'Magic Man' returns: David Taylor qualifies USA for Tokyo 2020 after nearly a year out
David Taylor hadn't wrestled since 5 May 2019 when he stepped on the mat to face Venezuela's Pedro Ceballos on Sunday 15 March 2020.
It was all eyes on Taylor, the 2018 world champ, back from a potentially career-ending torn ligament (ACL) as he walked out at the Shaw Center in Ottowa, Canada, for his 86kg men's freestyle contest.
Was he fit? Had the injury taken its toll? Was the magic gone?
A pin and a 10-0 victory over the Venezuelan - Lima 2019 Pan Am silver medallist and 5th at Rio 2016 - was the perfect response.
Taylor qualifies the U.S. at 86kg
But it wasn't just an impressive opening statement, Taylor went on to make the semi-finals and face the considerable challenge of Cuba's Pan American champion in Lima last year, Yurieski Torreblanca Queralta.
Again Taylor proved untouchable, winning 8-0 and guaranteeing that 86kg quota place for Tokyo 2020.
Joining him in securing USA Tokyo berths were Thomas Gilman (57 kg), and Nick Gwiadowski (125 kg).
That means the United States now has five men’s freestyle weights qualified for the Summer Games after qualifying the 74 kg and 97 kg weights at the 2019 World Championships.
All U.S. wrestlers will still have to earn the individual Olympic right to fight at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials.
"I feel great, this has been the most unique battle of my life," Taylor said afterwards.
"I wanted the opportunity to control my own destiny, I wanted to be able to come here and qualify, so this had been circled as my time to be back so, I don't know if the path went exactly the way I thought it would go, but I'm here, I'm wrestling pretty solid, these guys are tough."
"This event, this is everything to these guys, this is the Olympics for a lot of these countries and I could feel the difference in the way they're wrestling."
"You don't want to go to the last chance qualifier, it's going to be really tough, so trying to get the job done here was a big deal and I'm thankful to be able to represent the United States, grateful to be healthy and now I've just got to keep building.
"It just feels frikkin' good"
The torn ACL injury couldn't have come at a worse time for Taylor last May, he was reigning world champ and Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 looked within his grasp.
"It was tough, I was thinking: 2019 world champion, 2020 Olympic gold medallist, that's what I was thinking at the time... and you don't know, you won't recover always."
He praised his medical team, coaches and local club after a remarkable recovery, back wrestling, back winning after just 10 months:
"I have a good team, a great team.. 10 months and I'm back, a lot of people are out a year and a half, two years, so..."
"To be back where I am, my goal is to be better, faster, stronger. There's really no emotions about what it feels like to be back... It just feels frikkin' good." - David Taylor
A wrestling love story
He also said he wouldn't have made it without his wife Kendra.
"She's just constantly trying to help me, guide me, and hold me accountable if I'm getting distracted," he said.
The two met on the mat when they were 10 in Reno, where they wrestled each other in a national tournament.
He won, but she didn't hold it against him, and 20 years later they're still together.
"My wife, I couldn't do anything without her, she just puts me first constantly, I can't really thank her in really any way but tell her I love her every day and give her a hug."
Argentina qualify for the first time since 1996
Elsewhere there were celebrations for Argentina's Agustin Destribats who ensured there will be an Argentine wrestler in the 65kg weight class at Tokyo 2020.
Atlanta 1996 was the last time Argentina cheered on a male wrestler at the Olympics and Destribats was up against it in Ottawa.
He warmed up well with a confident 7-2 quarterfinal win against the Dominican Republic's Albaro Rudesindo Camacho.
But his biggest test was the semi-final.
2012 Cadet World champion Zain Retherford was waiting for him, and things didn't start well, Destribats was taken down early.
But the underdog managed to work it around while down in par terre and flipped Retherford on his back for the pin.
Joy for Peru too
Peru ended their own Olympic drought of 24 years, Pool Ambrocio qualifying at 86kg.
Cuba strong again, Canada comes up big
With a camp glittering with multiple world medals, it was no surprise to see Cuba monster the mat again on Sunday.
Alejandro Valdes (65 kg), Jeandry Garzon (74 kg) and Reineris Salas Perez (97 kg) all secured spots at the big one this summer.
Valdes is a two-time World bronze medalist, Garzon has a 2007 World silver and three bronzes and Salas is a two-time silver medalist with a 2010 bronze.
It was a good day for the event host too as Jordan Steen (97 kg) and 2014 Junior World champion Amar Dhesi (125 kg) both made finals and secured Olympic places.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's Franklin Gomez Matos made his third Olympic Games at 57kg, along with Colombia's Oscar Trigreros Urbano.