Summer 2006 UNO Alum
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By Eric Olson
From the Summer 2006
Need your plumbing fixed, some
drywall hung or a car repair? No problem—it’s a snap for Les Sigman.
Wrestling? You’d think Sigman is a natural at that, too. His four NCAA
Division II national championships and status as UNO’s all-time wins
leader should be proof enough. But make no mistake about it; nothing has
come easily for the soft-spoken heavyweight.
This is a guy who
failed to make the varsity wrestling team at Brown High School in
Sturgis, S.D., until his junior year. He finished second in the state
that season, then won the 189-pound championship as a senior.
become a heavyweight until he showed up at UNO, then was an undersized
one at 250 pounds. But time and again he whipped the giants who
outweighed him by 35 pounds, overcoming five major surgeries along the
way to become only the fourth four-time national champion in Division II
small-town boy’s next challenge undoubtedly will be his toughest. The
24-year-old Sigman wants to wrestle in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing,
He got his first taste of the bigger stage May 27-28 at
the U.S. World team trials, for which he qualified by winning the
Northern Plains Regional. Sigman was seeded fifth at the U.S. team
trials and in his first match defeated No. 4 seed Michael Irving 3-2,
5-0. He lost in the semifinals, though, 1-0, 4-0 to NCAA Division I
runner-up Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State. Sigman dislocated his shoulder
twice in the match and had to pull out of the event.
shoulder already was scheduled for surgery this summer—add that to three
knee surgeries, one on his lower leg and another for a broken foot.
After surgery he’ll continue his training while serving as a volunteer
assistant coach at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln under Husker Coach
Mark Manning, himself a former UNO star.
UNO coach Mike
Denney has seen Sigman rise to the occasion numerous times the last five
years, so he has confidence his prized pupil will do it again.
have to have a burning desire and wherewithal to be successful, and he
has that desire,” Denney says. “These guys aren’t like football players.
They’re not getting paid.”
In college, athletes are limited
to 20 hours a week for training and competition. Wrestlers at the
international level treat training as a full-time job, taking outside
jobs that allow for flexible scheduling. “He wants to do this, and I
think he can be very successful at it,” Denney says.
R.J. Nebe, a
national champion 177-pounder for UNO in 1988, has been a mentor to
Sigman the last few years. Sigman, who eclipsed Nebe’s UNO career win
mark, has done handyman work on Nebe’s rental properties. Nebe calls
Sigman a “jack of all trades.”
“You give him a job, and he
doesn’t like to read the instructions,” Nebe says. “He figures out a way
to finish it.”
So, like Denney, Nebe doesn’t count out Sigman in
his quest to wrestle internationally. “He’s got a lot of things going
against him,” Nebe says. “Probably the biggest thing is his size. He’s
not a very big heavyweight. But international wrestling is down to six
weight classes, and he would have to cut a ton of weight if he went
Mark Rigatuso, a two-time national champion for UNO as a
205-pound heavyweight in 1982 and 1983, believes Sigman can make a
smooth transition and that his size actually could work to his
College wrestling emphasizes control of an opponent. In
freestyle, throws are encouraged and rewarded. Once a wrestler takes
down his opponent, he has a matter of seconds to turn him onto his back.
If he isn’t successful, both wrestlers return to a standing position
and face off again.
Rigatuso says Sigman’s speed, strength and
balance and knack for shooting at opponents’ legs will allow him to
catch bigger opponents off-balance and score takedowns and, thus,
acquire points quickly.
Sigman’s timing is good. Some of the elite
heavyweights are in the twilights of their careers. Tolly Thompson, the
top heavyweight in the United States, probably has only a couple years
left. Sigman could be among the new crop of young heavyweights that will
carry the U.S. banner for years.
“It just depends on if Les wants
to put the time in,” Nebe says.
The answer to that is a
resounding yes, Sigman says.UNO’s
BestSigman already has earned his place as UNO’s most
decorated wrestler ever. He finished his career with wins in 179 of his
186 matches. That includes a 47-0 record this past season.
last loss was in January 2005, when Bode Ogunwole of Harvard beat him
5-3 in a tournament at Northwestern University in Chicago. The wins kept
coming after that, winding up with a 1-0 victory over the University of
Nebraska at Kearney’s Tervel Dlagnev in the national championship match
on March 11. Sigman joined the select club of four-time Division II
champions, which also includes Tim Wright of Southern Edwardsville
(1984-87), Dan Russell of Portland State (1988-91) and Cole Province of
Central Oklahoma (2001-04).
“I don’t know if it’s hit me, as far
as what I’ve accomplished,” Sigman says. “I was pretty disappointed with
the [championship] match, but it was a relief, a load off my shoulders.
I was feeling the pressure a little bit. I don’t feel I was at my best
But, as he always does, he got the job done.
father, Alen, says Les has always been determined to accomplish
whatever he set out to do. Growing up on a farm 15 miles east of
Sturgis, Les was counted on to work hard cutting hay, repairing fences
and all the other chores associated with farm life.
Donna Sigman set high standards for their four children. Excellence was
expected. What leisure time Les did have he spent on motorcycles. Think
again, though, before jumping to the conclusion that everyone in Sturgis
is naturally inclined to ride motorcycles because of the world-renowned
Harley Davidson rally held there each summer.
Les liked motocross
bikes, not Harleys; neither Alen nor Les thinks much of the annual
Harley circus that comes to town every year.
“He was really
immersed in motorcycle riding,” Alen says. “When he started going to
college and got a little bigger, I encouraged him not to do much riding.
We didn’t think it would be good for his wrestling if he got hurt on
one of those things. Now he’s taken up golf.”
he’s driven to become as good as he possibly can at that sport, too.
He’s played two years and already is shooting in the low 80s for 18
holes.That’s just the way Sigman is. When Alen taught Les how to
weld, the boy showed a knack for it. In fact, he worked as a welder last
summer in Omaha. Nebe can vouch for Sigman’s skills at household
repairs and renovation projects. Denney says it all goes back to
The discipline ingrained in Sigman as a
youngster has served Sigman well as a wrestler. But even Alen expresses
surprise at his son’s level of achievement. “He’s one in a million,”
Alen says. “You don’t see people like that very often. He’s
self-motivated and always striving for excellence.”
won a state championship for Brown High in 1970, and he encouraged Les
to try the sport as a second-grader. He showed talent at a young age.
Still, in high school he couldn’t crack the varsity lineup for what at
the time was a very average team.
“I took my lumps,” Sigman
says. “I stuck with it. I didn’t make varsity until I was a junior, and
that was one of the tougher times I went through as a wrestler. But that
helped me to keep improving.”
Not once did Sigman complain about
his high school coach’s decision to keep him on the junior varsity.
didn’t earn it,” the South Dakota straight-shooter says. “I didn’t have
the mental side. I didn’t want it as badly as I should have. My junior
year I matured a lot mentally. I had most of the technique. I just got
more confidence in myself, and that helped tremendously.”
winning a state title as a senior, he went on to finish second in the
high school nationals. Suddenly, Sigman was a hot prospect. Division I
programs such as Northern Iowa and Nebraska banged on his door. But
Sigman would only answer for UNO, which was the first school that tried
to recruit him.No place
like UNO“UNO did a great job recruiting me,” Sigman says.
“The environment here is so welcoming for everybody. I felt comfortable
here right away. Right from the start when I met Coach Denney, I
couldn’t believe how great a guy he is. He’s never let me down my whole
career here, never disappointed me one bit.”
Alen Sigman echoed
his son, saying, “I don’t know if any other school would have taken care
of him like they did in Omaha. They treat the athletes like people.
They’re not just pieces of meat.”
Until the early 1990s,
Division II champions were qualified to wrestle in the Division I
national tournament. The last UNO wrestler to do so was Joe Wypiszenski
in 1990. Wypiszenski finished eighth to earn All-America status.
was long before Sigman joined the college ranks, and he says he doesn’t
waste time wondering how he would have fared at the higher level. He
wrestled enough D-I opponents to know he could have more than held his
There’s a UNO precedent for such, though, in two-time
champ Rigatuso. Back when there was no 285-pound limit, Rigatuso
successfully wrestled opponents twice his size (Tab Thacker, North
Carolina State 1984 national champ, was 450 pounds), earning Division I
All-America honors in 1982 (sixth place) and 1983 (fourth).
lighter guys did real well when I was at nationals,” Rigatuso says.
“With Les, he’s remarkable in his ability to score, and he would have
definitely been a Division I All-American if he would have been able to
go to nationals like we did.”Denney says he can’t resist wondering
what if. “Ah, Les would have been right in the thick of it, boy,” Denney
“But this was the place for him. This was the right
fit. He had great success here and had the opportunity to be a great
leader on a great team. When he was a freshman, we were third in the
nation, and now he’s been on three national championship teams. You
can’t do that at every place.”
Sigman couldn’t agree more. “The
opportunity I’ve had here,” he says, “is better than any other I could
More opportunity awaits.
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