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Mark McLaughlin: From the wrestling mat to the operating room

Excellence as a college wrestler helped McLaughlin become a world-renown neurosurgeon

Mark McLaughlin views life as a performance-based activity and still starts his day in a locker room. Instead of reaching for a wrestler’s singlet, he pulls on a white coat, latex gloves, a surgical cap and mask, and enters a different kind of hallowed ground – the operating room as a renowned neurosurgeon.

“My sport taught me adaptability,” said McLaughlin, a former wrestler for the College of William and Mary. “When life throws you something, view it as an opportunity rather than a setback.”

As a neurosurgeon, knowing how to quickly adapt to the unexpected isn’t about winning in competition; it’s about saving a life.

Wrestling in the 142-pound weight class at William and Mary, McLaughlin set school records for most and fastest pins in a single season. He capped off his athletic career as the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association champion in 1988.

McLaughlin majored in philosophy and enjoyed having intellectual conversations with his peers, his professors and his coach at the time, Billy Pincus, who stressed the importance of academics.

“I enjoyed being an active classroom participant and not seen as a dumb jock in the back of the room,” McLaughlin said. “It was a great feeling knowing I had a match coming up, yet I was going to class an hour before the weigh-ins.”

The NCAA postgraduate scholarship recipient went on to graduate from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and completed his residency in neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh. At Emory University, he completed a fellowship in complex spine surgery.

During his studies, McLaughlin realized how the intensity of brain surgery was a lot like wrestling. “Both activities are physically and mentally demanding and involve hard, long and grueling hours,” he said.

Mark McLaughlin at the College of William and Mary. College of William and Mary Athletics PHOTO

McLaughlin specializes in cranial conditions and spine disorders. He is responsible for an international consultative link with neurosurgeons in Russia and initiated the first Russian-American Spine Symposium in 2000 with assistance from the World Federation of Neurological Surgeons. Known internationally for his professional accomplishments and published work in surgery, he is an editor of, a website dedicated to patient and physician education on spinal disorders.

The former wrestler uses skills he acquired as a Division I student-athlete to achieve excellence as a neurosurgeon with Princeton Brain and Spine Care.

With nurses buzzing about, an anesthesiologist prepping the patient and instrument representatives viewing, McLaughlin steps away from the chaos for a brief moment. He

thinks about the challenge ahead. He visualizes the plan of attack. Go in the left side, make an incision, move the muscle, put in the scope, look for the disk, shave the bone away, remove the disk, protect the nerve and close.

“I follow the same routine for every surgery, and it’s much like the same routine that I did before every wrestling match,” McLaughlin said.

When McLaughlin reflects on his legacy, he thinks about more than medicine. He aims for excellence as a coach and as a father of four.

Two of his sons, Alex and Patrick, wrestle for Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Naval Academy, respectively. In addition, many of the youth wrestlers McLaughlin coaches through the Princeton Amateur Wrestling Society have gone on to compete at the college level. Wrestling is still very much a part of McLaughlin’s life, and he and his former teammates continue to enjoy their sport by attending the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships together each year.

“The pursuit of excellence is a continuous process,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not a perfectly straight line. It’s attained by dogged determination and perseverance.”


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