Austin O'Connor is Ready to Get Back to the Top of the NCAA Podium

Austin O'Connor at a 2021-22 dual (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki;

Not much has gone to plan for North Carolina's Austin O'Connor over the past five months, but maybe it's all part of something bigger. O'Connor tore the anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament, and lateral collateral ligament in his right knee in February and wrestled through it to hit the podium at the NCAA Championships. He had surgery after the season and most recently underwent another procedure to remove scar tissue in the injured area.

The injury zapped O'Connor of his explosiveness and limited his offense last postseason, when he slipped to eighth place at 157 pounds after winning his first NCAA title at 149 the season before. That showing then planted seeds of doubt across the college wrestling world about O'Connor's ability to get back to the top of the podium.

The recent complications have since made the start of next season murkier as O'Connor races to get healthy, though he admits being ready for the Tar Heels' first action of the season might not be possible.

O'Connor has opted to return for his sixth season to right the wrongs and work toward winning a second NCAA title. At the same time, he has shifted from his original plan to be a three-time NCAA champ to settling for a shot at No. 2 and refocusing on his next chapter, which includes getting a master's degree and later taking a grad assistant role at UNC.

"I always had it in the back of my mind that I would come back because I just had an extra year of eligibility," O'Connor said. "Growing up, college was a big step for me and my wrestling career, so I always wanted to see how well I could do. I already got one national title, so I wanted to make it two and then three. Obviously, this year didn't work out as I planned, but I battled an injury and still got on the podium.

"People are already starting to doubt me for next season. I want to show them that I should have won it last year if I was healthy, and I'm going to win it again."

Austin O'Connor in the 2021 NCAA semifinals (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki;

O'Connor debuted in Intermat's preseason national rankings at No. 7 at 157 pounds, which he said was more amusing than it was insulting. Working off results from late last season, the ranking made sense but might not have given O'Connor full credit for the injury and what he accomplished when he won an NCAA title in 2020-'21 and placed third in 2018-'19. The same could have been said about the No. 11 seed he got for last season's NCAA Championships.

Either way, O'Connor isn't doing all this work and rehab to allow himself to get caught up with rankings because he believes the ball is in his own court. In his mind, if he gets healthy and wrestles the way he knows he can, another NCAA title is his for the taking.

"I think it was funny that I was ranked No. 7," he said. "My coaches thought it was a little funny, too. This weekend at practice, they posted it on the wall and circled my name at No. 7. And it was just a little bit of a joke because, I mean, we all know that I'm better than that and that I'm going to perform when the time comes. All I've got to do is heal up a little bit first, and then it's on to start proving people wrong."

In a way, O'Connor's decision to push through the knee injury - and certainly his decision to wrestle in the ACC Championships without a brace - is fueling those very doubts. If he would have medically forfeited to NC State's Ed Scott in the ACC finals, maybe his NCAA seeding would have been impacted less. Or maybe if he had taken the easier route and not competed at all, his reputation as an NCAA champ would have been better protected.

Stepping away from a fight has never been in O'Connor's nature, though, and the 3-2 loss to Scott, who earned the No. 4 seed at NCAAs, in the ACC finals was a perfect example. And while he said he quite literally couldn't attempt a leg attack against Scott and lost a tight decision, O'Connor also got valuable experience that helped him wrestle back from a sudden-victory loss to Citadel's Dazjon Casto in the first round at NCAAs.

"I feel like in the sport of wrestling, all wrestlers have battled adversity in the past," O'Connor said. "It was no different for me. I never really had the idea that I was going to sit out and let a kid have it. I'm going to make him fight for a win no matter if I'm injured or not."
Austin O'Connor, with a large brace, in the first round at the 2022 NCAA Championships (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki;

The inability to quit has clearly made O'Connor one of the premier wrestlers in the country and should serve him well no matter where life takes him in the future. But that physical and mental toughness might be an immediate asset if his current plan comes to fruition to move to California after graduation and start mixed martial arts training.

Through Tar Heels coach Coleman Scott, O'Connor has forged a relationship with Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer and current color commentator Daniel Cormier, who was an NCAA finalist during his time at Oklahoma State. Cormier noticed O'Connor's temperament and style three years ago and reached out to Scott about him, though O'Connor said his coach kept the call from him until he independently asked to connect with Cormier.

"The year before I even won NCAAs, he was calling up Coleman like, 'Hey, I love how this kid wrestles. He's a mean dude. What are his plans for after college?'" O'Connor said. "So, he's been on me for a while now, and I think he's excited to get me out there. He's always on the phone with me, telling me that he's ready to have me out there. I think it was a little difficult that I stayed in college another year - he wanted me out there training already - but he understood it and I think he'll be ready when I decide to come out there."

O'Connor has spent time learning the ropes with Cormier and might have spent more time this summer on MMA training had he not been forced to rest and rehab his knee. That was all part of his series of recent first-hand experiences that were further confirmation that even the best-laid plans are bound to change, so O'Connor continues to build layers of contingencies for when his UNC career ends.

He is set to start getting his master's in education, then plans to spend a year as a graduate assistant and volunteer coach, which should allow him to train for the 2024 Olympics. He is also well-positioned to launch an MMA career under the tutelage of a Hall of Famer.

First thing is first, though. O'Connor is back at North Carolina for one thing only.

"I'm doing everything I can to get my knee healthy and get back on the mat as soon as possible because I want to do big things next year," he said. "Not only do I want to go for a national title, I think I have a chance at getting a Hodge. That's something I would love to do."

Austin O'Connor in the 2021 NCAA finals (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki;


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