Donald McNeil: Paralyzed From the Neck Down to State Champ

Donald is from Massachusetts and won his first state title at the 160 lb weight class for King Philip High School. He was just a sophomore in high school back in 2007.

Everything changed later that summer during a match (for Team CT). He was undefeated on the weekend in Freestyle and Greco until his last match with a two time state champ from NC.

With 30 seconds left in his last match of the weekend, Donald was losing by quite a bit and at this point started on bottom in the old clinch position. He was lifted and slammed directly on his head and the other wrestler’s weight landed directly on top of him.

Immediately, Donald couldn’t move or feel anything, even though he was conscious the whole time. The trainer thought he just had a stinger, but luckily a doctor ran down from the stands to help out. The doctor pricked the extremities with a pin to see if Donald could feel anything, but Donald could not. The doctor seemed very concerned and called an ambulance.

The ambulance rushed him to a nearby trauma hospital where quickly performed an emergency surgery to stabilize and fuse his spine.

A week after surgery, Donald was still paralyzed from the neck down.

His future was very uncertain, as doctors and nurses were discussing paraplegia and quadriplegia around him. Fortunately, he was medflighted to Spaulding, Boston to do his rehab. When he arrived, he was barely able to wiggle his finger and his body was still numb.

After a month of inpatient rehab he gained more movement, but was still extremely weak. Donald said “lifting two pounds in rehab felt like one hundred at the time.” He eventually transitioned from a power wheelchair, to a manual wheelchair, to crutches.

He had to relearn completely everything, even things as basic as how to walk. Rehab and lifting continued for almost an entire year.

After close to a year of not wrestling, he was finally cleared to compete a little before the week of sectionals. He got in his ten practices necessary to compete and ended up winning sectionals that year, and then winning another state title at the 215 lb weight class, which is a 55 lb jump from the previous year (160).

Donald continued at Wyoming Seminary, and ended up pinning his way through the bracket at prep nationals his senior year of high school.

He went on to wrestle at UNC Greensboro, but the program was dropped during his redshirt year. He transferred to Rider University and qualified for NCAAs his sophomore year. His junior year he placed at the Midlands tournament, but ended up having a shoulder injury which required surgery that put him out for the year.

His senior year he was recovering from his shoulder injury, and other nagging injuries, and just missed qualifying for NCAAs one last time.

Donald was devastated, but was able to train later at the New England RTC where he ended up placing at the US Open, winning two tournaments in Canada and a Bronze in the Cerro Pelado in Cuba. This past season he ended up losing in the round of 12 at the US Open, and was 2nd at the last chance qualifier.

Donald will be continuing training in hopes of making the 2020 Olympic Team. He’s currently in the tail end of his graduate program for Rehabilitation Counseling, hoping to work with other people that had spinal cord injuries. He’s going to start an internship in the fall at the exact hospital where he did his rehab after his injury.

“Perseverance has been a huge part of my wrestling story. There are many times when I could have given up, but wrestling is so important to me and has opened so many incredible doors for me.”

Questions We Asked Donald:

When you first realized you were paralyzed, what were your initial thoughts?

Initially, I had no idea what had happened. Spinal cord injuries were something I knew absolutely nothing about before this injury. I really had no idea what had happened or what the outcome could be. My first thought without knowing the severity of the injury was, “I hope I can wrestle again”. I did not even consider the fact that I might never walk again. 

Once you started rehab, what was your motivation to keep going everyday?

My motivation was always to wrestle again. Wrestling has been such a big and important part of my life since I was 8 years old. My work ethic from wrestling carried over into my rehab. I wanted to get the most out of every session that I possibly could.

What advice would you give other athletes that are struck with injury midseason?

Your body has to heal. You might be eager to get back to wrestling, but focus on your rehab and listen to the doctor. Do as much as you can with what you are allowed to do, but do not push it. Along with that, mentally and emotionally an injury can take a toll on a person. We invest so much time and energy into the sport and it is such a big part of who we are. Do not be afraid to talk to the people around you or a mental health specialist. It is okay and normal to be down in the dumps about an injury.

How supportive was your family when you choose to continue wrestling after the injury? What were their thoughts on it?

My dad and I were excited to get back to wrestling. My dad was always supportive and in my corner for the majority of my wrestling career. Wrestling is something we share together. My mom on the other hand was very apprehensive about me returning to wrestling. Her friends were supportive of her and assured her it was important to be supportive of whatever it was that I wanted to do. After I returned to wrestling and started doing well she remained to be scared, but she was also supportive. My twin brother was never as interested in wrestling as me so he has stayed away from most of my wrestling matches since my injury. My parents and brother did witness my injury so I cannot even imagine the impact that had on them. 

What was the transition from 160 to 215 like?

It was a big jump. When I won my 2nd state title at 215 I actually weighed around 185. Always thinking of my team I thought going 215 instead of 189 would give us the best chance to do well in the sectional and state tournaments. So since my injury at that time I had really only gained about 15lbs from when I got hurt wrestling 171 at the East Coast Duals.

How has going through all of this helped build you into the person you are today?

I always look at it as something bad that could have been much worse turned out to be something good. In many ways I am glad I have had this experience because it has shaped who I am today. I am grateful every day to be alive and I am grateful every day to be able to wrestle. The wrestling community raised about $30,000 for me when I was injured that helped pay for medical expenses. This has shown me how amazing people in general can be and how amazing the wrestling community is. It really is a special community.
Today, I have the burning desire to work with others that have had spinal cord injuries. Without this experience I do not know if I would be as passionate and determined to do something as meaningful with my life. I am also positive I would not be as thankful as I am for the things I do have.

Other Questions

Favorite food?

Chicken Parm!

Favorite sport besides wrestling?

Football (go Pats)

Who is your favorite wrestler on the current world team and why?

Tyler Graff. He has always been on the cusp of making the world team and he just kept working and working and finally was able to do it. Gotta love a good underdog story.

What is your favorite hobby to do outside of wrestling?

Singing! It is somewhat of a hidden fact, but I have been taking singing lessons for several years now.

What advice would you give young wrestlers that want to wrestle in college someday?

Have a purpose every day. Give as much as you can of yourself every practice. If you are not great right away it does not mean you lack the potential to be great. If you go in the room and try your best to work harder than everyone else in the room over time you will have success. If you work hard over time you will have the ability to be a successful college wrestler. Like they always say you get out what you put in!

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