After four stellar seasons at Columbia, senior Steve Santos finished his collegiate wrestling career with a flourish on March 23.
That day Santos topped Minnesota's Dylan Ness, the 2013 Big Ten champion and 2012 national runner-up, to capture third place in the 149-pound bracket at the 2013 NCAA Championships. In doing so, Santos secured the best-ever finish by a Columbia wrestler at NCAAs.
"Wrestling all my life, your dream is to be on that national stage, in front of a huge crowd, on TV," Santos said. "To finally get there and be there, it was kind of a little bit surreal. It's kind of cool to look back on and be able to appreciate."
The historic performance marked the culmination of a hugely successful Columbia career for Santos, who garnered All-Ivy honors three times in four seasons. He was an All-Ivy honorable mention in 2011 and was a first-team All-Ivy selection in both 2012 and 2013.
Santos also overcame his share of difficulties in his time as a Lion, ranging from a mid-season case of appendicitis his sophomore year to a challenge that all wrestlers have to struggle with: weight.
Both Santos and Columbia's head coach, Carl Fronhofer, estimated Santos' offseason weight at somewhere around 175 pounds. He wrestled at 149 for the Lions.
"You gotta be a little bit twisted to do what he did," Fronhofer said. "I'm serious. It's a level of discipline and strength that just most people in the world don't possess."
Fronhofer talked to Santos about moving up a weight class to 157 and switching places with fellow senior Jake O'Hara prior to the start of this season.
"I talked to him several times, to see if he wanted to go up," Fronhofer said. "Him and O'Hara, they're back-to-back weights for 49, 57, and you know, two of the best guys on the team, and they're best friends. It was like, you guys might have to figure this out."
But Santos decided to stay put, telling his coach, as Fronhofer recalled, that his best shot at a national title was at 149.
Even then, the road was not smooth. Santos battled a number of injuries during the 2012-13 campaign.
"I missed a ton of matches and mat time with different injuries, between my ribs and my back. It was kind of getting to me throughout the season and affecting me mentally," Santos said. "The coaches helped me, put me on a program, and gave me the time to rest, and also, you know, a recovery program. And I was able to bounce back."
Fronhofer believes it was Santos' mental fortitude that allowed him to overcome the obstacles he faced and become a trailblazer for the Columbia wrestling program.
"He's, like, the toughest human being I've ever met in my life," Fronhofer said. "Really, too. I've met some tough dudes. I've been on teams with tough guys. I've competed against really tough guys."
Santos' mental fortitude was on full display at the NCAA championships. Given the depth of the talent pool and the grueling nature of the three-day affair, Santos' toughness gave him the edge he needed to excel, particularly in the third-place match against Ness.
"It wasn't even close. He dominated him," Fronhofer said. "And really, it's just because he wasn't willing to lose. He just took it from him. He's not a better wrestler than Dylan Ness, technically. He's not a better athlete than Dylan Ness. But he's tougher than him. He's tougher than him by far, that day for sure."
With his historic collegiate career now behind him, Santos is looking for a chance to put his financial economics degree to use. Though he will probably never have to make weight or stare down the defending national runner-up again, the determination that Santos showed in his time at Columbia will surely come in handy down the road.
"Anybody as hard-working and as intelligent and thoughtful as Steve is, is gonna be successful, regardless of what he chooses to do," Fronhofer said. "He will be very successful, whatever path he chooses professionally."
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