “quality” was the word of the day for the Cuban team (seven divisions) during the London 2012 Games, where only López secured a gold medal, his second consecutive Olympic title.
“Now we must intensify our work in the time left so that all our representatives in each one of the four divisions, not only qualifies, but does so convincingly,” stated Trujillo. The competition won’t be easy, as Venezuela’s Wuileixis Rivas (66 kg) previously defeated Miguel Martínez of Santiago de Cuba - the island’s main hope for this division - in the 2014 Toronto Pan American Games.
In the 75 kg Mexican Juan Escobar has a similar if not better record than any of our potential competitors, while in the 85 kg, Jon Anderson defeated Alan Vera 8-0 in the 2014 regional tournament. Thus Trujillo noted that Cuba’s safest bet to qualify for the Olympic Games might lie in the 98 kg division.
If so, Yasmany Lugo will be key to achieving this objective. Just like in Toronto, the 25 year old competitor from Pinar del Rio, also competed in the World Championships in Las Vegas, where he finished with one win and one loss. The irrepressible Martínez also participated in the World Championships, but failed to make it past the opening stages.
In the other two weight categories, I would bet on Yurisandi Hernández (75 kg) and Vera or Gilberto Piquet (85 kg) to complete the quartet of gold medal hopefuls who will be looking to optimize their strength and stamina - a crucial element to success.
The outlook is the same for Cuba’s female wrestlers. Despite the fact that the level of the women’s freestyle wrestling has risen greatly across the continent, only six competitors from the region qualified for the Rio Games in the Las Vegas tournament.
Given their indisputable victories over domestic rivals and notable progress seen over the course of last year, I would dare to place my bets on Yusnelis Guzmán (48 kg), Lienna de la Caridad Montero (53), Jacqueline Estornell (58), Catherine Videaux (63), Yudarys Sánchez (69) and Lisset Echevarria (75).
Guzmán was defeated 2-12 for the bronze medal by Alyssa Lampe of the U.S. during the hemispheric competition in Toronto, and will face other challenges from Colombia’s Carolina Castillo, and Thalia Mallqui of Peru all with experience in global competitions.
Pan American Champion Sánchez, from Ciego de Avila, must contend with a similar situation. In order to win one of the two tickets up for grabs to the Marvelous City she will be obliged to make use of her entire arsenal, facing Elena Pirozhkov of the U.S., Costa Rica’s Dayanara Rivera, Colombian Leidy Izquierdo, and Dorothy Yeats from Canada.
Videaux from Holguín, who competed in the London 2012 Games, will also face an equally difficult situation: “Looking toward the qualifying tournaments I must refine all the elements of my wrestling technique. Everyone knows my category is one of the most difficult at a world level, and I’m striving to make it to Rio better prepared.
“Four years have made me mature in every respect, as well as the fact that I have had more opportunities to practice in this cycle, which also helps,” noted the Guadalajara 2011 Central American Games Champion and Toronto silver medalist. Her greatest rivals going into the qualifying tournaments will be Erin Clodgo of the U.S. and Sandra Roa from Colombia, two opponents that Catherine has previously defeated.
Elio Garraway, head female team coach, rounded off the outlook, highlighting Hechevarría as one of the favorites in her weight class, while Adelina Gray of the U.S., Brazil’s Aline Ferreira and Colombian Andrea Olaya have already qualified for the global competition. “Participating in the Pan American and Pre-Olympic competitions, only a week apart, benefits us. Relying on tactics alone is our greatest weakness. Our female athletes have broadened their technical repertory and increased their stamina and strength parameters which are vital to competing in two events over such a short space of time.”
PROSPECTS LOOKING TOWARD RÍO
My favorites for the men’s free-style Olympic qualifying events are Yowlys Bonne (57 kg), Alejandro Valdés (65), Liván López (74), Reinieri Salas (86), Javier Cortina (97) and Yudennis Alpajón (125), who just like the females will face an extremely difficult challenge from many U.S. wrestlers still looking to qualify.
Wrestling coach Julio Mendieta is fully aware of the situation and regarding his pupils noted that “We are working hard in order to qualify. Yowlys Bonne, Liván López and Alejandro Valdés’ quality is evident; they have all diversified their repertories and have adopted new strategies after competing in Germany’s Bundeslig, and the Pro Wrestling League, India. Precisely in regards to the Olympic qualifiers, our best options are concentrated in the 57 kg division with Yowlys, 74 kg with Liván and 86 kg with Salas, despite the fact that the latter must finetune his weight control program.
Valdés looks solid in the 65 kg, but it will be an extremely difficult division, given that both Brent Metcalf and Aaron Pico of the U.S., Cuban born Canadian Haislan García and Franklin Gómez of Puerto Rico are also looking to qualify, while only gold and silver medalists will secure a ticket to Rio. On the other hand, the 97 kg will see Javier Cortina give everything he’s got to defeat Venezuelan José Díaz, who beat the Cuban 7-4 in the Toronto Pan American Games.”
Between tackles and throws, competition favorites and potential rivals will battle it out in March to secure those few coveted qualifying spots to Río.