Elzen wrestles through chronic knee problems

Anthony Maggio

Minnesota wrestler Owen Elzen never comes home from practice empty handed.

The 197-pound senior has three ice bags with him when he returns from a day on the mats, which helps to curb the pain in his knees. This is what he has to do.

In addition, Elzen goes to practice an hour before it starts so he can get treatment for his knees, and stays an hour after for the same reason.

This is what he has to do.

“You don’t get through a season – you don’t get through a week – without having something that hurts real bad,” Elzen said.

Elzen wrestled a majority of last year’s campaign, his junior season, with a torn ACL in his right knee. In spite of this obstacle, he finished third in the Big Ten and NCAA at 197 pounds, tallying a 30-3 overall record while earning his first All-America citation.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Elzen said of performing with the pain. “It wasn’t something that had to be done right away. As long as I could compete and be a contributor to the team, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Elzen continued all season without complaint as if nothing was wrong. And this wasn’t the first time he wrestled hurt. As a freshman, he wrestled in a tournament with the same ailment.

“It’s a great story for the team or whoever when you’re just talking about stories of courage or being able to wrestle with pain,” assistant coach Marty Morgan said.

Making it through last season can be partly attributed to his demeanor. In the broad sense, Elzen is diligent.

He never misses practice. When the team gets a day off, he works out. He spends up to two hours a day before and after practice in the training room getting treatment for knees which have been operated on five times in Elzen’s career.

Elzen’s work ethic is one part innate, one part learned. While an underclassman, he watched the likes of former All-Americans Brandon Eggum and Tim Hartung.

According to Morgan, the physically imposing Elzen has become extremely regimented, much like two-time NCAA Champion Hartung, who also wrestled at 197 pounds.

“They know what they’re bringing with them on trips,” Morgan said. “They know what they’re going to eat, and even when they’re going to bed.”

With the lessons Elzen learned from his predecessors and the experience he has gained over three seasons, the senior is posting career numbers.

Elzen has a 26-2 record and already has eight pins on the year. He had nine all of last season.

Head coach J Robinson attributes Elzen’s success to a newfound self-confidence.

“He was wrestling against Michigan, got taken down, but didn’t panic or lose his focus,” Robinson said. “He just very methodically got up and did what he had to do. That’s a statement of self-confidence. That shows you where a kid is.”

Elzen’s self-confidence stems primarily from overcoming last season’s injury. But his trials have helped teammates reach for their full potential as well.

“Him being hurt was a motivator knowing that he was doing everything he could to wrestle, even though he was hurting,” said Leroy Vega, Elzen’s teammate and roommate. “It made you think, ‘Hey, he’s going to go out there hurt; I’m not even hurt. I better go out there and give more than what he can give.'”

To become a national champion, which is Elzen’s final goal, he must accomplish something no college wrestler has done, defeat Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson.

The Cyclone’s 197-pound three-time national champion has never lost a match in his college career. Last weekend he tied Iowa State’s career mark with his 150th victory.

Elzen is currently ranked third in the nation but has never faced Sanderson.

“Elzen getting to the finals with Sanderson is definitely realistic,” Morgan said. “But being able to beat Sanderson would be basically compared to the Miracle on Ice in 1980.”

Elzen doesn’t mention Sanderson, though, even when talking about the possibility of a national championship. He instead focuses on his team.

“That would cap everything off – an individual title and a team title,” Elzen said. “Getting some guys in there to win some national championships too, that would be perfect.”

Robinson said if there’s anyone who has a chance to beat Sanderson, it’s his quiet senior.

No matter what the final outcome, Robinson will have only the highest respect for Elzen, considering what Elzen has overcome in his Gophers career.

“He did what he had to do,” Robinson said. “That’s the true statement of a champion and the true statement of greatness. He never used it as an excuse, not once ever.

“I don’t think there’s a higher compliment than to say to a kid he did what he had to do.”

Anthony Maggio covers wrestling and
welcomes comments at
[email protected]