This story appeared in the Greater Chicago edition of the Jan./Feb. ESPN RISE Magazine.
Lee Munster could barely breathe.
The senior wrestler from Grant (Fox Lake, Ill.)was in the midst of his sixth match at the Junior Freestyle Nationals last summer in Fargo, N.D., when he crashed to the mat. His opponent landed on top of him.
The result wasn't pretty -- broken ribs and damaged cartilage. It didn't stop Munster, however, as he pushed through for the victory. The pain only got worse, yet Munster continued, winning two more matches that day to earn a spot in the finals. He ended up losing in the championship, but to even make it that far while dealing with the injury was quite an accomplishment.
For Munster, quitting was never an option.
"I had more fear of not being able to finish than getting hurt worse," says Munster. "You always get the fear in the back of your head that you're going to regret not pushing yourself as hard as you can."
"The true reflection of what he's like as a competitor shone through right there," adds his father, Leroy Munster III.
Munster's relentless style on the mat has helped make him an All-American and Illinois' top grappler. At press time, the two-time state champ and Northwestern signee was rated the nation's No. 3 wrestler in the 189-pound weight class and the No. 8 overall recruit by InterMat. His determination also carries over to the classroom, where he has a 3.9 GPA.
His toughness was developed at an early age. When he was about 4, he started doing bodyweight-resistance exercises like push-ups and pull-ups and began competing in judo, a sport in which he won seven national and six international titles prior to entering high school.
Munster earned his first judo national title in 2001 when he took first place at the U.S. Junior Olympics. The taste of success inspired him.
"It was motivation for the rest of my sports career to continue working and to try to get back on top of the podium," says Munster.
And judo has played a role in his wrestling success.
"It helped me a lot with balance and footwork, knowing where my body is on the mat and knowing how to adapt," he says.
The same year he won Junior Olympics in judo, Munster captured his first major wrestling title at the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state championship. And in the fifth grade, he joined the Overtime School of Wrestling in Naperville. There, he's trained under Sean Bormet, a two-time All-American at Michigan.
As Munster worked at Overtime and at home with his father and grandfather, he developed into a top national wrestler in middle school as he transitioned away from judo. In 2004, he finished first at the Cliff Keen Nationals and at Tulsa Nationals the following year.
By the time Munster arrived at Grant his freshman year, he was ready to dominate. Wrestling in the 119-pound weight class, Munster went 45-4 and defeated Lillashawn Coleman of Oak Park-River Forest (Oak Park, Ill.), 5-3, in the state finals. To get to the finals, he upended defending state champion Chris Spangler of Neuqua Valley (Naperville, Ill.) in the semis.
"It was the greatest feeling I've ever had," says Munster of his state championship win. "It made it seem like all the hard work, all the weight cutting and all the practice was well worth it."
Munster moved up to the 140-pound weight class the following year, but ended up losing, 7-6, to eventual state champion Reese Taylor of Rock Island (Rock Island, Ill.) in the quarterfinals. He had beaten Taylor a month earlier and admits he went into the finals with the wrong mindset. He worried too much about the adjustments Taylor would make instead of just attacking.
The loss served as motivation for Munster during the offseason as he worked out twice a day, six days a week. "It humbled me quite a bit," he says.
At Overtime, Munster wrestled against Bormet and former Northwestern star Jake Herbert, a four-time All-American who won the Hodge Trophy as the top college wrestler last year.
When he wasn't there, Munster was in the garage next to his house pumping iron with Metallica blasting in the background. The garage is equipped with a squat rack, a bench, dumbbells and a wrestling mat. Next to the garage, there's a rope he climbs to improve his grip strength. He's been going through the same workout routine at home since he was 8.
"He does the things he needs to do to get better on a daily basis," says Bormet.
"You've got to be different than anyone else if you want to be great," adds Grant head coach Ryan Geist. "You've got to be willing to do things that other kids aren't doing."
The preparation paid off big time in Munster's junior year, as he rolled to the state title at 171 pounds by defeating Mark Stenberg of Lockport (Lockport, Ill.) in a major decision. Munster finished the year 47-0 and set the school record for pins in a season with 30. He was rarely challenged.
"He doesn't just want to beat you -- he wants to dominate you," says Geist.
Munster went through the same two-a-day program to get ready for this year as he goes for a third state title in four years. While he understands there's a lot of pressure on him as the favorite, he also relishes the challenge of getting everyone's best effort each time he steps on the mat.
"It motivates you a lot knowing some other wrestler is working hard to beat you," says Munster. "It makes me want to work harder so they can't have the pleasure of beating me."
Spoken like a true competitor.
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