An Olympic gold medal is the pinnacle for a wrestler’s career.
For Penn State assistant coach Frank Molinaro, his trip toward that goal, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, got derailed.
He had two shots to qualify the 65 kilogram (143 pounds) weight class for the United States. His first came in April in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He needed to finish in the top three but was unable to accomplish that.
His second shot came a month later in Istanbul, Turkey. Molinaro needed to reach the finals and things looked bright for the 2012 NCAA champion as he won his first two matches to reach the quarterfinals. However, Molinaro suffered a 5-2 loss to Bulgaria’s Borislav Novachkov.
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“I was crushed and completely broken,” he said during a press conference on Monday. “I can’t even describe the feeling. I’ve never really felt that before. I’ve always come out of those moments when it really mattered. I went in to the back room and I was crying for 45 minutes. At that point, I hadn’t thought about wrestling again. I was just thinking about how I didn’t win.
“(Coach Bruce Burnett) said ‘I love you kid but if you have any chance of qualifying you got to get up and win these two matches. You’ve got Belarus and Kazakhstan.’ I was like, whoa, as I was taking my shoes off when he was telling me this. I’m like, all right I’ll put my shoes on and he was like, ‘yeah hustle up you’re on deck.’ Not to sound dramatic, but I felt like I couldn’t get up and walk back to where we were.”
Molinaro fired back with passion. He picked up a 4-1 decision over Kazakhstan’s Dauren Zhumagazyyev. He went on to win bronze by defeating Belarus’ Azamat Nurikov 5-2 in more of a brawl than a wrestling match. It was one spot short of qualifying for Rio — until last Wednesday.
“It’s really a great tribute to Frank because he beat a lot of good guys in that tournament,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “How easy would have it been that (his) shot is over and feel sorry for himself? He battled back and won some tough matches and gave himself a chance. It’s a great lesson for our team. You always finish as well as you possibly can because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The United World Wrestling ruled that due to doping violations, Olympic-qualifier spots were transferred to other wrestlers. Molinaro’s third-place finish in Turkey became a second-place finish, and he also moved into a top-three finish in Mongolia.
Molinaro was in the middle of a round of golf at Mountain View Country Club when he found out the news.
“I picked up my phone and my friend said, ‘You’re the man,’” he said. “I thought, ‘Why did he say that?’ I hit menu on my phone and my phone died. I sprinted back to my car and plugged it in and I had 20 messages. I was pumped.”
Molinaro said they learned quickly of his bid to the Olympics. Originally, he was told it would take one to two weeks to process drug tests and get everything confirmed, instead it took much less. It was still a long wait for Molinaro.
“I had to kind of refocus my perspective,” he said. “I was trying to stay balanced, but to be honest I didn’t do a really good job with it. I was staring at walls and not sleeping much. I kept praying and I really belived that I was going to get it but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“It was really emotional going from being really high and really low. I really had no stability throughout the whole process until I found out. I ended up finding out right before I went on vacatio. It was perfect.”
Molinaro’s journey to Rio didn’t begin like he would have liked. He said unsuccessful tournaments and several lingering injuries put a damper on things. That was until the Pan American Championships in Frisco, Texas, in February.
“I just kept working and believing that something good was going to happen,” Molinaro said. “Then the Pan American Championships happened and that was kind of the turning point for me. It was a really big win.”
Molinaro earned a 4-2 decision over Cuba’s Alejandro Enrique Vasldes Tobier to earn a gold medal. It also gave him a spot in the Olympic Team Trials tournament, where he went on to claim the 65 kg spot for Team USA.
Now, Molinaro is focused. He said he will only be in State College for about three weeks over the summer. The rest of the time he will be traveling around the world competing and training.
“I’ll get out to Coloardo in two weeks on Sunday and have a week-long training camp,” he said with a big smile. “From there, I fly to California and have the World Cup. I fly home and I have a week or two, maybe 10 days, and then I fly to Germany and wrestle there and fly back. I have a couple of weeks and then we arrive in Rio a month early. And maybe there’s one more training camp in there somewhere.”