[Updated March 13: University of Wisconsin Oshkosh wrestler Mark Choinski finished sixth in the 157-pound weight class to earn All-America recognition at the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship held March 10-11 in La Crosse, Wis. Choinski becomes the 11th UW-Oshkosh wrestler to receive NCAA Division III All-America accolades and 20th overall. The Titans had nine wrestlers collect All-American recognition at the NAIA Championship from 1964-79
More information about Choinski’s finish at the NCAA III championship is available on the UW Oshkosh Athletics website.]
Nationally-ranked University of Wisconsin Oshkosh wrestler Mark Choinski has faced adversity his whole life.
The challenges, including times in his youth that he didn’t have food or a place to stay, remain firmly etched in his memory. But he’s found stability and a home at UW Oshkosh, thanks largely to the school’s wrestling program and coaches.
But before his days at UW Oshkosh, the circumstances of Choinski’s childhood were grim. He tells of long winter walks to high school in sandals–with two pairs of socks underneath soaked and freezing cold. He recalls running his feet under the faucet to thaw them before replacing the wet socks with a third dry pair he stuffed in his pocket.
His childhood was without assurances of food or shelter, parental guidance or comfort.
Choinski’s college dorm room at Gruenhagen Conference Center at UW Oshkosh has been the first place he can call his own–a comfortable place to lay his head each night. Obtaining a meal plan at Blackhawk Commons was big, too–the first time Choinski was able to eat consistently.
Choinski dropped out of high school his sophomore year but returned the following year at the urging of his wrestling coaches. The one-time dropout is now focused on is future and is a college sophomore studying business at UW Oshkosh.
Brian Wojciechowski, a firefighter and coach from New Berlin, has mentored Choinski since his days coaching wrestling at West Allis Central High School. He and his wife and two sons consider Choinski a member of their family. Wojciechowski helped Choinski fill out financial aid forms, get insurance, make a visit to UW Oshkosh and even helped with teaching him about ATMs, the post office and other life skills.
“I would love to have him do really good and be a national champion,”Wojciechowski said. “But he’s mainly wrestling to get through school.”
UW Oshkosh Head Wrestling Coach Efrain Ayala is working to keep Choinski focused–on the wrestling mat and off.
“Some of the stories he’s told me are unbelievable and no child should ever have to go through,” Ayala said. “We want to let young people know that anyone is able to attend college as long as they’re willing to put forth the work. I have done a lot of recruiting and too many times we have student-athletes who were told they weren’t fit for college, couldn’t make the grade or couldn’t afford it.”
Ayala believes wrestling saved Choinski’s life.
As a child, Choinski dealt with parents who struggled with addictions and who were in an out of the justice system. Choinski knows about drug houses and fighting to keep he and his brother safe. The two fended for themselves for as long as Choinski can remember.
They were “bouncing”–as they call it–to many different homes and were lost in “the system.” He never was in a school for more than a year and most of time he saw multiple classrooms and teachers in a single school year. He recalls bouncing around–and trying to stay away from violence and drugs that were prevalent.
There were no holidays and no presents. There was no family structure and the brothers basically were raising themselves. Choinski said one week during his fifth grade year stuck out: his parents were not at home. For days, no one came to help. Choinski and his brother fended for themselves at a place with no electricity and no drinkable water.
Through high school, Choinski essentially was homeless and stayed at friends’ houses or with anyone who would take him in for the night.
He dropped out of high school his sophomore year. Coaches reached out to him, convincing him to return to school and be part of the school wrestling team.
“Since he had missed an entire year of school, he had to do online courses while attending regular class, working, wrestling and trying to figure out where he was going to stay for the night,” Ayala said.
The West Allis Central coaches helped Choinski win a Wisconsin high school state championship his senior year and more important–they helped him to graduate from school. His class rank, though, was in the bottom 10 percent.
Ayala, who had noticed Choinski’s wrestling prowess, said his staff came up with a plan to help Choinski attend UW Oshkosh and wrestle as a Titan.
Choinski first attended Fox Valley Technical College for two semesters–walking to classes from his dorm room at Gruenhagen. His strong performance eventually helped him achieve admission to UW Oshkosh.
Ayala has been mentoring Choinski, helping him set goals and surrounding his student with strong role models.
“There is a lot of anger and trust is a big issue,” Ayala said, noting Choinski was used to operating independently. “At first we butted heads. We’re okay now.”
Ayala, the first in his family to go to college, said he appreciates the opportunity for students like Choinski to get a college education.
Choinski is focusing on a degree in business management. The lessons already are helping him plan his own painting business for the summer. There are no Division III athletic scholarships and Choinski is determined to work a lot of hours to keep his borrowing and debt to a minimum.
For the next few weeks, he’ll continue to juggle classes and strive for a strong finish to his first college wrestling season.
On Feb. 10, Choinski won all four of his matches at the conference tournament at Platteville, becoming just the third UW Oshkosh Titan conference wrestling champion since 1999. Regional competition is Feb. 25 at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.
Choinski has his sights set on a national championship in the 157-pound weight class.
The past few years, he’s seen the UW Oshkosh wrestling program triple in size and gain a solid reputation.
“You will see us on the map,” Choinski said. “People are talking. We’re making noise.”
Jon Nelson, who was Choinski’s head coach in middle school and high school, said the wrestler has self-discipline to get the job done.
“I tell him he’s dealt with a lot and gotten through it,” Nelson said. “It means you can keep doing it.”
Nelson said wrestlers form a bond that is considered as strong as family. He said members of the West Allis Central Bulldogs–just like wrestlers at UW Oshkosh–have each other’s backs.
Nelson said long-term, he hopes Choinski has a “good and happy life and finds a job he likes.”
In wrestling, he knows his mental toughness will take him far.
Wojciechowski, the coach who took Choinski under his wing beginning in seventh grade, said the wrestler has a lot to work out as he moves to adulthood and being a productive member of society. A college degree is a great starting point.
“Really I hope he knows there are a lot of people who care about him and want him to succeed in life,” Wojciechowski said.