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Donny Wichmann: One of a kind

For Donny Wichmann, a former Augsburg College All-American wrestler and longtime assistant coach, the summer of 2015 was coming to a close like every other summer, biking in the mountains of Colorado.

Donny Wichmann was inducted into the Augsburg Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010 (Photo/Augsburg College)
It has become an annual, late summer pilgrimage for Donny and his wife Mindy. The married couple bikes in the mountains, and finishes their trip by biking from Idaho Springs to the top of Mount Evans. It's a 28-mile climb that reaches 14,000 feet. Mount Evans is considered to be the highest paved road in North America.

Donny felt sick during this year's ride up Mount Evans, which was a little strange considering that he had never previously had a problem with altitude sickness. He couldn't keep his left hand on the handlebars. It kept slipping off. At about 11,000 feet he came down with a bad headache.

"I knew something was really funky that day," said Donny.

Less than two weeks after returning from his trip to Colorado, Donny went for his regular Thursday night bike ride on a 70-degree night in the Twin Cities. It's a 37-mile trip that he usually bikes with Mindy, but that day she biked earlier because of a commitment that night, so Donny biked solo.

With about 14 miles left, Donny felt the left side of his body go tingly as he biked down Summit Avenue in St. Paul near Macalester College. The 49-year-old Minnesota native eased over to the side of the road. A short time later the tingly feeling went away and Donny biked home. When he returned home he told his wife what had happened. Mindy thought it would be a good idea to go to the emergency room and get it checked out.

Donny Wichmann and his wife Mindy at Mount Evans
Donny and his wife headed to the emergency room around 7:45 p.m. He explained his symptoms and was taken to the front of the line. Initially, the doctors suspected a possible heart attack or stroke. A CAT scan that night revealed a golf ball size mass on the right side of his brain. He was admitted to Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minnesota, that evening, and an MRI was scheduled for 1 a.m.

The mass in Donny's brain turned out to be a cancerous brain tumor called glioblastoma, which is considered to be the most aggressive brain tumor. It spreads into other parts of the brain quickly. Two days later, on Sunday, ninety-five percent of the brain tumor was removed through surgery.

Small town to big city

Donny Wichmann grew up in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Marshall, and started wrestling when he was in third grade. As a high school wrestler at Marshall High School, Donny qualified for the state tournament three times, and placed third in the state tournament as a senior at 119 pounds. He finished his high school wrestling career with a record of 102-13-1. After high school Donny was ready to leave Marshall and had his sights set on Minneapolis.

"I was definitely heading to Minneapolis," said Donny. "I had to get out of the small town. I was going to Minneapolis whether it was Augsburg or the U of M. Those were the two schools I looked at besides obviously Southwest [Minnesota State University], which was right in town. But I was leaving that small town and heading to the big city for sure."

In 2007, Jeff Swenson was named National Coach of the Year by the NWCA, the sixth time he has earned the honor in his 25-season career (Photo/Wyatt Schultz)
Jeff Swenson, who became Augsburg's head wrestling coach in 1980, first met Donny in the spring of 1984, Donny's senior year of high school.

"When I watched him at the state tournament I just loved the fact that he kept going after people," said Swenson, who now serves as Augsburg's athletic director. "He was this long, string bean of a wrestler."

Donny ultimately decided to attend Augsburg and wrestle for the Auggies. However, when he arrived on campus, Swenson was no longer the coach. Swenson left Augsburg to become a wrestling coach at Rosemount High School, which is located 35 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Brian Arvold took over for Swenson in 1984 and remained Augsburg's head wrestling coach for two seasons.

Donny won a conference championship as a sophomore in 1986. But that spring he was ready to leave Augsburg. The program had fallen on hard times. Augsburg went from an NCAA runner-up finish in 1984 to 16th place in 1986.

"I was just going to leave Augsburg, leave wrestling and go to Arizona State, go to school down there and enjoy the nice weather," said Donny.

Around that time Swenson was getting calls about returning to Augsburg to become the head wrestling coach again.

Swenson, while weighing his decision, met with Donny.

"I told Donny if he stayed with the program that I was going to come back as the head coach," said Swenson, a national champion wrestler at Augsburg in 1979. "That's the kind of respect that I had for Donny."

Both Donny Wichmann and Jeff Swenson made the decision to return to Augsburg.

"We shook hands and it's a handshake that lasted 30 some years," said Swenson.

Building a Division III wrestling powerhouse in Minneapolis

The Augsburg wrestling program saw immediate results when Swenson returned as head coach.

Donny and Mindy Wichmann at Augsburg wrestling's pig roast in August of 1986
"Recruiting was totally different," said Donny. "Top-notch wrestlers were coming in. He had a really good reputation from being at Rosemount. The program was making a 180. That's when we started charging forward."

Within two seasons Swenson had the Augsburg wrestling program back in the top 10. In 1989, Donny earned All-American honors with a fourth-place finish at 150 pounds in his senior season, and Augsburg finished third at the NCAAs as a team.

After graduating, Donny was hired on Swenson's staff as an assistant wrestling coach at Augsburg.

"I wanted to stay competitive in wrestling, and the way to do that was through coaching, plus I had a strong passion for Augsburg wrestling and I wasn't ready to leave yet."

Swenson knew that Donny was the perfect fit to join the coaching staff.

"I knew that he was the glue that I needed in order to come back and lead the Augsburg wrestling program after I had left it after my first four years," said Swenson. "It was always a special relationship."

Augsburg continued its ascent up the Division III wrestling ranks, finishing runner-up in 1990. In 1991, Augsburg won its first national championship in wrestling.

Donny Wichmann earned All-American honors with a fourth-place finish at 150 pounds in 1989 (Photo/Augsburg College)
"That was one of the goals we had as a coaching staff, to win a national championship," said Donny. "It finally became a reality. That was a dream just to win one title."

From 1991 through 2008, Augsburg's wrestling program captured 10 national championships and finished in the top four every season during that span.

"In my time we won 10 national championships, and I don't think it's any coincidence that Donny was part of every one of those 10 national championships," said Swenson.

Donny spent 18 years on the Augsburg wrestling coaching staff.

"We had some unbelievable teams, just a great coaching experience with Swenson, [Scott] Whirley, Bobby Adams. I learned so much from those guys," said Donny." Those are definitely high times in my life for sure."

In 2010, Donny was inducted into the Augsburg Athletics Hall of Fame for his wrestling accomplishments.

Wrestling apparel business

In 1995, Donny started a wrestling apparel business called DW Wrestling Products. The idea for a wrestling apparel company came about while driving with Swenson on a recruiting trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin. The Augsburg wrestling team was sponsored by Brute, and Swenson put Donny in touch with Tom Sculley of Brute.

"Tom helped me out, got me going that first year with wrestling gear," said Donny. "The rest is history after that."

Donny has become a staple at youth and high school wrestling events in Minnesota. He sells at wrestling tournaments virtually every weekend, Saturdays and Sundays, from the first weekend of November through May. He also sells at wrestling practices.

"He loves people, and people love him back," said Swenson, who compiled a career record of 321-44 (.879 winning percentage) as Augsburg's head wrestling coach. "Even though it's work and it's sales, I think it's something he really enjoys. And they really enjoy him. You think about seeing Donny at a youth wrestling tournament, or seeing Donny walk into your high school wrestling room to sell wrestling equipment, what's the first thing you think about? You think about that big old smile and some great warm greeting that he's going to give you. He makes everybody feel good about themselves."

Support, battle and outlook

Donny has had a strong cancer support team that includes family members and close friends ever since he was diagnosed with brain cancer in August.

Donny Wichmann leaving the hospital after surgery
"We were a team together," said Swenson, who has attended every one of Donny's appointments and taken notes, "whether it was in the waiting room waiting for him to get out of brain cancer removal surgery, or going down to Mayo [Clinic] to get second opinions, or to look at clinical trials. It was really kind of an important bonding time for us as a group, and also for a support group for Donny and Mindy."

Donny started chemotherapy and radiation 10 days after he was released from the hospital following his tumor removal surgery. He had 30 days of radiation treatments, and then had 42 days of chemotherapy. Radiation was Monday through Friday, and chemotherapy was by pill every night, including weekends.

Donny has continued biking and working throughout his treatments. The end of radiation wore him down, and the last two weeks he stopped biking and working out to save his energy levels. He was taken off his treatments until another MRI.

Those that have battled cancer -- or known people who have -- understand that the cancer battle can be a rollercoaster of emotions. The battle can be filled with positive news and negative news. Donny recently received some positive news when it was discovered through pathology results that his tumor is methylated, which means it reacts better to chemotherapy and radiation.

"Considering my situation that's like the best news you can possibly hear right now," said Donny.

Friends, family members and supporters wore Team Wichmann T-shirts at Augsburg's homecoming
Last month during Augsburg's homecoming Donny arrived to a bean bag tournament on campus that included 250 people wearing shirts bearing his name in support of him and his battle.

"Donny will fight this thing with all of his might, but Donny needs our help," said Swenson. "One thing I've found out about cancer is you don't do this alone. Donny really, really needs all of our help, our support."

Donny has been blown away by the support he has received since he was diagnosed in August.

"The Minnesota wrestling community has been unbelievable," said Donny. "I've received lots of support. Lots of people are calling me, sending me text messages. It's been unbelievable."

Swenson considers Wichmann one of his best friends and said his battle helped him better appreciate the adage to live every day like it's your last and live every day to its fullest.

Donny Wichmann and wife Mindy in Salt Lake City, Utah
"Donny Wichmann is not only the toughest person I know, but he's also the most generous person I know," said Swenson. "He's generous with his time, with any kind of resources he has. He's one of a kind. He's just a wonderful guy, and I'm so fortunate to have him in my life and to be able to call him one of my best friends ever."

Donny says he's taking it day-by-day to prolong his life as long as he can.

"I won't even allow a doctor to tell me how many years of my life I have left," said Donny. "We don't talk like that at all. I don't want to talk like that. It's just day-by-day. What do we have to do today? What do we have to do tomorrow? I'm just going to keep fighting this thing and live for every day right now. That's all I'm doing."

A GoFundMe page has been created to help support Donny Wichmann in his battle against cancer.



This story also appears in the November 13 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.

Comments

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Rugbyguy (2) about 3 and a half years ago
Keep fighting the good fight, Donny!
darin nygaard (2) about 3 and a half years ago
Hi Donnie,
I just got done watching your story. Keep up the great spirit and fight. Those days of wrestling each other doesn't seem to long ago. I have always have had a great amount a respect for you. I still remember you taking the time my senior year at state, when you made it point to encourage and help me even though your high school days were over. You have a kind heart.
Stay strong and God Bless Donnie!

Darin Nygaard
marc frontario (1) about 3 and a half years ago
I received this story from ex. Augsburg wrestler neighbor Joe Sos...I wrestled one of your guys in '89-'90 at the River falls tournament @ 125lb's he was a lean kid, short blond hair, think he was your back up...anyway, you guys had one hell of a team, it was an honor to wrestle in the same room....Keep up the fight Donny I believe u will persevere.

Happy Holidays to you and your family

Marc Frontario
marc frontario (1) about 3 and a half years ago
Forgot to mention, I was wrestling at Waldorf JC Iowa at the time.