John Harvard's Journal
Last and Best
Wrestling's Bode Ogunwale could have won it all.
In sports, as in life, a momentary twist of fate can change everything that follows. So it is with wrestler Olabode “Bode” Ogunwole ’07 (pronounced bo-day o-goow-o-lay), who began his senior year as the number-two ranked college heavyweight in the United States, second only to last year’s NCAA champion, the University of Minnesota’s Cole Konrad.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Though he had never wrestled Conrad, Ogunwole had a realistic chance of dethroning him and winning the national championship this March at the NCAA tournament. Ogunwole started his final campaign with an 11-0 mark, including two tournament victories, at the All Star Classic in Dallas and the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. But late in January, in a scramble during a match at Lehigh, he suffered a torn triceps tendon. The only option was surgery, with a six-month recovery perioda sad end to his college wrestling career.
Ogunwole was not an obvious candidate to contend for a national wrestling title. As a youth, he did a lot of acting, and played piano; in fact, he still plays piano, mostly classical. He’s a soft-spoken, bespectacled biochemistry concentrator, a pre-med interested in research. His parents, John and Stella, are native-born Nigerians who came to college in the United States, and aren’t especially athletic. But at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland, Ogunwole tried football and performed rather well as a nose guard on the defensive line. A wrestling coach asked if he’d like to try out. “I went out for the team and enjoyed it,” he says, “and I’ve never stopped competing. I like the fact that the pressure is on you individually to win matches to help your team out.”
Typically, that pressure would fall on Ogunwole’s shoulders because, in dual meets, heavyweight events are wrestled last, so their result can decide the match. There are 10 weight classes in college wrestling, beginning at 125 pounds, and the rules ensure that, among the lighter athletes, opponents differ in weight by no more than eight pounds. The classes widen slightly for heavier grapplers, rising to a 13-pound span for the 197-pound class, which falls between the 184-pounders and heavyweights. But no class admits as wide a range as the heavyweight, whose 87-pound bandwidth ranges from 198 to 285 pounds. (It is not “unlimited,” though, and some heavyweights must lose weight to compete; no sumo wrestlers need apply.) “At the heavyweight level, there are so many variations of body types,” explains head wrestling coach Jay Weiss. “There are really big guys who are slow, and smaller heavyweights, around 220, who win with agility. But Bode is enormously strong, and also so athletic: he’s got an unusual combination of speed, agility, and quickness to go with his size.”
At 5 feet, 11 inches and 260 pounds, Ogunwole does not impress one as an enormous man, but he does project a formidably solid presence and it is easy to imagine that he would be a tough guy to topple. He is big enough, however, that the Crimson wrestling room has sometimes run out of men for him to practice against; football linemen Frank Fernandez III ’07 and Matt Drazba ’08, both of whom wrestled in high school, have at times volunteered as sparring partners. (This year, freshman heavyweight Andrew Knapp provided an option.)
Ogunwole won his matches mostly by points, not pins. “In high school, heavyweights seem to have the most pins, but that’s not true in college,” he explains. “I’m not a big pinner.” Only five of his 24 victories last year came via falls. “I’m better on my feet,” he continues, “and can get a good amount of takedowns” (see box). “It’s very hard to score on Bode,” says Weiss. “He has not been taken down many times in his entire career.”
In his last two years at Georgetown Prep, Ogunwole went undefeated, twice winning the National Prep Wrestling Tournament. At Harvard, he made his mark immediately: he was Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2004 as well as Freshman of the Year at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championships, where he placed third. He qualified for the NCAA tournament, where he went all the way to the quarterfinals. As a sophomore, he posted a 25-7 record, came in fifth at the EIWA, and again qualified for the NCAA tournament, making it to the round of 16.
That spring, Ogunwole won the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées junior nationals in Las Vegas, a freestyle tournament. (Freestyle wrestling, an Olympic event, has slightly different rules than college wrestling.) Thus he qualified to represent the United States at the Junior World Championships in July 2005 in Lithuania. “It was a pretty great experience to see that culture, and to compete at that level,” he says. “It gave me a level of confidence that I had been lacking before.” Ogunwole won his first four bouts at the junior worlds, then lost to a Georgian in the semifinals, but beat a Turk to finish third.
Last year, Ogunwole went 32-8, won the EIWA heavyweight title, and rode an 18-match winning streak into the NCAAs, where he captured all-American honors with a sixth-place finish. (In wrestling, the NCAA’s top eight finishers are designated all-Americans.) That took a stalwart effort, because he was upset in the first round by a grappler he was favored to beat; he then won four bouts in the “wrestle-backs” to attain his sixth-place finish.
Harvard’s team, which Ogunwole says has improved every year, in fact had five wrestlershalf the squadqualify for last year’s NCAAs. They included Robbie Preston ’07 at 133, Max Meltzer ’07 at 141, Andrew Flanagan ’09 at 157, and Louis Caputo ’09 at 184. Freshman J.P. O’Connor at 149 may well make the big show this year, too. Despite the Crimson’s strong squad, winning the Ivies, where Cornell and Penn are perennial powers, is a huge challenge. These two colleges have won or shared the Ivy championship every year since the 1986-87 season. The lone exception in the past two decades was the 2000-01 season, when a third contender muscled in to share the title with Penn and Cornell. That interloper was Harvard.
Should the Crimson make another such run this year, a big reason will still be Ogunwole, who’s in his second year as the team’s tri-captain. “He’s a great leader, a quiet leader,” says Weiss. “He cares more about his teammates and their progress than his individual results. Bode’s leadership will need to be more evident now that he is injured. It pushes everyone else to appreciate every opportunity since he can no longer strive towards his goals on the mat. The team is rallying behind him and want to win for Bode. That just shows you how important he is to each and every one of these guys.”
Anatomy of a Takedown
A wrestling match begins with both athletes standing; if one can score a “takedown,” landing the other on the mat and establishing control over him there, he’ll be awarded two points. The simplest way is simply to seize the opponent’s torso and throw him down onto his back, but “I don’t like throwing too much,” says Bode Ogunwole. “It’s not my style.”
Photographs by Stu Rosner
His style is to attack the opponent’s leading leg, the one closer to him. Moving quickly, he encircles the opponent’s thigh with two hands and takes a step forward into the body. “You want to lock your hands together,” he explains, “and push your head up into his chest, so you are looking upward.” (Otherwise, an opponent could “smack the back of your head,” he explains, pushing the attacker’s head down, kicking backwards with his feet, then shoving the attacker face down onto the mat.)
Instead, with your back straight up and legs moving forward into him, lift the leg you have gripped up to hip or chest height. Wrestlers have good balance and at this point, most of them will still be standing. But not after you “trip their other leg with your free foot,” Ogunwole advises. The result will be a two-point takedown.