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The Strongest Graduate Student in the World

An interview with Adam Coon, in which he discusses graduate school, wrestling, and what's next!

April 24, 2018
 
 

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

Adam Coon is used to pursuing multiple goals simultaneously. As a college freshman, Adam made the 2014 U.S. Junior World Team in both international styles of men’s wrestling, Greco-Roman and freestyle. This was a relatively unusual feat in the modern era, even for a wrestler who had owned the 120-kilogram weight class in both styles at the national level and whose trophy case already contained a 2011 Cadet World Title in freestyle. Adam traveled to Croatia that summer as the U.S. representative at his weight, despite others’ skepticism.

“A lot of people were telling me you can’t do both freestyle and Greco,” Adam told me. Those people turned out to be wrong.

“I walked away with two bronze medals, one in each style. I’m really proud of that, just because it was one of those laugh-in-their face moments, you know? Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” Adam said.

Indeed, I’d caution anyone who tries to tell Adam that he’s taking on too much at once. This year, Adam completed his fourth and final season as the Michigan Wolverines’ 285-pound wrestler, earning his third All-American honor and getting a win over the defending national champion, an Olympic gold medalist, along the way. Even more impressively, he did it while graduating early with his Master of Engineering degree in space engineering.

Adam was gracious enough to talk to me about what it’s like to be a graduate student-athlete, his time-management secrets, and what he intends to do next. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

PB: The aerospace field and engineering in general is obviously a difficult, highly competitive area. What attracted you to study space engineering?
AC: Being an astronaut is kind of every kid’s dream job, and that’s definitely where it started with me. I did some research into it and just started looking into what kind of people become astronauts and what they study, and eventually I realized I was little on the larger side of folks who become astronauts and that seemed like a good problem to solve. Math and science were always my best subjects in school so engineering was a natural route for me to go, and the aerospace sector in particular because of what they do with rockets, satellites, and all that stuff. Michigan has a space engineering program that specifically focuses on mission design rather than aircraft, so that matches my interest. My initial love was the astronaut part of it and now I’m trying to stay as close to that as possible while hoping I can become an astronaut someday.

PB: On GradHacker we write a lot about the idea of work-life balance but, in your case, it’s a work-life-wrestling balance. Wrestling is essentially a full-time job in terms of the time you devote to practice, travel, competition, and all the other parts of it. Can you talk about some of your time-management strategies?
AC: My coaches and I made sure to sit down before each semester and plan out a general idea of how classes were set up. One of the tricky parts of grad school is that lot of the classes fall in the afternoon around the same time as wrestling practice, so we sat down beforehand and made sure we had a plan for when those classes conflicted with practice. We lined up practice partners that we knew could make it to practice at a time I knew I would be free. For example, in my first semester, my first class wasn’t until 11:00 a.m., so we found guys on the team who I could work out with in the morning and we found way to work around it. A couple times there were some hard practices where I would lift, then take an hour break and go right into a practice, just because of how my class schedule fell. It was a lot of pre-planning to make sure that when these issues occured, we were ready and I could put my full focus into wrestling when it was time for practice and my full focus into academics when it was time for class.

PB: It’s great to hear how supportive your coaches were of your plan. Were your professors similarly supportive? I would imagine they were less familiar with this specific time-management issue.
AC: They weren’t very experienced when it came to student-athletes in class, but they were very, very helpful, especially when it came to leniency around some of the travel commitments. There were a couple times where I had to go to professors and say ‘I have to be in Indiana this weekend and I can’t be in class on Friday; is there anything I can do to make up that missed lecture?’ They would send me their lecture notes ahead of time to peruse and I if I had any questions I could easily contact them or go to office hours. They were really great about making sure I was set in that regard. Obviously they can’t move around class times the way coaches could move my practice times, but their help made the process a lot easier for me.

PB: You obviously had a lot of experience as an undergrad student-athlete prior to this year; what are some of the differences you’ve experienced as a graduate student?
AC: The program I’m in is really similar to my senior year of undergrad in that it’s more project-based and you’re able to apply everything you’ve learned into reports, proposals, and projects. That made it easier to manage because I wasn’t doing multiple engineering problem sets every week for homework but instead had semester-long assignments that were team-based. I could go to my project team and let them know my schedule for the semester and it was more flexible and easier to set up a time to work because longer-term projects mean we didn’t necessarily have to turn in something every week.

PB: The typical college wrestler and the typical grad student don’t cross paths all that often; did any of your classmates’ reactions stick with you? What kind of relationships did you have with them?
AC: It was great. I had a lot of friends and classmates with different backgrounds in the program and it was nice to have everyone really working together on projects. Plus, a lot of people were also doing their own thing outside the classroom too. We had a person in our group who is a horseback rider and they had to deal with the horses and actually lived on a horse farm so they couldn’t always be at group meetings. We had someone on the club swim team and a club boxer and some others who were engaged and had those commitments. Because of that, we were all very considerate of each others’ time and realized that when we could all meet up, we needed be getting stuff done. There weren’t very many opportunities when we could all meet up so we made use of that time and split up the projects as much as we could so everyone could work on their own efficiently, too. When I had to travel for the Big Ten Tournament, we had a project coming up so they split off a part of the project—designing power structures—that I could complete on my own and then add it in to the final project. Our pre-planning was really what made stuff like that possible.

PB: You’re graduating at the end of the semester. Is there a thesis or other type of capstone project you’re working on currently?
AC: It’s a yearlong project that we’re hoping to finish up soon. Basically, we’re proposing a design for a Mars habitat. We’ve put down on paper what the general design will be and finished that phase early in this semester. Now we’re in the process of actually building a plywood mockup that will give the general sense of what it could actually look like. We have some outside folks flying in to evaluate and critique it, so hopefully it will look like more than just a bunch of 2x4s and plywood!

PB: Have there been any lessons you’ve learned from wrestling that apply in the classroom?
AC: The biggest one is the need to have a mental drive, a drive to pursue excellence. You always want to be the best athlete and have to motivate yourself to compete, and that carries over to the classroom. I always want to do my best in every part of a class, every paper, every homework assignment. Even when the work seems impossible at times, it’s that drive and that belief that I will find a way to figure out whatever the problem is. A lot of the problems seem unsolvable, especially late at night when you’re getting frustrated, so that drive and creativity to find a way to ‘win’ really kicks in.

PB: Have your teammates been supportive?
AC: Definitely. Kevin Beazley is another grad student on the team, so it’s been nice to just complain to each other about having to deal with afternoon classes and figuring out ways to work around it. It’s funny to have some of my undergrad teammates ask me about some of the work. We have one assignment called the 100-hour exam, which is basically a simulated space mission that needs to be designed within 100 hours using certain parameters, and it amounts to a really busy 100 hours. I didn’t see a lot of my teammates during that time and a couple of them couldn’t figure out what I was doing for four days straight. But they were definitely supportive and encouraging, plus they knew when to leave me alone when I needed to get these big projects done.

PB: I’ll ask you the question every grad student hates. What’s next? You’ve talked before about your goals in wrestling, to travel into space, and to play in the NFL. Where do you plan to go from here?
AC: I’m probably just as out of the loop as everybody else! Nobody I’ve talked to really knows what’s going on next and I really don’t know, either. I can say I’ll be giving everything I have into whatever I go on to do next. In this instance, I’d like to keep wrestling, I’d like to play football in the NFL, and eventually I’d like to go into space. That’s what is driving me, but I can’t say for sure what the next step is. The plan is to stay in Ann Arbor, at least until my lease is up. If the Lord wills it, I’ll be staying here for a few years, but if the Lord wants me to be somewhere else, then that’s where I’ll go.

A quick Google search doesn’t reveal anyone who has simultaneously been a world champion wrestler, an NFL player, and an astronaut. Frankly, it sounds like a lot to take on. But I can think of a guy who has some experience with that.



Thank you to Adam Coon for talking with me (congratulations on graduating!) and Leah Howard, Assistant Director of Athletic Communications for the University of Michigan, for providing the pictures used here.

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