USA Taekwondo Team hangs tough, falls short of medaling in China

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Army Pvt. 2nd Class Juancarlos Norzagaray-Garcia with the U.S. Armed Forces Taekwondo Team fights against an Iranian competitor at the Council of International Sports for Military games (CISM) in Wuhan, China Oct. 26, 2019. The CISM games opened Oct. 18, 2019 and close Oct. 28, 2019.

WUHAN, China — Competing in a tough field that featured some of the best taekwondo competitors in the world, the U.S. Armed Forces Taekwondo Team walked away from the Military World Games without medals.

But the U.S. fighters have plenty to feel good about.

Three of the six U.S. competitors placed in the top eight in their weight classes during the Conseil International du Sport Militaire, or CISM tournament, Oct. 23-26.

“I feel like we’ve done really well,” said Army Pfc. Russell Gresham, who finished 5th in the heavyweight division. “The competition level here is super high for everybody … great competition all around.”

Gresham came the closest to a top-three finish, narrowly missing the bronze for the +87-kilogram and above weight division by one point. Gresham lost a tough match to China’s Jian Tian 11-10 after mounting a comeback in the final round that fell short.

Gresham also faced the No.1 fighter in the world, Russia’s Vladislav Larin, and lost 20-4. The 7-foot Gresham bounced back to defeat Gabon’s Moimoutoumou Therence 14-5 before falling to Tian.

Army Spc. Devon Lewis, the lone American female in the field, also fell short of earning a medal at -57 kg. In a round of 16 match, Lewis led Uzbekistan’s Mamadibragimova Dinorakhon 13-10 with 15 seconds left in round 3, but gave up late hits to send the contest to an extra round and fell 15-14.

“She retreated too early,” said U.S. coach and Army Sgt. Maj. David Bartlett. “You can’t win matches by retreating like she did. It’s instinct vs. strategy. Applying the plan and executing the strategy with confidence is going help you to win matches. She failed to continue to move forward and keep her opponent on her heels.”

Dinorakhon went on to win silver and Lewis ended up tied for 5th. Lewis bounced back to beat Egypt’s Radwa Nada 9-5, but lost to China’s Tianrui Zhan, 36-6 in a bronze-medal match.

Pvt. Juan Carlos Norzagaray finished 7th for the U.S. in the men’s -54 kg division. Norzagaray, the youngest U.S. competitor at age 19, had a rocky finish to the tournament. After beating Canada’s Jose Miguel Diaz in the first round, 138, and dominating Ecuador’s Amable Pilatuna-Valencia, 37-2 in the round of 16, Norzagaray struggled against Iran’s silver-medal winner, Mahaleh Kalaei Iman, losing 22-1.

In the Repechage Round 2, Norzagaray lost to 4th-place Dionysios Rapsomanikis of Greece, 12-5.

“Obviously I’m disappointed, I’m frustrated,” Norzagaray said. “Because I do believe I can beat all these guys. I know I can beat them, so it’s frustrating losing like this, but it’s a learning experience. Now I just have to go back to the gym and watch my fights over and over again, look for mistakes and learn from them.”

Still, the performance encouraged the U.S. fighters, who train under the Army’s World Class Athlete program at Fort Carson, Colorado. The U.S. taekwondo competitors faced Olympians, world champions and Taekwondo Grand Pix champions in the talented field.

“To be honest with you, last year was pretty rough,” said 87 kg-and-under competitor Spc. James “Rocky” Rohleder. “This year the team as a whole did a lot better. We’re getting (competitors) to the bronze-medal finals.”

Rohleder faced a tough draw when he had to take on top seed Jordan Stewart of Canada in his first fight. He admittedly struggled against Stewart, losing 29-8, but said he fought him much tougher than the last time the two met in the bronze-medal final match of the 2018 CISM championships.

Stewart, who won a bronze at Wuhan, lost his quarterfinal match, eliminating Rohleder’s shot to place higher in the tournament.

U.S. 68-kg competitor Spc. Charles Buset got off to a hot start, winning his first two matches to advance to the quarterfinals. However, Buset lost a tough match to Bulgaria’s Vladimir Dalakliev, 8-6, and did not place in the top eight.

American 74-kg fighter Spc. Niklas Poland failed to advance past the opening round, losing to Egypt’s Karim Mahmoud.

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