UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's been months since two-time Nittany Lion national champion Zain Retherford helped Penn State to a stunning NCAA team title performance in St. Louis.
Pausing for just a week off, Retherford was back at it, and like any great champion, training as usual in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
In the weeks following an exquisite collegiate season, the honors and accolades continued to pile up in Retherford's name. Already a three-time All-American, the NCAA Championships' Most Outstanding Wrestler and the 2017 Most Dominant Wrestler, he earned another InterMat Wrestler of the Year honor before capping off an unblemished 2017 season with the prestigious Hodge Trophy.
Humbled by each award, Retherford remained focused as usual, prepping for the 2017 U.S. World Team Trials in Lincoln, Nebraska, where just eight spots on the U.S. Senior World Team ahead of the UWW Wrestling Championships in late August were primed for earning.
Retherford made quick work of his three Challenge Tournament opponents, topping Jaydin Eierman (14-2; 2:32), Nick Dardanes (11-0; 3:32) and B.J. Futrell (10-0; 3:50) to advance to the Championship best-of-three series, which presented a bit an unexpected matchup.
A disqualification meant Retherford was set to meet 2016 Olympian and former Nittany Lion four-time All-American national champion, and assistant coach Frank Molinaro.
"It kind of threw me for a loop a little bit," Retherford said. "I was kind of preparing for the other way around, but I kind of realized whoever I am wrestling is out of my control. I just kind of focus on whatever comes next and that was next."
The familiarity wasn't any reason for added nerves or emotion.
"I try to keep the emotions out of it," Retherford said. "Wrestling a teammate or coach, I've done that before so I think that prepared me for this. If you get too emotionally attached to the match, even if it's not a teammate, you're not going to wrestle at your best."
Despite a late surge to move ahead, Retherford ultimately dropped a 7-6 decision to Molinaro in the opening bout of the series.
"I took a second and lost focus and he scored
on me with short time left," Retherford said.
"After that match, I didn't really feel tired at all, even coming through the challenge tournament. I came off the mat and I remember I was a little frustrated because I was like man, it would be so much nicer not to have to wrestle three matches."
Returning to his control-the-controllable mindset, Retherford made adjustments and beat Molinaro 6-0 in the second match, setting up a deciding finish to the best-of-three series.
Meanwhile, in between matches Retherford's younger sister Mylee asked the rest of the Retherford family what would happen if Zain did not win his final match. The answer of course, was no trip to Paris, France for the 2017 UWW Senior World Championships of course, prompting fingers-crossed headed into the final match.
Retherford channeled the momentum into the third match, as Molinaro matched the intensity for an early lead.
"He came out ready to wrestle in that third one for sure," Retherford said. "At the end of the second match things started to get physical and things just kind of picked right up where they left off in the third match and we both kind of met each other like pit bulls or something, I don't know."
With blood streaming down his face, Retherford gritted out a 7-4 win to lock up his first spot on the U.S. Senior World Team, later moving him to the top of the U.S. Senior-level division rankings at 65 kg (143 pounds).
While Retherford is rarely caught in an over-the-top celebration, in fact you'll hardly ever see one, this particular win was a big one.
"I got kind of emotional afterward because I haven't made a world team since high school, going into my senior year," Retherford said. "That was really big for me, I like wrestling overseas and getting opportunities now to do that is big."
A lot has changed for Retherford since earning his official spot on the U.S. Senior World Team.
"When I first made my first world team I thought wrestling was more like a fight so I was really physical," Retherford said. "The more I've grown throughout the years I've realized that you need to have that fight in the do or die situations in wrestling, that needs to be a given, but you can't wrestle the whole match like that or your technique kind of goes out the window."
Retherford, who was also nominated for an ESPN ESPY (Best Male College Athlete), was also selected as Penn State's 2017 Male Student-Athlete of The Year.
Similar to the end of every competition though, it's back to work.
Among stops at a few U.S. training camps, Retherford ended up missing out on the ESPYs to join the U.S. Senior World Team at the Grand Prix of Spain. In his U.S. Senior World Team debut, Retherford helped the United States to a stellar showing, capturing gold at 65 kg (143 pounds) without surrendering a single point with three consecutive pins and a tech fall.
Now, Retherford will turn the focus to the 2017 UWW Senior World Championships, which kicks off August 21st in Paris. Retherford is scheduled to compete August 26th, with fans from the United States able to stay up to date with streaming and results courtesy of Trackwrestling.com.