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'It's going to be hard to forget me': Austin O'Connor's second national title cements his place in UNC history

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Austin O'Connor celebrates during his 157-pound national championship match against Levi Haines of Penn State. O'Connor defeated Haines 6-2. Photo Courtesy of Dave Crenshaw and UNC Athletic Communications. 

Heading into his final season at North Carolina, Austin O’Connor felt disrespected. 

The sixth-year wrestler was fresh off a graduate campaign that was cut short by a “torn-up knee.” Despite being forced to medically forfeit in the NCAA Tournament last year, the 157-pound competitor placed eighth overall. 

But on Saturday, March 18, O’Connor became a national champion for the second time in his career after defeating Penn State’s Levi Haines by a 6-2 decision. For a feat that, on the surface, appears to be the pinnacle of a near year-long recovery, O’Connor sees it as the ultimate reward of a two-decade long career.

Shortly after the conclusion of last year’s disappointing season, O’Connor underwent surgery to repair his right knee. Despite O’Connor being a former NCAA champion, many national polls foresaw a decline in his play and tabbed him a preseason No. 7 ranking.

“I thought it was a joke, like how do you win a national title and then the next year have a completely torn knee,” head coach Coleman Scott said. “You know it’s not (O’Connor’s) full self and the people who you have actually beaten (when injured) are above you in the preseason rankings.”

In response, Scott jotted down the six names ranked ahead of O’Connor and taped the list on the wall near the mat O’Connor practiced on. According to Scott, the list stayed up for several months. 

“(When O’Connor) saw it, he was like, ‘Who put this shit up here, this is bulls---,’’’ Scott said. “But he left the list up there. That’s when I knew it hit him differently.”

Midwest upbringing

Growing up in eastern Illinois, O’Connor was engulfed by Big Ten wrestling from a young age. The conference houses blue-blood programs such as Iowa and Penn State and is responsible for the past 16 national team titles.

O’Connor attended St. Rita of Cascia High School, where his head coach was Dan Manzella, a former wrestler at the University of Illinois. Manzella figured O’Connor would follow in his footsteps and become a Fighting Illini wrestler one day. 

According to Manzella, O’Connor’s attack set him apart on the mat early on. The then-teenage O’Connor possessed a tenacity and aggressive style that even rivaled college competitors.

“The one thing that he has — and he’s always had — that nobody can match, even at the Division I level, is his physicality,” Manzella said. “In high school, after every match when the opponent would come and shake my hand, it looked like he had been in a car accident.”

The eventual four-time Illinois state champion soon began to receive offers from local powerhouses including Illinois and Missouri. Considering the success of nearby universities, luring O’Connor out of the Midwest seemed like an impossible task. 

But when the nationally-ranked prospect had his first phone call with Scott, O’Connor’s recruitment process was all but over. 

“I’ll never forget the look on his face after the first conversation (with Scott),” Manzella said. “It looked like he was about to tell me he was breaking up with me. It was so hard for him to tell me, but right away he knew he wanted to go to North Carolina.”

‘It was sort of a relief’

After redshirting in his year in Chapel Hill, O’Connor made his first national splash as a redshirt first-year.

The 149-pound competitor finished third at the 2019 NCAA championships and secured his first All-American status. O’Connor also became the highest first-year finisher in UNC history. 

Yet, O’Connor’s early success was more than just a testament to the newfound talent he brought to a budding North Carolina program. It provided Scott with the assurance that the club he set out to rebuild was heading in the right direction.

“It was sort of a relief or an affirmation,” Scott said. “You always need those, an affirmation that we are doing the right things as a program.”

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the NCAA Tournament, O’Connor won his first national title. In a battle against top-ranked Sammy Sasso, O’Connor fended off a last-second takedown to claim UNC’s first title since 1995.

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The following season, O’Connor made the jump to the 157-pound division. In a year that saw him secure a 21-3 overall record, any strides made by O’Connor were overshadowed by the gruesome knee injury he suffered late in the season. 

O’Connor had surgery on his knee a few weeks after the season ended, and Scott said the All-American was ready every day to complete his rehab exercises to the fullest. In addition to the advice given by UNC’s athletic training staff, O’Connor heeded the words of those closest to him, including Manzella. 

“I would just remind him, ‘Nobody gives a s--- that your knee hurts,’” Manzella said. “(I told him) to do something about it, and to get better.” 

‘Hard to forget me now’

O’Connor made his long-awaited return to team duals in mid-December against Appalachian State. Over the next three months, he worked his way to an undefeated finish in the regular season before eventually returning to the NCAA final to face Haines.

Both wrestlers were locked into a scoreless bout after two periods, but O’Connor held a substantial advantage in riding time. After quickly escaping to begin the final period, O’Connor prevailed with a pair of key takedowns to claim a 6-2 win.

As he rose up one final time, O’Connor stared into the Tulsa, Okla., crowd of nearly 17,000 spectators. Slowly, the two-time champion placed an imaginary crown on his head and pounded his chest while emphatically claiming, “I’m back.”

“That’s carrying 20 years of emotion, sacrifice and just hard work, and it all paying off,” O’Connor said. “Not only to do it one time, but two times is a special feeling.”

When asked about how he would describe his career at the end of last season, O’Connor wanted his time as a Tar Heel to be seen as "legendary.” One year later, he still holds a similar sentiment, but one with a bit more clarity.

“I’d definitely say my career was successful, but it wasn’t what I set out to do — I wanted to be a four-time national champ,” he said. “I came here and accomplished a feat that not many people in their lifetime get to accomplish.”

After winning his second national title and becoming the first five-time All-American honoree at UNC, O’Connor’s place in history is set. 

Throw out any lists, especially the one Coleman inked months ago. O’Connor knows where he stands now — and forever — within the wrestling world. 

“It’s going to be hard to forget me now,” he said. “I’m going to be a legend at UNC.”


@dthsports |