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The cost of a dream: Boo Lewallen’s journey through injuries, identity, his own expectations

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Boo Lewallen stays focused during the Oklahoma State vs. Pittsburgh wrestling match on Sunday, January 18, 2020, at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater.

When seven-year-old Caleb Schneider was asked what the best part of his school year was, the answer was simple: Hitting a fireman’s carry on his hero, then-Yukon High School senior, Boo Lewallen in front of all his friends.

At the end of every school year, Schneider’s father, Yukon wrestling coach Joe Schneider would have older wrestlers show the elementary school kids some of their favorite moves.

But Lewallen chose to give Caleb a moment he would never forget.

“What a neat thing to do on (Caleb’s) birthday,” Joe said. “It really hit him on the way home. (Lewallen) could have thrown the little kid’s head down and embarrassed him in front of his friends, but instead he let (Caleb) live for a day as the king."

Lewallen has always been there to help people. Whether teaching Oklahoma State wrestling freshman Anthony Montalvo new moves to score or giving Caleb a day as royalty — he tries to lend a hand to those around him.

For all the help that Lewallen has given, he has been through the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows in his career. Even he has needed some help of his own along the way. 

 

Blow after blow

 

In the days leading up to the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships, Lewallen was back at home recovering from his latest surgery, this time his worst shoulder separation yet.

The immense amount of pain that came along with the post-surgery process required Boo to take a nerve blocker in order to peacefully sleep.

Unfortunately for Lewallen, one slip up brought him to his rock-bottom.

At 2 a.m. just a few days before his teammates battled for their life goals, Lewallen was in his bathtub — battling the worst pain of his life.

Lewallen had forgotten to take the nerve blocker, and the full rush of pain he had been trying to avoid was ever-present. 

Thankfully for Lewallen, he wasn’t alone that night.

As the tears came across his cheeks, trying to relieve the crippling pain, the faint sound of a dog scratching at the door could be heard. 

That dog belonged to Lewallen’s girlfriend, McKenna Sokolosky.

Sokolosky was there for Lewallen throughout his latest rehab process, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for him.

“I’m really fortunate that she came into my life at the time that she did,” Lewallen said.

The pair met in 2018 and soon after started dating. When it came time for Lewallen to get surgery a year later to repair his shoulder, she was by his side the whole way.

“(She was there) comforting me, and especially whenever I was watching the NCAA tournament, helping me keep my mindset of not feeling sorry for myself,” Lewallen said. “She was definitely harder on me than you would expect, but it’s what I needed. I didn’t need someone to be like ‘Oh poor Boo.’ I needed somebody to be like, ‘Hey this is gonna motivate you and help you reach the goals that you’ve wanted to reach.’”

Lewallen’s career has been riddled with injuries — adding up to more significant injuries in his eight years of high school and college combined than most athletes have in a lifetime.

It all started with a dislocated left shoulder during his sophomore year of high school — an injury he overcame to win a state title. Following that Lewallen finished out his career at Yukon healthy and was a three-time state champion.

Then came his time at OSU. Before he even had the chance to put on the illustrious orange singlet, he broke his ankle. The shoulder injury then looked minute in comparison to an ankle injury that kept him out for six months and ended his freshman season.

That wouldn’t be the last time Lewallen had a significant injury, though. 

After going 11-2 as Dean Heil’s backup the next year, he finally had a successful college season. Unfortunately for Lewallen, the next time the Big 12 Tournament rolled around he would have to experience it in a hospital bed, and not on the mat. 

Just when Lewallen thought his shoulder problems were a thing of the past, the 2019 dual season began, and he quickly realized that would not be the case. Lewallen reinjured the same shoulder and missed the next two months of the season. When he came back, it was more of the same.

With Sokolosky and his mom in attendance, within seconds of a win against Iowa State’s Jarrett Degan and the goal of a national title in sight, disaster struck.

Lewallen went in on the same single-leg shot that he was injured on in high school. The difference — this time — was that once dislocated, his shoulder didn’t go back into socket.

“It was easy to get past that day with the support I had,” Lewallen told FloWrestling. “Being able to realize that wrestling is something that you get to do, not something you deserve to do. With that mindset it made it a little bit easier. It gave me a whole different perspective.”

When it came time for him to defend his Big 12 title that he had won the year prior, he instead had one eye on a battle much more difficult than just another 149-pounder, and the other on what was to come. 

“When I was watching my teammates compete at the Big 12 Tournament,” Lewallen said. “I was sitting in my hospital bed after my surgery the first day of the Big 12 Tournament. I just remember watching it and being pretty depressed, but excited for what was to come.”

With the knowledge that he would not accomplish his dream of winning a national title that season, he had no other option than to reflect on life outside of wrestling.

“Each injury was tough,” Lewallen said. “But this one, there was more on the line because I was expecting something of myself. I had a goal to be a national champion (in 2019), and I had it taken away from me, and it was kind of out of my control. It just brought a different hurt to it."

“When you’re expecting to be the best, or you’re expecting to be the national champion that season, and then having to sit back and watch everything unfold, and not be able to do anything about it. It makes you realize how little the sport is, but how much you appreciate it.”

 

A world beyond wrestling

 

The sport of wrestling had been Lewallen’s life long before he got to OSU.

He spent his lunch period in the wrestling room, his free time getting extra training and his summers working summer jobs with wrestling coaches.

“I didn’t really have an identity I don't think other than wrestling when I came into college,” Lewallen said. “I never really knew what I was interested in, I just wanted to wrestle.”

When he and Sokolosky met it was much of the same — eating, sleeping and breathing wrestling.

During his off-seasons at OSU, he remained in the wrestling room. Whether it was training for his first freestyle event, or giving back to his high school with extra training sessions in Stillwater, he was never far from a mat. 

But when injury struck, and then it struck again, he was forced to create a life away from the sport he loved so dearly. 

“I think when I first started dating him, I was just kind of like, I love and appreciate your passion for wrestling, but you know, with all due respect, it's not everything,” Sokolosky said. “I kind of had to keep reminding him of that when he was injured. Because it's not the end.”

One way Lewallen found to grow as a person outside of the sport was reaffirming his relationship with God.

Growing up he has done, but as college started and he met Sokolosky he realized that he wanted to make a commitment to his faith.

After going on their first few dates, Lewallen had an idea. He wanted to take her to a church in Stillwater as a date. Little did he know at the time, but it would stick and become a constant in his life.

“After that day we’ve been every Sunday since,” Sokolosky said. “It’s our every Sunday routine.” 

Whether it is before a Sunday dual or after a long weekend away, the pair make it a priority to keep the commitment and go to church.

Commitment is something Lewallen has never struggled with. Whether it was committing to reaffirm his faith, or sticking with wrestling despite the injuries — he has always stayed committed to his ultimate goal — becoming a national champion.

“It’s a motivation that I’ve had since I was a little kid to be the best in the country,” Lewallen said. “I’ve always wanted to win a national title, and I think that’s what’s kept me pushing. That’s definitely what’s kept me consistant, and just allowed me to stay hard-working through those injuries. Even not starting or doing bad in school, realizing what my ultimate goal is and what I have to do to get there.” 

 

Last place

 

Standing on the podium at the NCAA Wrestling Championships is something most wrestlers can only dream of.

A signal that you are one of the eight best at your weight class nationally, most would be ecstatic to just make the podium once.

But for Lewallen that is the baseline for where he believes he should be. Ever since he can remember becoming a national champion has been the main goal, but there were hurdles in the way.

Injuries are not the only thing that has kept Lewallen from wrestling for OSU. For the first two years of his Cowboy career he competed at 141 pounds.

The only problem was OSU’s best wrestler competed at the same weight.

Heil was a two-time national champion for the Cowboys, but one tournament almost changed that. 

At the 2017 Southern Scuffle, fresh off a Reno Tournament of Champions title, Lewallen was vying for Heil’s starting spot. 

The two had had multiple ranking matches, with Lewallen coming away with enough wins for Smith to have a fight on his hands for a 141 starter.

But for Lewallen that would be as close as he got that year.

He fell to North Carolina’s Joey Ward in the quarterfinals, while Heil defeated Ward to claim a Scuffle championship.

Lewallen said that the most difficult part of his journey wasn’t the countless injuries but knowing that he would have to be a backup for the first time in his life — something he would have to come to grips with before he could continue his journey. 

“I just remember talking to (OSU coach John Smith) and he was just telling me ‘You gotta be consistent,’” Lewallen said. “You can’t win the Reno tournament two weeks ago, and beat some good guys, and then get beaten by some guys by a couple guys that maybe I shouldn’t have been beat by."

“Sitting behind (Heil) and learning and realizing there’s still a way that I can get better ... Staying positive through that is definitely hard. You see a lot of guys that come in, and they get hit with that, and they don't know how to handle it, and they kinda fall off track. I took a route that wasn’t the easiest on myself, but with that, it taught me a lot.”

The next season — now fully healthy and up eight pounds at 149 — Lewallen had the best season of his career.

He went 29-8, won three tournaments and finished eighth, secureing his first, and only, All-American finish.

But for him that wasn’t enough.

“One thing that stuck out with me after I (became an All-American) was I was standing on the podium, and I was standing up there and I got last place, I was in eight place, and I just remember looking at the guys and thinking ‘I’m never feeling like this again,’” Lewallen told FloWrestling. “I remember going back and I ate a chicken strip dinner from the concession stand. I remember Bo Nickal was wrestling, and I was sitting there and thinking in my head ‘This isn’t how I’m going to be feeling’.”

Lewallen’s expectations of himself have always been higher than anyone's, but that is what makes him who he is.

He will endlessly work to get a title of his own and will stop at nothing until his career is over.

“There’s a huge emphasis, mentally and physically, that I have on myself every day. A commitment that I put (on) myself everyday that I want to be the best, and hopefully I can obtain that this season,” Lewallen said. “I want to be a national champion, but you know what, if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But I promise that I will do everything I can to give myself the best opportunity, and whenever the opportunity comes I’m going to do my best to catch it."

Sports.ed@ocolly.com