Austin DeSanto continues rapid Senior freestyle ascent with runner-up finish at U.S. Open

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Austin DeSanto’s emergence on the U.S. freestyle scene shouldn’t be a surprise, but it has been pretty impressive to watch.

The latest example came at this week's Senior men’s freestyle national championships, part of USA Wrestling’s U.S. Open events in Las Vegas. DeSanto, a three-time All-American wrestler for Iowa, finished second at 61 kilograms (134 pounds).

The result puts DeSanto firmly in the conversation when it comes to USA Wrestling’s Senior world team. While winning the U.S. Open would’ve been a huge boost to his odds, he’s clearly on the cusp and should be considered a legit contender.

The 24-year-old went 4-1 to reach the finals as the 5-seed. He outscored his first four opponents 30-4 during Thursday’s preliminary rounds — including a stunning 12-0 technical fall over Joe Colon, a past world bronze medalist, and a gritty 5-4 semifinal win over Seth Gross, a past NCAA champ and 2022 U.S. world team member.

Austin DeSanto, a three-time All-American for Iowa, reached the finals of the Senior men's freestyle national championships on Thursday at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open in Las Vegas.

DeSanto’s run came to a screeching halt in the finals. Cornell standout Vito Arujau rolled up DeSanto for a 10-0 technical fall to win the weight, securing his spot in Final X, the final step of USA Wrestling’s Senior world team trials process. Arujau, a past Junior world silver medalist, is on a warpath, winning an NCAA title in March and the U.S. Open this week.

But DeSanto’s quick freestyle ascent was solidified with his U.S. Open results.

While at Iowa, he was almost exclusively a folkstyle competitor. But after COVID-19 shut down sports for a while, he was part of the Iowa contingent that competed at the 2020 U23 and Junior national championships. He went 4-2 and took fourth that weekend. Both losses were largely due to a major lack of freestyle savvy.

After graduating from the Iowa program, DeSanto went all-in, and over the last calendar year, he’s shown some promising results that suggest he’ll be a freestyle force for years to come:

  • July 2022, at the Waclaw Ziolkowski Memorial International in Poland: went 2-1 and won bronze, including a 10-0 win over Daniel DeShazer, a U.S. Senior national team member;
  • November 2022, at the Bill Farrell Memorial International in New York: went 3-1 and won bronze, with three shutout wins and his only loss coming via a 6-6 criteria defeat to Ukraine’s Andriy Yatsunko, a 2017 world bronze medalist;
  • January 2023, at the Henri Deglane Grand Prix in France: 3-0 for gold, including an incredible 14-13 semifinal win over past NCAA champ Nahshon Garrett, where he rallied from down 10-2 to prevail;
  • February 2023, at the Ibrahim Moustafa tournament in Egypt: 3-1 for bronze, where he notched a 17-6 win over Kyrgyzstan’s Uulukbek Zholdoshbekov, a 2020 Asian champ.

All of that teed up DeSanto’s sensational U.S. Open run. His recorded a technical fall over Colon in just under two minutes, and he built a 5-0 lead on Gross before holding off his furious comeback — a trademark trait of his Senior world team run last year.

None of this should come as a huge surprise. DeSanto’s wrestling style, a fast-paced, hard-charging, in-your-face, rack-up-points-in-bunches approach, always made him an intriguing freestyle prospect, but not every strong folkstyle wrestler makes that transition as seamlessly as DeSanto has over the last calendar year.

What’s next for DeSanto? Presumably the world team trials challenge tournament, set for May 20 in Colorado. Win that, and he’ll advance to Final X, set for June 10 in New Jersey, where he’d get another crack at Arujau in a best-of-three series format for a spot on USA Wrestling’s Senior men's freestyle world team.

Considering how far he’s come in a seemingly short time, don’t count him out from another strong performance and to make a serious push for the world team — both this year and into the future.

Austin DeSanto, a three-time All-American for Iowa, made the finals of the Senior men's freestyle national championships at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events in Las Vegas.

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Spencer Lee won his first three matches, then medically withdrew

The return of Spencer Lee — his first competition since his stunning NCAA semifinal loss and his first freestyle competition since December 2019 — was one of the main draws of the entire Senior men's freestyle competition this week. His return lasted all of three matches before he medically withdrew.

Lee, the 2-seed at 57 kilos (125), won his first three matches — a 26-second technical fall; a 53-second technical fall; a 9-4 quarterfinal win over Nebraska's Caleb Smith — then withdrew from the competition ahead of his highly-anticipated semifinal matchup against Nick Suriano, who he beat in the 2018 NCAA finals.

Lee's father, Larry, told FloWrestling that Lee pulled out because he was "physically unable to continue," which hints at an injury. "We knew entering the U.S. Open was a push, in terms of timing," Larry continued, before adding: "He's not 100% … coming into the Open, he wasn't 100%."

That effectively ends Lee's 2023 freestyle season. In order to make the Senior world team this year, he had to win the U.S. Open, per USA Wrestling's world team process. Doing so would've qualified him for Final X, where he would've faced Thomas Gilman, a former Hawkeye and returning world silver medalist, in a best-of-three series for the world team spot. Zane Richards ultimately beat Suriano in the finals and will wrestle Gilman in June.

Lee's next opportunity may not be until December, when USA Wrestling will host another Senior-level national tournament to serve as a qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Trials, set for April 19-20, 2024 at Penn State. Here's hoping he can be 100% healthy, or as close as physically possible, by then.

Spencer Lee, a three-time NCAA champ for Iowa, reached the semifinals in the Senior men's freestyle national tournament on Thursday night at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open in Las Vegas. Lee injury-defaulted from his semifinal match.

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More notes/observations from Senior Men's Freestyle at the U.S. Open:

  • Joe Colon rebounded from that quarterfinal loss to DeSanto to finish 5th at 61-kg. He finished 5-2 overall.
  • Jaydin Eierman made his freestyle return at 70 kilos (154) and reached the quarterfinals and finished 5-2 overall for 7th.
  • Alex Marinelli finished 5-2 overall and took 4th at 79 kilos (174). He reached the quarterfinals, then won three in a row in the wrestlebacks to reach the third-place match. Both losses came to David McFadden, a three-time All-American for Virginia Tech.
  • Michael Kemerer also went 5-2 at 79 kilos, finishing 5th. His run included a 9-4 win over Nelson Brands in the Round-of-16 (scored 9 unanswered in the second period to win) and a 10-9 win over Taylor Lujan in the wrestlebacks to reach the top-six.
  • Lujan, a former Northern Iowa wrestler, finished 4-2 and took 7th at 79 kilos. Loaded weight. Like Kemerer and Marinelli, he also reached the quarterfinals, but lost to eventual finalist Alex Dieringer.
  • John Gunderson, a current Northern Iowa wrestler, went 3-3 overall and finished 8th at 92 kilos (202). In the seventh-place match, he dropped a 7-6 decision to Cornell's Jacob Cardenas, an All-American this past season and U23 world silver medalist last year. Not bad for UNI's second-year wrestler.
  • Ben Kueter's Senior-level debut lasted all of one match — but it was a victory, a gritty 12-8 win over Malik McDonald, where Kueter rallied from down 8-6 with six unanswered points in the final minute while dealing with an ankle injury. Kueter then medically-defaulted from the tournament ahead of his quarterfinal match. McDonald, meanwhile, came through the wrestlebacks to finished 8th, so a pretty good win for Kueter overall.

UNI wrestling's Wyatt Voelker wins Junior Greco-Roman national title

Friday's U.S. Open schedule included the entire Junior Greco-Roman competition — and there were plenty wrestlers with Iowa ties who earned All-American honors.

Wyatt Voelker, a two-time state champ from West Delaware who's now at Northern Iowa, was the leading star, winning the Junior greco title at 87 kilos (191). Voelker went 4-0 with 4 technical falls and outscored his opponents 41-6, capped by a decisive 11-2 technical fall over Stanford wrestler Jack Darrah in the finals.

Voelker was joined by Sawyer Bartelt, a current member of Iowa State's 2024 recruiting class who won the Junior greco title at 97 kilos (213). The Florida native went 4-0 with 3 technical falls and an emphatic finals pin over Illinois wrestler Joey Braunagel. Bartelt outscored his four opponents 38-8.

As a result, both advance directly to the best-of-three finals at the Junior world team trials, set for June 2-4 in Ohio. They'll face the winners of the respective challenge tournaments that weekend in a best-of-three series for a spot on USA Wrestling's Junior world team.

Northern Iowa wrestler Wyatt Voelker took first at the Junior Greco-Roman national championships on Friday at USA Wrestling's U.S. Open events in Las Vegas.

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More notes/observations from Junior Greco-Roman at the U.S. Open:

  • Blake Gioimo, an incoming Iowa State recruit from Cedar Rapids Prairie, went 3-3 and finished 8th at 55 kilos (121) — which is mighty impressive considering he once claimed to hate greco and thought he was bad at it.
  • Cory Land, Voelker's teammate at Northern Iowa, made the Junior greco finals at 60 kilos (132), but lost by fall to Max Black, a returning Junior world-teamer and 2022 U.S. Open runner-up. Land appeared to injure his knee during the pinning sequence, too. Here's hoping he's OK.
  • Gable Porter, an incoming Virginia recruit from Underwood, went 4-2 and took 7th in that same 60-kilos bracket. He and Land could've met in the semifinals, but Porter dropped his quarterfinal match and rallied from an All-American finish.
  • Dylan Whitt, a Cedar Falls grad who's now at Grand View, went 5-3 and took 6th at 72 kilos (158), winning four in a row after a Round-of-16 loss to climb back into the top-six.
  • Hunter Garvin, an Iowa City West grad now at Stanford, went 4-2 and took 4th at 77 kilos (169). Garvin, a credentialed greco wrestler and strong advocate for the style, lost to Northern Colorado's Derek Matthews, the eventual champ, in the semifinals, then rallied for a top-four finsih.
  • Kasey Ross, an Urbandale grad who went to Wisconsin-Platteville, went 5-2 and finished 7th at 82 kilos (180). After a Round-of-16 loss, Ross won three consecutive matches in the wrestlebacks to finish on the podium.
  • Tate Naaktgeboren, another incoming Cyclone from Linn-Mar, took 3rd at 87 kilos. He was the 2-seed, and had designs on meeting Voelker in the finals, but dropped his semifinal match to Darrah, 9-5. Naaktgeboren rallied for bronze and finished 4-1 overall.
  • Jackson Dewald, a state champ for Westwood who is headed to Air Force, went 5-2 and took fourth at 97 kilos. After dropping his quarterfinal match, Dewald, a finalist at this same tournament last year, won three in a row to reach the top-four.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.