Kennedy Blades, left, celebrates her win over Adeline Gray during...

Kennedy Blades, left, celebrates her win over Adeline Gray during a 76-kilogram bout at the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials in State College, Pa., Saturday, April 20, 2024. Blades initially struggled to fully appreciate her biggest moment on the mat. Her mind already was on Olympic gold. Credit: AP/Jackson Ranger

Kennedy Blades initially struggled to fully appreciate her biggest moment on the mat. Her mind already was on Olympic gold.

Blades, just 20 years old, defeated six-time world champion and Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Adeline Gray at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in April to qualify for the Paris Games in the 76-kilogram class.

Blades barely cracked a smile, already thinking ahead to possibly becoming the third American woman to win an Olympic wrestling gold.

“I felt there’s something more that I wanted," she said. "And I think I’ve just manipulated my mind to going for gold, bringing home a gold medal from the Olympics. So that (beating Gray) was just the first step."

Women's wrestling made it's Olympic debut in 2004, but the U.S. didn't earn its first gold until Helen Maroulis won at 53 kg in 2016. Tamyra Mensah-Stock followed by winning 68 kg at Tokyo 2020.

Blades, who dominates at nearly 6-feet tall in a sport that often favors stockier athletes, could be the next great star for a country where girls wrestling is the fastest-growing high school sport.

Blades solidified herself as a Paris favorite with the win over Gray, and U.S. women’s coach Terry Steiner believes she has the ability and the confidence to win it all.

U.S. Olympic women's wrestling team member Tamyra Mensah, who now...

U.S. Olympic women's wrestling team member Tamyra Mensah, who now goes by Mensah-Stock, celebrates with fans during the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials, April 10, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. Kennedy Blades looks to become the second Black woman to win gold this summer in Paris, following Mensah-Stock’s win in Tokyo in 2021. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

“We have a generational talent that we just don’t see very often,” Steiner said. “But it’s one thing having that talent and another thing being ready for the stage that she’s on. She’s just shown us the past few years that she’s ready to be on that stage.”

Blades has been a standout for years. In 2016, the Chicago native became the first Illinois girl to win an Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation championship against boys. She lost to Mensah-Stock in the finals of the Tokyo Olympic Trials in 2021 as a 17-year-old, then won a junior world championship later that year.

She said Mensah-Stock overpowered her at the trials, but it was a learning experience that helped set her course for Paris.

“It made me feel really good because I was right there,” she said. “I did get some shots on her, so my technique and everything’s right there, I think I just needed to mature a little bit. These last three years, I’ve been focusing on just maturing, wrestling smart, not letting the girls get in my head.”

The United States' Adeline Gray celebrates her gold medal win...

The United States' Adeline Gray celebrates her gold medal win in the Pan Am Games in Mississauga, Ontario, July 17, 2015. On April 20, 2024, Kennedy Blades defeated Gray at the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials, immediately making her a favorite for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

As Blades has matured, she has learned how to use her exceptional quickness and reach. Her height makes her difficult to prepare for. Blades said she can surprise opponents with holds in positions where her opponents normally think they're safe.

Blades, who is Afro-Latina, said she was happy when Mensah-Stock became the first Black woman to win a wrestling gold medal. Blades said she is proud to represent several groups, including women and young people — but she wants to inspire all. She noted the importance of representation while telling the story of a young girl who noticed they looked alike and had the same kind of hair. The girl said she wants to be just like Blades and looks forward to watching her in Paris.

“It gave me butterflies," Blades said.

Steiner said another young person, Amit Elor, has helped Blades reach this point. Elor, the U.S. Olympic qualifier at 68 kg., won world titles in 2022 and 2023. Like Blades, Elor is just 20 years old.

Blades said her younger sister, Korina, has also helped her prepare. Korina is 10 months younger and was an under-15 world champion in 2019 and a junior world bronze medalist in 2021. Injuries kept her out of the Olympic trials.

“It’s always nice because having each other, we kind of make each other a better version by competing," Kennedy Blades said. "But we compete in the best way as far as just to help each other grow. She’s been a really big part of my journey, and I’m super grateful for her.”

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