Penn State's Zain Retherford Completes Dramatic Run to the Olympics

Retherford rallies to win four matches at World Olympics Games Qualifier in Turkey to earn a trip to Paris.
Zain Retherford, a three-time NCAA wrestling champ at Penn State, qualified for the 2024 Summer Olympics in the 65 kg freestyle weight class.
Zain Retherford, a three-time NCAA wrestling champ at Penn State, qualified for the 2024 Summer Olympics in the 65 kg freestyle weight class. / Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

Zain Retherford, Penn State's three-time NCAA wrestling champ who nearly retired from the sport last winter, is going to the 2024 Summer Olympics. And he qualified in about the most dramatic way possible.

Retherford won four consecutive matches Sunday at the World Olympics Games Qualifier in Istanbul, placing third in the 65 kg freestyle weight class and clinching his trip to Paris. In the process, Retherford assured that USA Wrestling will send a full field of six men's freestyle wrestlers to the Olympics, with four of those competitors representing the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Retherford joins Aaron Brooks, Penn State's four-time NCAA champ; Kyle Snyder, a three-time world champ and 2016 Olympic champion who joined the NLWC in 2019; and Kyle Dake, a four-time NCAA champ at Cornell who joined the NLWC in 2022.

Retherford, 28, confronted a long and grueling road to the Olympics, one he initially didn't plan on taking. Last winter, Retherford considered retiring from wrestling. He won a 2023 world freestyle title at 70 kg but faced dropping to 65 kg for the Olympics, which sponsors four fewer freestyle weight classes than international competition. Retherford had accepted a job in December with ABR Dynamic Funds, a New York investment firm, and told his coaches at the NLWC that his wrestling career likely was over.

But the NLWC staff devised a training and weight-management plan for Retherford with which he felt comfortable to prepare for an Olympic run. Retherford won the 65 kg weight class at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials in State College, defeating NLWC teammate Nick Lee in the best-of-three finals. Lee then accompanied Retherford to Istanbul as a training partner for the last-chance Olympics qualifier.

RELATED: Penn State's Zain Retherford changes mind on retirement, wins U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials

Since the U.S. had not qualified the 65 kg freestyle weight class for the Olympics, Retherford would have to place among the top three in Istanbul to make the Olympics. His tournament nearly ended Saturday after a 7-2 loss to Tumur Ochir of Mongolia in the round of 16. Ochir, who hit a 4-point takedown with 30 seconds left in the bout, could have ended Retherford's career there. But Ochir then helped the former Penn State star by winning his next two bouts to reach the semifinals. Ochir's wins allowed Retherford to continue wrestling in the repechage rounds Sunday. Retherford had to go 4-0 to make the Olympics.

Which is what he did. Retherford defeated wrestlers from Bahrain, Tajikistan, India and Belarus in a four-hour span to finish third at the qualifier. He won his first bout by fall and his third bout in dramatic fashion, a 2-2 criteria victory. Trailing India's Sujeet Sujeet 2-0 in the second period, Retherford scored by countering a shot and defended from there for the win. Retherford punctuated his 4-0 day with a dominating 7-0 victory over Niurgun Skriabin, competing as an Individual Neutral Athlete, in the qualifying match.

"I’m just giving my all to this," the 28-year-old Retherford said at the U.S. Olympic Trials. "... I'm just grateful for every opportunity I have and I'm making the most of it."

Watch Retherford's post-tournament interview, courtesy of USA Wrestling.

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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.