There won’t be any shortage of motivation this weekend for Konrad Ernst.
The sophomore heavyweight and nine of his UW-La Crosse wrestling teammates will be at Augsburg College on Friday and Saturday to compete in the NCAA Upper Midwest Regional. The top three finishers at the regional earn berths into the NCAA national championship tournament; wrestling begins at 11 a.m. Friday.
Ernst (18-2) has unfinished business at the regional tourney, which is a source of fire that we’ll get to later, but another motivator for this meet will still be in La Crosse over the weekend — Ernst’s friend Erik O’Brien.
O’Brien is a sophomore at Logan High School and an adaptive sports league athlete. He has a rare genetic disorder similar to Parkinson’s which affects his motor skills and speech. He met Ernst this year through the motor development program at UW-L in which students like Ernst — a physical education-adapted physical education major — guide area high-schoolers through physical activities for a couple of hours each week. Ernst and O’Brien were paired up and formed a quick bond.
O’Brien couldn’t join the rest of his peers during a session in the swimming pool one day because of a cut, so his mother, Marlis, asked Ernst if he could show her son some wrestling moves. O’Brien has loved wrestling since being introduced to the sport by his cousin. His passion goes so far that he wears his wrestling shoes as his regular footwear. So when Ernst — who stands all of 6-foot-5 — started teaching him some basics, O’Brien was in heaven.
“He teaches me how to take them down,” O’Brien said on Wednesday. “He teaches me how to win.”
The two continued to practice techniques, and O’Brien began asking his mother to take him to see Ernst wrestle. They attended the Candlewood Suites Duals at Mitchell Hall in December and saw Ernst win an overtime match against Cornell’s Tyler Ortmann in his third match of the afternoon.
Ernst remembers seeing O’Brien in the front row of the stands.
“I saw him over there cheering and yelling … I just get the chills talking about it,” said Ernst, an Onalaska High School graduate. “It was a pretty cool moment. I look over there and think, ‘I can’t be tired. This kid battles different stuff every day. I can do this.’”
O’Brien was also in attendance in January when Ernst lost a match in double overtime to Platteville's D’Andre Johnson.
What Ernst did after the match stuck out to Marlis.
“Erik was upset, and a little teary-eyed when Konrad lost,” she said. “But Konrad came over, and you knew he was upset, too, but he was all class. He told Erik, ‘You just have to do your best, and you don’t always win.’
“I think Erik learned more from that than anything.”
Ernst was able to reciprocate O’Brien’s support by attending one of his ASL floor hockey games. O’Brien’s Logan team played Holmen on Thursday for third place in the league.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Marlis said. “He came in and gave Erik a big thumbs-up. And Erik went out and was trying even harder than usual. For Konrad to take time from his busy schedule with school and wrestling, I mean … what college kid does that?”
Ernst said his choice to attend UW-L gives him more opportunities to get involved with the community because of his knowledge of the area and its programs to help youth with disabilities.
“It’s a good reminder that it’s all bigger than wrestling,” Ernst said. “It’s definitely a cool thing. I know he gets jacked up watching him wrestle, and I’ve been to a couple of events to watch him.
“We hung out at another one of his events. Having that new friendship is pretty cool.”
Both his mom and O’Brien’s ASL coach Jessa Ellenbecker said all Erik talks about now is Ernst, and the next time he gets to see his new friend compete.
“They treat him just like any other kid,” Ellenbecker said. “They interact, and talk, and wrestle, and everything else. It’s a really special relationship.”
Ernst knows O’Brien has his back as he tries to avenge a disappointing finish to his regional meet last season. Ernst was in a position to make nationals, making the third-place match, but he lost 3-2 to Adrian’s Zac Rieger.
A picture was taken of Ernst as he walked off the mat, his final meet of what was a strong freshman season. UW-L coach Dave Malecek sent that picture to Ernst earlier this year, and Ernst uses it as his wallpaper on his phone and as the screensaver on his laptop.
“I look at that and remind myself where I don’t want to go. That encourages me to follow the right path,” Ernst said.
Ernst will have a tough road to nationals, as a shakeup in the regional structure puts all of the WIAC into the same regional. He avenged his loss to Johnson at the WIAC championships this month, but will likely see him again as the tournament progresses.
If things break bad, Ernst knows he has a willing tag-team partner.
“I would wrestle them with him if I could,” O’Brien said. “I hope he wins. I think he’ll win.”