By Anna Braunsdorf
Shane Carwin is proof that if you work hard enough, you can have it all.
After graduating as a two-sport student-athlete from Western State Colorado University, he became an interim UFC heavyweight champion, a successful engineer and a humble family man.
And now he’s being honored this year as part of Division II’s 40th Anniversary Tribute Team, a 49-member conference-representative group on which Carwin is an at-large selection.
But his road to success did not always come easily.
When Carwin was young, his father walked out, leaving his mother to raise him and his two older brothers on her own. Nevertheless, she was determined to see her sons succeed.
“My mom got me involved in wrestling when I was 8 years old,” Carwin said. “Both my older brothers competed in wrestling and football, too, so I kind of followed their path and I immediately fell in love with sports.”
Love turned into talent, and both Carwin and one of his older brothers caught the eye of Greg Waggoner, who at the time was the head wrestling coach and athletics director at Western State.
“The first time I ever saw Shane was when I was recruiting his older brother, and he and his mom came along for the campus visit,” Waggoner said.
Carwin’s brother signed with Western State, and when Carwin was old enough, Waggoner recruited him, too.
“When I came to Western State, I wanted to compete in both wrestling and football,” Carwin said. “I loved both, and they gave me the opportunity to do both. I feel like Western was the perfect fit for me.”
Coach Waggoner also proved to be a perfect fit for Carwin, who up until college had been lacking a male role model and authority figure.
“I did butt heads with my coach, and he did teach me that he was right,” Carwin said. “It definitely wasn’t an easy ride, but I took the lessons and learned from them and kept improving.”
Waggoner echoed that sentiment.
“There were times of test throughout our relationship, but we both grew and we made each other better,” he said. “We work a lot of times with first-generation college students and at-risk types of people, and we’re able to use intercollegiate athletics as a vehicle to help transform them. They begin to see value in education and in what they’re going to do later.”
In addition to personal growth, Carwin also had to grow athletically to become a competitive collegiate wrestler.
“My first year was a rough one,” Carwin said. “I remember going to my classes in a lot of pain, all the time. I don’t know if I ever got a take down the first three months of practice. It was pretty bad. But that year taught me a lot about who I was and what I could accomplish and the belief that Coach Wags had in me.”
That belief, coupled with hard work and dedication, propelled Carwin into the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships as a true freshman in 1995-96. The following two years, he not only reached nationals, he finished as runner up. He was also a two-time football All-American and was chosen to participate in the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine.
“When the draft came, I didn’t make the cut,” Carwin said. “I was pretty heartbroken to not even get a shot.”
Wondering what to do next, Carwin began reminiscing about the camaraderie that he’d experienced while at Western State and realized he wanted to return.
“I remember calling up coach Miles (Van Hee); he had taken over for Wags then,” Carwin said. “I asked him if he had room for a has-been and told him I’d like to come back and finish my last year of eligibility.”
This time around, Carwin was determined to relax his focus on becoming champion, and instead focus on developing relationships and enjoying each moment.
“That’s how I approached my senior year,” Carwin said. “I made sure we were a team unit, had fun together, and ate dinners together. I remember enjoying every tournament and match that year, and that season was the easiest season of my life. I literally walked through to nationals.”
And at nationals, he won. Carwin became the 1999 NCAA Division II Wrestling Heavyweight National Champion.
“To be able to do two sports at any level and be that successful is just an amazing feat,” Van Hee said. “I’d say he’s one of the greatest athletes to have graced the fields and the mats at Western State College, and one of the best wrestlers I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.”
As a successful two-sport athlete, it would have been easy for Carwin to fall behind in his academics. But he didn’t. He excelled in the classroom, as well. He was a three-time Academic All-American, and he graduated with an engineering degree in environmental technology.
Not finished learning, Carwin then enrolled in the Colorado School of Mines, where he received a second engineering degree. He also began pursuing a career in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
“Are engineering and MMA opposites of personality?” Carwin asked rhetorically. “Maybe I’m just not the norm for an engineer. I don’t know. I love the math calculations, the science behind everything. Yet, I’m a competitor at heart, and I love MMA for the sport.”
As it turned out, Carwin’s analytical mind and thirst for knowledge proved beneficial in his MMA career.
“Where to step, where to hold your weight, and where power comes from are all easier for my mind to wrap around with my engineering background,” Carwin said. “I get to tear apart the science of fighting.”
Carwin’s first MMA fight was a first-round victory due to submission by punches. He won his next seven fights, too, and became the Ring of Fire Heavyweight Champion before signing with the UFC, which Carwin refers to as “the NFL of MMA.” He had four more victories and two losses, for a total career record of 12–2. All of Carwin’s victories came in the first round – 11 in the first two minutes – and he won seven by knockout and five by submission.
The pinnacle of Carwin’s fighting career came in 2010, when he won the UFC Interim Heavyweight Championship. Three years later, after battling some nagging injuries, Carwin decided to close the curtains on his MMA career.
Most of Carwin’s opponents had devoted all their time to the craft, but the same couldn’t be said for Carwin. During his entire fighting career, he was also employed full-time as a mechanical engineer with his local water district, a job he still holds today. While many thought he was crazy for attempting to do both, it was normal for him.
“Doing the engineering and the MMA together was no different than going to school and also competing in sports,” Carwin said. “When I was at Western and I was competing in both sports, it was a morning-to-night job. Nothing was any different doing engineering and training in MMA. It was morning to night. I didn’t know any different.”
By finding a way to do it all, Carwin has set himself up well for a future beyond athletics.
“He was very smart to know that the UFC thing was going to be short-lived to some degree,” Waggoner said. “He’s got a family, he’s got responsibilities, and he knows what he has to do to take care of them for the long term.”
That is a message Carwin hopes to share with current student-athletes, too. He occasionally returns to Western State to speak with them about his experiences.
“The guys have so much respect for him,” Van Hee said. “What’s great is they get to see a guy like Shane who’s been so successful after college, to show that you can get the best experience you need at a Division II level. They can see it. It’s living proof for them. He’s probably one of the best role models we can ask for.”
Carwin also tells current student-athletes to enjoy these times and make the most of them.
“Some of the best times in my life were spent at Western with my teammates,” Carwin said. “The DII experience here was unlike anything else. It was meant to be for me to be here. It was meant for me to meet a coach like Coach Wags, who cared so much about his student-athletes. My experience here has definitely shaped my life and who I am. I would never trade it for anything.”
Carwin was inducted into the Western State College Mountaineer Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Hall of Fame in 2010, and the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2011.
“I know he’s honored to have been selected for the Division II Tribute Team, as he prides himself on being a Division II athlete,” Waggoner said. “I’m also honored to be affiliated with him and to be along for the ride. Thank you, Shane, for all you’ve done for Western and all you’ve done for Division II.”
True to character, Carwin extended his success outward.
“I want to congratulate Division II on its 40th anniversary and thank all of the people in the division with all my heart for developing and helping student-athletes like myself,” Carwin said. “My wrestling career at Western really developed me into becoming who I am today, both academically and athletically.”