Wrestling: A year after serious neck injury, Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s Alli Ragan makes seventh world team

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — At her best, Alli Ragan is snapping necks and scoring on go-behinds. She’s hitting low-singles and running them into leg laces. She’s dominating her opponents, her focus on bigger and better things.

“I don’t really think about the past,” says Ragan, a member of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. “This is what’s most important because it’s in front of me. It’s part of the process.

“We’re onto worlds now, and I need to get on top of that podium.”

Ragan won Final X here inside the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday afternoon. She beat fellow Hawkeye Wrestling Club member Lauren Louive in straight matches, 10-0 and 10-0, to earn a spot on the United States women’s freestyle world team at 59 kilograms (130 pounds).

As such, Ragan is headed to the world championships, set for September 14-22 in Kazakhstan. Saturday’s victory marked the seventh time Ragan has made a world team. She will turn 27 on Sunday.

“I’m the best version of myself today,” she says. “I just needed to go out and be myself, get to my offense, shore up my defense, and get to my turns on top. I’ve been really working on that par terre game, because that’s what will take me to the next level.”

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Hawkeye Wrestling Club's Alli Ragan gets her hand raised after defeating Lauren Louive, two matches to none, at Final X at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Neb. In doing so, Ragan made the 2019 women's freestyle world team.

Already, Ragan boasts one of the most decorated careers of any current women’s freestyler. She won two collegiate national titles at King University. She won her third U.S. Open crown in April. She’s twice reached the world finals, in 2016 and 2017.

Ragan had her sights set on a third-straight world medal — and perhaps even a world title — a year ago after winning Final X in this very arena. But a neck injury forced her to sit out of the competition.

Two herniated discs in her neck had protruded into her spinal cord, the result of years of wear and tear. Her arms fatigued quickly without reason. There were times where any movement resulted in excruciating pain.

But the thought of not competing, she says now, hurt worse than any physical pain.

“At one point, I was literally crying and begging the doctors to let me wrestle,” Ragan continues. “You know, ‘You don’t understand, this is everything to me.’ But then I took a step back and it’s like, your life is important too. I don’t want to be paralyzed. Let’s not be crazy.”

► MORE: Inside Alli Ragan's rise from high school standout to world silver medalist

Ragan watched as her good friend and Final X opponent Jenna Berkurt went in her place, going 0-1. As she recovered, she spent days inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, watching both the Iowa wrestlers and her Hawkeye Wrestling Club teammates. It became a form of therapy.

“The energy in the Iowa room is crazy,” she says. “It’s contagious. Those are healing powers in itself. So sitting there and watching when I couldn’t do things myself, or when I was riding the bike or running on the treadmill, just being in that environment helps.”

Ragan returned in time for the U.S. Open, where she went 4-0 with a first-round pin and three-straight technical falls, emphatically punching her ticket to Final X. Against Louive, she continued her dominance, winning both matches in a combined three minutes, five seconds.

“Alli Ragan’s approach is professional,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands, who coached Ragan on Saturday. “She’s tough. She’s one of the benchmark leaders in our room, along with (Thomas) Gilman and (Alex) Marinelli and other wrestlers who don’t complain.

“She’s at that level where, if you want to learn how to keep your mouth shut and make it businesslike, make it a war, there’s your example. You have to be a competent professional, and she is all the way around.”

Hawkeye Wrestling Club's Alli Ragan, in red, wrestles against Lauren Louive at Final X at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Neb. Ragan won the series, two matches to none, to make the 2019 women's freestyle world team.

Afterward, Ragan was underneath the Devaney Center, talking about her accolades and what’s allowed her to not only compete at wrestling’s highest level, but win consistently. Evolution, she explains. Focusing not on huge leaps and bounds, but on little progressions every day.

She then shakes hands and walks over to a small contingent of wrestling fans. One has a massive poster of her head and asks Ragan to sign it. She smiles. Of course, she says. Then she walks off to the locker room to recover and turn her attention toward bigger and better things.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

Final X Lincoln

Women’s 59 kilograms

Alli Ragan over Lauren Louive, two matches to zero