LAS VEGAS For the second straight time, Justin Ruiz's Olympic wrestling dreams ended one match shy.
Favored to claim the 96-kilogram Greco-Roman division at this weekend's U.S. Olympic wrestling team trials at the Thomas & Mack Center, Ruiz the five-time U.S. Nationals champion who was a three-time Utah prep state champion at Taylorsville High was upset Sunday night in the best-of-three championship series match by Adam Wheeler.
Wheeler, who has never won a national championship, is now Beijing-bound for the 2008 Summer Games.
For Ruiz, it was a devastating repeat of his fortunes in the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials, when he also finished as the runner-up.
Because he is the current U.S. Nationals champ and had won a World Championship medal in the past three years (a bronze in 2005), Ruiz was automatically put in the championship series, while Wheeler had to work his way Sunday in the eight-man Challenge series to earn the right to face Ruiz in the finals.
The two split their first two matches Wheeler decisioning Ruiz 2-2, 1-1, 1-2 in the first match and Ruiz needing only two periods and scores of 3-0 and 4-0 to pull even and force a third match.
Ruiz took the first period by scoring the final point in the 1-1 period, while Wheeler claimed the second by scoring the final point in the 2-2 draw. The latter claimed the third period 2-0 with late-period points, winning the match, the championship series and the Olympic team berth.
The former Taylorsville High star, who earned All-American honors for two seasons at the University of Nebraska despite interrupting his collegiate career to serve an LDS Church mission, was wrestling for the New York Athletics Club. He had made the United States' World Team four straight years and was looking to take the step up to the Olympic level.
Wheeler, of Lancaster, Calif., had finished second to Ruiz at both the 2005 and 2007 World Team trials. The third-place finisher at the U.S. Nationals earlier this year, Wheeler was a three-time U.S. Nationals runner-up in the 96-kilogram Greco-Roman class.