For Totino-Grace wrestler, sport becomes therapy

  • Article by: JIM PAULSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2014 - 5:58 AM

The mat is a haven for Lance Benick — where he has become a top-ranked wrestler and a place he can briefly forget about his mother’s brain tumor.

Wearing headphones and a faraway gaze, the best 195-pound high school wrestler in the nation is lost in thought.

Fans, teammates and coaches, all unnoticed in his periphery, stand mere feet away. For the next 10 minutes or so, all that exists for Totino-Grace junior Lance Benick is one opponent on a 38 foot-by-38-foot wrestling mat.

In a world where all successful wrestlers credit hard work and dedication for their success, what elevates Benick is his tunnel vision. Nothing else matters when he’s about to wrestle.

It explains how he shocked the wrestling community two years ago when, as a freshman, he won a Class 2A individual championship wrestling at 182 pounds.

“When have you ever seen someone that young win at that weight?” Eagles coach Doug Svihel asked. “That never happens.”

He won another state title last year, at 195 pounds. Last fall he wrestled in Serbia as a member of the U.S. Cadet team that competed in the FILA World Championships.

This year Benick, undefeated in 30 matches and 107-4 in his career at Totino-Grace, is considered the top junior wrestling recruit in the nation.

This focus and success has come while his mother, Joanne, has waged a rigorous battle with a cancerous brain tumor that nearly took her life.

On this January day, Benick has been asked to wrestle at a higher weight against an opponent more than 30 pounds heavier. During the match, he never flinches. He wins, but it’s not easy. No matter. From challenge comes improvement.

For Benick, wrestling is not only his passion, it’s his island. The mat is a place where he can go and succeed and nothing can bother him.

“It’s just me and my opponent, doing what I do best,” Benick said. “Nothing bothers me. I can be loosey-goosey and just have fun.”

Fighting off Stage 3 cancer

Joanne Benick is not one to spend time lounging around the house.

So when she laid down to take a nap one afternoon in 2010, she got an earful from Lance when he came home.

“He said ‘Mom, are you going to be lazy all day?’ ” Joanne said. “I hadn’t been feeling good for a long time and [my husband] Tom had been telling me to go see the doctor, but I didn’t want to. When Lance said that, I knew I had to go.”

She had suffered from persistent headaches, nausea and fatigue, and numerous doctors failed to pinpoint a reason. After months of uncertainty, she was given an MRI at a Stillwater hospital. That led to a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where she received a shocking diagnosis.

“They said she had a brain tumor,” Tom Benick said. “They gave her three options: get another opinion, do a biopsy and wait for the result, or do surgery right away.

“I asked how long she had and they said she could die in an hour or last as long as a week.”

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  • Lance Benick, center, with brother Luke and mother Joanne

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