By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
Here’s a pitch for you.READ MORE: Puerto Rican Day Parade Goes Virtual For 2nd Straight Year
It’s an uplifting sports tale with elements of “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”
You have a wrestler — 27-year-old Frank Molinaro, a high school and NCAA champion from New Jersey, who has not enjoyed similar success as a professional, taking assistant coaching jobs at Rutgers and his alma mater Penn State to make ends meet.
Molinaro dedicates himself to reaching the 2016 Rio Games at 65 kg (143 pounds) and goes to Iowa in April for Team USA’s Olympic Trials.
He is a longshot, to say the least. Seeded ninth, Molinaro upsets a series of higher-ranked grapplers and squeaks past Aaron Pico in the finals.
The problem is the Unites States, due to prior underperformances, does not have an automatic berth in the Games at that weight class.
So Molinaro travels abroad for two Olympic qualifying tournaments. He gets bounced early from both, but recovers in the latter double-elimination meet on May 8 in Istanbul to finish a respectable third. Unfortunately, that’s just outside the second-place cutoff required to qualify.
However, on May 10 two wrestlers, Magomedmurad Gadzhiev (Poland) and Andriy Kvyatksvskyy (Ukraine), have their qualifying results at 65kg wiped when it was discovered that they had suspicious levels of meldonium, a banned substance, in their systems.
Welcome to Rio de Janeiro, Frank Molinaro. Now if you can just beat the Globo Gym Purple Cobra equivalent and take home a gold medal, there’s the finishing touch on a solid entertainment vehicle.
Molinaro has embraced the underdog role since the beginning of his quest.
“I’m crazy, but I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Molinaro said. “I’ve always wanted to be the best and I’ve always believed that I could be the best. When I look at the path that brought me to the Olympics, it only makes sense to me in my head because I wasn’t really ready (before the Trials) in my heart to be an Olympic champ. I still had more to prove. I still had more obstacles.”
Molinaro continued, “That was just about as hard as it could get. That four-week stretch between the Trials, Mongolia, Turkey, waiting — it all really just made me mentally tougher. I think that it needed to happen. It molded me to be more battle-ready to win Olympic gold.”
Molinaro first caught the wrestling bug at age 4, and eventually headed over to a local recreation club in Middletown.
“I played pretty much all the sports — cross country, track, baseball, football,” Molinaro said. “I didn’t really take (wrestling) too serious in the beginning. I just did cartwheels and tackled people and goofed around, and then I started to get a little bit more competitive. I really liked football when I was young, but I was just a little guy so I knew that wrestling was going to be my ticket.”
Molinaro won three NJSIAA state titles for Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin and then closed his collegiate career, during which he earned All-American honors all four years, with a perfect 33-0 record as a senior.
However, the transition from collegiate wrestling to Olympic Freestyle wrestling proved to be a difficult one for Molinaro, though he is far from alone.READ MORE: Police Searching For Driver After Man Seriously Hurt In Queens Hit-And-Run
Imagine if you’ve grown up playing football, from Pop Warner through college, and then when you turned pro many of the rules you were accustomed to suddenly changed. Imagine, for instance, if stepping out of bounds was a five-yard penalty, a touchdown was worth 15 points, and certain techniques that used to be illegal were now allowed.
“It was pretty intense,” Molinaro said of the transition. “I kind of felt like I was learning a new sport, especially with the hard-nosed, straight-on style I wrestled in college. It really forced me to become a student of the game. I think right now I probably watch two hours of wrestling film a day. I’m always studying the game, I’m always studying the people that are having success because it’s completely different — scoring, conditioning, tactics. I think all this wrestling and all these tournaments has been great experience because it’s really helped me acclimate faster to the new style.”
Oh, and Molinaro also had to shed six pounds to boot to make weight.
At Penn State, Molinaro had wrestled at 149 pounds during his last three seasons; the Olympic Games freestyle weight class above 143 pounds is about 163 pounds (74kg).
“It definitely took me a while and I think that it was part of the reason that I wasn’t having as much success earlier on and as much consistency — because the weight cut was kind of killing me and I think that I wasn’t being as disciplined as I had to be,” Molinaro said. “It really took a big effort to shrink my body. I had to change my approach as far as weight lifting and endurance training and had to do some things that I wasn’t comfortable with at first and I had to get used to being hungry for a while.
“But now,” Molinaro added, “it’s gotten a lot easier. I have a pretty good feel for my body. I have some basic things that I stick to. I drink a gallon and a half of water, I eat gluten free and I kind of time my carbs out. The training is all mapped out by the coaches with some flexibility if we want to change things up a little bit.”
It all came together during the Trials, when Molinaro won a preliminary-round bout and then upset top-seeded Iowa alum Brent Metcalf in the quarterfinals. A close win over Logan Stieber, who had beaten Molinaro twice previously this year, sent Molinaro to the Finals to face Pico, a 19-year-old who then defeated Molinaro in the first match of the best-of-three round.
Molinaro came back to win, 2-4, 4-3, 4-4, with the deciding match decided “by criteria,” due to Molinaro’s four-point move in the final minute of the first period.
“Most people predicted me to lose in the first (preliminary) round,” Molinaro said. “I really felt like I was close all year. I had some injuries — I had a pretty significant wrist injury the day before the US Open. I felt like that was going to be my time to step out and really show people how good I was and it didn’t work out there.”
Renewed religious faith, Molinaro said, helped push him over the top in 2016.
“That kind of changed everything,” he admitted. “That changed my perspective, that changed my approach, that changed my priorities, that changed my focus. It really changed me as a wrestler and freed me up to be something that I probably never would have been. It freed me up to take more risk — to just go for it and not be scared to fail and not fail quietly, either.”
His faith would be tested after a quarterfinal loss in Turkey seemingly ended his dream. He flew home after winning the bronze medal and took to the golf course the following day to clear his head.
“I got home and I was really just kind of all messed up with my time zone change and I was just trying to really keep my mind busy,” Molinaro said. “The day I found out I was out playing golf and I was actually playing pretty good. I didn’t want to look at my phone because I didn’t want it to distract me from playing golf. When I did look at it, it said my friend texted me, ‘You’re the man.’ I saw that I had like 35 text messages. I put my phone back down and took a couple of practice swings and then it registered in my mind that this might be something important.”
It turned out that had he not rebounded from that defeat in Turkey, he would still be playing golf today instead of preparing to go for Olympic glory.
With his personal coach, Cody Sanderson of the renowned Sanderson clan, in his corner (though wife Kera will remain stateside expecting their second child), Molinaro believes all the adversity he’s been though can only help him in Rio.
“I’ve wrestled about 70 percent of my weight class and I’ve beaten just about anybody in the world,” Molinaro said of his chances to medal. “I can beat anybody on any given day and I think that all it takes is four matches. You win four matches, 24 minutes of wrestling, whatever it takes, and you’re an Olympic champ.”
What a remarkable ending to a remarkable journey that would be.MORE NEWS: NYPD: Mother Throws 4-Week-Old Daughter, 2-Year-Old Son Out Window Before Jumping Out Herself
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1