Each time UW-La Crosse senior wrestlers Reid Johnson and Sean O’Neil step onto the mat, they do so knowing that they’re likely smarter than the opponent standing across from them.
If not in wrestling — although the success they’ve had in their careers would indicate that may be the case, too — then definitely in the classroom. One can make such an assertion because Johnson and O’Neil’s academic merits speak volumes.
Johnson is a biology-biomedical science major and chemistry/pre-medicine minor, while O’Neil is a biology/pre-medicine major and Spanish minor. Both maintain 4.0 grade-point averages on top of their athletic pursuits.
Being a good student as well as an athlete isn’t rare at UW-L, but the determination shown by both Johnson and O’Neil stands out. The pair are gearing up for the last 10 weeks of their wrestling careers while applying and interviewing for medical school, a taxing grind as their undergraduate studies come to an end.
“It’s not exactly the most enjoyable lifestyles at times, but you find time for breaks for yourself,” Johnson said. “If you’re not enjoying it, it’s not worth it in the end.”
Johnson and O’Neil came to the pre-med path in different ways.
Johnson — who hails from North Branch, Minn. — said by his junior year of high school he knew his strong interest in science was pushing him toward the medical field. He chose UW-L because of its biology and pre-med programs and the opportunity to wrestle. The selflessness of medical work attracts him, he said.
“Having an impact beyond myself,” Johnson said of what directed him to the field. “If it was just for myself, I’d get sick of it. When I’m doing it for a reason beyond me, it feels like it keeps me going. Goes for wrestling, too. You get tired, you get sick of it if you’re just wrestling for yourself.”
Medicine had always been part of O’Neil’s life in Prior Lake, Minn. His mother is a physician, and she encouraged him to go to college for pre-med throughout his high school career. But he felt he needed to come to the decision on his own. After exploring his options through his freshman year, O’Neil decided on pre-med.
Trips overseas influenced and reinforced both students’ interests as well.
O’Neil traveled to Guatemala twice in high school with his aunt, studying at an international school on the two-week trips. It was there he homed his Spanish-speaking skills — he’s essentially fluent in the language, an attractive trait for a hopeful doctor. He also heard stories of people whose access to healthcare is severely limited by distance, travel means and poverty. He’s heard stories like this from around the world — O’Neil has traveled to 34 countries such as Nicaragua, Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia — and believes once he’s done with schooling, he can do things to help these people.
“I come from a very blessed background, and I’ve been blessed with intelligence that I know I can use to further the medical community and my God,” O’Neil said.
For Johnson, the chance to travel came through his college studies and a student exchange program called The Atlantis Project. He went to Estonia for four weeks, shadowing doctors and learning about the state-sponsored healthcare system there.
The pair’s average week is a seemingly constant sprint between class and workouts. Both said their day starts with either an early class or a lifting/wrestling session with UW-L coaches. After a day of class and full-team practice in the afternoon, they’ll spend a few more hours in the evening studying before unwinding.
“Social life is not quite as high as a priority,” Johnson said. “Partying and stuff like that gets thrown out the back window.”
They also help fellow students — O’Neil tutors at the university’s Student Support Services office, and both help Eagles wrestling teammates in a variety of classes.
“You won’t find two more organized and focused kids,” UW-L wrestling coach Dave Malecek said. “(Tutoring) really shows their maturity level. They can take out of their free time that they have very little of, and they can still help our guys. They volunteer, they’re servant-leader types. They just always step up when needed.”
All of that focus can come at a cost, though.
It’s not easy to dedicate the time necessary to be as successful as they are as students and athletes. And at the Division III level, when academics come first and athletes pay to play their sport, the idea to give up wrestling has entered both young men’s minds.
“I don’t think anyone in this room hasn’t had a doubt about whether they should keep going or whether it’s worth it or not,” O’Neil said. “I’ve definitely had those thoughts before. Some weeks and some months are easier than others, and some situations are frustrating.”
O’Neil said after a knee injury his freshman year was the closest he came to ending his wrestling career. But a feeling that he hadn’t given everything he had yet to the sport drew him back. Good thing, too, as he is the No. 7 ranked wrestler at 184 pounds in Division III by Intermat Wrestling and is 8-1 this year.
Johnson even had an academic advisor suggest that perhaps it’d be best to call it quits, but said the life lessons he gets from wrestling are worth staying out.
“We know wrestling’s second here,” Malecek said. “Those guys have big aspirations in the medical field. So we as coaches know they’re going to miss some practices, or a meet, or a workout. We have to be very willing to allow that.”
Johnson (2-0, 141 pounds) has missed some practices and meets in the early part of the season due to medical school interviews at Johns Hopkins and West Virginia in November. He also interviewed at University of Massachusetts in September.
O’Neil is waiting to hear back on his applications; January and February are busy interview times for medical schools. O'Neil, who is engaged, will be busy next summer, too, as he is getting married.
Both wrestlers have big goals for their final run in the sport — both want to earn All-American status, i.e. top eight at the national meet. Both want to help UW-L win another conference championship. Those goals come with the knowledge that to achieve them, it will take another 10 weeks of the focus that’s gotten them to this point.
“There’s a quote that says, ‘Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’ I feel that,” O’Neil said. “I’ve only got to focus for two more months. I’ve been focusing on my wrestling career for years and years. I just want to know I put in all my effort. Whatever happens, All-American or not, I’ll be satisfied taking off my shoes.”
Johnson echoed those thoughts.
“I’m putting it all out there and not having any regrets. That’s not about having a bad match or anything like that, it’s about putting in the work I need to,” Johnson said. “There are days where I don’t want to go do it, but I just have to push through it and go. You can’t guarantee yourself success, you don’t know what can happen, but you can put yourself in the best position. That’s all I can really ask for.”