Thayer Academy wrestlers Gibson Akoh ‘23 and Samson Okunlola ‘23 both placed in the top 15 at the 86th annual National Prep Wrestling Championships, an impressive feat but one that comes as no surprise to anyone who has watched the two student-athletes compete.
Akoh finished fourteenth in the prep championships, which were held in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in late February. The junior wrestled in the 170-pound weight class.
Okunlola wrestled in the 285-pound weight class and finished ninth. Before that, he won both the New Englands and the ISL’s Graves-Kelsey Wrestling Tournament (hosted by Thayer) and was not scored upon throughout the entire tournament.
“That’s impressive,” said Coed Varsity Wrestling Assistant Coach Marc Rando P ‘18, ‘20.
Akoh finished second in the Graves-Kelsey, losing to a talented Belmont Hill wrestler, and then finished sixth in the New Englands. However, that tournament saw Akoh avenge his loss by soundly defeating that same wrestler in one of the earlier rounds.
“That was one of his best victories of the year,” said Rando.
The talent, technique, and tenacity of Akoh and Okunlola drew praise from head coach Steven Keith during the Winter Sports Recognition Assembly held just before Spring Recess. Rando echoed Keith’s comments, paying special attention to the leadership qualities of the two.
“The fact that they never missed a single practice is important,” said Rando. “They lead by example.”
According to Rando, Akoh has been wrestling longer than Okunlola and is a true student of the sport. “You can teach him something on Wednesday, and you’ll see him use it on Saturday.”
The coach continued: “He’s just that classic soft-spoken guy — very respectful and very coachable — but when the whistle blows, he just flips a switch. Then it’s all business.”
As for Okunlola — without hyperbole one of the top college football prospects in the nation — the learning curve was steeper, having taken up wrestling to develop the kind of strength, conditioning, balance, and body mechanics that can’t be simulated in a weight room.
“He’s been tested (on the wrestling mat),” said Rando. “He’s been challenged, and he rose to that challenge.”
While Akoh and Okunlola were driving forces in the Academy’s successful wrestling season, the team also had great contributions from Drew St. Pierre ‘26, an eighth grader who wrestled varsity; Clement Scott ‘24, a sophomore who earned this year’s Coaches Award; and Anthony Frank ‘22, a senior who wrestled all four years (with his junior season robbed by the pandemic) and capped his Tiger career by finishing third in the Graves-Kelsey. The team finished 7th in the ISL this year after finishing 13th two years ago; for their efforts, the squad earned the David Coe Award for most improved team in the ISL.
“This accomplishment took a full team effort, and for that, I am incredibly proud of everyone who participated this season,” Keith told the March 8 recognition assembly.
The head coach noted that, in addition to Akoh, Okunlola, Frank, and St. Pierre, Tucker Chanenchuk ‘23 also earned all-league honors. Keith added his gratitude for the hard work and competitive spirit of Scott and fellow grapplers Arjun Sohur ‘22, Will Kourafas ‘23, Thomas Stapleton ‘23, Nate Martin ‘27, and Brody Martin ‘28.
Looking forward, Rando hopes more athletes from football, lacrosse, cross country, and other sports will see how the rigors of wrestling — both physical and mental — can help them in what they consider their primary sports. In the football world alone, such crossover athletes include Stephen Neal (California State University, Bakersfield / New England Patriots), Fred Smerlas (Boston College / Buffalo Bills, etc.), and Jim Nance (Syracuse University / Boston Patriots).
And off the gridiron, Rando points out, wrestling proved instrumental in the lives of former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as well as U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, a varsity wrestler at West Point long before leading coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm.
“Wrestling gave them the fortitude to push beyond their limits,” said Rando. “They were able to overcome obstacles which they didn’t think could be overcome.”
With the wrestling mats rolled up until next year, Akoh and Okunlola are no doubt preparing for football in the fall; the two serve as Thayer varsity captains along with Grady Russo ‘23.