For America’s rugby fans, the Collegiate Championship tournament is as big as basketball’s March Madness, or football’s BCS series.
Today, all of those fans are talking about Mikell Washington.
The 2012 Staples grad scored the winning try — in extra time – to give Penn State a big win in pool play, against St. Joseph’s. The match — televised lived on NBC Sports — was played at PPL Park in Philadelphia.
An exuberant Mikell Washington, after winning a pool game in the national championship tournament.
Mikell is one of 4 siblings who attended Westport schools throughout his career, as Open Choice students from Bridgeport.
He threw himself into Staples activities — including rugby, wrestling, football, choir and band — while working 2 jobs during the school year and 3 in the summer.
He is triple majoring at Penn State, with a goal of attending law school.
As the rugby world found out yesterday, Mikell Washington is a young man who stops at nothing to reach the goal line — or his goals.
(For the final 1:47 of the pool game — including Mikell’s winning try — click here. Hat tip: Joanne Heller.)
Mikell Washington (center) in Staples High School’s 2011 Candlelight Concert. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
“06880” doesn’t often profile athletes. They get their props in the Westport News and other media.
Besides, if I do one, I’ll be inundated by every well-meaning parent of every kid who ever hit a ball, shot a basket or swam a lap.
But Mikell Washington deserves an exception — because he’s an exception.
His story is not a typical Westport one. And he does not compete in a typical sport.
Mikell Washington. In addition to wrestling, he’s a talented singer and sax player.
Mikell is a wrestler. Though he wears the Staples “S,” he lives in Bridgeport. Yet he wore that “S” proudly, all the way through the New England tournament earlier this month.
Mikell’s older brothers, Andrew and Adam, won places in Westport’s Open Choice program, the lottery that brings Bridgeport youngsters here beginning in 1st grade.
As a sibling Mikell was offered a spot too. He’s been a Westport student through Green’s Farms Elementary School, Bedford Middle, and now as a Staples senior.
It isn’t easy. He gets up at 5 a.m. to take a long bus ride. He doesn’t get home until 6:30 or 7 p.m.
In middle school, he sometimes wanted to quit. But his mother — Gardenia — kept him going. Now, Mikell says, “I’m very happy for it. Even through the worst times, I appreciate being here.”
After his freshman football season at Staples, Mikell saw the Giunta brothers running sprints. They were getting ready for wrestling, and said the team needed a heavyweight. The next day, Mikell and his brothers showed up.
At first, rolling around the mat was just fun. Soon, however, he realized how much he wanted to win.
He didn’t. During his entire 9th grade year, Mikell won once: a junior varsity bout. He was 0-for-that-entire-varsity-season.
“I hated losing,” Mikell says. One reason he lost so much was his weight. Just 5-5, he wrestled in the 285-pound class.
He cut out junk food. That — combined with rigorous training — helped him shed pounds by the bucket. As a sophomore he was a 189-pounder. He stayed that weight as a junior. This year he moved up to 195.
More than nearly any sport, wrestling rewards determination and perseverance. By this year — thanks to year-long work with assistant coach Jeff Lauzon, the off-season Monstarz Wrestling Club, summer camp at Oklahoma State, and his own experience combining moves with strength and stamina and an understanding of leverage — Mikell placed 3rd in the FCIAC (league) tournament, 3rd in the LL (extra large schools) state tourney and 3rd in the state open.
He capped the season with a win at the New England tournament in Providence — the 1st for a Staples wrestler in 18 years.
But there’s more to Mikell than just grappling. As a defensive lineman, he’s been part of 2 FCIAC championship and 2 state runnerup football teams. He’s an all-state rugby player too.
Mikell Washington, performing with the choir at last winter’s Staples Candlelight Conert. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Mikell sings in the choir, and plays sax in the Staples band. He’d love to do jazz band, but there’s no time.
As a part of the St. Baldrick’s club, he’s shaved his head to raise money for childhood cancer research. “When I see kids who are so much less fortunate than I am, that’s not a big sacrifice,” he says.
Next year, Mikell hopes to attend either Penn State or UConn. He plans to study criminal justice.
Being part of Open Choice — and making the choice to wrestle — has helped make Mikell Washington who he is. Staples “has given me a new view on the world,” he says. “The skills I’ve learned have been amazing.”
He singles out a freshman biology teacher, Heather Morley, for simple words of advice he never forgot: “You can be whoever or whatever you want.”
But he saves his biggest praise for his mother.
“She’s my biggest critic, and my number one fan,” Mikell says.
“I remember when I was younger, I was breaking down to my mom. I wanted to quit, but she said if I thought like a loser I’d be a loser.
“Then I won my first match ever. I felt like I’d won a national title. It was the happiest moment of my life.”
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