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Naret Viravong: A wrestler’s American dream

From humble beginnings, Viravong went on to become college wrestler, spine consultant

Biography

Naret Viravong
Interventional sales consultant for Medtronic Spinal & Biologics

Hometown: Ban Sai Fong, Laos

Current city: West Palm Beach, Florida

School: Bachelor’s degree in biology, Carson-Newman University, 1999

Sport: Wrestling

Fun fact: He enjoys fishing and taking his boat to the Bahamas when he gets a break from work.

Naret Viravong says he wouldn’t have a successful career in medical sales without one thing: college wrestling.

“The sport has taught me so much about discipline and hard work,” he said. “It also provided me the opportunity to get a college education and beat the odds.”

The sixth of seven children, Viravong was born in 1974 in Ban Sai Fong, Laos – a small village near the capital city of Vientiane. There was a price on Viravong’s father’s head because of his work with the CIA during the Vietnam War, resulting in the family having to sneak out of the village in the night and swim across the Mekong River to safety. They lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for a year before immigrating to the United States in 1980. Through a church sponsorship, they settled in Oklahoma.

“It was a struggle,” Viravong recalled. “My parents had no college education, didn’t speak English well and worked minimum-wage jobs trying to feed nine mouths. We all wore hand-me-down clothes, and we heated our house by turning on the oven and opening the door until a friend bought us a kerosene heater.”

Because they were expected to pitch in to support the family financially, there wasn’t much opportunity for the children to take part in extracurricular activities. Viravong had a newspaper route, mowed lawns and hauled hay.

However, there was no cost to participate in sports through the public school he attended. Too small for football or basketball, Viravong quickly found his niche in wrestling.

“My junior high school assistant wrestling coach was the first person to see potential in me,” he said. “We were so poor, my parents couldn’t take us to practices or watch us in tournaments, so my coach would give me rides. He made me a better wrestler, and a better person.”

After high school, Viravong secured a wrestling scholarship to attend Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University), making the varsity squad as a freshman. When the school dropped its wrestling program, Viravong transferred first to the University of Oklahoma, and then to Carson-Newman University, an NCAA Division II school in Tennessee, when Carson-Newman offered him an athletics scholarship. There, he placed at the national championships and became the first Laotian to be named a Division II All-American in wrestling.

Viravong credits his student-athlete experience with instilling in him the values of time management, discipline and accountability.

“I did better in school overall when I was wrestling because you realize how valuable your time is,” he said. “Before nationals, you’re working out three or four times a day, and you’ve got to get your studying in. You don’t have the luxury of procrastination. That discipline I learned from wrestling has certainly helped me in my career.”

Viravong in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Photo courtesy of Naret Viravong.

Although wrestling is an individual sport, Viravong says a team mentality is definitely required for those who want to win.

“When you step onto the mat, it’s just you and your opponent, but you need your teammates to practice with, to learn from and to make you better,” he explained. “When you succeed individually, you also contribute to the team’s success.”

In 1999, Viravong graduated with honors, majoring in biology and Spanish. His first post-college job was teaching biology and serving as an assistant wrestling coach at Tampa Catholic High School in Florida before a college wrestling friend encouraged Viravong to apply for a pharmaceutical sales job with Pfizer. He borrowed money from a friend to buy a new dress shirt and shoes for his final interview in Atlanta, and worried about how he would repay the money if he didn’t get the job. As luck would have it, the man who hired Viravong at Pfizer was also a college wrestler.

In 2003, Pfizer promoted Viravong to the position of hospital representative to service a prestigious territory that included hospitals at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After two years, he transferred to West Palm Beach, Florida. And in 2008, he joined Medtronic to sell medical devices and work with surgeons who perform spinal surgeries – a job he learned about through yet another college wrestling friend.

Viravong’s definition of success has changed over time. “When I was young and poor, it was all about having enough money to survive,” he said. “Now, success is more about being able to provide for your family and give back to your community.”

For Viravong, that means participating in mission trips to Guatemala, giving money to college wrestling programs and helping to support his parents, who still live in Oklahoma.

Viravong urges today’s student-athletes to strive for a balance between academics and athletics. 

“You need both components to be successful,” he said. “Sports can only get you so far; getting good grades is what will give you the best probability for success.”

Viravong himself is proof positive.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without college wrestling – the people who’ve helped me along the way, lessons I’ve learned about accountability and respect, and friends I’ve made for life.”

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