USA Wrestling Wrestling - A Sport ...

Wrestling - A Sport For All Abilities

By Matt Krumrie Special to USA Wrestling | March 04, 2015, 8:54 a.m. (ET)

The sport of wrestling presents challenges like no other. But it also provides opportunities like no other. Especially for the adaptive athlete. In fact, there's a long list of wrestlers with disabilities who have found success competing with (and defeating) able-bodied athletes in the sport, despite what seems like insurmountable physical challenges.

Consider Kyle Maynard, a quadruple amputee who won 36 varsity matches his senior year in high school. For his incredible performance, he won the 2004 ESPY Award for Best Athlete with a Disability. Maynard describes wrestling as one of the hardest endeavors that anyone can undertake, and he’s climbed Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. Now a motivational speaker and entrepreneur, Maynard's passion is focused on helping people reach their highest human potential. He credits his determination, spirit, and will power to his parents and to the sport of wrestling.

"It builds character because when you are put in really tough situations, like you are in wrestling, you gain a sense of resilience that you can only get from personal experience," says Maynard.

Anthony Robles, born with one leg, can attest to this. "While growing up, I heard comments made about me and my disability," he recalls. "I will never forget my high school wrestling coach. In spite of my disability he welcomed me onto the team. He gave me a chance. One day, early on, he tied his legs together and wrestled. He did this so he would know what I was going through. By doing this throughout my high school career, he developed techniques that I could use. He also showed the rest of the team that I belonged, that though I was different, I was the same.”

But it wasn't always easy, he acknowledges. Robles struggled at first, calling himself the worst wrestler on the team when he started at age 14. But he gradually improved, and thanks to the support of his family and his high school coach Bobby Williams, he got better. A lot better. Robles compiled a 96-0 record in his last two years of high school, winning two state championships in the process. In college at Arizona State, Robles went on to be a three-time NCAA All-American and 2011 NCAA champion at 125 pounds.

"Wrestling developed a discipline and work ethic that changed my life,” Robles says. “I learned to push myself and overcome obstacles and weaknesses. All of this gave me a self confidence to overcome challenges."

Maynard and Robles are by no means alone in achieving success as adaptive wrestlers. Max Lamm, a 14-year-old from Mars, Pennsylvania, lost sight as an infant due to a rare form of cancer called retinoblastoma. Despite that, Lamm won wrestling 10 matches last year and is determined to wrestle in college. There’s Willie Burton of Kentucky, who, despite cerebral palsy, competed on his high school wrestling team and will soon be the subject of an ESPN E60 documentary. Andrew Kurka of Palmer, Alaska was a six-time state freestyle and Greco-Roman champion who suffered spinal cord damage from an ATV accident at age 13. Despite this setback, Kurka continued to wrestle and officiate after the injury. He’s since become a member of the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team, competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and this week, Kurka will be representing Team USA at the 2015 IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in British Columbia, Canada.

These examples of success are particularly important for disabled athletes, notes Kirk Bauer, Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA. Studies have shown that youth with disabilities have higher rates of obesity, lower fitness levels, are more sedentary, and tend to be more reclusive than their non-disabled peers. But involvement in sports enables children with disabilities to become more fit and active, provides a means of socialization and interaction with peers, and gives a sense of purpose. Bauer says involvement in sports also helps improve self-confidence, teaches the importance of setting and achieving goals, and provides a forum to learn to working together with others in team sports.

"It also teaches youth without disabilities to experience and appreciate the abilities of youth with disabilities in sports instead of focusing on the disability as a negative," says Bauer. "All of these are important skills to develop for success in life."

Nick Ackerman credits wrestling for teaching him those key life lessons. Ackerman lost the lower half of his legs at 18 months due to bacterial meningitis. Nevertheless, hewent on to have an incredible wrestling career. In 2001, he won the NCAA 174 pound championship for Division III Simpson College andwas named co-winner of that year’s Hodge Trophy—the Heisman Trophy of wrestling—along with wrestling legend Cael Sanderson of Iowa State University.

After graduating, Ackerman went on to medical school and is now a certified prosthetist for American Prosthetics and Orthotics in Davenport, Iowa. He says wrestling made him realize that he is responsible and accountable for his successes—and failures—in life.

"I can and will give credit to wrestling for my grit," says Ackerman. "Putting the work in day-in and day-out for the love of the sport and, now, for my career is what drives me. The accomplishments or accolades are just a result of busting your butt."

Ackerman says while he may have the label of disabled, it doesn't define who he is or his personality. He says others who face physical and mental challenges can learn to appreciate that fact by competing in sports like wrestling.

Maynard agrees. “Wrestling is a sport of no excuses,” he says, looking back on his career. “Hopefully, teammates, fans, and coaches saw mehaving fun doing what I loved. Not having legs was a very small part of that picture."