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Wrestler for Life Story of the Week: Keeping one foot in the circle

By Wrestler for Life/USA Wrestling | June 04, 2020, 10:23 a.m. (ET)

Photo courtesy of Kevin Hartnett.

USA Wrestling’s “Wrestler for Life” program has started accepting submissions for “The Story of the Week”. It can be about anything wrestling related, whether it’s a particular wrestling match you’ll never forget, or a life lesson that the sport taught you. If your story is chosen, it will be featured on, and winners will receive a pair of USA Wrestling socks.

Send your submissions to:

This week's story is by Kevin Hartnett.

If you’re a wrestler, then at one time or another you’ve probably quoted Dan Gable’s famous proclamation that “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” I love this quote, but I’ll take the risk of adding some respectful clarification: once you’ve wrestled, some things in life are easy, and for the things that are not, wrestling will get you through them.

Life can put you in situations (almost) as difficult to deal with as a 90-minute hard drill with zero food or water in your body. Being a wrestler doesn’t make these situations “easy.” What it does is arm you with the skills needed to get through those challenging times, where almost all other people would have quit.

I wrestled for Bloomsburg University from 2010-14. Coming into my freshman year, I had acres of ground to cover since I didn’t start wrestling until 9th grade in a place where wrestling isn’t exactly the most popular sport. Fortunately, I had a pair of like-minded coaches—Rob Pavis in high school, and John Stutzman in college—who gave me everything I needed to catch up. And catch up I did. As a two-year starter, I amounted almost 90 college victories in four seasons, including wins over nationally ranked opponents and eventual Division I All-Americans, and qualified for the 2013 U.S. World Team Trials.

However, I fell far short of reaching my ultimate goal of becoming an All-American myself, getting cradled and pinned in the 2014 EWL semi-finals, thus failing to even qualify for the NCAA tournament. Aside from eating food and drinking water, making the podium was all I thought and cared about for almost a decade (in high school it was the New York State podium that eluded me). So after I lost in early March, I felt like the world was ending.

It didn’t. I perked up, and started to think about whether I would continue to wrestle at the senior level to try and make a world team. I didn’t think about it for all that long, however, once I remembered about my college loans and the fact that I was in the same weight class as Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake, and David Taylor. Instead, I did what everyone else does (theoretically) after college: I got a 9-5.

After four years or so of punching a clock and not having the types of goals that get you up in the morning (both literally and figuratively), I decided to make a big change. That big change was the decision to take the LSAT and go to law school at SUNY Buffalo.

At first, I was nervous about launching myself into such an unfamiliar world. I was used to pushing myself physically, not intellectually. I hated writing, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have the attention span required to read myself into oblivion. But like I said, wrestling equips you with a set of skills transferable to any setting. These skills include goal-setting, hard work, awareness of your strengths and weaknesses (and your opponents’), confidence, emotional intelligence, the ability to perform under pressure, the willingness to do things that suck for a sustained period of time, and many others.

I tapped back into these skills and allowed law school to consume me, just like I did with wrestling. I never missed a class or a reading assignment, sat up front and listened closely to my professors, and put in extra time. In short, I scratched, clawed, and did whatever else I had to do to catch up, again.

Eventually, I learned how to think, read, write, and speak like a lawyer. And once I decided to pick up where I left off in the 2014 EWL semi-finals and transfer that competitiveness to the law school setting, I soared. I reached the top 5% of my class, was elected Editor in Chief of my school’s scholarly publication, and landed prestigious internships and jobs. Being a wrestler didn’t make achieving all of this easy, but I couldn’t have done it if I wasn’t one.

The point is, if you find yourself struggling with the steep and abrupt drop from a highly stimulating competitive atmosphere to the tedium of “real life,” find something that lends itself to wrestling’s teachings. Make no mistake, getting your hand raised is a feeling that you will be hard-pressed to replace. But there are ways to harness and redirect that competitive energy in your newfound post-athletic world. Whether it’s an exciting new career, or being the best version of yourself to your loved ones, wrestling gives you the tools you need to succeed. The key is to always know what your goals and dreams are, and to constantly update and amend them. Just because you’ve stopped wrestling doesn’t mean you have to stop competing.