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Penn State History Lesson: Penn State Wrestling Olympians

Throughout its storied history, Penn State wrestling has produced some of the best wrestlers in collegiate wrestling within the confines of Rec Hall, but how do they stack up in the Olympics against international competition in one of the most high-profile events in sports?

London — 1908

In the 1908 Olympic Games in London, England, the very first Penn State wrestler competed. Lee Talbott is the only athlete to compete in three sporting events at one Olympic Games as he was a member of the track and field, tug of war, and wrestling teams for the United States. As a wrestler, Talbott lost in the first round to Irish wrestler Con O’Kelly who went on to win the gold medal in the London games.

Paris — 1924

Penn State didn’t have another wrestling representative until the 1924 Paris Games when the Hiroshima native Katsutoshi Naito took the mat for the Japanese national team. After attending Kagoshima University, he traveled to the United States and enrolled at Penn State. Naito quickly rose to be the captain of the wrestling team because of his proficiency in Kodokan Judo. However, since there was a growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S., the Immigration Act of 1924 made it impossible for Naito to represent the United States in the Olympic Games. As a part of the Japanese national team, Naito went on to win the country’s only medal in 1924 — a bronze in freestyle wrestling.

London — 1948

The next Penn State affiliate wrestler appeared for the United States in the 1948 London Olympic Games. Bill Koll wasn’t a wrestler for the Nittany Lions but coached the team for 14 seasons including unbeaten dual meet seasons in 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1974. In the 1948 London Games, Koll placed fifth for the United States in freestyle wrestling. Although Koll passed away in 2003, his legacy lives on in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Los Angeles — 1984

Ludwig David “Lou” Banach was the next Nittany Lion to compete for Olympic glory. An Iowa native, Banach won two national championships under Dan Gable at the University of Iowa. In the 1984 games in Los Angeles, California, Banach won the freestyle gold medal in the light heavyweight class for the United States. Banach earned his master’s degree in business administration from Penn State and began working for National City Bank in 1988.

Seoul — 1988

Ken Chertow represented the United States in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. The Nittany Lion was a three-time All-American and finished in the top three in two national championships during his time with Penn State. Although he didn’t place in the 1988 games, Chertow won the Junior World Championships in 1984 and the Pan American Championships in 1986 at the forefront of his career. He returned to Penn State as a coach and helped the squad win the National Dual Meet Championship and runner-up in the national tournament.

Barcelona — 1992

In the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, Greg Elinsky represented the United States but did not place. The Nittany Lion wrestled for Penn State from 1983 to 1987 and had an astounding career record of 138-16-4. Elinsky also had three conference championships and placed in the NCAA Championships three times.

Atlanta — 1996

The second Japanese native and Nittany Lion on the list is Sanshiro Abe, who competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for the Japanese national team where he placed ninth. For Penn State, Abe was a four-time All-American and national champion.

Sydney — 2000

There were three Penn State-affiliated wrestlers in the Sydney games. Up first, Sammie Henson worked as an assistant coach with Penn State after his wrestling career. After transferring from Missouri to Clemson, he became a back-to-back national champion in 1993 and 1994. He is recognized as the greatest wrestler to come out of Clemson with a record of 71-0 in his last two seasons in college. In the Olympics, Henson earned a silver medal in the 54 kilogram weight class.

Cary Kolat, the second athlete representing the United States in 2000, spent his first two collegiate years at Penn State. He went 22-5 and was the NCAA runner-up in his freshman year and then went 39-1 and won Big Ten Wrestler of the Year in his sophomore season. He transferred to Lock Haven where he eventually won two consecutive national championships in 1996 and 1997. In the Sydney games, he placed ninth in the 63 kilogram weight class.

Sydney — 2000 & Athens — 2004

Kerry McCoy is the only Penn State wrestler to compete in multiple Olympic games. He was one of the greatest athletes to come through the program as he accumulated a record of 150-18 and two national championships. He also won three Big Ten titles and went on an incredible 88-match win streak. McCoy was also awarded the Hodge Trophy in 1997. In his two Olympic stints, McCoy took fifth and seventh, respectively. McCoy returned to Penn State as an assistant coach for four years following his career.

Athens — 2004

The face of the Penn State wrestling program and the backbone of the last decade of dominance has come from head coach Cael Sanderson. He was one of the best collegiate wrestlers to ever grace the mat, posting an undefeated record of 159-0 with four consecutive NCAA titles and conference titles. The Iowa State Cyclone is the only wrestler in history to win the Hodge Trophy three times. His dominance didn’t stop after college as Sanderson went on to win the gold medal for the United States at the 84 kilogram weight class in freestyle wrestling. Sanderson became the Nittany Lions’ head coach and has produced one of the most prolific dynasties in all of sports.

London — 2012

Jake Varner, a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time NCAA champion for the Iowa State Cyclones represented the United States in the 96 kilogram weight class of the 2012 London games. Varner won the gold medal in London and eventually came to Penn State as an assistant coach from 2016 to 2021. In November of 2021, Varner was promoted to head the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, Penn State’s Olympic Regional Training Center. In 2022, Varner was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Rio de Janeiro — 2016

Frank Molinaro was a four-time All-American and a national champion in 2012 with the Nittany Lions. Molinaro held an undefeated record of 33-0 in his senior season, and the Penn Stater went on to win the Olympic Trials and then placed fifth in the Olympics in the 65 kilogram weight class. Molinaro returned to Penn State as an assistant coach from 2014 to 2016.

Tokyo — 2020

One of the best wrestlers to come out of Penn State is the most recent of affiliated wrestlers to take the mat in the Olympics. David Taylor, a two-time NCAA champion and a four-time Big Ten champion for the Nittany Lions has dominated the sport for years. He is a multiple Hodge Trophy winner and a four-time All-American. In the Olympics, Taylor earned a gold medal in the 86 kilogram weight class in freestyle wrestling. He earned an automatic bid to compete in the Championship Series in the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday, April 20, where he faced fellow Penn Stater and Nittany Lion Wrestling Club teammate Aaron Brooks.

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About the Author

Cooper Cazares

Cooper is a junior majoring in digital and print journalism from Virginia Beach, Va. He can be found with a long face on most Sunday afternoons for he is unfortunately a lifelong Washington Commanders fan. When he isn't watching sports, Cooper is usually tearing up at "Rudy" or taking a well-deserved nap. To reach him, follow him on Instagram (@cooper_cax) or Twitter (@CooperCazares). You can also email him at [email protected].

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