Forest Grove's Otto receives ultimate honor
Western Colorado University athletic director and Craig Otto's old college head coach Miles Van Hee may have said it best when describing the former Forest Grove High School and Western Colorado University wrestler.
"On his 40th birthday, he ran 40 miles," Van Hee said. "That's Craig."
Otto will be one of six former WCU athletes being inducted into the WCU Hall of Fame Sept. 23.
The 1998 graduate was part of a Red Tornado program that earned top-15 finishes at nationals and a conference title, anchored by the All-American's fifth and third place performances at the 1997 and 1998 NCAA Division-II national championships.
Additionally, Otto is one of 11 three-time NCAA All-Americans in the 72-year history of the WCU program; was part of the American wrestling teams that toured Bulgaria and Colombia; coached 15 NCAA Division-II individual finalists and 59 All-Americans; and coached the 2017 NCAA Division-II Academic National Championship team.
How? Because "he's Craig," said Van Hee.
"Some guys are on when they know the spotlight is on them, but Craig is on all the time," Van Hee said. "He probably got more things done before most people got out of bed than they did all day. He's just one of those guys. Nothing is half-done, but rather full-throttle."
Otto started wrestling at age 5. Most kids' indoctrination to the sport is by way of a friend or family member who wrestled, but with Otto, it wasn't something someone else did or said to him that drew him to wrestling. Rather, it was a desire to compete and prove to himself and others that he could — a feeling that only intensified as time went on.
"I love competition," Otto said. "I was always kind of a small guy, so I always tried to step to the plate and not let anybody overwhelm me because of my size. It was something that just fit me and I enjoyed it from the get-go."
He wasn't immediately good, Otto said, but over time, he improved.
From an early age, Otto took aim at a high school state championship. He fell just short during both his sophomore and junior seasons at Forest Grove, but he finally earned that title his senior year — and in the process, he earned a scholarship opportunity to Portland State University.
At Portland State, he earned All-American honors his freshman year. But not long after his initial campaign, PSU dropped the sport of wrestling, leaving Otto looking elsewhere to continue competing in the sport he loved.
Luckily, his passion and ability preceded him, leading to an offer from WCU, whose coaches had seen enough of the rival wrestler to know he'd fit in nicely on their team and at their university in the small Colorado town of Gunnison.
"We competed against him, so we knew what kind of intensity he brought," Van Hee said. "Plus, we knew he was into the outdoors, so we knew he'd be a great fit for us."
Otto wasn't immediately convinced, but he grew to appreciate everything the small school and town had to offer — and in hindsight, he said he couldn't have chosen more wisely.
"At the time I really wasn't sure how it would turn out, but it was definitely the best decision I've ever made in my life," Otto said. "Being an 18- to 19-year-old kid and living downtown, I probably wasn't always making the best decisions. So, to get away and get a fresh start in a small town in Colorado, it was definitely the right move for me.
"I'm still here, so it's obviously something that worked out well."
The now-46-year-old took an internship at Gene Taylor's Sporting Goods store in Gunnison his senior year at WCU and is now the store's manager.
Upon his graduation, Otto worked as an assistant to Van Hee, who came to appreciate what his former pupil brought to the mat both as a competitor and later a coach.
"He's probably one of the most intense wrestlers I've ever coached," Van Hee said. "His work ethic was second to none, and he was really just an aggressive wrestler who was fun to watch. You knew that when you stepped on the mat with Craig, it was going to be a battle."
And Otto doesn't disagree. While he enjoyed the obvious physical challenges wrestling provides, he also appreciated the mental aspect necessary to overcome an opponent on the mat.
"It's not just technique, but in my opinion, what's more important is mental toughness," Otto said. "It's amazing what you can do when you set your mind to it. Anyone can beat someone down physically, but if you can beat somebody down mentally, that's even more impressive."
Otto is a humble man. He's not a big talker. For the bulk of his life, the Viking alumnus has let his accomplishments speak for themselves. But being inducted into his former university's Athletic Hall of Fame doesn't fall lightly on the former athlete. He's proud of the feat, but less so for what he's accomplished and more so for how his efforts have been perceived by the people he's tried to help along the way.
"It's an honor, for sure," Otto said, "but knowing that some of the people that I've helped through coaching and the people that I wrestled with think I'm deserving, that means the world to me."
And it should, according to Van Hee, who said he couldn't be happier for the former athlete, who's undoubtedly made a difference in the community both hold dear to their hearts.
"Craig's become a dear friend of mine," Van Hee said. "He would do anything for me and I'd do anything for him. So, it means a lot to me to see him go into the Hall of Fame because I know what he's done for this university as an athlete, a coach and a community member. I'm so happy for him."
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