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April 14, 2014

Going out in style

By: Jimmy Robertson

Chris Penny’s career at Tech got off to a slow start, but he closed it in grand fashion, winning an ACC wrestling championship and earning All-America honors in the span of a few weeks

The life of a college student can be described as a maze, one filled with numerous twists and turns that must be navigated before coming to the appropriate destination.

The journey can be fraught with perils, and it can take a while. In some cases, life simply wins, and the destination never gets reached.

Chris Penny nearly got pinned his first couple of years at Virginia Tech, floundering around in a maze his freshman year and later trying to solve the riddle of becoming a good athlete. This is what makes his improbable run of career-ending successes so undeniably amazing.

A young man who nearly got booted from the university and never really had any success on the mat became an ACC champion and All-American within a month’s span. And in early May, he will become a college graduate.

“It was the transition [to college],” Penny said. “I had a poor transition. I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t until my sophomore and junior year that I started to develop better habits. I just had a poor transition.

“That happens with a lot of college students. I could go on and on about a number of student-athletes who got kicked out of school because of a poor transition and couldn’t turn it around. They weren’t able to buckle down and focus.”

To get a better understanding of Penny’s story, one must go back to his freshman days. He came to Tech as a wrestler, though not a highly recruited one. Penny played football at Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Va., and only attempted wrestling after a strong suggestion from his high school coach, who, like many other coaches, see parallels between the two sports.

Penny comes from a wrestling family. His uncle, Greg, wrestled at Duke and was the Most Valuable Wrestler in the 1973 ACC Tournament. Chris enjoyed wrestling, but liked football better. That changed his senior year at Cox after he started having some success.

“The better I got at wrestling, the more I enjoyed it. I really didn’t have a level of success on a national or state level until my senior year. The better I got, the more wins I accumulated, the more fun it was for me. Also, I was interested in going to a bigger school, and Virginia Tech had expressed an interest in me.”

Penny attended a wrestling camp at Tech the summer before his senior year, and his performance there caught the eye of Tech wrestling coach Kevin Dresser, who viewed Penny as a bit of a diamond in the rough. Penny ultimately decided to come to Tech and wrestle for Dresser.

But things started going awry not long after he got to campus, as Penny got caught up in that maze. A neck injury limited him on the mat, and Penny admits he didn’t rehab in the proper matter. More troubling, he got into some hot water off the mat, and a series of small incidents added up.

The one that got him in the most hot water came during an early morning fire drill when he and his roommate taped the fire alarm to muffle the sound, and then they went back to bed. The resident advisor for his hall came into the room, saw what had transpired and wrote both he and his roommate up for disobeying rules.

“There were a lot of small incidents that kind of added up, and I actually almost got kicked out of school,” Penny said. “All the strikes added up, and I remember them [Tech’s Student Conduct Committee] telling me at the beginning of my sophomore year that I was on my last strike and last form of probation until the end of my junior year. Things didn’t go well. I had a lot of fun, but my focus wasn’t very good. Things didn’t go too well my first year.

“I wasn’t the bad kid. I was a good kid. I just made a few mistakes.”

Dresser and his staff gave Penny multiple warnings. They expressed frustration with him, particularly because they knew his off-mat shenanigans were hurting his on-mat performance.

Dresser joked after this year’s ACC Championship that Penny went about “2-27” as a freshman. That was a slight exaggeration. The truth is that he went a forgettable 3-16.

He struggled the early part of his sophomore year, too, but toward the end, sparks of his talent started to emerge. At the ACC Championship that year, he dominated top-seeded Mike Salopek of Virginia at 197 pounds early in the tournament and later finished as the ACC runner-up. His overall record was 14-21, but his performance at the ACC meet created optimism about his future.

Penny got it going in the right direction during his junior year. He finished with a 12-8 record, including a 5-0 mark in ACC dual meet action, and he was the ACC runner-up at heavyweight that season.

Chris Penny put his talent on display the final three years of his career, going 40-21 after finishing with a subpar record his first two seasons at Tech.

“Things turned around my junior year,” Penny said. “That’s when I started committing more to wrestling and to school. It wasn’t some act of chance or luck. I got into reading a lot, and I was inundated with this wealth of knowledge and I was able to restructure and reorganize my life. I got a lot smarter, and I was able to apply that knowledge to a lot of areas in my life, including wrestling.

“I was never going in the wrong direction. I just wasn’t maximizing my potential. You hear things from other people, but nothing really sinks in until you discover yourself. That’s the beauty of self-discovery. I would hear things from coaches and family and ex-coaches back home, but it wasn’t until I self-discovered it that it really sank in and induced some changes.”

Dresser had moved Penny to heavyweight that year after David Marone, the projected starter in the heavyweight class, suffered a season-ending injury. He knew Penny lacked the bulk, but felt he could get bigger, and he thought Penny’s athleticism made up for any weight disadvantage.

Marone’s return the next season prompted Dresser to suggest Penny take a redshirt year, and Penny agreed to do so, seeing the season as an opportunity to get bigger. He tried, but the heaviest he ever weighed was 225-230. To be competitive at heavyweight, he needed to be at least 240-250.

So after last season, he and Dresser agreed that he needed to be moved back to 197.

“He just never could get big enough at heavyweight,” Dresser said. “He did a great job. He started planning to get back to 197 last June. He was within 12 or 13 pounds of the weight when school started in the fall, which was really, really good.”

Aside from a three-week stretch at the start of the new year, Penny lived a dream senior season. He finished the year with a 28-13 mark, though it nearly got derailed when he struggled in January and early February. He lost to wrestlers from Kent State, NC State and Pittsburgh.

Sensing a tired wrestler, Dresser held Penny out of some practice work, and Penny stepped away from the sport off the mat. He started hanging out with friends outside of the team, and he used some spare time to read for relaxation.

“I really got into it [reading] last summer,” Penny said. “It’s good for a couple of reasons. It’s good for learning, and you always want to learn new things. It’s also good to keep your mind off everything else. I really believe that detaching yourself is very important.

“That helped me out a lot. I think sometimes people look at failure the wrong way. It makes you feel bad about yourself and hurts, but if I hadn’t lost those matches in January, I don’t think I’d have been an All-American or won the ACC. Failure is learning, and those losses exposed holes in my game and gave me time to work on those before nationals and really improve my game.”

Penny steamrolled the competition at the ACC Championship, gaining revenge over NC State’s KaRonne Jones and Pittsburgh’s Nick Bonaccorsi, both of whom beat him earlier in the season. In the championship match, he beat Zach Nye of Virginia 10-7 to claim his first ACC title.

He continued his great wrestling at the NCAAs, beating his first three opponents, including two who were seeded higher than him. A No. 14 seed, he advanced to the semifinals, where he lost to Missouri’s J’Den Cox 4-1. In the third-place match, he got pinned by Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson – and fractured his shoulder blade in the process.

But by finishing in sixth place at 197 pounds, he earned All-America honors – the first of his career. The top eight finishers in each weight class earn All-America status.

“It was pretty special,” Penny said of his season. “It was cool. I didn’t achieve what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a national champ. Looking back at it, I still ended on a high note, which I’m thankful for. A lot of seniors don’t have a good end-of-the-year performance. So even though it didn’t end the way I wanted, I’m still happy that it ended on a good note.”

“The one thing Chris Penny always had was the talent,” Dresser said. “He struggled in believing in himself early and maybe even late. Most of his career, his struggle was in his head, just believing in himself and staying tough in there when things got tough. The last month of the season, he was tough, and he believed.”

Penny is now preparing for the remainder of his life. He continues wrapping up his course work in human development, while also hanging out with good friends outside of wrestling in his spare time. Then he graduates and begins pursuit of a career. He has options, but nothing firm.

He may have wrestled for the last time, though he hesitates to say he’s completely finished with the sport. To train, compete and sacrifice every day for five years and then drop it like a piece of Hokie stone isn’t easy to do.

“I’m going to miss the competition more than anything,” he said. “I’m going to really miss the fight and the fire. The training, I’m not going to miss as much, but I really enjoyed when I had tough matches and tough opponents. I thought my best performances came out when I was up against a lot of pressure and against tough opponents. I’m going to miss that, so I’m going to have to find something in my life to replace that – if I can.”

At least at this point in his life, Chris Penny has found his destination. The twists and turns of the maze that is college life have been navigated.

It took him a while to get there, but Penny would be the first to admit – the ride has been worth it.