Wyoming's LeBlanc leads by example

Originally Published: February 20, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Think you're pretty busy? Consider what Wyoming senior wrestler Joe LeBlanc has going on. He's ranked No. 1 in his weight class (184 pounds) heading into this week's NCAA championships in St. Louis. He's working on his master's degree. He's also a husband and father to two boys, 2-year-old Tyson and 6-month-old Colby.

"My time to do my homework is usually 9:30 to midnight," said LeBlanc, who is majoring in kinesiology and health promotion. "I wake up and lift at 6 a.m. From the time I get home after practice around 6:30 to 9, when I put my boys to bed, I try to spend as much time as I can with them. Read to them and be a dad. After that, I have to really focus on schoolwork. I don't have the other distraction of a huge social life."

[+] EnlargeJoe LeBlanc
AP Photo/Dave WeaverSenior Joe LeBlanc, Wyoming's all-time leader in wins, has one final chance at winning a national championship this weekend in St. Louis.

LeBlanc calls all this, "The best thing that's ever happened to me, having a family. It gives me the motivation to be my best. I get to come home to my amazing wife and boys."

LeBlanc's story is just one of the many examples at this NCAA meet of personal triumph and perseverance. Wrestling absolutely demands the latter; there simply are no shortcuts to getting to the top in this sport. But LeBlanc's tale is particularly inspiring because it's the kind that his school, his hometown of Meeker, Colo., the NCAA, and the wrestling community at large can take pride in.

Not just because he's balancing so many responsibilities well. But also because of the back story: By age 20, he had lost not one, but two fathers.

He refers to the first, only for lack of a better term, as his "real" dad. With no disrespect to his stepfather, who also was a real father and the person whom he grew up calling "Dad." Both left his life too soon.

LeBlanc's biological father, Randy LeBlanc, was a medical doctor who was killed in an automobile accident in Colorado when Joe was just 3 years old.

"So I never really knew him, I've just heard a lot about him," LeBlanc said. "Then my stepfather took his own life after my freshman season in college. That was on the Fourth of July, 2009."

Bren Sullivan -- along with Joe's mother, Sharon -- had raised Joe, helping him as he did countless other young wrestlers as a coach. Bren had been friends with Randy, in fact, when both had wrestled at what was then called Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo.

"There are so many different emotions -- confusion, sadness, anger. My whole family went through it together," Joe said of dealing with his stepfather's suicide. "My dad never let me quit on anything in my life. He never let me give up. So for him to quit on life was so contradictory and confusing to me.

"He was always the cool hand. And then to see him get to that level of depression was hard. I was the youngest, and I was there when he was going through that, along with my mom. But then I had to go to college. It was hard to be away."

Sharon Parr, who has since remarried, said that she knew Joe worried about her, especially after Bren's death.

"He had times I could tell it was rough for him, wondering, 'How is my mom managing?'" Sharon said. "Whenever he came home, he wanted to do things for me. You think of a college kid being mostly about himself. But he was willing to step up and do whatever he could to help me. I told him the very best thing he could do is be good in school. We always wanted that for him."

LeBlanc took that to heart, elevating his GPA to a 4.0. Which is even more impressive when you add in the other life changes he had in 2009. He married his girlfriend, Amanda, and they later had Tyson. In the same year that LeBlanc lost a father, he became one. He was only 20 years old.

"It was a life-changing year," he said. "I had gotten decent grades up to that point, but that first semester after my dad died, I got a 4.0. And I've been doing that ever since. I think I just wanted to respond to be the best I could be in his memory, rather than using that as an excuse."

It was a life-changing year. I had gotten decent grades up to that point, but that first semester after my dad died, I got a 4.0. And I've been doing that ever since. I think I just wanted to respond to be the best I could be in his memory, rather than using that as an excuse.

--Wyoming's Joe LeBlanc

The demands of his sport helped him, too.

"Wrestling is a way for me to actually relax and focus my emotion," he said. "It helps me to just go in the room and get a good workout. I'm not thinking about everything else in the world. It's a good escape for me."

LeBlanc also did have another "father-figure" to help, his oldest brother, Barny. He's 10 years Joe's senior, and also wrestled. Joe also has another brother who wrestled, two sisters, and a stepsister. His siblings and his mother all will be in St. Louis to see his last NCAA championships.

"It's super-encouraging, and fun to be part of it," Barny said. "I'm ecstatic about where he is. He is an awesome young man. He's not just naturally gifted, but he has grown to be an outstandingly hard worker."

Barny laughs a little explaining that Joe, as a youngster, used to constantly pester him to wrestle. He'd even bug Barny to tie him up so he could free himself.

"He just wouldn't leave me alone," Barny said. "It was his way of getting some attention."

Who knows, maybe his youthful Houdini acts helped LeBlanc become the wrestler he did. He was a three-time Colorado state champion in high school. He's been an All-American his three seasons at Wyoming, where he has won more matches (143) than anyone in the program's history. He's lost just once this season, 3-2 in December to Oklahoma State's Chris Perry, who is wrestling in a different weight class at the NCAA meet.

"It seems every year I come close to my goal of a championship, but don't get there," LeBlanc said. "My sophomore year, I lost in the semifinals in overtime [to Missouri's Max Askren, the eventual champ].

"This year is my last shot, and I have to leave it all on the line. But I feel less pressure than I've ever felt. Because there's really nothing to lose. I've tried to approach every match like it is the national championship. I think the biggest difference throughout college is my mental aspect has changed. My confidence, my awareness of situations. I don't become fearful in any situation."

Probably because he has faced enough that nothing on the mat will ever seem like life-or-death to him. He knows it isn't.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.