IOWA CITY, Iowa (April 12, 2016) -- Three Soldiers from the U.S. Army Installation Management Command's World Class Athlete Program reached the finals of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials on April 9-10 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on the University of Iowa campus.
Sgt. Caylor Williams of Fort Carson, Colorado, was 38 seconds shy of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team before dropping a 6-5 decision in the third match of a best-of-three series against Minnesota Storm's Josef Rau in the Greco-Roman 98-kilogram finals on Saturday night.
Jesse Thielke of Colorado Springs, Colorado, defeated Spc. Ildar Hafizov, a 2008 Olympian for Uzbekistan who is now a U.S. Army Soldier stationed at Fort Carson, in two straight matches for the Greco-Roman 59-kilogram crown.
Reigning world champion and three-time world medalist Helen Maroulis of Huntington Beach, Calif., defeated three-time U.S. World Team member Sgt. Whitney Conder of Fort Carson in two straight matches in the women's freestyle 53-kilogram division on Sunday night.
"It's a great thing to be able to make the Olympic Trials finals and be able to come out as number two," Conder said. "It's definitely the best that I've done so far, so I'm happy with how I did this time but still not happy with the end result."
WCAP wrestling head coach Shon Lewis saluted Conder's performance against the world champ.
"Whitney did what she needed to do to get into the finals and we knew it was going to be an uphill battle," Lewis said. "I'm proud of her."
Those three Soldier-athletes will serve as alternates for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team scheduled to compete August 14-21 at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The top three finishers in each weight class at the Olympic Trials were also named to the 2016-17 U.S. National Team, including two-time NCAA All-American Sgt. Ryan Mango, who finished third in the Greco-Roman 59-kilogram division, and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Sgt. Randi Miller, who was third in women's freestyle at 69 kilograms.
Two-time Olympian and six-time U.S. World Team member Sgt. Spenser Mango, 29, left his shoes on the mat, a wrestler's way of signaling retirement from competition in the sport, after losing to Thielke in the Greco-Roman 59-kilogram quarterfinals. Mango plans to continue training fellow troops in the Army wrestling program.
"The bonds that I made, especially with my Army teammates -- I spend more time with them that I do my actual family, so they are my family, and that's something I'll always cherish," Spenser Mango said.
Longtime WCAP wrestler Sgt. Jermaine Hodge also left his boots on the mat.
Lewis remains confident that his Soldiers will exhibit resilience.
"I'm still proud," Lewis said. "In the past 16 years, we've won 14 or 15 national titles, 15 straight Armed Forces crowns, and up until this point, we've put more people on the Olympic Team than any other club. We've been celebrating for 16 years as a team, and now we're going to take this loss as a team and this shutout as a team.
"We've got to stay strong as a team, Army strong."
Rather than flying, the Soldiers rode a bus more than 13 hours from Colorado Springs to Iowa City for the weekend tournament. Lewis actually looked forward to the ride home -- for the sake of his team's humility.
"I'm really glad we took a charter bus out here from Colorado and I'm glad we're taking a charter bus back, so we can sit in it," Lewis said. "In this situation, with this feeling of defeat right now, I don't think there could be a better way for us to travel back.
"I want this to sink in -- as a team. We could have flown in here and we could fly out of here. But we're one team, one fight. We celebrated and had a lot of cheers over those last 16 years. This is going to hurt, and it should hurt. At least about six months after the Olympics, it still should be hurting. We're going to stay close. We're going to get past this and we're going to get bigger, better and stronger."
Spenser Mango totally agrees with Lewis' assessment of the Soldiers' resilience.
"We will get past this together," he said. "We're one big family. We take care of each other; have each other's backs; have a great support staff. It's pretty much all you could ever want."
"I'm just grateful for our team because it's a family and we're always together," Conder added. "One team, one mission, one goal."