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Old 1 Week Ago
lauden swain lauden swain is offline
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The Illini Braunagel Twins

Zac and Danny Braunagel are used to sharing. The twin brothers from Belleville shared a room for their entire lives — until college. They share similar personalities. And, of course, they share nearly an identical appearance.

As redshirt-freshmen, the Braunagels also share a role as captains of the Illinois wrestling team, which is ranked No. 15 in the latest InterMat Division I rankings.

But that doesn’t mean they always see eye-to-eye. For instance, which twin is the superior wrestler?

“I’m too quick for him,” said Danny, who wrestles at 165 pounds. “He can’t catch me.”

Zac, who wrestles at 184 pounds, retorts instantly: “I’m stronger than him.”

Sibling rivalry aside, the Braunagels are a major factor behind a bounce-back season for the Illini, who are 7-3 and riding a three-match win streak including wins over No. 23 Michigan and No. 21 Northwestern.

After spending their first year in Champaign acclimating to college and life as Division-I athletes, each Braunagel has hit his stride this season. For 11th-year Illini head coach Jim Heffernan, the twins’ talent and work ethic has been a revelation for his program, which endured a rare down season in 2018-19, going 2-9 in duals and finishing 11th in the Big Ten.

“They're really high-paced, and they're physical,” Heffernan said. “They wrestle hard, they try to score points and are both pretty aggressive.”

Each has established himself as a reliable cog in an Illini lineup that also includes No. 7-ranked Travis Piotrowski, No. 12 Dylan Duncan and No. 22 Joey Gunther, among several other promising young talents. With a 16-5 record, Danny is the No. 15-ranked wrestler at 165 pounds, while Zac (14-6) slots in two spots above, at No. 13 for 184 pounds.

Heffernan likes the way the Braunagels wrestle, but what he admires more is what can’t be taught. Both Zac and Danny are described as relentlessly hard workers, almost to the point of obsession.

“Just with those two guys, the way they work, we made them team captains,” Heffernan said. “They're 3.50 (GPA) or better students. They have unbelievable work ethics. They live their lives right. The right things are important to them. Their lives are in order.”


As they speak about their lives, sticking around on the top floor of Huff Hall well after the end of a steamy training session, the Braunagels offer their thoughts in tandem. They listen and talk with intent, seemingly unaware of their coordination, but eager to share their perceptions honestly.

“Just cause we're the captains doesn't mean there aren't other leaders on the team,” Zac said. “Guys like Travis Piotrowski, Dylan Duncan, Matt Wroblewski, Joey Gunther and Eric Barone, they all step up and lead the team as well. We get the title of captains, but there are a good number of guys on the team who act as leaders and act as captains.”

“Yes, we're young, but just because somebody is younger than you doesn't mean they can't help you out or give you a perspective that you haven't seen before. Every day we're in the practice room, we just give 110 percent. We just try to get better every day. We don't want to do that alone, you know?”

The Braunagels are used to giving interviews together, but each notes that they are comfortable speaking alone. They won’t hold back in their answers anyway.There is a familiarity between the two that can only come as a result of a lifetime of shared experience.

Zac spoke about the team dynamic, so now it’s Danny’s turn to explain their backstory. Coming to Illinois from tiny Belleville (Ill.) Althoff Catholic, which has about 350 students, the Braunagels cut out their own path years before they became elite wrestlers.

“The mentality going into training and wrestling, it's really always been the same,” Danny said. “Work harder than your opponent. That's just the way we were raised and the lessons we learned as kids. If you want something, you've got to go get it. You've got to outwork anybody else that's trying to get it too. That's really it. Get one percent better every day and keep grinding.”

Their father, Joe, never wrestled. It was their brother, Jarrid, who first got into the sport. Then it spread to his younger siblings like wildfire.

“We love telling this story,” Danny said. “When we were about five years old, we started wrestling because our dad found a flyer for it. We were short, fat, white kids, and he didn't think we would be very good at basketball.”

Jarrid was a four-time state placer by the time he entered high school, and his younger brothers followed suit, building on his legacy after Jarrid went on to wrestle at McKendree University. When the twins hit a big growth spurt in middle school, they began to awaken to the opportunities wrestling might hold. Zac packed on muscle and height, while Danny stayed leaner but grew just the same.

“We weren't having success at that point yet,” Danny said, “but that's when we realized, 'Hey, we could be good at this.' We started focusing in a little bit more, and that's when we really started pushing each other a lot more.”

Things started clicking right before their freshman year at Althoff.

“I think that year we both placed at state,” Zac said. “I think I made it to the finals that year. Then the following year I placed at state and Danny made it to the finals, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we want to wrestle.’”

But Althoff was no wrestling powerhouse. In fact, the school could hardly field a team. While Jarrid was wrestling before them, Althoff would forfeit every single dual match, unable to fill out every weight class.

After his success though, and the twins’ excitement and dedication to the sport, the program numbers increased from about seven guys to about a dozen, which meant they could mathematically compete in duals. Danny exuded pride as he reminisced about the program’s gradual build-up.

“The next year, better guys kept coming in,” Danny said. “The next year, same thing. By our senior year, we'd built up into a really solid team. “Our graduating class, we two were two-time state champs, then another teammate, Chase Bittle, he was also a two-time state champ. The other senior in our class, Grace Kristoff, she was a multiple-time girls state champ. Everyone in our class had state titles behind their belt. That kind of culture attracted other good wrestlers to come up through the program.”

“The year after we left, it didn't slow down. Max Kristoff won a state title, Anthony Federico was a state runner-up, our little brother Joe (Jr.) was a state placer. The culture is still going.”


Heffernan and the Illinois staff took notice of the Braunagels’ success from afar, but they also weren’t shy about coming to Champaign for camps and opportunities to showcase their abilities.

“Part of the thing that attracted us to them was they always found opportunities to work out,” Heffernan said. “If it was seven days a week, it was seven days a week. They would seek out opportunities to train and try to get better. They wrestled the national competition since they were very young, but their work habits are the thing.”

That rabid drive in training has persisted at Illinois. Sometimes, Heffernan wishes they’d dial it back just a tad. About two weeks ago, Heffernan gave the team a Thursday off for rest and recovery. One does not simply keep the Braunagels out of the gym and off the mats, however.

“Danny decided to work out twice on his own,” Heffernan said. “I said something to him after the match against Ohio State. He looked like he was a little tired physically. To put two more hard workouts in on his own that he didn't have to do last week, I kind of explained to him, ‘You know, the reason we're giving you a rest day is to rest.’”

Danny’s face turned a slight shade of pink when it comes up, but his twin offered words of explanation in his stead.

“There are some times where we just get bored,” Zac said matter-of-factly. “We’ll come in, and we’re not doing anything, so we might as well get a workout in… Was that the night we were in here until 11?”

Sometimes for Heffernan, the best way to get through to the Braunagels is by going through the Braunagels. The two have their own ways of doing things, but nobody knows them like they know each other.

“I told Zac on Monday, 'You need to tell your brother to take a day off,’” Heffernan said. “So Danny actually came up to me later and said, ‘Didn't do anything yesterday. I feel good.’”

There is a sort of uncanny intensity to the Braunagels’ dedication to their craft, one that Illinois hopes is contagious for the rest of the team. The twins operate as a well-oiled machine, thriving in an environment in which they get to wrestle with many more partners than in their high school days. Back then, it was just Zac versus Danny, practically all the time. Coming to Illinois was a logical next phase of growth for Zac and Danny, both as wrestlers and as brothers.

They lived in separate rooms for the first time in their lives last year — though they were in the same dorm — and have enjoyed the opportunities for individual growth as college athletes who have rarely stepped from within arm’s reach of each other.

“Everything we do, we do together,” Zac said. “We even share a car. We've lived together forever.”

“Coach put us with different people, which we loved. It was different. That's when we started, not growing apart from each other, but becoming our own person instead of a ‘we’. I'm Zac now, it's not ‘us.’”

Danny added: “Like (Zac) said, instead of ‘we’, it became more ‘I’. We could focus on ourselves, which is not a bad thing, you know? Instead of being the same person, we've become more unique to ourselves.”

Their increased sense of individuality at Illinois came as a welcome progression for each twin, especially as they clashed more and more as their high school years went on. There is an inevitable butting of heads for siblings, yet alone twins, that comes with adolescence.

The Braunagels explain the ebb and flow of their relationship with admirable candor, withholding no details — not even about their fights. Back at Althoff, scraps between the two were a regular occurrence.

“We would get kicked out of our high school room once a week for fighting,” Zac said. “Like, full-on brawling and punching each other in the face. The next day, we'd come into practice and I'd have to wrestle like our 120-pounder and he's wrestling with like the 126-pounder or something like that because we couldn't wrestle with each other.”

Their dialogue flows effortlessly now, a product of eased tensions, but things were different back then.

“We fought so much in the practice room that it carried over into home life too,” Danny said. “We were so frustrated with each other and we'd come home.”

Zac interjected: “It'd be like, I'm sleeping with my back this way, and he's sleeping with his back facing me.”

Added Danny: “It was bad. For a couple months we couldn't have a single conversation with each other without fighting. Once we got here, we got our space, and now we're like best friends.”

With the season heading toward the home stretch, the Braunagels are as close as ever and have the confidence and talents to help the Illini compete in the brutal Big Ten.

According to Heffernan, it’s a natural result of their persistence, but also a consequence of having the resources of being a wrestler at Illinois.

More sparring partners, more individualized coaching and access to better facilities are a piece of it, but so too is how each athlete operates.

“They've made big jumps, and they'll continue to make big jumps as they start figuring things out,” Heffernan said. “They listen to everything, they watch everything. We're on buses traveling, we're sitting in an airport, whatever it is, they're watching wrestling on their phones. They're students, and they're junkies.”
"It's not the six minutes, it's what happens in those six minutes"
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Old 1 Week Ago
ChiefIllini1 ChiefIllini1 is offline
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This is a great interview.

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Old 1 Week Ago
Crystal Clearly Crystal Clearly is online now
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Good stuff
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Old 1 Week Ago
Red Turban Red Turban is offline
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Funny they lived on either side of my #3 son at U of I Freshman year.

Cool kids. Great characters off the mat.
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Old 1 Week Ago
IfYouAin'tFirstYou'reLast IfYouAin'tFirstYou'reLast is offline
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Very well written article. Great read!
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Old 1 Week Ago
Jim Edmonds Jim Edmonds is offline
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Here’s the link to the article, which was written by Gavin Good. There is also a short, fun video at the link that has the brothers sitting down answering questions about each other.

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Old 6 Days Ago
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PapaBearSLIM PapaBearSLIM is offline
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Daily fights
Physical style
Don't know when to shut off

Remind me of larger versions of the Dardanes.
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