Published on Show Me Mizzou Jan. 10, 2024
Story by Joe Walljasper, BJ ’92
As Mizzou wrestling Coach Brian Smith headed toward the mat for the 165-pound final at last season’s NCAA Championships, he turned to assistant Kendric Maple and told him he’d never been more confident that one of his wrestlers was about to win a title. Keegan O’Toole was facing an undefeated opponent who had handed him his only two losses of the season, but he projected an unmistakable confidence.
“I saw him walk on the stage smiling and embracing it and enjoying the moment,” Smith recalls. “I just knew.”
O’Toole dominated Iowa State’s David Carr 8–2 to become the third-ever Mizzou wrestler to win multiple NCAA titles. He equaled Ben Askren, BA ’07, as a two-time champ and has a chance to join J’den Cox, BA ’17, as a three-time winner this season.
O’Toole credits Askren, who was his youth wrestling coach in Wisconsin, with helping him develop the unorthodox “funky” scrambling style that Askren popularized. But just as important, Askren taught him to treat the biggest matches as fun opportunities rather than life-or-death struggles.
The turning point was a 2018 national tournament when O’Toole blew a late lead and lost in the semifinals. Askren sat him down for an “uncomfortable conversation” afterward.
“He said: ‘There’s glimpses of you being a great wrestler. Technically, I know how good you are. You’re just afraid to take that next step and be the best wrestler in the country, be the best version of yourself,’” O’Toole says. “At first I didn’t understand, but I was putting added pressure on myself, bringing this negative thought process when I got to these tight matches. He helped me flip that.”
Now, when asked what makes O’Toole great, Smith launches into a 3-minute answer that doesn’t include any mention of physical abilities. Smith firmly believes O’Toole can follow the footsteps of Askren and Cox and become an Olympian. O’Toole provided more evidence of international credentials in October when he won the 74-kilogram gold medal at the U23 World Championships in Albania.
“He has this unbelievable ability to learn and move forward from mistakes and not blame others for those mistakes,” Smith says. “He wants to continue to grow and is constantly innovating. Ben was very similar. I was standing next to Ben when he came down for a match last season, and we were talking about how special Keegan is. I said, ‘Ben, I think he’s moved beyond you.’ He said: ‘Without a doubt, and I’m proud of that. That’s a great thing.’”
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