Matt McDonough looked like the kind of guy who would know the answer to a wrestling-related question as he sat with his gear in a Philadelphia hotel lobby the morning after the 2011 NCAA Championships.
A stranger innocently approached the Iowa wrestler with a question.
Did the guy with one leg win his national title match?
“Wow,” the man said. “That’s great.”
The brief exchange was a peek into McDonough’s world during the past 12 months. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t escape the memory of his 7-1 loss to Arizona State’s Anthony Robles in the 125-pound NCAA title bout.
McDonough would flip on the television and see Robles making the rounds on late-night talk shows, explaining how he developed into a wrestling champion after being born without a right leg.
For weeks, ESPN previewed its award show, the ESPYs, with highlights of Robles.
“McDonough’s in all those highlights,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “It wasn’t funny, but McDonough chuckled about it. If you don’t want to be a lowlight, then be a highlight and be a highlight by wrestling dynamic and hitting explosive holds and putting guys down hard, so when the camera’s running, they’ll capture that and they’ll remember it and they’ll duplicate it over and over and over again.”
McDonough’s career with the Hawkeyes is mostly filled with highlight-reel material. He won a national title as a freshman, is 31-1 this season and seeded No. 1 at 125 pounds entering the NCAA Championships, which begins Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The junior is 95-4 in his Iowa career — a winning percentage that currently ranks fourth on Iowa’s all-time list among wrestlers with at least 95 matches.
While Brands said it’s far too soon to talk about McDonough’s place in Hawkeye history, the Marion native could become the program’s 22nd multi-time national champion.
McDonough seems driven more by an appreciation for the process of achieving great feats than an addiction to winning.
Minutes after his victory against Iowa State’s Andrew Long in the 2010 NCAA finals, he talked about going back to work and improving his skills. After the loss to Robles, he ran sprints for several minutes and told reporters his 2012 season started “two minutes after my match.”
“That’s the kind of mentality I was raised on,” McDonough said. “The wins and losses take care of themselves. What’s most important is improvement and going into each day, each match, each aspect of everything you do with a purpose. I can hear my dad telling me that.”
McDonough’s father, Mike, wrestled on the 1975 team that claimed Iowa’s first national title.
Mike McDonough introduced his son to wrestling when Matt was a first-grader, and started taking him to the NCAA Championships when Matt was 10.
“It was always about having your eye on a higher goal, a bigger thing,” Mike said. “It was always about getting him the opportunity to see where he wanted to go. When he wasn’t winning everything, I would always give him names of people who never won a state title — just in case in high school he never did it — just so he would keep that idea of getting somewhere further down the road.”
But Matt won at every level. He captured three Iowa state high school titles at Linn-Mar, won a freestyle national title at the Cadet level and posted a 37-1 record in his first season with the Hawkeyes.
The cameras have captured more highlights than lowlights while following McDonough. But the reminders of last year’s tournament still follow him.
The NCAA’s online wrestling homepage featured an image of Robles last week.
“You’ve got to accept things like that, and you’ve got to use it as fuel,” McDonough said. “You kind of have to make yourself a little bit impervious to that and go in there with the right mindset.
“It always sticks with you, but you’ve got to block it out 10 minutes after it happens. The only way you improve is to move on as soon as you possibly can. I took my time after the match to feel that remorse for the way I competed, but now it’s another stage, it’s another event.”