IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brent Metcalf reached down to the thin strip of white athletic tape on his left hand and began to peel it away as he walked off the Olympic Trials mat inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It took Metcalf nearly two decades of scrapes, bruises and battered body parts to put himself at the top of the American freestyle wrestling ladder, only to have his greatest goal in the sport unravel Saturday morning almost as quickly as the bandage on his hand.
The former Iowa great’s three-year domestic supremacy over the 143-pound weight class came to a sudden and stunning end in the opening round when he dropped a 3-3 criteria decision to Frank Molinaro.
“The toughest thing probably for me is letting down our crowd, family supporters, really the country because I do believe I’m the best guy,” Metcalf said. “Not today. But I do believe I am.”
It was Metcalf’s first loss to a fellow American since the advent of new international rules that heightened the importance of offense and conditioning and seemed to favor the 29-year-old’s endurance and ability to wear down opponents late.
But the four-time World Team member dealt with an internal struggle as the clock ticked down in the final minute. His brain told him to stay smart and preserve a one-point lead. His gut said get a takedown and widen the gap.
“And it opened me up,” Metcalf said. “He got underneath my arms and the rest is history.”
Molinaro reeled in Metcalf’s left leg, hoisted it up near his shoulder and drove him out of bounds for a point to go ahead on criteria.
“I’ve got enough experience to know that sometimes you swallow that pride or swallow that want to really stick a dagger in the guy for a win,” Metcalf said. “But kudos to him for wresting a better tactical match and scoring when it mattered.”
The match’s highest-point value tipped the bout in Molinaro’s favor on criteria. He caught Metcalf coming in on a shot and scored a two-point exposure. Metcalf’s three points came on a push-out and two shot clock violations against Molinaro.
“I was fortunate enough to be in that match where I needed one score to win,” Molinaro said. “That’s where I’m best.”
A landslide of upsets turned the bracket backward. None of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, leaving No. 5 Logan Stieber, No. 6 Reece Humphrey, No. 7 Aaron Pico and No. 9 Molinaro to duke it out for the title.
Molinaro toppled Stieber on criteria in the semifinals and then downed Pico, winning another criteria decision in the decisive third bout in the championship series.
“That’s insane,” he said. “I can’t even believe it.”
Molinaro’s next quest is to change his title from Olympic Trials champion to Olympian. He’ll represent USA Wrestling later this month at the Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Mongolia.
Meanwhile, Metcalf will sort through Saturday’s performance and evaluate his future in the sport.
His voice cracked and his eyes watered as he sat in the podium inside the Carver-Hawkeye Arena interview room and rehashed his tournament, which ended with a 9-7 consolation loss to Jayson Ness. He turns 30 in July and this was his third crack at the Trials. There aren’t many Americans who hang around long enough for a fourth cycle.
“Ideally, I think you go do the things you want to do and you can sleep at night,” Metcalf said a couple weeks ago when he pondered a question about whether his career would continue into the next cycle. “Where I’m at right now, I don’t know if I can sleep very well at night.
“I want to be the best in the world. I want to be the Olympic champion, but I want to be the best in the world, whether that’s at the Olympic Games or World Championships. If worst case becomes worst case, I don’t know if I can hang it up right now just because I don’t feel banged up. I come in every day feeling like I’m 24.”
Metcalf was non-committal Saturday when asked about the future.
“I’ve got to figure out why the guy who wrestled today isn’t really the guy I am,” he said. “If I could change that and get back to smart, strong, stingy, they shoot (and) I score, I shoot (and) I score, Gable philosophy, just tighten it up and go win, then I can certainly have what I want. Or maybe it’s not in the cards and it’s something I’ll have to come to face with.”