In Focus: NU wrestler balances parenthood, sport

Sarah Kuta and Sarah Kuta

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After a wrestling meet, Levi Mele’s teammates are congratulated by their parents and friends.

The 5-foot-2-inch, 133 pound athlete, on the other hand, receives a tiny finger squeeze and a gurgle of undecipherable words. His 4-month-old son, Wyatt, and wife, Shanna-Lee, are always happy to see the sophomore after the match.

Though Levi plays the role of the gruff wrestler on the mat, at home he plays a more gentle role with Wyatt. The 22-year-old wrestles while taking a full course load. He is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served a two-year mission before enrolling at NU. The Vernal, Utah, native is the president of the Latter-Day Saints Student Association at NU. In May 2009, he also assumed the role of husband, and on the first day of class in 2010, he became a father.

It’s safe to say that Levi breaks the mold for young parents. Though being a married college athlete is not unheard of – 27-year-old Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden played professional baseball before marrying Melanie Weeden and enrolling at OSU – few NU students have chosen Levi’s path.

“We’ve never had a child around the program before,” coach Drew Pariano said. “It’s definitely new territory for us.”

But the Meles make it work. The warm yellow walls of their apartment in Engelhart Graduate Housing are lined with artwork Shanna-Lee has painted. Baby Wyatt is decked out in a polka-dot long-sleeve shirt and tiny brown pants. He sits on his dad’s lap, smiling and giggling every few minutes for no apparent reason. The Meles nicknamed him “Quiet Wyatt” for his good behavior and cheery demeanor.

Shanna-Lee, who stays home to take care of Wyatt, speaks about finding balance in their busy life. The Meles attribute their success to their shared faith, which stresses the importance of the husband-wife unit. Rather than squeeze their religion in between all of their commitments, the Meles said they use it as motivation and a guide for everything they do.

“It’s our foundation,” Shanna-Lee said. “Everything else just builds on top of it, from the ground up. It’s not that (religion) fits in, it’s all-encompassing.”

The pair met just before Shanna-Lee’s 16th birthday party. Because Levi was three years older, he graduated and left for his church’s mission trip before they could spend a significant amount of time together. Though he was only allowed to call home to family once a week, he said he wrote Shanna-Lee countless letters, and over those two years, the pair formed the foundation of their relationship. They got engaged the week he returned to Utah. After their wedding, they honeymooned in Salt Lake City before heading to Chicago, not for the sight-seeing, but rather for Levi’s recruiting visit at NU.

Freshman Pat Greco said he became fast friends with Levi when he came to NU this year. At first, Greco couldn’t understand why anyone would put himself through the rigors of college wrestling and raising a child, he said. But once he got to know Levi, it became clear.

“The whole thing was planned,” Greco said. “That’s how he wanted to live. He doesn’t want to go out. He’s perfectly content with having a wife that he obviously loves. It’s all he wants in life.”

But the life the Meles planned isn’t always easy, they said, especially when it comes to finances. Levi and Shanna-Lee are completely independent from their parents, which means they’re covering baby expenses, car payments, tuition and rent. NU has nine athletic scholarships to split amongst 25 wrestlers, Levi said, and because of that, he’s only on partial scholarship. He can’t qualify for work study or hold a job because of his busy schedule, so he works all summer to save money for the school year. Shanna-Lee takes babysitting jobs when she can, and both of them work hard to adhere to a tight budget by buying things in bulk and not eating out much. Even though money is tight for the Meles, they always donate ten percent of their earnings to the church in what is called a tithe. In return, Levi said the church promises to bless them greatly.

“We can’t always explain how things work out,” Levi said. “But because of the wise principles the church and our families taught us, we live a great life within our means.”

Although the Meles called Wyatt a ‘perfect’ baby, their life has not been without stress since his birth. Earlier this quarter, Wyatt caught a cold, which meant several sleepless nights for both Levi and Shanna-Lee. Waking up to take care of Wyatt every few hours made for a few rough morning weight-lifting sessions for Levi, but he said the hardest part was seeing his four-month-old sick.

“It’s the saddest thing in the world seeing a sick baby,” he said. “They can’t blow their own nose, so they are just miserable.”

This winter, Shanna-Lee headed back to school to finish her art degree at Oakton Community College. But because of the way their schedules align, the Meles are faced with an added challenge: finding a babysitter. Shanna-Lee laughed at the idea of having a wrestler take care of Wyatt; more than likely they’ll look to other NU athletes, preferably ones who are more accustomed to little fingers and toes.

On Friday nights when some college students, athletes included, head out to find a one-night stand or a beer, the Meles have their “milk and cookies and Monopoly.”

Though Levi said that raising a child can sometimes isolate him from the rest of the NU community, he also said that he would feel out of place without his wife and son.

“I’ve never experienced college without my family,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the social scene, dating. I don’t even know what life would be like for most college students. It takes some of those stresses away and replaces those with making sure he’s okay and taken care of. It’s an equal trade-off.”

While it may seem like a stressful lifestyle, Pariano explained that because Levi wrestles at 133 pounds, he can enjoy the simple pleasure of eating dinner with his family every night. Last season Levi was faced with the difficulty of wrestling at the lighter 125 pound division. Other wrestlers “don’t eat much,” he said, so Levi is lucky this season.

Back on the wrestling mat, Pariano reminds his team of the importance of focus. For Levi, it’s not about keeping his family and his sport separate: his wife researches ways for him to eat healthfully, and Wyatt makes an appearance in head-to-toe purple at every match. Pariano encouraged Levi’s commitment to fatherhood by telling him after practice one day that Wyatt should always be his first priority. Wrestling and school, he said, come second.

“(Family) is his first priority,” Pariano said.”But when you’re wrestling for seven minutes, your priorities shift. But then the second you come off the mat, then it goes back to family.”