When it was officially announced that fourth-year heavyweight wrestler Sean Barnes had won the Amos Alonzo Stagg Medal, Barnes himself was surprised. The Stagg Medal, presented to the fourth-year male athlete with the best all-around record for athletics, scholarship, and character, is highly coveted among Maroons. His coaches couldn't think of anyone more fitting.
"The Stagg Medal is the highest honor that the department gives to senior athletes. He had a good year, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy," head coach Leo Kocher said.
"It was really unexpected. I figured there'd be someone out there with a higher GPA, better record, something," Barnes said.
Barnes was a three-time All-Academic selection for the league, and finished his career with a 96-48 career mark, including a 31-10 record this year. He won two UAA individual titles at heavyweight for U of C, helping to lead the team to four conference championships and extending their run atop the league to five years.
"You know, winning that's not necessarily the great thing, but you never want to lose it," Barnes said. "It was nice helping to establish a tradition, and set things up for the young guys."
Barnes was a starter for the Maroons for all four of his years at U of C. Where those starts would come, however, proved to be a matter of some debate. During his first three seasons here, he wrestled primarily at 197 pounds. While this weight class was the right fit for him at first, it became more difficult every year for Barnes to make weight as he added lean muscle mass. By his third-year, he was ready to move up to heavyweight, where he had wrestled at least one match every season. Only the greater good of the team stood in his way.
"We had [2004 alumna] Tim Daly at heavyweight, and we wanted to keep him in the lineup," Kocher said. "Ultimately, it would have been better for Sean to wrestle heavyweight."
"It was tough to make weight my junior year, but I wanted to stay for the team," Barnes said. "Making weight, facing All-Americans, I don't consider those negatives. That's just part of the sport."
This sacrifice may have had negative consequences for his career as an individual this winter. After a scintillating regional championship run at heavyweight February 19 earned him the national tournament spot he had just missed his third year, Barnes ended up going 1-2 at St. Olaf's, finishing one round short of All-American status. He dropped a majority decision 11-3 to second-seeded Wartburg second-year Blake Gillis in the first round, beat seventh-seeded Hunter College first-year Arkady Levitan in the first relegation bout 9-6, and then was eliminated with a 7-4 loss to eighth-seeded SUNY-Brockport third-year Pat Bennett. Both Gillis and Bennett were All-Americans, as was Augsburg fourth-year Mark Simmonds, who Barnes defeated 4-3 to win the regional meet.
"It was a very strong field at the tournament. There were six returning All-Americans at heavyweight, two of whom Sean beat this season, and only four placed," Kocher said. "He competed well, but there's a big spread from 197 pounds to 284. It takes awhile to adjust."
"I was learning the whole season after moving up," Barnes said. "I had so much that I learned. If I had another shot, I'd definitely make it through."
Few would doubt that Barnes would feel the sacrifice was worth it. His attitude, from the beginning, has always been team-focused. It has shown up in his results, as he won a number of critical matches for U of C throughout his career.
"Going into the national duals meet his first year, we weren't even seeded in the top eight among 20 teams. Our first round match against the seven seed went down to the last few matches. Sean was up against an NCAA qualifier from the year before, and he pinned him with a headlock in the first period," Kocher said. "In the semifinals, he did it again. We ended up winning the finals, and we went from unranked to fifth in the country in one week."
Barnes lists that national duals triumph as one of the proudest moments of his career here.
"I filled a hole in the lineup my first year, and we had 20 wins as a team. That's why I came here, to be part of a good program," Barnes said. "The best my high school had done in the past 10 years was finishing at .500. It's more important to be part of a winning team."
His attitude is unsurprising in light of other honors he has received this season. Barnes was voted the team's sole captain by his teammates after the season.
"Besides the coaches, I think Sean is the only person who watched every single one of our wrestling matches. It's comforting to know that he is always there to support everyone on the team," fourth-year 125-pounder Ai Nguyen said. "He's the guy that's always there for you. Sean has always been a hard worker, too. He spent a lot of time in the off-season wrestling, lifting, and getting better, and the hard work finally paid off this year."
Much of that work, and quite a bit of competitive experience, came in the form of off-season competition as a Greco-Roman wrestler. Despite the fact that the Greco-Roman national tournament comes just five weeks after the end of the collegiate season, Barnes has managed to win All-American status at that tourney eight times, and was offered a scholarship at the sport's powerhouse, Northern Michigan. This year, bouting above his usual weight class and adjusting to a major rules change in the sport, Barnes missed the All-American squad for the first time at the university level.
"Greco-Roman is fought with the upper body only, so it's a bit of a different experience." Barnes said. "I've got about two years left in my age group before I enter Olympic team-range. I'm going to be focusing on that and coaching now that my folkstyle career is done. It's great to not have to say goodbye to the sport like some do. I don't think I could."
"Sean has wrestled more matches than anyone I've had here between college, high school, freestyle, and Greco-Roman matches, and that sort of year-round experience shows up. He's pretty unflappable out there," Kocher said.
Barnes, who is a small heavyweight, will likely be aided in Greco-Roman competition by the ability to wrestle in the 211-pound bracket.
"It might be ideal for him," Kocher said. "You know, we've had wrestlers who have been able to compete internationally with the U.S. team in Greco-Roman wrestling. Who knows? Maybe Sean will be able to get onto that ladder too."
It should be a busy next few years for Barnes, who will have to work his weight training and workouts around classes at Pritzker Med School. Barnes hopes that his continued proximity to campus will allow him to remain a presence around the gym.
"I want to be around, helping coach my brother [second-year 184-pounder Ben Barnes] and some of the other guys," Barnes said.
"Sean has a non-bossy leadership. He gets along really well with everybody on the team, and he brought a strong work ethic and an intelligent level-headed approach to his matches into the room," Kocher said. "That sets a great example for the team. We have high hopes that we won't lose all that."