Ogunsanya brothers: two personalities, one goal

Updated: December 29, 2021

Photos: P.J. Ogunsanya (left) will look to defend his EIWA championship for Army, while younger brother Joshua (right) is in his first varsity season at Columbia.

By Katie Finn

The wrestling mat has long been home to sibling wrestlers. And as the Army-West Point wrestling coach, Kevin Ward, described it, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

“It’s natural,” he said. “It’s what you do at home. Watching my little kids grow up, I see it. They’re wrestling each other all the time and they don’t even know it. If you have siblings, you probably grew up being competitive. They’re competitive with each other and wrestling is a super competitive sport. Plus, you never have to look for a training partner, you live with one.”

Zach Tanelli, head wrestling coach at Columbia University in New York City, got right to the heart of why the bond between siblings is so powerful in wrestling.

“You’re always searching for that family relationship in your team. And why is that?” quizzed Tanelli. “Because it’s so thick and so deep. That bond is something you can never take away. Why do we refer to that? It’s because of what true brotherhood and familial ties do.”

Two brothers who exemplify that bond are P.J. and Joshua Ogunsanya, who long ago rolled around together in their family’s living room in Chicago. And today they wrestle at Army-West Point and Columbia, respectively. P.J. (whose full name is Peter Tiwalade Ogunsanya Jr.) is a senior and the captain of the Army squad. Josh is a sophomore standout at Columbia.

At an early stage in this season, P.J., the 2021 EIWA champion, was ranked No. 12 by WIN at 149 pounds, while Joshua is No. 15 at 165 pounds.

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With their schools separated by 50 miles, they still find ways to work out against each other, especially last winter after Columbia did not wrestle when the Ivy League cancelled the season.

The consensus is that P.J. and Joshua, separated by nearly four years in age, are as different as night and day.

P.J. is the life of the party with a charisma that sets him apart. He also loves card tricks.

“I used to do mixed martial arts and during summer camp my sensei would show me a trick where a napkin would disappear,” remembered P.J., when he was in eighth grade. “I went on a frenzy on YouTube and searched for different kinds of magic tricks and got super caught-up in magic.”

P.J. wasn’t giving away any of his secrets, but said his favorite trick is when he asks someone to pick a card and sign it before it disappears and ends up in an envelope in P.J.’s back pocket.

“Today, I’m trying different things with everyday objects.”

P.J. believes his personality helps him in wrestling and in his role as team captain.

“I like to make an impact on others, which I think makes them work even harder,” he said. “They know that no matter how hard practice is, I will still be positive and they will work even harder.”

The older Ogunsanya hopes to serve in Air Defense Artillery after he graduates. He also hopes to train in freestyle and Greco-Roman with the Army World Class Athlete Program after his time at West Point.

And while it might seem like a carefree attitude does not fit the structure and discipline of the military, P.J. believes it will help him.

“Being a fun-loving guy, it shows the people around you that you genuinely care about them,” he said. “I believe I can use that in the Army in showing the soldiers I really care about them and want to help them reach their goals.”

Joshua, on the other hand, is much more reserved and introspective.

“If people who know my brother interact with me, expecting me to behave in a similar way to him, then they would be very surprised,” said Josh. “I’m a lot more reserved. My brother is very extroverted, very social. He’s very charming in a way, and it’s not to say I don’t have any of those traits but I’m more introverted, a lot more reserved in general.”

But for all their differences in personality, it’s uncanny just how similar the positive impression they have left on their coaches and fellow wrestlers. Each of their coaches were struck by the poise and presence that each wrestler showed from the start of the recruitment process.  Each welcomed the challenge of balancing wrestling with the academic demands of their college choices and it took the coaches a while to understand the wrestlers’ manner of communicating.

Coach Ward recounts his experience with P.J. back in 2017, when he was completing his prep career at Oak Park River Forest High School.

“He has the most interesting recruitment story that I’ve had for sure,” Ward said. “We sent the letters, the phone calls, whatever. It was like radio silence. We never hear back from him.”

And then in January of 2018, Ward received a call from P.J.’s father, sharing that his son was working on the application and was interested in coming to visit. Ward had effectively given up on the prospect as the traditional window of time that the program sets aside for recruiting high school seniors had passed.

Ward wasn’t confident there was enough time to complete the application process.

“I hang up the phone thinking there’s zero chance. It’s way too late,” recounted Ward. “I check on his file and it’s completely done, totally complete, 100 percent finished, which never happens. It’s pulling teeth to get recruits to complete their application. And here’s a kid that never responded to a single letter or phone call and has the application done. I couldn’t believe it.”

It is a testament to the power of P.J.’s personality, his drive and his wrestling ability that Army moved forward and signed him.

“We didn’t get a chance to know him that well through the recruitment process because he did it all on his own without even telling us,” explained Ward. “But you spend 30 seconds around the kid, you know you like him. He’s got this enthusiasm.”

For younger brother Josh, his approach to the recruitment process mirrored his approach to life more generally, as he was more deliberative. The thought of continuing to wrestle with his brother was appealing, but in the end, he opted to go with another route.

“Most of my wrestling career, my brother has been by my side and played such a great role in my ability to develop as an athlete,” said Josh. “I really have enjoyed it but I also wanted an experience where I could uniquely chart my own path independent of him in a way.”

Coach Tanelli knew that he wanted Josh, a 2020 Illinois state champion for Oak Park River Forest High, on his team. But the deliberative recruiting process kept the coch on the edge of his seat as Josh decided what he wanted.

“I really had a special feeling with Josh,” Tanelli said. “All of our conversations were great when he came out on his visit. Talking about the diversity and the culture we have here, I really knew this was the best place for him and it could change his life. I was devastated when I felt we weren’t going to get Josh at Columbia.”

It all worked out in the end for Tanelli and the Columbia program.

“It was kind of a weird recruiting process, not as straightforward as others,” Tanelli said. “I’m not surprised at all. I knew there was something about him that set him apart. It’s really encouraging to see him starting to find that. He’s still just scratching the surface,” said Tanelli.

The Ogunsanya brothers give much of their credit to their parents, Demoda and Peter Ogunsanya, and the Nigerian culture that was passed down from their grandparents.

“I think the big thing deals with the discipline side of things,” P.J. said. “I think Josh and I are pretty disciplined and a lot of that comes from the Nigerian culture and being respectful to your parents and things like that.”

The role each wrestler is playing on their squads is also eerily similar. Both have earned reputations as leading by example. And in both cases, the effort has translated to success on the mat.

“Josh is probably the most diligent worker I’ve ever coached,” said Tanelli. “He doesn’t really question why. He’s trying to figure out how, whether it fits into his style or not, whatever we’re going over, how can he make it fit into his style. He’s just a solution-based kid. It’s really served the team well now that success is following, it’s easy to say this kid is going to be successful and use him as an example with the team.”

The report on P.J. is very nearly the same thing.

“His story is all about growth from start to finish, and his leadership style is not different,” said Ward. “In any situation, I could say, ‘Do what he does and you’ll get better. When your best wrestler is a role model like that, you’ve got a pretty special guy.”

The Ogunsanya brothers hope to end this season together in March on a positive note at both the EIWA Championships in Ithaca, N.Y., and the NCAA Division I Championships in Detroit, Mich..

“It’s a pretty cool story, these two boys,” Tanelli said. “It’s a story that deserves to be told.”