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World bronze medalist Justin Ruiz ready to return to Greco-Roman wrestling

Justin Ruiz wins the second match of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials finals series against Adam Wheeler. Larry Slater photo.

Nobody was happier to see the calendar flip to 2009 than Justin Ruiz.

2008 was supposed to be one of the biggest years of Ruiz's wrestling career.

But instead of achieving his long-time dream of making the U.S. Olympic Team, the four-time World Team member and 2005 World bronze medalist suffered a stunning setback.

Ruiz was upset by Adam Wheeler in the 96 kg/211.5 lbs. finals of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Las Vegas. Ruiz won the second match in the best-of-3 series before Wheeler won the decisive third match to make the American squad.

Wheeler went on to win a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

"It was really hard," Ruiz said. "It surprised me because I had beaten Adam so many times. I felt like I had prepared properly and I had done everything I needed to. It was so hard to deal with. I was depressed for a while after that. It took a long time to get over it."

Ruiz is back on the mat now. He's scheduled to compete in a dual meet in New Jersey on Nov. 13 and the New York AC International Open on Nov. 15.

"I missed competing," said Ruiz, a two-time All-American for Nebraska. "It was kind of good to refresh a little bit and take some time off, but I'm ready to get back into it again. Taking a year off, I lost some timing and lost some things athletically. It was hard last year when all the big tournaments were coming up. I was at the World Team Trials, and that was hard not being out there. I hadn't been a spectator in a while."

Ruiz will battle 2009 U.S. World Team member R.C. Johnson and other top young wrestlers at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. this season.

"Justin Ruiz returning to the sport is a big plus for our team," U.S. National Coach Steve Fraser said. "Iron sharpens iron, and we have some iron at that weight class. We have traditionally been very strong in World competition at the 96 kg weight class. Justin will add to the field and strengthen our squad, no doubt. His bronze-medal experience will enhance our efforts to get back on top as a team. He has great potential to win internationally again. Intense preparation is the key for Justin and the rest of our U.S Team. Proper preparation and a lot of international competition will provide the experience that will move us to the top of the podium."

Ruiz, now 30, elected to take a year off from wrestling after falling in the Olympic Trials. He took a job in Evanston, Wyo., working with a company that services oil and gas companies.

"My wife and I were starting a family, and I wanted to make sure I could support them," he said. "I was only about an hour drive from where I grew up in Salt Lake City, but I didn't really enjoy the job much. It was good money, but I worked a lot of long hours. It was miserable work."

Ruiz left the company earlier this year when Russell Brunson, a buddy of his who he wrestled with, wanted to put a team of Greco-Roman wrestlers together. Brunson also wanted to start competing again.

Brunson owns an internet marketing company and wanted to bring wrestlers into Boise, Idaho, to work for him and train in wrestling. Ruiz jumped at the opportunity.

Ivan Ivanov, who had built the highly successful Greco-Roman program at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan, was brought in to coach the athletes in Boise.

Among the other top athletes training in Boise is former USOEC wrestler Cheney Haight, who placed second at the 2008 Olympic Trials at 74 kg/163 lbs.

"It's a great situation," Ruiz said. "It allows me an opportunity to work where I'm also still able to compete. It's been great so far."

Ruiz said it took a while to get over the loss to Wheeler. Ruiz had qualified the U.S. for the Olympics after winning the 2008 Pan American Championships, but he then fell to Wheeler in the finals at the Olympic Trials.

"A couple of months after the Trials, I watched the video of my matches on YouTube," Ruiz said. "I broke down. It was very hard to watch. I told my wife at that point that I had to find a way to make it back and wrestle again. I couldn't let my career end like that."

Ruiz said he was pulling for Wheeler in Beijing. Wheeler won the only Olympic medal in Greco-Roman for the U.S. in 2008.

"I was happy for Adam," Ruiz said. "He's a good guy, and he had worked a lot of years for that opportunity."

2009 has been a much better year for Ruiz and his wife, Sarah. They welcomed their first child, daughter Brinklee, four months ago.

"It's awesome - it's been great," Ruiz said. "She's a really good baby. She sleeps really well at night and she smiles a lot."

Ruiz is hoping to have something to smile about again on the mat during the 2009-10 season. He will be competing for the first time in 17 months when he steps on the mat in New York.

"I'm excited and I'm nervous," he said with a laugh. "I've been away for a little while, so I'm ready to get some matches in and compete again."
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