Getting from small-town Utah to Big Ten college athletics is quite a journey. But two highly rated wrestlers made it, even with a two-year detour.
Levi Mele is crafting a respectable record in his first season on the mat for the Northwestern University Wildcats. Colton Salazar has improved his record for the third year in a row for the Purdue Boilermakers.
They have been acquainted with each other since competing at rival wrestling powerhouses in Utah, Levi at Uintah High School in Vernal and Colton at Wasatch High School in Heber City. Levi won three state wrestling championships and Colton won two.
They have other things in common besides their Utah roots and wrestling prowess, including missionary service, temple marriage and faithful activity in their current wards.
Levi, through the challenges of life, has learned it is worth it to "sacrifice anything to do the Lord's work," he said in a Church News interview.
His father, Greg, joined the Church in high school and his mother, Kym, was a lifelong member.
"In high school, I thought of myself as an active member," he said. "But looking back, I mostly went to Church for social reasons."
He didn't have much of a testimony, he acknowledged. He went to seminary for four years and graduated, "but didn't participate much."
After committing to wrestle for Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., Levi started going through sleepless nights as he grappled with promptings that he should serve a mission. His spirit had been strengthened as he accepted President Gordon B. Hinckley's challenge to all members of the Church in August 2005 to read or reread the Book of Mormon.
Not wanting to break his commitment to Lehigh, he contacted the school and was given a deferral for missionary service.
His two years in the Oklahoma Tulsa Mission changed his life, he said, particularly his priorities and his understanding of the Plan of Salvation.
At that time, his life was impacted as his grandmother, Claudette Mele, had a battle with cancer, his father was briefly unemployed and Lehigh changed wrestling coaches. After returning from his mission, Levi tried to figure out how to go to Lehigh, but with his family's struggles and no financial aid available at Lehigh, he had to change his plans.
His prayers about what to do were partially answered when Northwestern, located in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, came forward and offered him a wrestling scholarship.
Meanwhile, he and Shanna Northcott, whom he dated before his mission, got back together and were married in the Salt Lake Temple on May 6, 2009.
Levi just wrapped up his freshman regular season with a 10-9 record at 125 pounds.
He serves as mission leader in the North Shore 1st Ward, Wilmette Illinois Stake, applying what he learned on his mission. He said, "I caught the vision of how important members are in missionary work."
Colton, the son of Robert and Julie Salazar of Midway, Utah, had a lifelong dream to serve a mission, a factor in deciding where to wrestle in college. He considered schools closer to his home, but said, "The Big Ten has the best wrestling in the country. So being able to wrestle in the Big Ten is a big goal for wrestlers."
But, he continued, "[Big Ten schools] are not really used to Mormon kids leaving for two years on a mission."
Purdue was in a situation with its lineup where it was willing to work with Colton, so he headed off to West Lafayette, Ind., and wrestled varsity as a freshman before serving in the Japan Tokyo Mission.
When he returned, he had a redshirt year and said he really needed the extended time to get back into shape after his mission.
Nevertheless, he said the mission was "worth it. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
He married Vanessa Dunn in the Salt Lake Temple on June 20, 2008, and they now team-teach a Primary class in the Lafayette 1st Ward, Lafayette Indiana Stake.
Colton has been Purdue's varsity wrestler at 157 pounds for the past two seasons. He just finished the regular season with a 25-8 record and looks forward to joining Levi at the Big Ten tournament at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor the first weekend in March.