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How USA Wrestling and Coralville will host the Senior National Championships in the COVID-era


Cody Goodwin   | Des Moines Register
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The sport of wrestling is eyeing a big opportunity in Coralville this weekend.

USA Wrestling’s Senior National Championships will be contested at Coralville’s Xtream Arena this weekend. The three-day event will feature hundreds of the nation’s best wrestlers in the Olympic disciplines: men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman. 

They will do this even while the novel coronavirus pandemic persists, here in Iowa and around the world.

Really.

“There’s been a lot of communication, a lot of planning,” Josh Schamberger, President of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the Register this week. “If we didn’t feel like we could do it safely, we wouldn’t be involved.”

This will be USA Wrestling’s first major Senior-level competition since the World Health Organization labeled the outbreak a pandemic in March. The event, featuring a full contact sport, is being held in a state with an average case rate of 2,964 per 100,000 people, the 10th highest in the country, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, and in an area that at one time had one the nation’s highest case rates.

How, exactly, is this going to work?

With a lot of careful and thorough planning from virtually everybody involved.

'They're taking every precaution'

Ahead of this weekend, USA Wrestling regularly communicated with both Schamberger’s team and Johnson County Public Health. They discussed various plans and mitigation strategies to ensure the safety of, first, the athletes, coaches, officials and other essential personnel, and, second, any secondary personnel that hoped to attend.

All essential personnel will undergo intense health screenings before entering the arena. They will also be separated from fans — both groups will have different entrances and exits. Masks are mandatory, even for athletes (unless they're actively competing). Mats will be cleaned more than usual. Referees won’t raise the winners’ hands, but instead lift their own hand with the corresponding colored arm band to signal the winner.

The schedule was adjusted to limit the number of people inside. Xtream Arena seats 5,100, but Schamberger said total capacity will only reach about 25% each day to allow for physical distancing. Media won’t conduct in-person interviews and will use Zoom instead. Only a certain number of photographers will be allowed on the floor.

“From a public health standpoint, they’re taking every precaution,” Dave Koch, the Director of Johnson County Public Health, said this week. “They were very willing to work with us, share their plans — and they are very robust, I have to admit.

“And to their credit, they were also willing to pull the plug on this depending on the local numbers or the guidance we gave them.”

USA Wrestling officially announced that this tournament was coming to Coralville in late July. It will also be one of the first events held at the new Xtream Arena. But an event the following week actually helped set the stage for how this week might look.

'There’s nothing magical or specific'

The Western States Championships were held at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington, Utah July 30 through Aug. 1. The three-day event featured a maximum of 750 wrestlers per day on a first-come, first-serve basis in all three disciplines: folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman. Competitors were aged 8-18 from as many as 17 different states. 

It was something of a guinea pig experiment for wrestling’s national governing body.

In May, USA Wrestling released their "Return To Mat Guidelines" and "Return To Events Guidelines" to help lead wrestling through the pandemic. Both outlined in painstaking detail various recommendations USA Wrestling leaders suggested clubs, coaches and wrestlers should follow to safely resume wrestling activity.

“We were fortunate enough to put some committees together and they gave us some direction,” said Pete Isaias, USA Wrestling’s director of national events. “It took us probably a month to roll those out.

“We feel like wrestling is way ahead on this. We’ve been dealing with things like this for a number of years, with skin infections. We’ve already got protocols in place, from symptom checking to weigh-ins and all that, that’ll help mitigate this virus so we can have success.”

The Western States Championships went off without a hitch, thanks in part to the guidelines and constant communication with local public health authorities. The guidelines for events include providing a “post-event summary to athletes, coaches, event staff, media, spectators and vendors.”

No transmissions or cases of COVID-19 were reported.

“There’s nothing magical or specific about this that isn’t occurring at other venues around the country,” Koch said. “It’s temperature checks, it’s physical distancing, it’s mask-wearing, it’s hygiene, all of those things.

“They did a tremendous job explaining their thoughts and expectations for wrestlers, coaches, refs, everybody. It was very detailed and included every aspect for these events. It helps when you have experience hosting these events."

Those results inspired confidence for this weekend — even after Iowa City experienced a rapid rise in cases once the University of Iowa students returned to campus.

'We have to find a way to live with this'

In early September, Iowa City (and Ames) topped the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot list. It was so rampant that the Iowa City and Ames community school districts had to transition to fully virtual learning, Iowa athletics had to pause workouts, and Iowa State football was forced to play its season-opener at Jack Trice Stadium without fans.

In the month since, Johnson County’s positivity rate has dropped considerably, to just 142 positive cases over the last week. It was the first county in Iowa to require residents to wear masks/face coverings in public. Koch said there was never a time when his office was worried about potentially calling off this weekend’s tournament.

“I don’t know if we ever got to the point where we were even 50-50,” he said. “We were watching the numbers every day, obviously. We were ready to have a serious conversation had those numbers kept climbing.

“The spike was very concentrated with university students, and this event is not going to be interacting, necessarily, with that community.”

Part of that, Schamberger added, will be the bubble-like nature of the event this weekend. Athletes and coaches are staying in hotels that are near the arena, which is two miles away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the venue that’s previously hosted other top wrestling competitions, like the Olympic Trials and the UWW Freestyle World Cup.

“We’ve put all the plans we can in place and we feel good that it’s going to be a pretty safe environment,” Schamberger said. “I know there’s a segment of the population that thinks there shouldn’t be anything happening, whatsoever, but we have to find a way to live with this new challenge and be able to operate safely within this new challenge.”

Schamberger admits to feeling nervous when the numbers spiked a month ago, but is now looking forward to the opportunity this weekend will bring. He’s already planning on bringing other top-tier wrestling events to Xtream Arena, including the Dan Gable Donnybrook in December and the IWCOA girls’ state tournament in January.

This weekend will provide a glimpse into how they may successfully run those events, as well as others in the future.

“We know that there’s a spotlight on this particular event, and USA Wrestling knows there’s a spotlight,” Schamberger said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make it safe.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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U.S. Senior National Championships

Friday, October 9th

Wrestlers with Iowa ties competing

MEN’S FREESTYLE

57 kilograms (125 pounds)

  • Justin Portillo

65 kilograms (143 pounds)

  • Jaydin Eierman
  • Austin Gomez
  • Ian Parker
  • Earl Hall

74 kilograms (163 pounds)

  • Jeremiah Moody
  • David Carr
  • Matthew Malcolm
  • Grant Henderson
  • Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer

86 kilograms (189 pounds)

  • Drew Foster
  • Taylor Lujan
  • Parker Keckeisen

97 kilograms (213 pounds)

  • Kyven Gadson
  • Evan Hansen

WOMEN’S FREESTYLE

50 kilograms (110 pounds)

  • Arelys Valles
  • Emma Cochran

57 kilograms (125 pounds)

  • Isabella Gonzalez

68 kilograms (150 pounds)

  • Rachel Watters

GRECO-ROMAN

60 kilograms (132 pounds)

  • Alex Thomsen
  • Conor Knopick
  • Corey Muniz
  • Elijah Varona

67 kilograms (147 pounds)

  • Justin Koethe
  • Dario Gamino Barrientos

77 kilograms (169 pounds)

  • Eddie Smith
  • Burke Paddock

97 kilograms (213 pounds)

  • Brady Vogel
  • Tyler Hannah