- Cornell Alumni
Dr. Leo Urbinelli '01: Technical on the Mat & in the Operating Room
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
Dr. Leo Urbinelli remembers it well. March 2000. Round of 12 at 157 pounds at the NCAA Tournament against Pittsburgh’s Mike Ziska, a wrestler he had beaten earlier in the season. Ziska scored in overtime to take the bout and earn All-American honors.
“That one still haunts me,” Urbinelli said. “But it’s a great part of sports - on any given day, you can win or lose. It motivated me. Wrestling has a lot of highs and lows and it’s really personal. That’s helped me in my career. In medicine, a lot of things are personal. Maybe a patient has a difficult problem or a complication; you have to keep things in perspective. While I’d love to have that match back, I wouldn’t trade my time at Cornell for anything.”
Urbinelli didn’t know that he wanted to be a surgeon when he arrived at Cornell. As an athlete, he said he had significant interest in human performance and took classes in nutrition and exercise science as well as all the premed courses.
With that rigorous academic load, Urbinelli still excelled in the classroom and on the mat, winning 89 matches for the Big Red, placing in the top 3 at the EIWA tournament three times, and qualifying for the NCAA tournament twice, including his blood round performance.
A Cornell connection led him to his first job after graduation - a research position at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he working on clinical trials with patients with neurodegenerative disease.
“That job tied together my love for science and human performance,” he said. “I was prepared by the work I did in college. I was writing grants and protocols, monitoring sites around the country. I got my Masters at the Boston University School of Medicine and I was taking classes alongside medical students, thinking - I love this. My mentor and boss there encouraged me to go to medical school. It’s funny, I never would’ve taken that first job without encouragement from people at Cornell.”
One of the fringe benefits for Urbinelli of going to medical school in Syracuse was the ability to go to Big Red wrestling matches. A more significant one was meeting his wife, a fellow med student and Cornell grad he didn’t know during his time in Ithaca.
His perspective on medical school was different from many of his peers.
“It seems kind of crazy to say, but medical school was easier than being a student athlete,” he said. “At Cornell, I had to be really efficient to train, go to class, and get my work done. The volume of material in med school is huge, but you have the time. And I was so well prepared from a science perspective. I had a hard time with some of it at Cornell - the physics, chemistry, organic chem. But having to work on it in college locked it in and I had all the foundation I needed.”
Following medical school, Urbinelli completed residency at NYU/Bellevue Hospital in New York City and another at the University of Southern California Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
After years as an Assistant Professor of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at Oregon Health & Science University, where he taught, trained, and mentored, in addition to his clinical work, Urbinelli is currently the Medical Director at PNW Plastic Surgery in Portland, Oregon. He’s a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, who is also trained in pediatric and craniofacial surgery. As a medical student, he was exposed to kids with cleft lips and palates as well as those born with a misshapen skull. He enjoys the niche of working to help those young patients, but also savors his involvement with adults dealing with trauma, cancer, or congenital disorders that require surgical intervention. His work is diverse - not bound by age or body part - and is both reconstructive and cosmetic.
To Urbinelli, surgery shares common ground with wrestling, from the very technical nature of both, to the need to get the job done under pressure.
“When the whole operating room is looking you, you don’t think about it. You just do it. Perform. That gumption and belief comes from wrestling - from people believing in me in wrestling. When you’re on the mat, you become oblivious to the situation and just compete.”
Urbinelli enjoys watching the next generation of wrestlers do that each year at the NCAA Tournament as he and 15-20 former teammates attend and cheer on the Big Red.
“Nationals is a highlight every year,” he said. “The permanent friendships I have from Cornell wrestling - that was the best part of the experience. I loved the competition and camaraderie. You battle in practice for a few hours and then have dinner together. It’s so unique. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to wrestle for Cornell.”
He said his choice wasn’t a challenging one.
“When I was in high school, I was considering some other highly rated academic schools and some other highly rated wrestling schools. Cornell had both. It was an easy decision back then and it’s still an easy decision. For most of us, you get four years to achieve your dreams in wrestling and after that, it’s on to a great professional life. Cornell has been making that happen for more than 20 years. There’s no better place to prepare you in wrestling, as a person, and for your professional life. I know there are other great schools, but the excellence in all areas and the post graduate support at Cornell are different.”
Urbinelli attributes that on and off the mat success partially to the alumni that continue to pay it forward.
“I met so many alumni when I was a student - great people who came back and supported us and mentored us,” he said. “It’s a great lineage. Now’s that’s us and I know I’m excited to be a part of it.”
He’s also excited to watch the growth of the program, on the national and the world stage.
“Where Cornell wrestling is right now is special,” he said. “Mike [Grey] has done a great job of keeping that going, recruiting the right kids and bringing in the best assistant coaches in the country. As alumni, we talk about young guys not only winning multiple national championships but world championships. It’s a different standard now and I’m proud to be part of the tradition.”