by Donald McNeil
I started wrestling when I was 8 years old, inspired by my dad who wrestled at Brown University and was an Olympic trials finalist in 1968.
I was not a great wrestler for a long time. I was a short chunky kid that not many people took too seriously. I took my beatings though, and my dad would take me all over the country. Before high school I wrestled all down the East coast and in Kansas and Texas even, far from where I lived in Massachusetts. My dad always took me to tournaments in PA and NJ, and almost every weekend throughout my youth and pre-high school career I was at a tournament somewhere or another. At many of the tournaments I did not place or did not place high (usually 3rd out of 4). I stuck with it though, and once I reached high school I had a pretty decent freshmen season 26–19 and third in the Division 2 central section in Massachusetts.
I trained hard and continued to go to tournaments throughout the offseason with my dad. The time spent with him was also quality father son time that I greatly enjoyed having something to bond with my father over. My sophomore season came, it was much more successful than my freshman campaign I won the same section and pinned the kid in the finals that placed fourth in the state tournament the year before. I was ecstatic!
The next weekend I won the division 2 state tournament and dominated the returning champ in the finals. This was one of the happiest moments of my life. All my hard work had paid off. The best thing about wrestling is that no matter how bad you are if you put in the time and effort you can become successful. I never thought I could win the state tournament; I considered sectional place winners great wrestlers. I went on to get 2nd place at the New England tournament, the highest placing in my high school’s history.
This second place plaque only made me hungrier to be more successful. I was dominating off season tournaments: I got 5th in the nation at one of the biggest national tournaments of the year. I was beating state champions handily in matches. I never thought I would reach this point of success. All of the beatings I had taken throughout my life were finally paying off. Getting your hand raised, grinding out tough matches and winning was the greatest feeling in the world to me. Then my accident happened.
While wrestling in a tournament in Virginia, an opponent slammed me into the mat on my neck, dislocating my vertebrae and paralyzing me on impact.
As soon as it happened I had no idea what was going on, and the only question in my mind was, “will I be able to wrestle again?” I had no idea that I might not be able to walk again…
My whole life had changed, I finally slowly after a week of being completely paralyzed regained some motion in my limbs, my body still felt numb, I was in an electric wheelchair for three weeks, I was doing intensive rehabilitation and lifting two pounds was a challenge for me. I had never encountered anything this hard in my entire life. My mentality that I would walk again and wrestle again was always in my mind; I never doubted that I would not be okay in the end.
After a month, I walked out of the hospital without crutches or anything. Another great accomplishment. After 8 months of intensive rehab and weightlifting, I did the impossible and found a doctor who cleared me to wrestle. It was a week before the sectional tournament I weighed 185 lbs, a lot heavier than when I won my state title at 160 lbs. I got in the required 10 practices in and my coach allowed me to wrestle at the sectional tournament. 8 months after being paralyzed I won the d2 central section for a second time at 215 lbs. Being undersized with only about two weeks of mat time since before my accident, I did what I wasn’t even sure was possible the next week when I won the state tournament again. I cried like a baby; it was the happiest moment of my life. Less than a year ago doctors told me I may never walk again and I just won my second state title.
Two years later I won a national prep title for wyoming seminary in PA, a powerhouse wrestling school. Now I wrestle at Rider University and this past year I qualified for the national tournament and gave the national champ a hell of a match the first round of the NCAA tournament. This loss has since motivated me and my only goal is to reach the podium in my final two years of collegiate wrestling. Some may doubt my ability to reach the podium, but I believe I will reach the top of the podium, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life and wrestling career it’s that if you truly believe in something and you work hard it will happen. I knew I would return to the mat and I know I will All-American at the division one level before all is said and done.
My goal may be for personal success, but I wrestle and train to inspire. I want people to hear my story and become inspired from it, perhaps people that were not lucky enough to have a second chance like me or just whoever wants to hear it and take something from it. Wrestling has taught me to be selfish in my training, but I owe everything to wrestling and want to share it with the masses. If I did not have wrestling and the drive it has given me, I would have not experienced some of the greatest moments in my life. I want people to experience moments like mine, working hard and getting what you have worked for because it is the most satisfying feeling in the world.
Donald wrestles division 1 at Rider University and was an NCCA qualifier this past year. Donald is from Plainville, Massachusetts, where he spent three years at King Philip Regional High school in Wrentham, Massachusetts, from 2005–2008. While at King Philip he won the division 2 state tournament at both 160 and 215 pounds. He was second at the New England championships to Robert “The Vermonster” Hamlin. He finished 5th at the NHSCA sophomore nationals as well. Before his senior year, he transferred to Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, PA and while there he won the prep national tournament, pinning his way through the tournament and receiving the most pins in the least amount of time and the most team points scored.
Originally published at wrestlingstories.org.