Pinning down life: The grief


Redshirt junior Lelund Weatherspoon walks down the red carpet for his championship match in the 174-pound weight class against Oklahoma State’s Chandler Rogers. Weatherspoon won the match and became a two-time Big 12 Champion in his college career. 

Sarah Muller

Raising his hand in the air to signify his triumph, redshirt junior Lelund Weatherspoon beamed a smile to the crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He had just defeated No. 2 seed Brian Realbuto of Cornell in the first round of the NCAA Wrestling Championship.

“I said to myself before [the match], ‘I’m going to win this thing,’” Lelund said.

During the match, Realbuto managed to trap Lelund’s leg multiple times, but Lelund circled his hips as instructed by coaches and escaped. As they came to a 4-4 tie going into the third period, Lelund earned a takedown on Realbuto. As Realbuto was struggling to get up, he attempted to throw Lelund off and injured his own leg in the process.

By reigning victorious over the No. 2 seed, Lelund was given confirmation that he could take home the grand champion in his weight class: 174. This confidence spurred him to continue climbing up the bracket and let the vision of national champion become clear.

Meanwhile, Lelund was attempting to put himself in the mindset of a champion. Lelund believes his mentality set him apart from his opponents. While others saved time for media interviews and got caught up in their opponent’s abilities, he explained he had the ability to focus only on what he had to do in order to win.

“You have to take yourself to a different place almost,” Lelund said. “I felt like I was at that place because I didn’t care [about the media or my opponents].”

Lelund just wanted to listen to his coaches and wrestle.

As the tournament continued, Lelund’s competitive side would not let him forget the end goal. Lelund tunes into his inner-beast when wrestling and it was starving for a win and would not cease, even when he had time to relax between matches.

“The man on the mat … is a part of me too,” Lelund said. “I’m the man on the mat because it’s the tournament. The tournament is not over after day one.”

As day two approached, so did the semi-finals and the match that would make or break Lelund’s season. Facing Myles Martin from Ohio State, Lelund stepped onto the mat knowing if he beat Martin, he was only a match away from winning the whole tournament. 

The two didn’t make it easy on each other, dancing around the mat like it was carefully planned choreography. However, when Martin started taking Lelund down again and again, the score looked discouraging.

As the whistle blew, Lelund watched his season shatter.

“I can’t be the national champion this year,” Lelund thought immediately.

He didn’t have to turn to the scoreboard to know that Martin beat him 8-2. Instead, all the sound around him muffled as the shock set in.

He stood up and approached his coaches, who critiqued his moves on the mat.

“[I’m] not trying to hear that right then. [My] mind is still elsewhere,” Lelund said, ignoring the muted conversation between them.

Lelund grabbed his things and walked back to the hotel. His phone began to light up with calls and text messages of people congratulating him on how far he had come. However, a civil war began to brew within his mind.

“Was I in a funk or something?” Lelund began questioning himself. “I’m not in a funk so what the f— happened, Lelund? I’m mad at you because you lost. You brought this on yourself. You didn’t do the things you were able to do.”

Meanwhile, he refused to hear any more opinions from those who thought his match was anything to be proud of. Lelund, mired in his disappointment, had no desire to look at the positive. The only person who was brutally honest was his oldest brother, Doug Weatherspoon.

“We can’t go back and change what happened, but we can definitely start preparing for March [2017] right now,” Doug said.

He continued by giving Lelund advice on his footwork and reaction time as well as some football drills that would help with those moves.

“At some parts in our life, we are not prepared for our potential,” Doug said. “We can’t realize our potential ’till our minds are there and then we can start achieving those things.”

Getting tired of pressing ignore on his cellphone, Lelund put it on airplane mode and stuck headphones in his ear. He began to run on a treadmill, reflecting on the match that broke his heart. 

He remembered family, teammates and coaches all reminding Lelund to stay focused and keep his winning streak going. While Lelund felt ready to wrestle before the match, his eagerness didn’t make up for the mistake he made on the mat.

“I got my head out of the game,” Lelund confessed.

Facing his opponent during the semifinals, Lelund didn’t see the match in front of him, but let his mind wander to the finals. Consciously knowing he was getting off task, Lelund tried to force himself to home in.

“Instead of one match at a time, I started looking ahead, which I wasn’t supposed to do,” Lelund said.

He reminisced on how his success had evolved over the years. If third-grade Lelund saw himself now, he would be proud of himself for reaching his goals, but he would throw a fit since he didn’t get what he wanted, Lelund said.

“Middle-school Lelund would be happy but not satisfied,” Lelund acknowledged. “High school would be pleased but still not satisfied. Right now, I’m not even satisfied. I’m just angry.”

Returning to their rooms the evening after their losses, Lelund, Earl Hall and Patrick Downey — all three gaining All-America titles — reflected on their day.

“I’m pissed off,” Lelund explained to his friends. “There are no other words to describe it. I’m mad. I’m mad because I let myself down, and I didn’t achieve my goals.”

Downey, a sophomore, was appreciative to even gain any title, but still was uneasy, even though he was not favored to win.

“Being All-American is great, but you show up and you train to be a national champion,” Downey said. “No matter how you look at it you still kind of got this sour taste in your mouth, but at the same time from my perspective, I have to be happy with what I did accomplish.”

While Lelund was also grateful to gain the All-America recognition, he was not satisfied.

“An All-America honor is good,” Lelund said. “I got one of the two [titles], but it’s not what I wanted.”

Downey understands Lelund’s anger toward himself because wrestling is such an individual sport. The only person responsible for the results is the wrestler on the mat.

“Any time you win or lose in this sport you have to have a short memory,” Downing said.

He explained that when they wrestle the matches individually, one match might go very well while the next is a complete defeat, creating an emotional roller coaster.

Hall recalled losing at nationals and the heartbreak that came with it, since he is a senior.

“I went into the locker room, and I looked at [ISU Coach Kevin Jackson] and it hurt my heart,” Hall said. “One thing him and I talked about all year was, ‘Don’t be that one athlete [Jackson] coached, have all the talent in the world, but not be able to get that national title.’”

Hall had seen the years of successful athletes who Jackson coached, all making it to nationals and gaining the titles they wanted, and Hall felt like he had disappointed.

All three of the teammates desired to be supportive of each other, but Hall explained the need to self-evaluate.

“I have to take care of me first before I can make sure the boys are fine,” Hall said. “[I told my teammates], ‘It’s just another day on the block. It’s another tournament.’ We have to live in the moment.”

Even three weeks after returning home from nationals with an All-America title and sixth place in his weight class, Lelund continued to dwell on what could have been.

Now comes the transition for Lelund between grieving and looking forward to the future, using the defeats as momentum into next season.

“We were the underdogs,” Lelund said. “We knew this but we didn’t let it bother us because we knew what we were capable of.”

Lelund imagined his late grandfather and No. 1 cheerleader, Lee Weatherspoon, sitting next to him, giving him a silent nod, as if to say that Lelund needs to get the job done next year.

“He would congratulate me, but I know deep down inside he knows what I’m capable of,” Lelund said. “I know what I’m capable of.”