An Unexpected Offseason

Park’s Gunnar Mullen

By Brian Jerzak

It should have been an exciting time for Park freshman Gunnar Mullen. He was coming off a successful wrestling season – capping it off with his first individual section title and his first trip to the state tournament. Less than a month later, Mullen was preparing for Iowa Nationals, and his wrestling off-season took a turn no one could have seen coming.

“I came back from wrestling at a one-on-one wrestling session, and a couple of days later, I couldn’t get out of bed,” Mullen said. “My hip hurt so bad. I had to use a cane to get around the house because I couldn’t walk.”

Nine months later, Mullen is not only back on the mat but is excelling. When I talked to Gunnar, he was 24-4 and the 4th-ranked 145-pounder in AAA. Before he was ranked or won section titles, he was just a young kid who looked up to his older brother.

“I got involved in wrestling mostly because of my brother,” Mullen said. “I looked up to him, and he started wrestling in first grade, and I started a few years later. He graduated two years ago. I always looked up to him and wanted to be like him.”

Success on the mat didn’t come quickly for Mullen.

“I didn’t start having much success until around fifth grade. That is when I started placing at youth state, freestyle, and Greco. I started taking wrestling more seriously. I knew if I could wrestle on varsity in seventh grade, I would get to wrestle with my brother, who would be a senior. I wanted to have that moment with him.”

As he got closer to the varsity mat, Mullen’s wrestling opened up.

Park’s Gunnar Mullen competing at the 2022 Minnesota Christmas Tournament, where he placed fifth.

“My style has changed. I was more of a defensive wrestler when I was little. Now, I am more aggressive. It started to change when I got into middle school. My defense didn’t work as well anymore. I started trying underhooks, throw bys and shots. I had to change my style.”

His style change has helped him become one of the best 145-pounders in the state.

“I am pretty good on my feet,” Mullen told The Guillotine. “I like working off an underhook and going for a throw-by or a duck under. (Short time and down by one) I would use an underhook to a throw-by to a single leg.”

“He is kind of a brawler, but he also scrambles really well,” Park head coach Jim LaBrosse said. “He does not want to give up points. He is tough on top, and his work on the bottom is good. He has gotten a lot of reversals over the past few years. He is well rounded.”

His goal of wrestling on the same team as his brother became a reality when he toed the line in the regular season, the first season he was eligible.

“In 7th grade, I was 30-12 and was able to wrestle with my brother. It was pretty cool. I was about 100 pounds, but I just had fun with it. I was aggressive. I got a lot of takedowns and pins.”

“Physically, he was already there,” LaBrosse said. “Mentally, I wasn’t worried because he had wrestled so many matches with freestyle and Greco. It was a pretty easy transition for him.”

Like most successful wrestlers, Mullen’s wrestling season never truly ends.

“Out of season, I usually go to some wrestling camps,” Mullen continued. “I usually do two Ponce Wrestling Camps and some Minnesota Elite camps. When the season gets close, I am at Minnesota Elite constantly to prepare for the season.”

During a typical offseason, Mullen could be found on a lacrosse field. Last year was not a typical off-season.

“It started right after the state tournament,” Mullen said. “We took three trips to the ER (in less than a week). The first time, the doctors said it was muscle spasms. We went home, and I took some ibuprofen. Then we went back to the ER, and they said the same thing. After a third time, they finally did a CAT scan. It was about a two-hour CAT scan. They found an infection in my right hip. They took me in an ambulance to the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, and they put a needle in my hip to drain it and see what it was. A couple of hours later, they put me under for surgery and took the infection out.”

While training, Mullen got a hematoma in his hip, which doctors think led to his infection. He was in surgery for a couple of hours.

Mullen would spend ten days in the hospital.

Mullen in the hospital.

“The first day after the surgery was rough – I could barely move. It felt like I still had the infection. After a couple of nights, the pain started to get better. A couple of days after that, I got crutches, and I would use my good leg and then scoot my other leg forward. It was really slow – I couldn’t even lift my foot off the floor.”

It was just the start of a long rehab process.

“They made me do stretches to loosen my hip,” Mullen said. “They took videos of me to see how I walked – I had a big limp at the time. They took video of me walking up and down the stairs. They made me do a little bit of walking on treadmills, some squats, and some RDLs and lunges.”

Although the doctors always thought a full recovery would eventually come, Mullen’s physical health was only part of his recovery.

“Mentally, it was hard a first. I had my friends and family to keep me motivated and keep pushing me forward. I would get frustrated, but I never thought about giving up.”

Out of the hospital, Mullen started to get back into his everyday life.

“I was in a wheelchair, then I was on crutches, and then I walked with a limp,” Mullen explained. “The rehab took about three months. After that, I started thinking about working out. When I went to my first wrestling camp, I had to sit out a lot of the time because I still had some pain. As I felt less and less pain, I could do more. A little bit before August, I stopped feeling pain.”

Mullen spent time in a wheelchair and on crutches.

“Once he got cleared by the doctors, he got right back on the horse,” LaBrosse – who has been the head coach at Park for twenty years – said. “He is doing phenomenal right now.”

Mullen feels he was wrestling at 100 percent by October. He was confident enough in his hip and skills to jump back into a pair of national tournaments.

“I felt like I was in a good position. Early in October, I was working with Orlando Ponce at Ponce Trained Wrestling. I was also working at MN Elite four times a week.”

“I did Big Buck Nationals and Brian Keck Pre-season Nationals,” Mullen continued. “In my first tournament, I was nervous. I wasn’t nervous about my hip – it was just pre-match jitters. I didn’t think about my hip at the time – I was pretty locked in.”

Mullen has been locked in ever since. Considering where he was six months ago, few likely saw his success – this fast – coming. That is, except maybe Mullen himself.

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