When Dan Choi arrived in the United States, he didn’t know a word of English and he had never stepped on a wrestling mat.
That was just three years ago, but Choi has come a long way.
In a few months, the Syosset senior will head to Cornell University, where he will wrestle for one of the nation’s top teams and begin preparing for his future career, serving his new country.
“I’m very excited about Cornell,” he said. “There are all the things I want. I love math and science and there’s a very good physics major I will be in. There is also a very good wrestling program and the ROTC.”
“At Cornell, I’ll be trained as an officer and I’ll work for four years after graduation,” he said. “I would like to be trained for Navy Seals too. I know it will be tough, but I’m excited about it.”
While Choi said he doesn’t have any connections to the military, he feels a desire to serve.
“I really want to give back to this country,” he said. “I have gotten a good education here that I couldn’t get back in Korea. Moving here changed my life.”
It sure did.
Other than the language barrier, which he said forced him to “look up almost every word” in his books when he first got to New York, he faced other challenges. For one, he came all the way across the globe by himself.
“I live with a legal guardian, but not immediate family here,” he said. “We don’t really know each other that well. My mom is still working in Korea and we talk a few times a week. But I haven’t seen her for two years.”
In order to make ends meet, Choi began working at a Subway restaurant, a job he still holds today. But in addition to his time spent in food service and doing homework, he was seeking another extracurricular activity when he arrived.
“I started training in taekwondo when I was seven in Korea,” he said. “I am a black belt in taekwondo and judo. During my sophomore year, I was looking for a sport and I heard wrestling was similar to judo. So I asked if I could join.”
He did, but found that wrestling wasn’t that similar to judo after all.
“It was very difficult and very different,” he said. “My experience helped but I didn’t really know the rules for a while so it was hard.”
Despite that, Choi won more than 15 bouts and advanced to the Nassau County Tournament, where he lost his first match. That summer, he went back to Korea and did some training there. He also began to work with Vougar Oroudjov at Vougar’s Honors Wrestling.
“Wrestling in the offseason at Vougar’s really helped,” he said. “There are college wrestlers there and that helped me get much better.”
“Dan’s a good kid,” Oroudjov said. “He works at Subway to pay his bills and works very hard in wrestling and school. He’s very strong physically and he has improved a lot in the past year.”
The work paid off as Choi showed significant improvement as a junior, compiling a 42-8 record at 182 pounds with 21 falls. He had more success in the postseason, earning bronze at the Section 8 Tournament.
“I wasn’t surprised that I was third in the county,” he said. “I actually expected more than that. I was frustrated and disappointed.”
And he thought his season was over.
But shortly afterward, he found out that it wasn’t. Although he was not originally granted a wildcard bid to the state tournament, an injury to another wrestler gave him a spot in the bracket.
Choi went 2-2 at the Times Union Center, losing to the fifth and sixth place finishers and coming within one victory of making the podium. But despite the progress he had made in the sport, he wasn’t pleased.
“I was both nervous and excited to wrestle with the best in New York,” he said. “I felt lucky to be there. I wasn’t happy with how I wrestled. I didn’t wrestle the way I normally do. I was too nervous.”
While nerves played a role in his experience on the mat in the state capital, they didn’t come into play during the college selection process.
Choi applied early decision to Cornell and said he wasn’t really considering other schools. In order to earn his scholarship, he had to interview with military officers. He said he was much calmer than he was on the mat in Albany.
That calm has carried over to his senior campaign. He has been an integral part of a banner year for Syosset, which has included the school’s first conference title in over 20 years. And he has enjoyed individual success as well.
Choi is 34-2 overall and all of his victories have been by bonus points. One of his losses came when he bumped up a weight to face one of Nassau’s top 220 pounders, Matt Mott of Lynbrook. The other, a fall against Nick Weber of Kings Park in the finals at the Syosset Tournament, has stayed on the top of his mind.
“I took [Weber] down twice and was winning 4-2,” he said. “I was at the edge of the circle, close to out of bounds and kind of relaxed. He threw me and pinned me. I would like to wrestle him again.”
He was so disgusted that he left the second place medal he received behind when he exited the gym.
However, it was delivered back to him shortly afterwards.
“The father of one my teammates, Mr. Miller, knows my situation and has always helped me,” he said. “He picked up the award for me and told me I should keep it because it means something. He told me to remember the feeling I had when I got it.”
Choi said he definitely remembers that feeling. And it helps him as he pushes toward his goal of being a state champion this year.
Not too long ago, Dan Choi didn’t know the first thing about wrestling. But to see him on the podium in a few weeks wouldn’t be that surprising.
What a difference three years can make. The next chapter will begin at Cornell.
Dan Choi wished to thank the Syosset parents, especially Mr. Miller and Mr. Gewolb, as well as his Subway Manager Stephanie.