WRENTHAM — After two seasons on the wrestling mat in representing King Philip Regional High School, Don McNeil suffered more than a takedown or a pin.
His future athletic career, the everyday existence that he knew as a student-athlete, and his life in Plainville became a bit more complicated.
The son of former Brown University All-Ivy League wrestler Andy McNeil, in the summer of 2007 McNeil’s athletic and personal world were shattered. McNeil, then a KP sophomore and the Hockomock League and MIAA Division 2 champion (winning all four matches) in the 160-pound class, suffered a potentially career-ending, life-threatening neck injury while competing in a summer meet in Virginia.
McNeil battled back from near-paralysis, having fractured and dislocated his fifth and sixth vertebrae while wrestling Greco-Roman style.
He had won the Hockomock League Championship Meet 160-pound title, was seeded No. 1 for the Division 2 Central Meet, won that title and then came home with the MIAA Division 2 Meet championship as well. His then-King Philip coaches, Walter Laskey and Matt Wassel, saw a New England titan in the making.
“I got thrown on my head,” recalled McNeil of the two fractured vertebrae and the pinched spinal cord. He spent a month at the Spaulding Rehab Center, then underwent eight-plus months of physical therapy. “When it first happened, I didn’t really know what was going on or how severe it was,” recalled McNeil. “When the doctors started talking to me, I realized how bad it really was.”
Fast-forward a decade, and the former Rider College All-Colonial Athletic Conference and Eastern Wrestling League selection returned home from Israel last week with a gold medal as the 213-pound champion for Team USA in the “freestyle” wrestling competition at the Maccabiah Games.
“I thought that my wrestling career was over when I got out of college,” related McNeil, who trains at the New England Regional Training Center out of Brown University while pursuing graduate studies in rehab counseling services at Assumption College.
The 25-year-old McNeil scored a 10-0 victory over Moshe Klyman of Canada in the quarterfinals, then a win over Israel’s Pim Kadosh in the semifinal round at the Maccabiah Games, then scored a technical fall (10-0) verdict over Israel’s Robert Avanesyan in the championship (two three-minute rounds) match.
Every member of Team USA Wrestling earned a “freestyle” competition medal in the Open Division, with McNeil’s being one of five gold medals, three silver medals and five bronze medals.
Over 40 sports were represented in the two-week-long festival, with over 9,000 athletes from 85 countries competing in the 20th World Maccabiah Games, the third-largest sporting event in the world, beside the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup (soccer).
The Maccabiah Games were first held in 1932. The opening ceremonies took place at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem, in front of some 30,000 spectators. Israel fielded the largest delegation of athletes with 2,400 competitors. The U.S. delegation of over 1,100 athletes came from 42 states and was the second-largest delegation.
The Maccabiah Games competition is in Open, Masters, Junior, Youth and Paralympic divisions. Athletes who are of Jewish descent are eligible to participate. Each individual’s information is reviewed by an Eligibility Committee to determine his or her nature of origin, which in McNeil’s case was due to his mom, Betsy, being of Jewish descent.
When McNeil learned that Team USA was recruiting wrestlers for the Maccabiah Games, he submitted his application, won all three of his matches during the trials in April at the University of Pennsylvania, and then began training in earnest for the past few months with members of the Brown University wrestling family.
Israel won the most medals (396) with 141 gold medals. Team USA finished second with 140 medals — 40 gold, 55 silver, and 45 bronze — with Australia third (27).
The Maccabiah Games brought competition in 45 sports. Originally, the Maccabiah Games were held every three years. Since the fourth Maccabiah, the event has been held every four years, in the year following the Olympic Summer Games.
The first Maccabiah opened on March 28, 1932 with some 400 athletes from 18 countries taking part in everything from swimming, football and handball.
McNeil participated in the “Israel Connect” program, a seven-day mandatory program prior to competition for individuals to tour the country, with cultural, social and special events, and the athletes housed in accommodations just outside of Tel Aviv.
McNeil might have moved up on the family ladder, as his dad Andy had an illustrious collegiate career at Brown University, participating in the U.S. Olympic Team trials after being the Mass. state and New England heavyweight champion while attending Wellesley High.
Don McNeil began his collegiate career at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro after spending two years at Wyoming Seminary, where he finished fourth at the national championship meet in his first year, then won the national title in his second season.
At Rider, having a “redshirt” year of eligibility after transferring, McNeil became a two-year captain and won 63 matches, mostly wrestling at 197 pounds during his career with the Broncos, and graduated in 2015.
“I was motivated to get back as soon as it happened,” said McNeil of his Memorial Day weekend high school injury, six hours of surgery and then learning how to walk again, never mind executing an escape move on the match. “I didn’t realize it was so bad that I might not even be able to walk again. I was just determined to get back and wrestle again.
“That injury made me thankful for what I was able to do, what I have; I learned a lot from it,” said McNeil, whose graduate school studies will take him on to a career path to counsel, to become a member of the mental-health community to create rehabilitation plans, to assist individuals in their physical and mental struggles, to set goals, and to make a life plan.
“That injury and my rehab impacted what I wanted to do later on in life, my career. Being an athlete definitely helps as far as setting goals.”
McNeil trains five or six days a week year-round at Brown. “It’s almost the same as if I were in college,” he said. He captured eighth place at the U.S. Open wrestling competition in April in Las Vegas, where everyone on the mat was either a national champion or former NCAA All-American.
“I didn’t wrestle again until I was six or seven months out of college, then I got back into it and was glad that I did,” he said of his experiences in Israel at the Maccabian Games, being housed in with members of Team USA in the Sports Village, swimming in the Dead Sea, and meeting athletes from across the globe.
“The food was good; I didn’t realize how much beef that they eat. The salad bars, the vegetables, the watermelon and cantaloupe — we didn’t go hungry!”
Best of all, McNeil continues to foster his wrestling relationship with his dad, who unbeknownst to many drove the team bus for coach Brian Lee and the King Philip High football team for its MIAA Division 1-A Super Bowl quest last winter.
“I think that my dad loves it more than me,” said McNeil. “I think that he and my mom might have missed maybe one of my meets in college. Wrestling is a sport that you just need to have your whole heart into it to be good. You have to be willing to put everything into it; it’s taught me that you have to be motivated in everything you do.”