IOWA CITY, Ia. — Alli Ragan walks into the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex and smiles at her teammates. It’s a Wednesday in late August, 18 days before the 2019 world championships. Both Kayla Miracle and Forrest Molinari are already on the mat, stretching on foam rollers.
Off to the side, Tom Brands smiles. The Iowa wrestling coach has watched all three from up close for a year now. They are, he says, among the fiercest competitors he’s ever seen.
“They belong here,” says Brands, who will enter his 14th year as Iowa’s coach this winter. “Terry Steiner (the U.S. women’s national team coach and former Iowa wrestler) said it best: They’re the same. They’ve motivated the same. They’re ornery, and they love wrestling.
“Sometimes, wrestlers find a way to avoid the mat. They find a way to get on the mat.”
That dedication is one of the many reasons why all three Hawkeye Wrestling Club members will rep the red, white and blue. The Senior World Championships begin this weekend and run all next week in Kazakhstan. Ragan, Miracle and Molinari make up the middle of a talented U.S. women’s freestyle lineup that could contend with perennial power Japan for the team title.
All three are among the country’s most credentialed competitors. They all won U.S. Open titles in April — Ragan at 59 kilograms (130 pounds), Miracle at 62 kilos (136), Molinari at 65 (143) — then qualified for this year’s world team at the same weights two months later. Ragan and Molinari will compete on Wednesday and Thursday. Miracle will go Thursday and Friday.
‘I want to win the gold medal’
Miracle has long sought this opportunity. As a collegian at Campbellsville in Kentucky, she won four national titles. She’s made eight other age-level world teams in USA Wrestling’s developmental system. For a time last year, she was ranked No. 1 in the world.
Many figured she’d be a key piece in the continual rise of the country's women’s freestyle program, but for the past two years, she sat behind other world-class competitors.
In 2017, Miracle finished behind Helen Maroulis in the world team process. Maroulis, the U.S.’ first Olympic gold medalist in women’s freestyle wrestling, won a world title that summer in Paris.
Then, last year, Miracle qualified for Final X, now the final stage of USA Wrestling’s world team trials operation. But after winning the first match, she lost two straight to Mallory Velte, who took home a world bronze medal in Budapest, Hungary.
Both times, Miracle made the trip as a workout partner. Each time, she envisioned how she might fare against the competition. A cautious confidence bloomed.
“I thought, 'You know, I can do well here — like win this tournament,'” Miracle recalls. “Then after watching last year, I was like, 'Wow, I’m right there.'
“So it was a matter of getting over that hump and making the team, so I could go prove it.”
Miracle cleared that hurdle this year. Now 23, she stormed through domestic competition en route to a second-straight Final X matchup against Velte. She swept the series to make her first Senior world team.
In many ways, this year’s world championships is the first step toward the 2020 Olympics. In Kazakhstan, 10 weights will compete in all three styles — men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle, Greco-Roman — but in Olympic years, the number of weights shrinks to six per style.
In women’s freestyle, 62 kilos is an Olympic weight. If Miracle finishes in the top five, she’ll automatically qualify the U.S. to compete in Tokyo next summer. If she wins a medal, she earns a bye to the finals of the Olympic Trials, set for April 4-5 in State College, Penn.
Added pressure? Maybe a little, Miracle acknowledges. But her goal isn’t just to qualify the weight or win a medal. She wants to stand atop the podium.
“I want to win a medal, and I want to win the gold medal,” she says. “Qualifying for the finals of the trials? That’s an added added bonus.
“I’m going to do what I know I can do, then good things will follow.”
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‘I’ve been waiting a whole year to get back out there’
When Molinari returned from Budapest last summer, she didn’t talk much.
In her first appearance at the world championships, she reached the quarterfinals, where she lost to Danielle Lappage, the eventual silver medalist from Canada. She battled through the repechage to wrestle for bronze, but ultimately lost to Azerbaijan’s Irina Netreba.
By most accounts, it was a strong performance. Fifth in the world in her first time on that stage? The future looked bright. But Molinari wasn’t having it. It burns just thinking about it, she says, even now.
“For a long time, I just didn’t talk about it because I would get so angry,” she continues. “I’ve been waiting a whole year to get back out there.”
The 24-year-old has used last year’s performance as fuel. She won the U.S. Open in April, won the always-tough Yasar Dogu in Turkey in July, took third at the Dan Kolov in Bulgaria and placed fifth at the Ivan Yarygin in Russia. She enters this week as the No. 1 overall seed at 65 kilos, a non-Olympic weight (she plans on moving up to 68 next year).
What’s more, Molinari stormed through a field full of up-and-coming women’s freestylers to make the team again this year, defeating the likes of Macey Kilty, a 2018 Cadet world champion and two-time Junior world silver medalist, and Maya Nelson, a 2017 Junior world champion.
Molinari beat Nelson at Final X in June, where she rallied to win two straight matches after dropping the first. The experience reinforced the value of refocusing after a slip-up, something that will be crucial at the world championships.
“We talk a lot about refocusing, but actually having to do it in a situation like that, that was good for me,” Molinari says. “It was good that I had tough competition to make the team. That pushed me to keep working and not just go through the motions.
“I’ve been working on getting ready so that I can show my best self when I get out there. I don’t think I showed my best self at the last world championships. I’m just ready to get out there, you know?”
‘They’re pretty extraordinary’
Ragan has been in this situation before. She is one of the most decorated competitors on this year’s women’s world team — a 3-time U.S. Open champ, 7-time world team member, 2-time world silver medalist, and 3-time age-level world medalist. She is 27 years old.
But last summer, she had to watch from afar as her team went to war without her.
After winning Final X last year, Ragan pulled out of the world championship because of a serious neck injury. She underwent surgery to fix herniated discs. Doctors feared that if she had continued to wrestle, she could’ve suffered paralysis.
Ragan says the time away from the mat was good. It allowed her body to heal — she’d competed at some level of world championships every summer since 2011 — and her mind to recalibrate. She admits that, in each of her previous two trips to the world finals, she maybe wasn’t ready to win a world title, and more in awe of the moment.
“Did I believe that I could be (Japan’s Risako Kawai)? No,” Ragan says. “That was a big thing going into that finals match. It was more, ‘Hey, I’m wrestling last year’s Olympic champion.’ I didn’t really believe I could win. Now, I’m ready to win and prove to myself.
“The break was needed. When you love something and it gets taken from you, you find that hunger again.”
She was hardly challenged domestically this year en route to another world team berth. Throughout the process, Ragan outscored her six foes 55-2, with one pin and five technical falls — including twice over Hawkeye Wrestling Club teammate Lauren Louive at Final X.
The redemption story will continue in Kazakhstan, where Ragan is considered one of the favorites at 59 kilos (another non-Olympic weight; she plans on dropping to 57 next year). She will be joined by her teammates, who are all chasing the sport’s ultimate glory one step at a time.
“They’re very confident,” Brands says. “But in wrestling, there’s always things that hold you back — barriers, demons, that sort of stuff. I think they all have done a good job of putting their demons aside.
“These women articulate resiliency when they talk. They get over things that stand in the way of normal people. They’re not normal. They’re pretty extraordinary.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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