How Aaron Brooks Survived a Gauntlet, Beat David Taylor and Qualified for the Summer Olympics

Brooks capped a "grueling" weekend to defeat Taylor, the three-time world champ, at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials at Penn State.
Aaron Brooks (left) wrestles David Taylor in the 86 kg freestyle final at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College.
Aaron Brooks (left) wrestles David Taylor in the 86 kg freestyle final at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College. / Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

STATE COLLEGE | After his breathtaking win late Friday night at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials, Aaron Brooks put on sweats and went to the treadmill. He spent nearly 3 more hours at the Bryce Jordan Center running and sweating in the sauna. Brooks lost 12 pounds before going to bed at 2 a.m. He got up at 6 a.m. for Saturday's weigh-ins. And then he might have changed USA Wrestling.

Brooks, Penn State's recently crowned four-time NCAA champ, swept fellow Penn State legend David Taylor in their 86 kg freestyle championship series to earn a bid to the Summer Olympics. Instead of Taylor, the three-time world champ and defending 86 kg Olympic gold medalist, Brook will represent Team USA in Paris. And Brooks delivered the seismic moment on his home turf, where he and Taylor thrilled Nittany Lions fans in winning a combined six NCAA titles.

So after defeating Taylor 3-1 on Saturday night to sweep their best-of-three series, Brooks told his Nittany Lions Wrestling Club teammate that he loves him. Then he celebrated what might have been a torch-passing.

"He's one of the first guys to make this program what it is," Brooks said of Taylor. "It's been a blessing being around him."

Two former Penn State wrestlers won their weight classes at the two-day Trials in State College, with one still having to earn an Olympic bid. Zain Retherford defeated former Nittany Lion Nick Lee in the 65 kg freestyle weight class and will compete in Turkey in May to qualify the U.S. for Paris in that class. In addition, NLWC resident athletes Kyle Snyder (74 kg) and Kyle Dake (97 kg) won their championship series to earn return Olympic bids. In total, five wrestlers from the NLWC made the U.S. Olympic Team, and eight of the 12 men's freestyle finalists represented the club. But no final harnessed Penn State's wrestling power more than the 86 kg final.

Aaron Brooks celebrates after defeating David Taylor in the 86 kg weight class at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Aaron Brooks celebrates after defeating David Taylor in the 86 kg weight class at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials at the Bryce Jordan Center. / Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

Taylor was the favorite. As the defending world champ, he didn't have to wrestle until Saturday's championship series. Meanwhile, Brooks labored through a Friday gauntlet in which he won three comeback bouts, including a 7-6 decision over Zahid Valencia. Brooks trailed 6-3 with 25 seconds remaining before scoring four unanswered points, the last on a controversial penalty.

After that bout, which ended at close to 11 p.m., Brooks went straight to the training room to cut weight. Surrounded by fellow Penn State four-time champ Carter Starocci, coach Bo Nickal and friend David Carr (who won an NCAA title with him in Kansas City in March), Brooks spent nearly three hours sweating off 12 pounds he had gained rehydrating Friday. He barely slept before returning to the Bryce Jordan Center for an 8 a.m. weigh-in.

"It’s a war," Brooks said. "That's why the Lord is with me. All tournament, I'm praying for Him to strengthen me, because without Him, the stuff we go through is pretty gruesome."

Brooks made his first seismic move in the afternoon session, scoring two takedowns in a 4-1 victory over Taylor. Brooks has proven so difficult to score upon; he didn't allow a takedown during Penn State's dual-meet season or the postseason. In both bouts Saturday, Taylor took aggressive shots, which Brooks countered. In fact, in the evening bout, Taylor scored his takedown by countering a Taylor shot with a quick counter move.

Last year, Taylor swept Brooks in the U.S. qualifier for the world championships, a tournament that gave Brooks both confidence and an education. Taylor won the first bout 6-0, but Brooks tested him in a 5-4 loss in Round 2. From that, Brooks studied how to attack Taylor and turned it loose Saturday.

The evening bout was a spectacle. The Bryce Jordan Center played Taylor and Brooks onto the mat with "The Lion King." The crowd, shining their cell-phone flashlights, slow-burned through the start and gasped when Brooks scored his takedown. Dallas Cowboys defensive star Micah Parsons sat matside. About the only person not watching matside was Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, who coached both wrestlers in college and with the NLWC.

"It's tough for him," Brooks said of Sanderson's absence for the match. "He's got two guys going againt eath other. If I'm in that situation, I'd probably do the same thing."

Brooks and Taylor didn't train together before the Trials ("Out of respect," Brooks said) in case they met in the championship series. After winning, Brooks continued paying his respects.

"I don't have to say who he is," Brooks said. "... He's world-class. He brings the best out of everyone he wrestles."

RELATED: Could Carter Starocci return for a fifth season at Penn State?

Zain Retherford tops a "brother" to win at 65 kg

Zain Retherford, a 2023 world champ at 70 kg, earned his first Olympic team nomination by sweeping an all-Penn State championship series. The three-time NCAA champ defeated Nick Lee 2-1 and 5-0 in the 65 kg freestyle final. However, Retherford hasn't qualified for the Olympics just yet. Since the U.S. isn't qualified for Paris at 65 kg, Retherford must compete in a last-chance qualifier in Turkey in May. A top-three finish gets Retherford to his first Olympics.

But to put himself in that position, Retherford had to beat Lee, his long-time training partner and one-time roommate at Penn State.

"It is tough," Retherford said. "Nick Lee is a brother to me. We were roommates his freshman year when he was an All-American [in 2018]. He's just a great human being. It's the unfortunate part of having six weight classes [in Olympic freestyle wrestling]. We butt heads. But nothing but love for Nick Lee. He'll always be a brother to me."

NLWC's Kyle Snyder returns to the Olympics

Kyle Snyder, a resident athlete at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, qualified for his third U.S. Olympic team with a sweep of Isaac Trumble at 97 kg freestyle. Snyder, a three-time world champ and 2016 Olympic champ, controlled both ends of the championship series, winning 5-0 and 4-0. Snyder, joined the NLWC in 2019 and now wrestles for coach Jake Varner, whom he defeated in 2015 on his way to becoming the youngest American to win a world title.

Penn State's Mark Hall retires

Mark Hall, a 2017 NCAA champ and three-time All-American at Penn State, concluded his career at home. After falling to Trent Hidlay in the 86 kg consolation round, Hall took off his wrestling shoes and left them on the mat, signifying his retirement. Hall is an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania.

AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich.

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Mark Wogenrich

MARK WOGENRICH

Mark Wogenrich is Editor and Publisher of AllPennState, the site for Penn State news on SI's FanNation Network. He has covered Penn State sports for more than two decades across three coaching staffs and three Rose Bowls.