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Left or right? Sometimes Dan St. John can't tell his left brain from his right brain. Let's say he has his knee on somebody's face and is trying to disengage the poor fellow's arm from its socket. "I think when I wrestle," St. John says, "but I don't consciously think, 'Force, cross-lever, arm,' which would be the physics equation for the application of torque in an arm spin."
Left brain or right? And what if he decides to apply a half nelson and follow it with a figure-four leg lock? Is that wrestling or algebra? Most of the time even St. John isn't sure. "Athletics is supposed to be a right-brain activity," he says, "and math and physics are supposed to be left-brain. So they conflict with each other."
Sometimes you can almost see the wrestling match for control of St. John's brain going on in his head. He was the NCAA champion in the 158-pound weight class in 1989 and is the favorite to win the 167-pound title at the 1990 NCAA tournament next month. Now in his fourth year at Arizona State, he is just 15 credits short of graduating with majors in both math and physics. He is undefeated in 64 straight matches and is considered the best college wrestler in any weight category. He also has a combined grade point average of 3.4 in his two academic disciplines. He hopes to earn a doctorate in physics or math or engineering and an Olympic gold medal on the mat.
St. John lives in worlds that are as different as Kansas and Oz. "The other wrestlers see me as a geek, because on long van rides I'm constantly talking about cosmology and the theory of the evolution of the universe," says St. John as he pushes his mountain bike across campus toward the physics building. "And there are people in the physics department who outright don't like me, who don't want to have anything to do with me."
Last semester his course load consisted of differential geometry, quantum mechanics, math modeling and a numerical analysis class that involved writing complex computer programs. After wrestling practice St. John would go to the computer center while the sky was still light and not emerge until after dawn. "My academic battles are as tough as my wrestling battles," he says. "The people I'm competing with there do nothing but study all day, and I just don't have time to do that. They'll spend nine hours studying. And there are little groups in those classes who will help each other, but they won't help me. So the work they share I have to do alone."
St. John says he encounters far larger egos in the classroom than in the locker room. "My freshman year, I was in a study group in partial differential equations," he says, "and everybody in the group thought they were the brain. They figured I must be the stupid one because I was the youngest. So every time I opened my mouth, they would talk over me."
St. John parks his bike outside the physics building and heads in for his quantum mechanics class. "This is the geek side of campus," he says. "Everybody over here looks kind of pale and sickly. People on the other side of campus look a lot happier."
Inside the classroom about 20 students listen as a middle-aged man standing in a halo of chalk dust talks about protons, electrons and "our old friend, angular momentum." The professor writes equations that fill up entire blackboards.
St. John once asked his girlfriend, Eva Tangri, an engineering major, to sit in on a class in advanced differential equations for him while he was out of town at a wrestling meet. "He had me take notes for him," says Tangri, "but the material was so complicated and so theoretical, I didn't even know what symbols to write down."
St. John had essentially the same difficulty when he was growing up in Cleveland, except the symbols he didn't know how to write were the letters of the alphabet. "I did terrible in school," he recalls. "I had a fourth-grade reading level for a long time, and when I used to be called on to read aloud, the others in class would laugh themselves out of their chairs. I used to try to read ahead and guess what paragraph I was going to have to do aloud, so I could memorize it."