By Karen Billing
In his six years as the wrestling coach at Canyon Crest Academy, coach Craig Van Dyke packed a dress shirt and tie in his bag to every CIF Masters tournament in the hopes that he would be wearing it for the finals. This year, for the first time in six years, he finally got the chance to dress up, watching his senior wrestler Keonmin “K.O.” Hwang win the CIF championship title at 154 pounds.
K.O.’s CIF championship is the school’s first title.
“If I had a team full of the kids with the same attitude as K.O., we’d have a lot of champions,” said Van Dyke. “K.O. is a champion on and off the mat.”
K.O. will be attending Wesleyan University in the fall on a full-ride academic scholarship. He will also wrestle for the Cardinals.
K.O. describes his entire CIF championship experience as a battle. He wrestled in a bracket of 16 and had to win two matches to get to the final. He was up against a wrestler from Point Loma, the number one seed who had pinned his way to the final, pinning every opponent he faced. But he never pinned K.O.
K.O. made three solid escapes and won the match 5-3 as his opponent was hit with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
“K.O. has a way of wrestling that really frustrates guys,” said Van Dyke.
“I just keep pushing forward a lot against really aggressive guys,” said K.O. “When they can’t get a take down, they get frustrated.”
The championship earned K.O. a championship pin, which he prefers to a trophy or plaque because he can wear it on his jacket with a sense of pride.
K.O.’s first brush with wrestling came in the eighth grade at Carmel Valley Middle School. He said he was a “short, chubby kid” and his mom encouraged him to get involved in a sport, pushing him toward wrestling.
“At first I was intimidated and I didn’t want to wear the spandex singlet,” K.O. said.
He quickly found wrestling was a way to work out some aggression and began to enjoy it after he earned his second win—his first had been on luck, but the second had been on skill. It was a thrill to get his arm raised in victory and he was hooked.
His wrestling as an eighth-grader was like his personality then, a bit shy. Coming to Canyon Crest and working with Coach Van Dyke and older teammates who pushed him, he improved.
“By ninth grade, I got mentally stronger with every match as I knew I was going to win,” K.O, said. “It helped my confidence in my social life, as well as in wrestling.”
At CCA, Coach VanDyke was impressed by his young wrestler’s determination. As a freshman he broke his foot and he thought he might be done for the season. Van Dyke told him he could still be part of the team and while he said many would’ve walked away, K.O. showed up, never quit and worked through his injury. Van Dyke was the one who coined the K.O. nickname.
“I told him I was going to call him K.O. because he had a knockout attitude,” Van Dyke said. “He wanted to win. I could see that drive and he just had to get the skill to match that drive.”
His strength and skill kept increasing over the next four years; he placed seventh at 135 pounds as a sophomore and fifth at 140 pounds as a junior. That increased skill paired with his great attitude was what allowed him to become a champion, Van Dyke said.
For K.O., school does always come first, which was why he looked at wrestling at DIII schools that would allow enough time to focus on his studies. His 4.26 GPA earned him his academic scholarship at Wesleyan and a video sent to the wrestling coach booked his spot on the team.
“I plan to study biology, like my dad,” K.O. said of his father who had to leave the U.S. for Korea this year in order to find a job.
His father left in February and K.O. said he is a big influence on him; Van Dyke believes a lot of his strong work ethic comes from his parents.
It will be hard for K.O. to leave CCA, where he also plays trumpet in the jazz band. He has learned so much from his coach and has enjoyed the friendships on the close-knit wrestling team, especially teammate Aaron Baer — Aaron and K.O. were the only two seniors to wrestle all four years.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” K.O. said.