Ali Bernard to represent Minn. in women's Olympic wrestling tryouts

Ali Sue Bernard
U.S. Ali Sue Bernard, left, celebrates her victory over Kazhakstan's Guzel Manyurova, during their women's freestyle 72 kg bronze medal match at the Senior Wrestling World Championship in Istanbul on Sept. 16, 2011.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

An Olympic athlete from New Ulm resumes her quest for a gold medal this weekend.

Ali Bernard, 26, is the only woman from Minnesota to qualify for the U.S. women's wrestling team tryouts in Iowa City Saturday and Sunday. She hopes to make it to the summer games in London and improve on her fifth-place showing at the 2008 Olympics.

The U.S. Olympic hopefuls — both men and women — will wrestle in front of near sell-out crowds of 14,000 plus fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

Bernard is the top seed in her division of 72 kilograms or about 160 pounds. That's the heaviest of the four women's divisions. She said she's been working hard to get ready for the tournament.

"I've been working out on the mat twice a day," Bernard said. "And just a lot of extra stuff, a lot of fine-tuning, preparing for the opponents that I could potentially be competing against."

After competing in the summer games in Beijing, Bernard rose a little higher in prominence. Last fall, she took third at the 2011 world wrestling tournament.

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Bernard said she's approaching the team tryouts in Iowa City as the first step in her last chance at an Olympic medal.

Ali Bernard
Ali Bernard began her wrestling career in New Ulm. She'll respresnt the U.S. at the Olympics in the 72 kg class, about 158 pounds.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"It's kind of now or never type thing," she said. "I'm not going to be wrestling forever. Now's the time to shine, I feel."

One Minnesota resident who'll closely follow the fate of Bernard and the other wrestlers from the state this weekend is Twin Cities chiropractor Dennis Koslowski. He won two Olympic wrestling medals, a bronze in 1988 and a silver four years later. He remembers the U.S. Olympic tryouts as a weekend of intense competition.

"Basically I saw a lot of grown men cry," Koslowski said. "It was a very yin-and-yang kind of situation — where one person is elated and everybody else is crushed."

As Bernard aims for a win this weekend, the tournament rules should help her bid to make the Olympic team. USA Wrestling executive committee member Marcie Van Dusen said Bernard and the other veterans in Iowa City won't have to wrestle as many matches as most competitors.

"If you medaled at the previous year's world championships, which Ali Bernard did medal, then you are automatically in the finals of Olympic trials," Van Dusen said.

Bernard will wrestle the winner of what's called a mini-tournament among the other competitors. The finals are a best of three matches.

Van Dusen said the tournament structure is meant to protect the top seeds and give them a better shot at getting to the Olympics and ultimately winning a medal. Nearly all the Olympic sports have some variation of this sort of protection for their top athletes.

Ali Bernard in action
Ali Bernard in action at the 2008 U.S. women wrestling Olympic trials.
Photo courtesy of Tech-Fall.com

It all comes down to money. Van Dusen said the more the top athletes reach the Olympics, the more medals the wrestling team is likely to win. That will bring more funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"So if we're not medaling, we're not getting that money that's going to help continue to grow our sport," Van Dusen said. "We're going to have to find it in other ways besides the Olympic Committee."

Since women's wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004, the U.S. team has won a silver medal and two bronze medals.

Van Dusen said the Olympics spotlight is one of the factors that has helped women's wrestling continue to expand. She said about 30 colleges now have programs and that number grows each year.

Bernard, who started her career wrestling on the otherwise all male New Ulm High School wrestling team, has supporters in her hometown who started watching then. She's looking forward to seeing the "Ali Cats" in Iowa City.

"Most of the crew of the 'Ali Cats' I think are coming down," she said.

They'll be cheering for Bernard to once again take her career back to the main stage this summer in London.