Mekhi Lewis, the first NCAA wrestling champion in Virginia Tech history, will not compete for the Hokies in the upcoming school year.
Virginia Tech announced Tuesday that Lewis will redshirt the 2019-20 season to train for the Olympic trials, which will be held in April.
“This is the best thing for him in his development, in an effort to try and get him to where we think he can be,” Tech coach Tony Robie said in a phone interview. “If we didn’t think he had a realistic shot of making the team, we wouldn’t have done it.
“Obviously it’s going to affect our team next year, there’s no question about that. You can’t take a guy like that out of your lineup and not have it negatively impact your team. But I think in the big scheme of things, I think it’s the best thing for him and ultimately I think it’ll be the best thing for our program in time.”
Lewis will not attend Virginia Tech in the 2019-20 school year but will still train in Blacksburg.
Lewis, who would have been a third-year sophomore in the 2019-20 season, can get an NCAA waiver so he won’t lose a year of eligibility. The NCAA permits athletes who train for certain competitions, such as the Olympic trials, to retain a year of eligibility. Lewis is not only a 2019 NCAA champ but also a former junior world champ, so he qualifies for an “Olympic redshirt” in not one but two ways.
Lewis won the NCAA title at 165 pounds as a redshirt freshman in March. He was named the most outstanding wrestler of the tournament.
“After speaking with my coaches, mentors and family, I feel like I’m ready to jump into this Olympic year with both feet,” Lewis said in a Tech news release. “I didn’t take this decision lightly. I understand that making the 2020 Olympic team and competing for Team USA in Tokyo will be difficult, but I know that deep down I can get the job done.”
Lewis will seek to qualify for the trials in the 74-kilogram class.
He won gold for the United States at that weight class at the 2018 junior world championships in Slovakia last September.
It marked only the third time Lewis had competed in a freestyle tournament — the kind of wrestling found in the Olympics, as opposed to the folkstyle brand of high school and college wrestling.
“[Redshirting] allows him to not take classes and … really focus on freestyle wrestling exclusively, … because it’s a different sport,” Robie said.
The Olympic trials will be held just two weeks after the NCAA championships.
“We just felt it’d be very difficult for him to emotionally get up for the NCAA championships and then turn around and emotionally get up for the Olympic team trials,” Robie said. “That and the fact that he still has to qualify for the trials. There are various events he can go to to qualify for the Olympic team trials, but a lot of those events coincide with the college wrestling season.”
Only the winner at the trials in each weight class will make the Olympic team. The favorite at 74 kilograms is Jordan Burroughs, who won Olympic gold at that weight class in 2012. He also competed in the 2016 Olympics. Burroughs beat Isaiah Martinez in June to earn a berth in this year’s senior world championships.
Martinez won the weight class at the world team trials in North Carolina in May to earn a crack at Burroughs.
Lewis did not compete in the world team trials, but that event did get him thinking seriously about the Olympic trials.
“Watching the other guys compete at his weight class got him excited about it,” Robie said
Lewis will spend most of his time during this redshirt year practicing in the Tech wrestling room under the supervision of the Hokies coaches, thanks to the Southeast Regional Training Center. It is a U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center (usually for post-collegiate wrestlers) based out of the Tech wrestling room. It is under the direction of Robie.
Lewis will next participate in a 10-week training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. He will compete in a meet in Russia in October. His first crack at making the Olympic trials will be at a tournament in New York in November.
“He’ll have several competitions throughout the course of this year, domestically and internationally, … to help prepare him for the trials because he’s got some great guys in his weight class,” Robie said.
“It’s not going to be an easy pass. But we know he’s world class. We think he’s got the ability and drive and maturity to be in the mix to make the team.”
Lewis went 28-2 and won an ACC title last season, when he was named the ACC wrestler of the year.
Lewis’ decision leaves a hole at 165 pounds for the Hokies. Robie said it will likely be filled by three-time All-American David McFadden, who took fifth in the NCAAs at 174 pounds last season.
McFadden earned All-America honors at 165 pounds in 2016 and 2018.
Cody Hughes will likely take over at 174, said Robie.