Souhan: Prep wrestler hopes his sport's comeback story matches his own

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2013 - 10:04 PM

 Wrestling is a sport for survivors, such as St. Michael-Albertville's Mitchell McKee.

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Mitchell McKee working out at Pinnacle Club Wrestling with co-owner Brandon Paulson.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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When the International Olympic Committee proposed dropping wrestling from the 2020 Games in favor of such sports as equestrian, modern pentathlon and trampoline, the IOC again revealed itself as tone deaf.

Wrestling is, historically and philosophically, a seminal Olympic sport, a primal test of strength, skill, toughness and willpower. It is also a sport filled with admirable athletes and transcendent stories such as Mitchell McKee, who 15 years ago today left a hospital ahead of schedule and against all odds.

McKee is a freshman on the St. Michael-Albertville wrestling team. He is ranked first in the state at 106 pounds in Class 3A. He finished second at the state tournament as a seventh- and eighth-grader. He's won, he thinks, "25 or so" national tournaments and made the FILA Cadet World Team that represented the U.S. in Azerbaijan.

The high school wrestling season is only part of his year-round routine that includes national and international competitions and constant work with former Gophers wrestler and Olympic medalist Brandon Paulson at Pinnacle Wrestling in Shoreview. To meet Mitchell is to hope his story will someday be told to an international audience watching him compete in the Summer Olympics.

"We thought we had lost him," said his mother, Nina.

When Mitchell was 6 weeks old, Nina put him in his car seat on a bitterly cold day. When she heard him gasping, she found he had turned blue.

The McKees were living in Clear Lake, so the ambulance didn't arrive quickly. A neighbor who was a firefighter provided an oxygen mask.

The ambulance rushed the family to St. Cloud. Mitchell was bleeding from the nose and mouth. "They said, 'It's serious, we've got to baptize him now,' " Nina said. "Then they brought the helicopter up and said, 'Don't expect much when we get down there.' "

The helicopter delivered Mitchell to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. When Nina and husband Steve arrived, they were warned, and prepped. Mitchell was on an oscillator, which forced air into his lungs, which had collapsed and filled with blood.

"They lost him three times in the helicopter on the way down," Nina said. "He was on a bed, wearing just a diaper, and his body was jumping up and down. They said he would be there for months if he pulled through at all.

"Seventeen days later, he was out. The nurses and the pulmonary doctor couldn't believe it."

Mitchell bears scars on his sides and neck from the tubes that were used to resuscitate him, but scars are nothing to wrestlers. They mean more to his parents.

"They said there was no way a normal kid, without such a strong will, would have pulled through," Nina said.

Nina, Steve, Mitchell and Paulson were arranged around the desk in Paulson's cluttered office at Pinnacle. Mitchell isn't happy about the IOC's decision, but, in his persistently calm voice, says, "I guess my new goal would be to win an NCAA championship."

Paulson is more agitated.

"It was disbelief at first," he said. "It was like, 'This is not real, it's a rumor.' Then you think, 'Holy crap,' or worse. I was in a daze. I have three kids I have to get ready for school and I was on my phone all morning, out of it.

"It was shock, then anger, then, 'OK, what are we going to do to keep wrestling alive?' "

Paulson remembers watching the televised Opening Ceremony at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and seeing his destiny. He qualified for the '96 Olympics in Atlanta, and his voice changes when he describes the relief and joy he felt when he won his semifinal match, ensuring a medal that rewarded thousands of hours of sweat and pain.

He finished with a silver in the Greco-Roman discipline, and kept working in the sport he loves. Now the McKees drive an hour round trip after Mitchell's high school practices so he can work with Paulson. The McKee's younger son, Patrick, has followed Mitchell's lead, so the family continues to travel the country, seeking the best competition.

The family still laughs about the time they took Mitchell to the Dixie Nationals in Atlanta, rented a car to drive to another tournament in West Virginia, then drove back to Atlanta to fly home.

"That's the crazy stuff we do," Steve said. "But a lot of times we can do it as a family, and this is what we choose to do as a family. It's a lot of fun. Mitchell and Patrick are very close, and they're good kids."

Mitchell lives a disciplined, goal-oriented life. He wears a T-shirt that reads: "Don't follow your dreams; chase them." Wrestling became his vehicle for achievement early on.

When Mitchell was in kindergarten, he invited a friend to play one weekend. The kid was busy. He had entered a wrestling tournament.

"He came over after that, and he had a wrestling trophy," Mitchell said. "That Tuesday, I started doing youth practices. I went to the Becker youth tournament that Saturday, and I just kept going."

He would like his destination to be the 2020 Games. Even the IOC should be smart enough to avoid angering the international fraternity of wrestlers.

"What you see around this country, and around the world, is that we're fighters," Paulson said. "That's what we do. We will fight 'til the end."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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