Former Taylorsville wrestling champ makes Olympic push
Former state wrestling champion Justin Ruiz of Taylorsville High School has been on the cusp of fulfilling an Olympic dream for quite some time now.
And after last week's victory at the World Team Trials, he's one step closer to making that goal a reality.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials (where the Olympic wrestling team is determined) in 2004 and 2008, Ruiz came in as the favorite in Greco-Roman style and was upset by lower-ranked opponents in the finals.
His loss to Adam Wheeler three years ago was particularly devastating.
"It still hurts losing to him," Ruiz said. "It's just one of those things he figured me out. But I think I'm a better wrestler now."
At last week's World Team Trials in Oklahoma City, Ruiz swept John Lorenz in the finals to qualify for his sixth world team. The former Nebraska All-American will now look to the World Championships in September as his best, and perhaps final, opportunity to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
"I think I have a great chance, as long as I stay healthy," said Ruiz, 31, after his victory in Oklahoma City. "There's always the possibility of losing, but I've faced it before."
Ruiz has wanted to compete against the world's best ever since attending his first Junior World Championship in Finland. From there, he became a three-time state wrestling champion at Taylorsville High School and a two-time All-American at Nebraska.
But his loss at the '08 U.S. Olympic Trials was a huge disappointment. Afterward, he took a yearlong hiatus from wrestling and moved his family to Evanston, Wyo. Ruiz worked in the oil industry to pay the bills. The hours were long and the conditions were often extreme especially during the winter.
Ruiz said the money was good but he wasn't enjoying what he was doing, so he left the oil industry to make another run at the Olympics.
He won't be the only local wrestler competing in Istanbul this September. Newly inducted Hall of Fame wrestler Cael Sanderson stunned the wrestling world by returning to competition after a seven-year absence.
"I think everybody is surprised [by his return]," said Ruiz, who wrestled Sanderson once in his career. "He's just got the itch to come back I think he has a great shot to win in the Olympics."
The Wasatch High School alumnus won four national titles and compiled an unprecedented 159-0 career mark at Iowa State. He also won a gold medal at the Athens Games in 2004.
Sanderson, 31, now coaches the Penn State wrestling team and guided the Nittany Lions to a national championship in March. He beat Jake Herbert in the finals of the 185-pound freestyle at the World Team Trials on Saturday. The third-seeded Sanderson went 4-0 on the night in his first major wrestling event in nearly seven years.
For Ruiz, the clock is ticking on his Olympic hopes, and the transition from world-class athlete to family bread-winner is looming.
He said if the Olympics don't work out this year, he would certainly think about pursuing a career in coaching. But until that day comes, the former Taylorsville star is focused on doing what he does best, which is wrestling.
"I realize I'm not getting any younger," Ruiz said. "Back in 2004, I thought I was going to make it [to the Olympics]. It's just something that's eluded me."
Former Warrior vies for Olympics
Justin Ruiz is a three-time state champion wrestler from Taylorsville High School and a former All-American at Nebraska.
Ruiz fell short of qualifying for the Olympics in 2004 and 2008, when he was upset in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials.
The 31-year-old is married and lives in Orem. He also writes a blog (justinruiz.com) containing travel pictures, training information, competition results and sponsorship.