Olympic wrestler returns home to pass on the torch

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

HOMER - In the four years following her Olympic wrestling debut in Athens, Greece, Homer native Tela O'Donnell learned quite a few things about life - and herself.

The 25-year-old went back to school, became a mom and earned her bachelor's degree in psychology. She subsequently moved back to Homer, started a new job and embarked on a coaching journey via high school and middle school wrestling. She also developed a deep appreciation for mothers.

"You never really recognize the value of the things your mother knows until you become a mother," she said. "Now, I think she has this incredible wisdom."

O'Donnell said her mother, Claire, is absolutely thrilled about having a grandson. Raiden is 15 months old and often assists his mom with coaching duties.

"Oh my goodness, she's ecstatic," Tela said of her mother. "The two of them can spend all day together."

O'Donnell is the first to admit that balancing her son, a full-time job and coaching duties isn't exactly easy. But it just brings to light yet another thing she's learned about herself.

"I kinda thrive on overcoming adversity," she said - a bit of an understatement from someone who not only petitioned the school board to allow her to wrestle in high school, but also was one of the first girls to play football for the Mariners.

The need to overcome adversity was apparently strong motivation for O'Donnell as she started her climb toward a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Women's Wrestling Team.

Following an outstanding high school career, Tela attended Pacific University for one year before moving to the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center to focus on her wrestling career.

Working her way through opponents in the challenge tournament at the Olympics Trials, O'Donnell stunned the two-time world silver medalist, Tina George, by pinning her twice in a best-of-three final. The wins gave Tela the Olympic berth at 121 pounds.

O'Donnell didn't medal in the Olympics, but seems anything but concerned about it. She also said she didn't get nearly as much from participating in the Olympics as she did from preparing for them.

"The Olympic title, the success - it's like some kind of suit you put on. It becomes the focus of your life," she said. "It became the focus of my life, and that's really just not me."

Life after the Olympics

Following her stint with the Olympics and interviews with ESPN and USA Today, O'Donnell did a little more wrestling, but something just wasn't right.

"I wasn't feeling like that's where I should be," she said. "I knew I needed to spend some time focusing on academics."

O'Donnell enrolled in Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where she majored in psychology. "Things are a lot different out there; It's a much faster pace," she said.

"It was hard, but I think it taught me a lot. It's a great place to focus on something - anything."

In addition to earning her bachelor's degree, O'Donnell minored in art.

"Well, I am from Homer," she said.

When O'Donnell returned home, she fairly quickly took on a few coaching responsibilities to get her feet wet.

Under the tutelage of Homer high school wrestling coach Mike Illg, Tela picked up a few things about coaching the sport she had so long participated in.

"I learned a lot from Mike - he was just great," she said. "I took a coaching class my last semester and didn't really think I would ever want to be a coach. That was less than a year ago, and here I am now. I absolutely love it."

O'Donnell's Husky team recently finished up the Middle School Borough Championships at Homer Middle School.

"At first, I was afraid to coach junior high wrestlers. They're kinda scary, you know," she said. "But, I also think they are at a pivotal point in life - trying to break away from their parents and become more social with peers. The focus seems to become less on the family, and more on a new, outside environment. A coach can be part of that environment, so I see coaching as a pretty important responsibility."

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