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Keegan O’Toole Q+A: Tiger Style, hometown pride, mental training and more

by Joe Wedra, USA Wrestling

Photo of Keegan O'Toole by Kadir Caliskan/United World Wrestling

This year, will interview one collegiate wrestling athlete each Thursday as a part of a new Q&A series for the 2021-22 college wrestling season. Stay tuned each Thursday for a new feature, spotlighting these student-athletes both on and off the mat.

In this week’s college athlete Q+A, we sit down with Missouri’s Keegan O’Toole to discuss a wide range of topics. Below, O’Toole, a 2021 Junior World champion and 2021 NCAA All-American, discusses the Tiger Style culture, the value of mental training in his wrestling, being a product of the state of Wisconsin, and more.

Q: First, with the Missouri program on such a rise nationally, can you talk about your decision to make the program your home for college?

A: My wrestling coaches, Ben and Max, they both went to Missouri, and I saw what they did with the program. They were ranked number one in 2007 and then took third at the NCAAs and have always been really, really good, but they’ve never been able to reach the top spot of getting an NCAA first-place trophy. With our team right now, we’re looking to be able to do that within the next two or three years.

I also saw the growth that those guys made when they went to college, and I know there are a lot of athletes who are good in high school, but when they go to college they just don’t get any better. In fact, they get worse. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I saw that and just the culture… we have such a great thing with Tiger Style. I thought it was very unique and I wanted to be a part of that, even in my senior year when they weren’t in the top 10. They were a young team – and we’re still very young – we’re doing really good already. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the next two or three years when we start getting older and stronger.

Q: You obviously value freestyle wrestling quite a bit. What is it like to be at a program that values the freestyle side of things so much, and allows you to focus on that when the time comes?

A: Absolutely. In my opinion, that’s my favorite style. I wish I could wrestle freestyle 365 days out of the year. We go out, compete and we love freestyle. I love freestyle, Rocky Elam loves freestyle, Josh Edmond loves freestyle, Dom Bradley has been wrestling freestyle on the Senior level for 10+ years… So, it’s awesome to be able to have the same knowledge of freestyle as we do in folkstyle. We can carry that over after the season, put guys on World teams and really it just elevates the entire room.

Q: With so much talent and success coming out of the state Wisconsin, what does it mean to you to be able to represent the state as you compete at high levels?

A: Me and all of my roommates, we’re all from Wisconsin. It’s just amazing. I love Wisconsin so much. I take so much pride in being from there. We get made fun of all the time – Culver’s tradition, how much we love the Packers, the Brewers, all of that stuff. I love it. When we were wrestling in Wisconsin in high school, we were still struggling with the folkstyle and freestyle aspect. Wisconsin was really well-known for Greco at the time.

So, being able to be a part of the group that has started to elevate the freestyle and folkstyle, and now you see so many great wrestlers who are freshmen and sophomores in high school coming up in the rankings so early, it’s awesome to know that I came from that, and knowing that me and a bunch of other Wisconsin guys were able to spark that.

I’m going to wear it until the day I die. I’m always going to be a Wisconsin boy, even if I don’t live there. I’m always going to take a trip to Culver’s, hopefully after I win an NCAA title this year. I just cherish everything that happened to me from there.

Q: What are some of the things you try to do different in your training other than mat time focus, maybe things like mental training, that you feel have and will continue to help you make jumps in your competition?

A: I think one of the things that goes into that is having good coaches who have talks with you about mental training. I’m even having my individual practices, we do them once a week, where I take five minutes of thinking about nothing, or visualizing being an NCAA champion. And that is more difficult than the wrestling itself.

You’re telling me, someone who is pretty energetic and loves to do a lot of things and is relatively on the go most of the time, you’re telling me to take five minutes, lay down and not think about anything. That’s way harder than any wrestling practice I’ve ever done.

But, you have to do it all. You have to be on the mat doing things you’re not great at, you have to be in the weight room getting stronger. Those are the fundamentals of being a good athlete and a good wrestler. But I definitely think the edge of being able to talk about the mental side of wrestling is so important. People overlook that aspect, and I personally think wrestling is almost 50-50. You can be an average wrestler, but if you’re mentally strong and you know how to compete and you’re a good competitor, you’re going to win a lot of matches that way.

Q: That mental piece of the sport, is that something you focused on before you came to Missouri, or is that something that’s been driven home by the coaching staff there?

A: I definitely struggled with it really bad when I was in high school. Technically, I thought I had some of the best technical wrestling in our nation. But, I was losing at tournaments I shouldn’t have been losing at. And not’s not to say they were bad wrestlers at all, but I was losing to people I knew I could beat at the end of my sophomore, beginning of my junior year of high school.

It was then that I really started to focus on believing that I could do great things and knowing that I needed to believe in myself. Once I started doing that, I saw my wrestling level rise and I didn’t really change the way I trained physically.

Q: Finally, looking ahead to this college season, what is like to be in a room that you have in Missouri that has so much talent around you?

A: Sometimes, it’s almost to the point where you don’t know if you’re getting better, which is a good thing when you have a room like that because you wrestle with those guys all the time and they’re all so good. You’re having battles every day and you’re like ‘Man, I feel like I should be beating them by more this time’. But, everyone is getting better almost at the same rate.

In our room, we have guys who aren’t even in the starting lineup who can go out and All-American and they just dominate at these opens. The fact that I can go out, grab a 141-pounder all the way up to a 184-pounder and get just as good of a practice with either one of those guys just really says a lot.