State Title Winner Used Defeat as Motivation

It wasn’t Elijah McKnickles’ finest moment.

“I went to area; I got put out at area,” McKnickles said. “I was the only one on the team that didn’t go to sectionals, and it destroyed me. I went outside after I lost, laid in the street, and cried. I laid in the street and cried for about 15 minutes. I went back inside and watched all my teammates get medals.”

The recent Spencer High School grad is referring to his sophomore year on the school’s wrestling team, and the turn of events devastated him. Fortunately, the young athlete used the experience to motivate him.

In February, the 18-year-old senior captured the state Class 2A wrestling title in the 138-pound weight division. He was the only Columbus wrestler to win the top spot in the sport.

According to McKnickles, he got into wrestling in middle school because his older brother, Isaiah, was a wrestler. When asked if he chose to participate in wrestling to be like his brother, McKnickles had a reply typical of a sibling rivalry.

“No, I wanted to be better than him at something,” McKnickles said, laughing. “Just one thing. I was looking for one thing I could do better than him,”

His first year of wrestling with a youth league was disappointing. McKnickles admitted he didn’t win a single match. While that might have deterred other youngsters from pursuing the sport, McKnickles said he hates losing and was determined to improve.

The son of military personnel, McKnickles was new to the area in middle school and did a little investigating about wrestling programs at local high schools. He chose to attend Spencer because he heard good things about coach Robert Sanders and his Greenwaves wrestling teams.

His freshman year, McKnickles went to state as an alternate. He worked himself into the spot by doing well at matches and being flexible to fill in wherever Sanders directed him. At one point, McKnickles was told a slot was open in the 120-pound weight class if he felt he could get down to that weight.

“So, I did what Chief said,” McKnickles said, smiling broadly. “I cut down to that weight. It wasn’t easy because I was a chunky little boy.”

Building on the success of his freshman season, McKnickles went into the next year hopeful about his future as a wrestler. When the experience at area occurred, McKnickles could have quit. Instead, he worked with his coaches to become better, vowing never to feel like that again.

As a junior, McKnickles moved up to the 138-weight class after initialing starting at the 130-weight division. He made the move at the request of his team captain, who wanted to be in the 130 slot and needed McKnickles to change his weight class to get there.

With such a desire to come out on top, the determined wrestler asked his parents to allow him to attend wrestling camps the summer before his senior year. He went to camps at Oglethorpe University and Kent State, where he picked up technical details to use in his senior season.

When McKnickles made it to the state finals this winter, he faced Christian Grauberger of Dodge County. It marked the fourth match between the two. Grauberger defeated McKnickles at sectionals by only two points. With his coach’s help, McKnickles studied film of that match to discover what errors he might have made. Those corrections made a difference when the two went to the mat for the state title. The Spencer wrestler came out on top with a 16-11 score over his Dodge County opponent.

Following his win, McKnickles was so excited he rushed off the floor to reach coaches, family, and friends only to be stopped by a referee who reminded the exuberant victor he had to shake hands with his opponent.

“I did that and then I just screamed,” McKnickles said. “It was just this high octave pitch scream that probably only dogs could hear at some point. I was beyond happy.”

Eventually, he reached Sanders, who enveloped the champ in a crushing bear hug before McKnickles made his way to the stands to celebrate with family and friends. It was, so far, the best moment of his life.

At the time of his interview, the talented wrestler, who possesses an engaging personality, had not committed to any school for the fall. Tilting his head and smiling, McKnickles said interest in him went up dramatically because of his state title, and he was waiting for the best offer.

As for his brother and the desire to be better than him at something, the state champ says it’s all good.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You one-upped me,’” McKnickles said, laughing.

Robert Sanders’ wrestling program at Spencer is known for its intensity as well as for his passion for the sport. The Greenwaves have had more than one state champ under Sanders’ coaching. Participants know Sanders is disciplined and expects the same from his wrestlers.

 McKnickles said he would not have made it to be a state champ if it were not for Sanders and the Spencer program.

 “The way we train, when we leave the room, the walls are sweating,” the new state champ said.


Columbus Valley/June-July

Elijah McNickles

Spencer High School

Columbus, GA

By Beth Welch

Photos by George McDuffie

State title winner used defeat as motivation