After a nearly three-month saga that started with a controversial officials’ review at Final X Rutgers in June and then the nullification of that match a month later, former Penn State wrestling standout Zain Retherford finally learned his fate Monday.
The three-time NCAA champion will — indeed — represent Team USA at the World Wrestling Championships Sept. 14-22 in Kazakhstan. This is Retherford’s second world team, having also represented Team USA in 2017, while still at Penn State.
Retherford held on to the 65-kilogram spot he initially believed he earned back in June by defeating Cornell wrestler Yianni Diakomihalis 3-1 on Labor Day in one match at a soldout gym at Wilkes University — about 40 minutes away from Retherford’s former high school in Benton.
“I almost started tearing up when I got out there on the stand,” Retherford told reporters after the match. “I don’t usually get emotional, but I just know half my town’s here. Just hearing them scream brought back a lot of memories, and I’m just really grateful for it.”
Match details: Defense and scrambling ability were on display for Retherford, who needed to win just one out of two matches Monday to secure his spot. Retherford got in on the first shot — a low double — but didn’t finish. His corner, consisting of Penn State and Nittany Lion Wrestling Club coaches Cael Sanderson, Casey Cunningham and Cody Sanderson, threw the brick. The challenge failed and Diakomihalis got on the board first with a point.
Diakomihalis then went on the offensive, taking a shot of his own. Retherford fought him off and earned two points off exposure in the process. The period ended with Retherford leading 2-1.
Retherford continued to show his defensive ability when he got in deep on a re-attack. Diakomihalis threw in a whizzer and tried to pass behind Retherford, but Retherford was able to hold him off in the scramble until a stalemate was called. Retherford got in on another single, but wasn’t able to convert. His final point was earned off a penalty against Diakomihalis.
Retherford held on to win 3-1, and the crowd erupted. Many of Retherford’s former Penn State teammates were in the stands to show their support, including fellow Hodge Trophy winner Bo Nickal, who Retherford said leaped out of his seat and jumped up and down once that final whistle blew.
Ready for World Championships: Despite all the back and forth over the past few months, Retherford says he’s ready for Kazakhstan in just a few weeks.
“If the World Championships were today, I think I’d be ready,” Retherford said. “Yianni’s a great competitor. He’s been knocking off the best guys in the world, week after week. So I think if I can beat a guy like that, I’m ready to go.”
Not counting the second Final X match, Retherford and Diakomihalis are now 2-2 in what has quickly become arguably the best rivalry in U.S. senior-level freestyle wrestling this summer. The rising Cornell junior, who has said he’ll be taking an Olympic redshirt this coming season, took the first match between the pair on criteria 4-4 in the U.S. Open final in April. Retherford then took first at the World Team Trials a few weeks later to set up the Final X matchup in June.
The controversy: The first of the best-of-three series was won 10-4 by Retherford. The second match is where the controversy came into play. The final whistle blew with Diakomihalis on top by two points. Retherford’s corner threw the brick, the officials ended up reversing an earlier call, and the former Nittany Lion ended up winning on criteria, 6-6.
Clearly unhappy with the call, Diakomihalis’ camp, led by Cornell head coach and State College native Rob Koll, petitioned to have the call reviewed in an arbitration hearing. The ruling came out in Diakomilahis’ favor, setting up Monday’s rematch.
During that time, however, the two continued to compete. Both Retherford and Diakomihalis went to the Yasar Dogu tournament in Turkey, which can help determine rankings for the World Championships.
With the random draw, the pair hit in the first round. Diakomihalis won that match 9-5, while Retherford appeared to limp off the mat and medically forfeited out of the rest of the tournament. Diakomihalis ended up winning gold.
Retherford angry: After Monday’s match, Retherford chalked his poor performance in Turkey up to the anger he was feeling with how the whole process was developing.
“I wasn’t excited. I was angry,” he said. “You’re not having fun when you’re angry, and it makes it hard to score points and wrestle your style.”
Retherford has not competed since then, pulling out of the Pan America Games, where most of the rest of his Team USA teammates competed. Meanwhile, Diakomihalis continued to compete internationally, winning the Ziolkowski Memorial tournament in Poland.
During that time between Turkey and waiting to hear the results of the arbitration, Retherford said he changed his mindset and stopped worrying about outside things he couldn’t control, electing to just focus on himself, being grateful for his opportunity and having fun.
“I think he’s excited,” former Nittany Lion and defending World Champion David Taylor told the CDT in August. “There’s a lot of things you can’t control and there’s a lot of things you can control. Unfortunately in this situation, you got to control what you can. He can control his attitude, and he’s got a great one. He’s ready to go out there and wrestle and earn the spot and represent the United States and win a world medal.”
PSU streak continues: Taylor will not be defending his 86 kg world title this year due to injury. With Retherford officially making the team, Penn State continues its streak of having former Nittany Lions on four consecutive world or Olympic teams, with Taylor last year, Retherford in 2017, and Frank Molinaro on the 2016 Olympic team.
With all the uncertainty of the arbitration and consequential rematch behind him, Retherford said he’s back to just having fun with wrestling — just like he did at Penn State.
“Every time I stepped out in a Penn State singlet, it was fun,” he said. “Life short, enjoy it.
“This was an awesome moment.”