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.”
The choice was easy.
“I said ‘Why wait? Let’s get it over with,’ ” Joanne said.
Her cancer, called anaplastic ependymoma, was a tumor that forms near the brainstem. It’s far more common in children than adults. Her case was particularly serious: The egg-sized tumor had invaded the brainstem. The cancer was at Stage 3, often the last step before death.
A lengthy surgery removed about 90 percent of the tumor. The rest was kept under control for more than two years through radiation.
“I’ve had 33 radiation treatments,” Joanne said. “That’s the most a person can have in their lifetime. I can’t do anymore.”
In 2012, the cancer came back. Unable to undergo traditional radiation treatments, she was the recipient of a cutting-edge technology called Gamma Knife — a highly concentrated form of radiation resembling a laser that directly targets the cancer.
The tumor, now about the size of a fingernail, is still present but encased in scar tissue. The cancer might be dormant for now, but its effects have made her entire left side largely numb. Her vision is often blurry.
There’s also no assurance it will not return. Worry is a constant.
“I think about it all the time,” she admitted. “A lot of ‘What ifs?’ ”
‘How could we say no?’
Until ninth grade Lance, whose family lives in Scandia, Minn., was a product of the Forest Lake wrestling program.
But as his wrestling profile continued to rise, he felt something was missing. A born self-motivator, he took stock of what was happening around him and decided he needed more structure and support than what he thought a public school could provide.
“There were some things going on that I didn’t like, kids getting in trouble, stuff like that,” he said.
After researching nearby private schools, he settled on Totino-Grace.
“It wasn’t too big, and it felt right,” he said.
But private schools require paying tuition — something that, with the family’s medical bills mounting, seemed out of reach.
“We told him we just didn’t have the money for that,” Tom Benick said. “We asked him to take a look at other schools.”
Lance wasn’t to be deterred. Determined that Totino-Grace was the answer, he sold his old snowmobile and dirt bike and dug into his savings.
“He came to us a few days later and plopped $2,000 down in front of us,” Tom said. “He told me he could pay for his first few months and work for the rest. How could we say no?”
That determination is no surprise to Svihel, who has watched Lance up close for three years.
“That’s who he is,” Svihel said. “He doesn’t shy away from a challenge. He seeks them out.”
The drive each school day from Scandia to Fridley can be difficult — “about 40 minutes without traffic,” Lance said — but attending Totino-Grace has worked out. His physicality and athleticism translate nearly as well to football, where he’s been a mainstay in the Eagles’ backfield.
“I’m so glad he’s there,” Joanne said. “It’s been absolutely the right decision.”
Always do what mom says
Outwardly, the effects of Joanne’s illness have had little effect on Lance’s success. A string of championships at the high school and national level has resulted in his No. 1 ranking at 195 pounds in all three of the prominent national high school wrestling services — Intermat, Amateur Wrestling News and Flowrestling.org.
Most who watch him on the mat are likely clueless about the family’s struggles. But Lance said his mother is always on his mind.
“I’ve never talked about it much,” he said. “I still don’t. But I’m always thinking about it. When it first happened, I thought about taking a break but I knew that’s not what she wanted. If I had, she would have said, ‘Get your ass back out on the mat.’ And you should do what your mom says, right?”
Both credit wrestling with helping get them to where they are now.
“I think she needed to see me wrestle,” Lance said. “It helped her get through some of her tough times.”
And for the competitor himself, the sport served as both a challenge and a distraction.
“Wrestling helped him,” she said. “It took his mind off of me and what I was going through.”