MIND OVER THE MAT

Dan St. John, the nation's best collegiate wrestler, excels at the physics of getting physical
February 19, 1990

Left or right? Sometimes Dan St. John can't tell his left brain from his right brain. Let's say he has his knee on somebody's face and is trying to disengage the poor fellow's arm from its socket. "I think when I wrestle," St. John says, "but I don't consciously think, 'Force, cross-lever, arm,' which would be the physics equation for the application of torque in an arm spin."

Left brain or right? And what if he decides to apply a half nelson and follow it with a figure-four leg lock? Is that wrestling or algebra? Most of the time even St. John isn't sure. "Athletics is supposed to be a right-brain activity," he says, "and math and physics are supposed to be left-brain. So they conflict with each other."

Sometimes you can almost see the wrestling match for control of St. John's brain going on in his head. He was the NCAA champion in the 158-pound weight class in 1989 and is the favorite to win the 167-pound title at the 1990 NCAA tournament next month. Now in his fourth year at Arizona State, he is just 15 credits short of graduating with majors in both math and physics. He is undefeated in 64 straight matches and is considered the best college wrestler in any weight category. He also has a combined grade point average of 3.4 in his two academic disciplines. He hopes to earn a doctorate in physics or math or engineering and an Olympic gold medal on the mat.

St. John lives in worlds that are as different as Kansas and Oz. "The other wrestlers see me as a geek, because on long van rides I'm constantly talking about cosmology and the theory of the evolution of the universe," says St. John as he pushes his mountain bike across campus toward the physics building. "And there are people in the physics department who outright don't like me, who don't want to have anything to do with me."

Last semester his course load consisted of differential geometry, quantum mechanics, math modeling and a numerical analysis class that involved writing complex computer programs. After wrestling practice St. John would go to the computer center while the sky was still light and not emerge until after dawn. "My academic battles are as tough as my wrestling battles," he says. "The people I'm competing with there do nothing but study all day, and I just don't have time to do that. They'll spend nine hours studying. And there are little groups in those classes who will help each other, but they won't help me. So the work they share I have to do alone."

St. John says he encounters far larger egos in the classroom than in the locker room. "My freshman year, I was in a study group in partial differential equations," he says, "and everybody in the group thought they were the brain. They figured I must be the stupid one because I was the youngest. So every time I opened my mouth, they would talk over me."

St. John parks his bike outside the physics building and heads in for his quantum mechanics class. "This is the geek side of campus," he says. "Everybody over here looks kind of pale and sickly. People on the other side of campus look a lot happier."

Inside the classroom about 20 students listen as a middle-aged man standing in a halo of chalk dust talks about protons, electrons and "our old friend, angular momentum." The professor writes equations that fill up entire blackboards.

St. John once asked his girlfriend, Eva Tangri, an engineering major, to sit in on a class in advanced differential equations for him while he was out of town at a wrestling meet. "He had me take notes for him," says Tangri, "but the material was so complicated and so theoretical, I didn't even know what symbols to write down."

St. John had essentially the same difficulty when he was growing up in Cleveland, except the symbols he didn't know how to write were the letters of the alphabet. "I did terrible in school," he recalls. "I had a fourth-grade reading level for a long time, and when I used to be called on to read aloud, the others in class would laugh themselves out of their chairs. I used to try to read ahead and guess what paragraph I was going to have to do aloud, so I could memorize it."

"He would speak real fast, thinking way ahead of what he was saying," says St. John's best friend, Bill Bauckman. "He was very smart, but he had to slow down."

St. John may have had a learning disability beyond his hyperactive nature, but none was ever diagnosed. He had already changed schools once, in the second grade. "I was kind of aggressive and hyperactive," St. John says, firing the words out in fusillades. "I was wild. I had too much energy as a kid. I couldn't sit through class, so they put me in a special class. You know how they put all the kids who supposedly don't want to learn in special classes? Well, that was me. The special class they put me in was really nothing more than warehousing. We just sat there and didn't do anything. The people who ran those classes should have been sued for malpractice.

"People thought I was stupid, but I knew I was smart," he continues. "When I was in the third grade, I used to wait for the new issue of Scientific American to come in the mail. Then I would cut it up and put the pictures on the walls. I knew about the solar system, I knew about perturbations in the orbits of the planets, I knew how a nuclear reactor worked."

He knew the latter so well, in fact, that when he was 11, St. John got in trouble for drawing a schematic diagram of a nuclear reactor in class. "The teacher wrote a note across what I had drawn that said 'This is why your son doesn't do well in school, because he's always doodling,' and made me take it home to my parents," says St. John. His father, who is an engineer, returned the note to the teacher and told her she didn't have the sense to know what she was looking at. "My dad put her in her place good," St. John says, his eyes burning and his face still flushed with the triumph 11 years later.

St. John grew up in the Collinwood section of Cleveland, a blue-collar neighborhood that hugged the Conrail train yards, which are now closed. When he was in the seventh grade, though slight and unimposing at about 70 pounds, St. John tried out for pee-wee football to prove himself. Even in the seventh grade there is not much demand for 70-pound tackles, and after a miserable season sitting on the bench in the cold and snow, he switched to wrestling. "Actually, wrestling calmed me down pretty much," he says. "I definitely was on the wrong path before that."

St. John had developed a taste for combat in repeated skirmishes with his schoolmates. "We had a lot of bigger kids in school who thought they were better than everybody else, and Dan never fit in," says Bauckman. "He had to work extra hard at everything because he was so small. And, of course, people were cruel to him because he had scraped up his face pretty bad when he was younger."

A three-inch scar, the product of a fall he took while bouncing on his bed as a two-year-old, snakes across St. John's left cheek. It's not the only scar that never healed. "Danny loves it when he comes back and sees the guys who used to pick on him," says Bauckman. "Most of them never went to college—never went anywhere, really—and now they're nothing."

To be eligible to wrestle at St. Joseph's High, St. John needed to maintain at least a C average. He concentrated on math because it was orderly and required almost no verbal skills. He wrestled well, finishing high school with a 121-24 record—the best in the school's history—but he was never good enough to win a state championship. "Recruiters and coaches think you have to be a two-time state champion to even be considered for a college scholarship," St. John says. "But I never won a state title, and I'm proud of it. I want to be an inspiration to all the kids who don't have their success early but never stop believing in themselves."

St. John was practically the only one who did believe. Arizona State offered only room and board. He went, with the aid of a student loan, because he was determined to go to a school with a first-rate wrestling program. As a freshman he took calculus, chemistry, math and physics. "My adviser told me I must be nuts," he says. "She had me down for the history of art, stuff like that." St. John had tested poorly on a placement examination in math, failing it by one point. "She said, 'Maybe Ohio math isn't as hard as Arizona math,' " he says. "That made me really mad."

It probably wouldn't have mattered what classes he took, because St. John hardly went to any of them. "Going to an all-boys Catholic school and then wrestling every weekend didn't leave much time for partying," he says. "I got to college, and all these good-looking women were walking around in bikinis. I didn't go to one thing during orientation week, and I continued that way my entire freshman year." At the end of his redshirt freshman year, his GPA was 2.1, a figure he has raised to 3.1 overall.

While St. John was raising his grades during his second year on campus, he was also lowering his weight. Cutting weight by artificial and sometimes dangerous means, such as diuretics and workouts in rubber suits, is the most troubling aspect of amateur wrestling. Sun Devil coach Bobby Douglas wanted St. John to wrestle at 142 pounds, even though his natural weight was already 20 pounds heavier. "I had to cut weight all year, and I hated it," St. John says. "I couldn't eat or drink normally, and I had to work out in plastic suits. People do it to extremes, sometimes to near death. It's stupid, and it has hurt the sport. The Russians don't do it, and neither should we. If you can't beat a person your size or bigger, you shouldn't be in the sport."

Wrestling at close to his normal weight last year, St. John went 26 straight matches without even allowing himself to be taken down, and he has been taken down only four times during his 64-match unbeaten streak. The only blemish on his record this year is a draw he took in January with Craig Holiday of Liberty University, who was ranked sixth in the nation at the time. Up 4-0 with the match nearly over, St. John allowed his concentration to wander, and Holiday scored four points in 19 seconds. "St. John is the most dominating wrestler in the sport right now," says Marlin Grahn, coach of defending NCAA Division II champion Portland State. "Nobody's getting closer to him; he's getting stronger."

So much stronger, in fact, that he often amuses himself by toying with his opponents, preferring to win major decisions—running up as much as a 15-point advantage, which causes the match to be halted—rather than try for quick pins. "I'd rather beat a guy into oblivion," he says, "because when you pin somebody, he can walk off the mat and say it was a fluke. But if you beat somebody by 15 points, what is he going to say? That he slipped 15 times?"

St. John's goal is to wrestle in the 163-pound division for the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, and he prepares for that by riding his mountain bike every day, sometimes for as many as 50 miles. He believes these grueling treks are what have made his lower body so strong that his opponents no longer try to shoot his legs. His coach has another opinion. "The last place he should be is out there on a mountain, jumping off cliffs on a dirt bike," says Douglas.

But St. John has never been able to resist challenging authority. "Coach thinks that because I have a chance to be an Olympic champion, it's a stupid risk of injury," he says. "He believes in walking on eggs and not having anything in your life but wrestling."

Even St. John admits that the adventures on his bike can get a little hairy. On one ride he and a friend got lost on Phoenix's South Mountain and were charged by a rattlesnake. St. John's companion killed the snake with a rock after several terrifying minutes. "I thought the buzzards were going to get us," says St. John.

He decided to keep part of the snake's rattle as a trophy. For the time being, however, nothing gives him as much pride as the textbooks that fill the bookcase in his living room. "Every one of those books is like a trophy to me," he says. "Sometimes I think they're more important to me than all the wrestling awards, because each one means I passed a class and I got a good grade. Finishing a book for me is like winning a tournament."

He definitely sounds like a lefty.

PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSESt. John uses the Arizona State computer lab to work out the left side of his brain. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSETangri can hoist St. John, but she had trouble getting a toehold in one of his courses.
PHOTORICHARD MACKSONSt. John (on top) eschews the quick pin. "I'd rather beat a guy into oblivion," he says. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSESt. John pooh-poohs the dangers of mountain biking, which strengthens his legs.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)