Heffernan fights back from injury in new role for CMU wrestling

Junior Colin Heffernan lifts opponent, Nov. 13 in McGuirk Arena on the campus of Central Michigan University. Josh Barnhart | Freelance Photographer

After Colin Heffernan lost his spot in the 149-pound weight class to All-American Justin Oliver last season due to health issues, he called his coach, Tom Borrelli and told him he would do anything to wrestle for the remainder of the season. 

The Cleveland junior even suggested he would wrestle at the 165-pound weight class if needed — a move Borrelli said he never considered until Heffernan brought up the idea.

The decision between Oliver and Heffernan was "one of the hardest decisions I have had in my coaching career," Borrelli said. 

Coming off a freshman campaign that included 24 wins and a trip to the NCAA Championships, Heffernan entered his sophomore year ranked in the Top 10 in the country before he was injured. Oliver was a freshman entering the 2015-16 season and wasn't expected to contribute to the team's starting positions before Heffernan's injury. When the opportunity arrived, Oliver went 17-1 while filling in for the injured Heffernan. 

Borrelli held a "wrestle-off," to decide who would start in the 149 pound weight class after Heffernan returned. 

The "wrestle-off" included three rounds. The first wrestler who won twice earned the starting spot. Oliver won the first match by one point. In the next match, the wrestlers went into overtime and Oliver finished on top. 

Oliver was named the starter in the 149-pound weight class. 

"Both of those guys handled it as good as you can," Borrelli said. "Obviously, Justin handled it great. He went on to become an All-American. Heffernan offered to wrestle at the 165 pound weight class and just wanted to help the team."

Oliver went on to win 17 of his first 18 matches. This stretch also included a 15-match winning streak to earn himself the No. 9 ranking in the weight class.

This forced Heffernan to challenge Jordan Atienza in another "wrestle-off" to decide who would lead the 165 pound weight class. Heffernan came out on top and went on to qualify for the NCAA Championship. 

Heffernan's injury was a combination of different things that kept him out for more than a month, he said.

Heffernan developed an infection in his eyes that also affected his contacts. The contacts would lose the oxygen intake in his eyes that affected his vision. This also paired with shoulder problems in the offseason and a neck injury in the Reno Tournament of Champions.

For Heffernan, Oliver's rise to the top served as motivation for him to improve.

"I expected a lot of myself (going into the 2015-16 season)," Heffernan said. "I fell short of my goals and wasn't in the lineup. That was a motivating factor for me in the summer." 

Borrelli asked Heffernan to go up one class to 157-pound weight so that both Heffernan and Oliver could be in the starting lineup.

After returning from his injury, Heffernan earned the 165-pound spot by his "wrestle-off" with Atienza. For the rest of the season, he wrestled athletes that were 16 pounds heavier than what he was used to. In the MAC Championship, Heffernan finished in sixth place wrestling at the 165-pound weight class. 

Heffernan said he put on the weight the right way by eating healthy and working with Taylor Larson, an assistant director of strength and conditioning at CMU. Colin worked with Larson four times each week at 9 a.m. 

"I took that as a challenge upon myself," Heffernan said. 

Heffernan used this as a learning experience. 

"I think that it's a good thing for me," he said. "I'm not worried about cutting weight and I feel good at practice. I feel big and strong all the time. 

"I think it was a blessing because I feel much better this year."