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Penn State wrestling star Zain Retherford opens up on unlikely path to Olympics

Despite a highly accomplished career, one achievement has eluded Zain Retherford: Olympian. Now closer than ever, the Penn State wrestling star recently discussed his unlikely path to push for the 2024 Summer Games.



Penn State wrestling, Zain Retherford
Zain Retherford suffers a face injury in the 65-kilogram men's freestyle best-of-three championship series during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at the Bryce Jordan Center April 19, 2024, in State College.

Former Penn State wrestling star Zain Retherford has accomplished about as much as one wrestler could hope in a single lifetime. However, there is one achievement that still eludes the three-time NCAA and multi-time international champion: Olympian. But now after last week’s Olympic Teams Trials, the ex-Nittany Lion is closer than ever. Following his win at the Trials Championship, Retherford discussed his challenges at the pre-Olympic stage and his unlikely road to Paris.

Zain Retherford discusses unlikely path to becoming U.S. Olympic Trials Champion

Former Penn State wrestling star Zain Retherford contemplated retirement months before standing on top of the podium as the U.S. Olympic Trials Champion at 65 kg. He had already begun moving on towards the next stage of his life before ultimately deciding to give it one last shot to become an Olympian.

“Truthfully I wasn’t sure if I was going to wrestle this year,” said Retherford after his victory at Trials. “This is really just a bonus to me.”

Zain Retherford had struggled in the past to make the 65 kg Olympic weight class, and his performance often suffered because of it. He is known as a tweener, not necessarily fitting in the Olympic 65 kg or 74 kg weights. Retherford has found much more success competing at the World Championships, where he slides nicely into the 70 kg weight class.

“The last time I wrestled at 65, I just had a period of being frustrated with my performance,” he added. “The past few years going up to 70, [I] just focused on enjoying the sport again. I wasn’t going to compete because I wasn’t sure my body could handle the weight cut. But it did, and I am blessed with that and just grateful.”

Retherford credits the efforts of Penn State wrestling and Nittany Lion Wrestling Club coach Cody Sanderson, who helped develop a plan to get him ready to compete.

“I didn’t think I was going to be competing at this Olympic Trials,” Retherford said. “Coach Cody — I went into his office in November, and we had a conversation where I said, you know, I think that I am done. A few months later, he showed me a game plan and said hey, if you still have the itch, we can get this done.”

The former Penn State wrestling superstar said that he made up his mind in January to give it another shot and took Sanderson up on his offer to get him ready to go at 65 kg. A change in training plans and a new approach to getting to that 65 kg weight was part of his decision to return.

You can watch our entire interview with former Penn State wrestling star Zain Retherford on the Basic Blues Nation YouTube channel.

Crunching the numbers

Another factor that Zain Retherford had to factor in when considering a push for the 2024 Summer Olympics was his career — not as a wrestler, but in the finance world. Recently, the Penn State wrestling star started a part-time role with ABR Dynamic Funds in New York City.

For now, Retherford has been taking it slow in finance while still wrestling internationally.

“I started a job part-time for a financial firm in New York. So, I’m going to go that route when I am done competing, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hang up the shoes quite yet,” he said. “My boss was super flexible; I’m grateful for him letting me learn the ropes of finance and now still getting to compete.”

Retherford added that he never had an opportunity to do an internship while at Penn State because of wrestling. So, in a way, the Nittany Lion is stepping onto the mat of a whole new arena.

Penn State wrestling star has one last shot to qualify for Paris

The United States had qualified for four of the six men’s freestyle weight classes heading into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. That meant that those weights would automatically have their champion head to Paris for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The 57 kg and 65 kg weights will have to wrestle in the last chance Olympic Qualifier tournament in Istanbul, Turkey on May 11 and 12.

Both Zain Retherford and Spencer Lee (57 kg) will have to finish in the top three at their weight to make it to the Olympics. There is no championship match, so both of the semifinal winners will automatically qualify and the Bronze Medal match will determine the final spot.

Retherford won’t be seeded in Istanbul since he typically wrestles at 70 kg in international tournaments. So, it remains to be seen how difficult his path will be. However, he didn’t even think that he would be wrestling at this point. And there isn’t anything more dangerous than a man wrestling with house money.

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Former contributor at Nittany Central, Patrick joined Basic Blues Nation in 2023 as the Social Media Director, Penn State Wrestling beat writer, and producer of the Penn State Roar Room spaces. Patrick is also a contributor of Penn State football, basketball, and ice hockey news for the site.


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