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Kennard-Dale grad John Stefanowicz reflects on 'frustrating' Olympic wrestling loss

STEVE HEISER
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  • John Stefanowicz has been eliminated from the Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling competition.
  • The Kennard-Dale High School graduate lost his opening match, 5-3.
  • In that match, a couple questionable calls went against Stefanowicz.

“Frustrating.”

That’s the word that John Stefanowicz used to describe his one-and-done experience at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The Kennard-Dale High School graduate saw his gold-medal dreams dashed late Monday evening (Eastern Daylight Time) when he suffered a 5-3 loss to Croatia’s Ivan Huklek in his opening-round match in the 87-kilogram (192-pound) weight class in Greco-Roman wrestling — a sport that only permits upper-body moves.

The 30-year-old Marine staff sergeant fell behind 5-0 in the first period on a couple of calls that were termed questionable by the announcers on the Olympic Channel.

He was denied one point for allegedly jumping an official's whistle. He then lost two more points on a move by Huklek where Stefanowicz appeared to be out of bounds.

“It is what it is,” Stefanowicz said in a post-match interview posted on FloWrestling. “But It’s really hard to swallow. At the end of it, when you know you’re physically, I felt, superior in every single way. … It’s frustrating.”

Stefanowicz rallied in the second period, registering a passivity point and adding two more points on a gut-wrench move, but he could get no closer.

United States' John Walter Stefanowicz, right, competes against Croatia's Ivan Huklek during the men's 87kg Greco-Roman wrestling match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Chiba, Japan. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Stefanowicz needed Huklek to advance all the way to the gold-medal match. If that happened, Stefanowicz would have had an opportunity to wrestle for a bronze medal through the repechage bracket.

Huklek did go on to win his quarterfinal match over Rustam Asskalov of Uzbekistan, 4-1, early Tuesday morning (EDT). However, Huklek lost his semifinal match to Ukraine's Zhan Beleniuk later on Tuesday morning (EDT), 7-1, which ended Stefanowicz's Olympic journey.

“I take extreme ownership for this. Unfortunately, things don’t work out … no one to blame, no one to point fingers at. We had everything we could’ve asked for,” Stefanowicz said. “… we had a great team and a great support system.”

Unlikely wrestling journey: Despite his disappointment after his elimination, Stefanowicz tried to maintain his perspective while reflecting on his unlikely wrestling journey that saw him mature from a 5-foot, 3-inch 125-pound high school wrestler who couldn’t even qualify for the PIAA state tournament to becoming an world-class performer. After leaving the southern York County school, Stefanowicz joined the Marines and enjoyed a significant growth spurt, adding nearly 70 pounds of muscle to his frame.

“The sun’s going to come up tomorrow,” he said. “My kids are still going to love me tomorrow. My wife’s still going to love me. Family’s still going to be there.”

Kennard-Dale High grad John Stefanowicz gets sendoff from family, friends before Olympics

Training during a pandemic: Stefanowicz also discussed reaching the pinnacle of his sport while training during a world-wide pandemic that significantly altered his workout regimen — and also changed his weight class. Before the pandemic, Stefanowicz was competing in the 82-kilogram (181-pound) class and was trending toward competing in the 77-kilogram (170-pound) division.

“The world came to an end for what seemed like an eternity,” he said of the pandemic. “We tried to learn how to train differently than we’ve ever trained before. That’s been a grind, but it’s been a grind for everybody, though. Definitely not an excuse, but it's something we’ve all had to deal with in our own ways. I went from having a few (kilograms) to go to be 77, and then a few months before (Olympic) team trials, coach says, ‘hey, we’re going 87.’ Boom, go, that’s it. So, we hit the floor running, hit the ground running, for something else. I would have not gotten this far, or anywhere near a fraction of this amount of success, if it weren’t for him. So, I don’t question those calls. And he made the right call.”

Return to Olympics? Stefanowicz also didn’t appear to close the door on trying for another Olympic berth in 2024 in Paris, when he would be 33.

“My goal here is to do my best and bring my craft back to the states and improve the next squad. Whatever I do, all I need is a little bit more. So I’m going to do everything in my power for the next three years to do that, whether it means I’m still able to compete, or whether it means I’m sculpting the next person to take over and get on the podium. It’s going to be what it’s going to be and I’m going to be there for it.”

His background: Stefanowicz entered the Olympic event unseeded. He’s a two-time Pan American champion and has won numerous medals at the Armed Forces Championships. He came in ranked No. 4 in his weight class by United World Wrestling and was not projected by The Associated Press to earn a medal.

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Stefanowicz’s brother is Chance Marsteller, who enjoyed a legendary wrestling career at Kennard-Dale, going 166-0 in high school and winning four state championships. Marsteller, who was later an NCAA Division I All-American, also attempted to qualify for the Olympic Games in freestyle wrestling, but he fell short.

Stefanowicz was the second York County athlete to compete in the Tokyo Games. Swimmer Hali Flickinger, a Spring Grove High School graduate, won a pair of bronze medals in the 400-meter individual medley and the 200-meter butterfly.

Both Flickinger and Stefanowicz were hoping to become the first athletes from York County to earn an Olympic gold medal since Dover's Scott Strausbaugh won the two-man canoe slalom with partner Joe Jacobi at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

Reach Steve Heiser at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.