On one particular late spring morning, Daniel Olorundare, a devout Owings Mills wrestler, and his coach Ryan Mackin were running late for an offseason practice with frequent Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A conference champions McDonogh.
“One of the rules is, you don’t just walk in like you’re entitled to walk in to somebody’s practice,” Mackin said. “You go over to whoever’s running it, you apologize for being late, and then you ask if you can join.”
But before Mackin could go to longtime Eagles coach Pete Welch and apologize, Olorundare had beat him to it.
“‘Good afternoon coach,’” Mackin said, quoting Olorundare. “‘I’m sorry for being late. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to join.’”
“It was like two minutes late. It was so not a big deal for such a casual practice,” Welch said. “But I remember being just floored by his consideration. Being able to come forward and saying that to me.”
Olorundare turned to Welch, without missing a beat, and said, “‘There's still some responsibility that I need to take on my own. Is it okay that I join?”
Mackin recalls Welch joking, “Join? Can you stay?”
To which the wrestler replied, “Unfortunately, I cannot tonight. I have homework.”
“Right away it resolved in me what a great kid this is,” Welch said.
In less than two years of wrestling, Olorundare has seen the fruits of his reverence to hard work start to blossom. With a 25-13 record this winter, Olorundare placed fourth in the 220-pound weight class at the Baltimore County championships and third at the 2A/1A North regional tournament to earn a shot at a state title. He served as hero in the then-No. 11 Eagles’ historical defeat of then-No. 6 Sparrows Point, as his pin in the heavyweight bout sealed the victory and ended the Pointers’ 85-regular-season winning streak.
Olorundare, a junior, joined the team as a sophomore less than a year after immigrating to America from Nigeria.
He says he was sitting in English class when he heard his calling over the announcements: a call for wrestling tryouts.
“So I just came down to see what it was all about and that’s how I started wrestling,” Olorundare said. “It was a different thing. I found it fun. Everything about it. I liked everything about it.”
It wasn’t like Olorundare stepped on the mat that first time in preseason conditioning and the corny he’s-a-natural scene out of a sport’s movie unfolded. There was no bitter rival spitting, “Beginner’s luck,” nor archetypal mentor elbowing the head coach and saying, “See? What I tell ya?”
Olorundare looked exactly like someone who’d never wrestled before.
“The ability was not there. He had zero talent whatsoever,” Mackin, who was an assistant coach at the time, said. “But his enthusiasm to improve, to get better, that was obvious from the get-go. It was obvious he was willing to come back. Even though it was difficult, even though it was something that didn’t come easy to him, he had a love for it almost instantly.”
Olorundare “made varsity by default” — a green roster like Owings Mills needed all hands, especially if those hands were attached to a 220-pound kid.
When the season started, Olorundare was not winning matches, but he worked at it. He felt he was letting everyone down otherwise.
Around winter break of the 2017-18 season, Mackin said the team was wrestling like individuals. He held a team meeting and asked, “Who here really feels like they’ve put the team first?”
“A few raised their hands. Daniel’s was the one that stuck,” Mackin said. “He said his lack of experience held the team back last year. He said, ‘I’m not going to be that person. I’m going to be someone the team can count on.’”
Olorundare trained, not just in the winter, but in the fall, spring and summer too — daily morning workouts and trips to places like Atlantic City for tournaments.
“He’s the type of kid if there’s a mat he can practice on, he’s going to find it,” Mackin said. “Christmas morning, doesn’t make a difference, he’s finding a mat to practice on. He always comes up with a way to train.”
His influence spread to his teammates. The first few weeks of joint practices with McDonogh, Olorundare was the only Eagles wrestler to show. A few weeks in, there was one more. Then four more.
“By the end of it, I had to take two trips in the car to get them all over there,” Mackin said.
Those particular wrestlers, first-years like Sebastian Gomez and Abdulaziz Burkhanov, both punched tickets to states this past weekend. Like Olorundare.
His hard work mentality was not born by wrestling. It’s natural for him, he said. In Nigeria, he rose at 5 a.m., went to school at 6 a.m. He’d come back home at 4 p.m., do his homework, study and work around the house.
With the demands of wrestling, Mackin said, it’s easy for athletes to slip on their grades. But the allure of cutting schoolwork loose has never gotten through to Olorundare. He has a fixed personal schedule for after school: train until 5:30 p.m. Take a shower, then do homework and study from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Rest for an hour, then go to bed by 11 p.m.
“On the weekends, I mostly just sleep,” he said. “I’m tired from the week.”
Academically, it’s paid off. Olorundare has cultivated a 4.0 GPA, en route to the SATs this April. He aims to study sports medicine or anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins.
His grades, too, make him eligible by Mackin’s minimum of a 3.0 GPA to become a captain; he's served as captain of the week, going out to coin flips in the past.
“The practices, the hard work you put it,” Olorundare said. “It’s a high when you work for something and you see the benefits.”
Mackin took Olorundare to a McDaniel College and Johns Hopkins dual meet, introduced him to coach Keith Norris. The dream rooted in Olorundare’s mind — he wants to wrestle for the Blue Jays in two years.
“One thing’s for sure. Whatever school ends up with him after high school is going to have a dedicated person to that program,” Mackin said. “He’s gonna be someone you can count on, someone who’s dependable and someone’s who’s going to work hard for you, whether he’s your team captain or just an extra guy whose job is to push a starter in the program. He’s going to be someone you can rely on.”