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USA Wrestling nationals sets record participation numbers in annual event's return to Fargodome

The USA Wrestling Junior and 16U Nationals set a participation record of more than 6,000 wrestlers in its return to the Fargodome after last year's event was canceled by the pandemic.

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Photographer Jim Thrall from Hoquiam, Wash., shoots a photo of Team Maryland for Matfocus.com during the USA Wrestling Junior & 16U Nationals at the Fargodome on Monday, July 19, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Pete Isais usually spends at least one week in Fargo every July. He’s the director of national events for USA Wrestling and in charge of the “world’s largest wrestling competition,” the Junior and 16U Nationals.

The USA Wrestling tournament was one of many events canceled last year by the pandemic. Isais’ calendar for the month of July was freed up, a first since he took the job in 2001.

“We were like everybody — we started to curtail things in March and we kept praying and kept having meetings and kept the Junior and Cadet (16U) nationals on the calendar,” Isais said. “And finally in June our committee just said ‘Hey, it’s a no-go.’ That was definitely a tough day to take — to miss a year of this prestigious event.”

It was a welcome sight when he returned to the Fargodome late last week for the annual wrestling tournament, held July 17-23 this year.

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Wrestlers shop for gear bargains outside of the Fargodome during the USA Wrestling Junior & 16U Nationals on Monday, July 19, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

“We’re very happy to have events again,” said Isais, a former NDSU assistant wrestling coach. “I think for us, it’s nice to get back and give kids an opportunity to compete and showcase their skills.”

The event, which features the nation’s top boys and girls wrestlers, set a participation record of more than 6,000 wrestlers. The preliminary registration total, which shattered previous milestones, was just over 6,200 wrestlers, and those numbers have held firm, Isais said.

“We always said that this is going to be our ‘coming out-party’ after the pandemic,” Isais said. “Our numbers are at record numbers in five out of the six divisions. It’s definitely a great situation to be in. I think a lot of people are enjoying it and looking forward to finishing out the week strong.”

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Connor and Cole Mirasola, 16, from Jackson, Wisc., pose for photos after their freestyle competition during the USA Wrestling Junior & 16U Nationals at the Fargodome on Monday, July 19, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

The 16U women’s freestyle division was about 10 athletes down from its previous participation record, Isais said.

This summer marked 50 years of the Junior Nationals event, which started in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1971. The milestone would’ve occurred last year had the event not been canceled. Fargo and North Dakota State have hosted the Junior tournament since 1993 and the combined Junior and Cadet event since 1996.

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Wrestlers compete in men’s freestyle, Greco-Roman and women’s freestyle. The event opens with men’s and women’s freestyle early in the week, which is similar to the common folkstyle used by high school programs across the country. The tournament closes with Greco-Roman, which carries an emphasis on upper-body moves.

“We had some recommendations with our states that they needed to assure that their athletes, coaches and everybody in their delegation either had a vaccination or submitted a test 72 hours prior to gathering in any mass of 10 or more,” Isais said on the event protocol. “And that included 72 hours before they got on the bus, before they went to their first training camp or 72 hours before they arrived in Fargo. They needed to show a negative test.”

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Ashton Jackson, 16, from La Porte, Ind., watches the action from the stands during the USA Wrestling Junior & 16U Nationals at the Fargodome on Monday, July 19, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

To accommodate for high schools that had altered seasons, USA Wrestling upped the number of wrestlers states were allowed to enter this year from three to six per weight. The organization also opened up their normal regionals for qualification too, Isais said.

“I think it really allowed our states to be able to get a lot more kids here and that’s why we’re at record numbers,” said Isais, whose son, Peter, is a wide receiver for North Dakota State.

The Fargodome parking lot has also seen an uptick in vehicles. This year, some states allowed parents to bring their child to the Fargodome instead of the participants traveling together as a state group. Isais said the first day was “eye-opening” for event organizers and staff.

“I think everybody kind of underestimated the rush of crowd,” he said.

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Josh Barr from Davison, Mich., readies to compete during the USA Wrestling Junior & 16U Nationals at the Fargodome on Monday, July 19, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

Finals began Sunday with the 16U women’s freestyle division. The 16U men’s freestyle finals were held Monday afternoon.

The Junior men’s freestyle finals are slated for 1 p.m. Tuesday with the women’s version at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The 16U Greco-Roman finals are at 2 p.m. Thursday with the Junior Greco-Roman finals wrapping the tournament at 2 p.m. Friday.

USA Wrestling, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and North Dakota State have a contract through 2021, but that might extend for another year, because of the pandemic.

“I told all our local organizers who had events for us during the pandemic that we had to cancel, that we would roll those contracts over for an additional year, and put an addendum on those contracts if they were happy,” he said.

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Wrestlers compete during the freestyle semifinal and consolation rounds during the USA Wrestling Junior Nationals at the Fargodome on Monday, July 19, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

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