InterMat Rewind: Opportunity For All

Mark Palmer

8/23/2011
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Sure, amateur wrestling is tough, demanding ... yet it's one of the most democratic of all sports in the U.S. You don't need to be a certain height or weight or have a specialized body-build to compete; in fact, it's one sport that's open to individuals of all sizes and weights, where athletes compete only against individuals of similar size.

In an era where public officials and school administrators are preaching inclusiveness and seeking to increase opportunities for those who have often found themselves on the sidelines, wrestling is one activity that is available to anyone. In fact, you can be "differently able" -- blind, deaf, missing limbs, learning disabled, or a survivor of a near-fatal accident -- and not only succeed, but become a champion.

Here are some prime examples of individuals who might be labeled "handicapped" by some, yet overcame physical challenges to become winners on the mat, and beyond.

Anthony Robles: Unstoppable NCAA champ

Anthony Marc Robles is one college wrestler that folks who don't know a takedown from a touchdown might recognize. After all, this summer he was a featured guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Robles was honored on the 2011 ESPY Awards broadcast with not one but two awards: The Jimmy V Award for Perseverance -- named for the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, and given to a "member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through physical perseverance and determination," according to ESPN -- and Best Male Athlete with a Disability.

All these honors topped off an incredible senior season for the Arizona State 125-pounder. Robles had a perfect 36-0 record, won the Pac-10 conference championship, then defeated the defending national champ, Matt McDonough of the University of Iowa, in the finals, 7-1, to win the title at 125 at the 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Philadelphia. He was also named Outstanding Wrestler at the nationals.

Anthony Robles (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
Robles did all this, despite having been born without his right leg.

Growing up in Mesa, Arizona, Robles was first introduced to wrestling in ninth grade. Despite getting off to a rocky start -- with more losses than wins his first year -- Robles compiled a 129-15 overall record at Mesa High School, winning two Arizona state titles.

As Robles said, "I didn't get into the sport for the attention. I wrestle because I love wrestling."

"Wrestling helped me to mature. I got so much self-confidence from the sport," said Robles, a three-time NCAA All-American. "I love the sport. But from here on out my wrestling competition days are over, and I'll be focusing on my next goal, which is to be a motivational speaker. I'll be around wrestling all my life. I love it so much."

The 22-year-old Robles was even more philosophical when presented with his Jimmy V award at the ESPYs: "Every soul who comes to Earth with a leg or two at birth must wrestle his opponents knowing it's not what is, it's what can be that measures worth. Make it hard, just make it possible, and through pain I'll not complain. My spirit is unconquerable. Fearless, I will face each foe, for I know I am capable. I don't care what's probable, through blood, sweat and tears, I am unstoppable."

Nick Ackerman: Double-leg amputee, Div. III champ

Ten years ago, Nick Ackerman made headlines -- and was featured on NBC's Today show -- for winning the 174-pound title at the 2001 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships, earning Outstanding Wrestler honors at the Nationals, and being named co-winner (along with Iowa State's Cael Sanderson) of the Hodge Trophy, presented to the best college wrestler in the nation.

Ackerman, who grew up in Colfax, Iowa, achieved greatness on the wrestling mat, despite having both his legs amputated below the knee at 18 months to prevent the spread of bacterial meningitis. (Unlike Robles, who ditched his prosthetic leg as a youngster and used crutches to get around, Ackerman wears his everywhere, except when he wrestled.)

Nick Ackerman (Photo/WIN Magazine)
A senior at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, Ackerman won the NCAA title with a 13-11 victory over defending champ Nick Slack of Augsburg who was on a 69-match winning streak. After the win, Ackerman was honored with a standing ovation that lasted at least two minutes. Yet, after claiming the title and OW honors, Ackerman told reporters, "I didn't want to be known as the best wrestler without legs. I just wanted to be the best wrestler."

Ackerman's national collegiate championship was acknowledged by the NCAA in its celebration of its 100th birthday as one of the top 25 "defining moments" in college sports, right up there with Jesse Owens' four world records in 1935, tennis great Arthur Ashe's ground-breaking wins in 1965, the legendary 1979 national basketball title game featuring Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, and Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary" pass in 1984.

In an ESPN documentary saluting the NCAA's 25 greatest moments, the sports network said of Nick Ackerman's accomplishment, "In a life defined by overcoming obstacles ... the wrestler that would not be called disabled was instead called a national champion."

Ackerman had been involved in various sports as a kid, including baseball, soccer, and football, but discovered wrestling as a third-grader. One-by-one, he winnowed down his roster of sports activities until focusing all his energy on the mat sport. He earned a place on the Colfax-Mingo High School varsity team, compiling a 71-38 record. He capped a 32-8 senior season by placing sixth in the 152-pound weight class in the Iowa state tournament, one of the toughest in the nation.

As a wrestler at Simpson College, Ackerman had a couple truly memorable moments prior to the 2001 NCAAs. As a sophomore, he was awarded the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's Medal of Courage, presented to an athlete who has overcome insurmountable challenges. In his junior year, he took on Cael Sanderson at the Simpson Duals. While the future Olympic gold medalist defeated the Simpson Storm matman by technical fall, Ackerman won the praise of Sanderson and his coach, Bobby Douglas, who said in an interview, "He is a remarkable individual, to be able to compete the way he has."

An avid outdoorsman who loves hunting and fishing, Nick Ackerman had planned a career as a park ranger. However, with all the publicity generated by winning the title, he started to hear from other amputees. One in particular -- a 27-year-old who had just lost a leg in a car accident -- was especially moving to Ackerman, who discovered he had an ability to answer questions and provide guidance to others who had lost limbs. That led him to serving other amputees, crafting prosthetics at American Prosthetics and Orthotics in Davenport, Iowa ... and, perhaps, just as important, providing counseling from a unique perspective of living that life.

A decade after first appearing on Today, Nick Ackerman was again profiled on the NBC morning show in May 2011. Talking to Evan Light, a youngster originally from India who lost his feet in an accident and now lives with his adopted family in Indiana, Ackerman -- now a 31-year-old husband and father himself -- said, "If I had an opportunity to have my legs, I wouldn't take it. I wouldn't! I like where I'm at."

The Today profile also pointed out that Nick Ackerman's grandfathers had lost their legs, in accidents, decades ago. As his mom Cindy said on the show, "Nicholas was put on this earth to live the life his grandfathers couldn't live."

Dustin Carter: Making state, without limbs

Dustin Carter made headlines three years ago for qualifying for the 2008 Ohio high school state wrestling championships. "Making state" is a tremendous honor for any high school wrestler and a point of pride for an athlete's family, school and community; for Carter, a 103-pounder from Hillsboro High School (about an hour east of Cincinnati), it was all the more newsworthy because he has no arms or legs.

More accurately, Carter's legs end at his hips; his right arm stops just past his elbow, while his left arm is even shorter. He lost the rest from amputations at age 5 because of meningococcemia, an acute bacterial infection of the bloodstream.

Dustin Carter (Photo/OhioVarsity.com)
Dustin Carter's quest for a state title got the attention of the mainstream media. He was subject of profiles by CBS News and The New York Times; the Cincinnati Enquirer -- a newspaper that traditionally offers minimal coverage of amateur wrestling -- featured lengthy articles and extensive photo-essays on his path to the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, site of the Ohio high school state tournament.

As CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman opened his piece on Carter, "This is not one of those typical stories about the sweet boy who overcame his disabilities. It's the story about an ornery brat, who did just the same."

To say Carter struggled in school would be an understatement. At one point he was earning straight Fs.

"I was a troublemaker. Me and dad used to fight a lot," Dustin Carter told CBS. "I was very disrespectful."

Then, in eighth grade, Carter told his parents he wanted to take up wrestling.

At first, he got thrown around -- a lot. However, with years of hard work in the Hillsboro wrestling room, things started to turn around. He became focused. Self-disciplined. With that, his performance on the mat -- and in the classroom -- went up.

As a senior, Dustin Carter compiled a 41-2 record. And, yes, by placing third in his region, he qualified to compete at the 2008 Ohio Division II Wrestling Championships. Despite "feeling small" in the Ohio State arena that seats up to 19,000, Carter won a match in triple overtime to make it to the 103-pound quarterfinals, where he was knocked into the consolation round. He just missed out on placing among the top eight in his weight class ... but, after his last match, earned an extended standing ovation from the crowd.

"His perseverance speaks for itself," Scott Goodpaster, Carter's trainer, told The New York Times. "He wants to win. He wakes up every day wanting to win. This is his passion, and he bleeds for it. He works so hard to get by in life."

"I don't look at myself as different," said Carter. "I wrestle like anybody else. I go to school like anybody else. I can live on my own like anybody else. I can do anything anybody else can do. I don't like people feeling sorry for me. Some people do."

Carter continued, "As soon as they hear my name, I want them to say, 'That's a sweet wrestler.' I'm doing this for me, but if there's people out there that use what I do as inspiration, I'm doing it for that, too. I just want to prove anything is possible."

Matt Hamill: Competing in silence on the mat, in the Octagon

Like Dustin Carter, Matt Hamill is another wrestler from southeast Ohio who overcame physical challenges to find success on the mat. Hamill's success in high school and college led him to the Octagon, as a competitor in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) ... despite being deaf.

Matt Hamill
Hamill was introduced to wrestling by his stepfather, who was coach at Loveland High School in suburban Cincinnati. Wrestling is a tough sport to learn, made all the more difficult when there are communication challenges to potentially hinder understanding.

"I learned through demonstrating and (having someone) show me pictures of how you wrestle," Hamill told ESPN RISE. "(I'd say), 'Oh, OK, I can do that one.' Then I just wrestled and learned the moves. Sometimes after wrestling practices, I worked by myself to learn my technique and my skills and movements."

Hamill overcame those challenges to place as high as third at the Ohio high school state tournament, and be featured in a Sports Illustrated for Kids collector card.

Hamill started his college career at Purdue University; after one season, he transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he really came into his own on the mat. While at RIT, Hamill earned three NCAA Division III wrestling titles -- 167-pound champ in 1997, 190 in 1998, and 197 in 1999. What's more, Hamill was named the USA Deaf Sports Federation Athlete of the Year for 1997, and, later, earned a place in the NCAA Division III Wrestling Hall of Fame.

After college, Hamill took his mat talent to international competition. Among his accomplishments: winning a silver medal in Greco-Roman, and a gold medal in freestyle at the 2001 Summer Deaflympics.

The Loveland, Ohio native gained entry into the world of mixed martial arts in a story that sounds straight out of Hollywood. Hamill was working as a bouncer at a restaurant in upstate New York when he was forced to eject some rowdy football players. As Hamill tells the story, "One of them tried to fight me off so I put him in a cobra choke and threw him out. Everybody was watching like they couldn't believe it." Then in that moment from a movie, a patron told Hamill he should get involved in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships). Hamill was one of 3,000 individuals to apply for UFC's The Ultimate Fighter 3 series ... and one of a dozen who made it onto the show, despite having only one MMA fight (a victory). With his tenacity on display on TUF, he made a favorable impression with the UFC and its fans, and his career in the Octagon was launched.

Stepping into the cage to fight would be daunting for anyone; being deaf presented Hamill with additional challenges. "I'm deaf, I can't hear the noise," Hamill said. "I can't hear the coach either; I have to use my own game plan. Sometimes people underestimate me because I can't hear, but they have no idea what I'm capable of. There are no distractions for me, nothing to get me nervous." However, Hamill went on to say that he could feel the vibration generated by the screaming, cheering fans.

In five years in the UFC, Hamill had 13 fights, and compiled a 9-4 record. In August 2011, Hamill announced his retirement, citing persistent injuries that made training -- and fighting -- even more difficult.

Hamill became a fan favorite for his never-stop-fighting style in the Octagon. Perhaps just as importantly, however, "The Hammer" helped shatter perceptions of what it takes to be successful in amateur wrestling and UFC. As Maggie Hendricks wrote in her Cagewriter column for Yahoo! Sports, "Despite not being able to hear his coaches' instructions during fights, he was still able to put together a respectable MMA career. He also changed attitudes by showing that a lack of hearing doesn't mean a lack of toughness or capability in the cage."

Even though he's no longer competing in the UFC, Matt Hamill will still be a force to be reckoned with. He will continue to run his Mohawk MMA training facility, and his story is the subject of an independent film titled Hamill with a planned release for fall 2011.

Robert Russell: Sightless ... peerless

By any measure, Robert W. Russell crafted a successful life. He wrestled at Yale. Earned scholarships to Oxford University. Became a college professor. Was honored by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Russell achieved greatness in wrestling and beyond, despite being blind.

Robert Russell
Born in Binghamton, N.Y. in 1924, Russell suffered an accident at age 5 that left him blind in one eye. Within a few years, Russell lost sight in both eyes.

Russell was introduced to wrestling in high school at the New York Institute for the Blind, where he graduated at age 16 in 1940. He attended Hamilton College for two years, then transferred to Yale University, where he competed on the varsity wrestling team. He earned his Bachelors at Yale in 1944, and his Masters in English the following year at the same school.

His academic achievements made it possible for Russell to attend famed Oxford University in England on scholarship. It was there he met his first wife, Elisabeth, who he married in 1951.

Russell returned to the U.S., launching his teaching career at tiny Shimer College in northwestern Illinois. In 1955, he came to Franklin & Marshall to accept a position in the English department, where he served until retirement in 1990.

According to his National Wrestling Hall of Fame biography, not long after arriving at the Lancaster, Pa.-based college, Russell sought out the wrestling room for some exercise. That's where he met coach Roy Phillips. The two of them began exercising together, using their mutual love of the sport of wrestling as their motivation. Russell quickly became an ardent fan of the F&M wrestling program, and one of its most active supporters. Here's how he described his passion for the sport: "In wrestling, I was in charge -- really in charge -- and it felt good. I felt somehow free, strong and free."

For all he did for wrestling at Franklin & Marshall, Robert Russell was presented with the Medal of Courage award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2000. Russell passed away in early 2011 at age 87.

Les Anderson: Polio couldn't keep him from wrestling

For more than 60 years, Leslie A. Anderson has had a life in wrestling ... first as a champion wrestler in high school and at Iowa State, then as a long-time assistant coach for the Cyclones, and, now, as an instructor at wrestling camps and on DVDs.

Hard to believe he was once told to give up wrestling because of polio.

Poliomyelitis is an acute viral infectious disease spread from person-to-person that causes inflammation of the spinal cord and brain. The disease sometimes causes paralysis in limbs and muscles used in breathing, which can cause death. Prior to the development of vaccines in the mid 1950s and early 60s, polio was a very common, greatly feared disease that paralyzed and killed thousands each year.

Les Anderson
In the early 1950s, Les Anderson was a successful wrestler in Clarion, Iowa when he was diagnosed with polio. He had compiled an impressive 63-1-1 overall record for head coach Dale Brand, winning the 103-pound title at the 1954 Iowa high school state championships, and 119-pound runner-up at state the following year.

Anderson's doctors advised him to give up wrestling. However, Les and his parents had other ideas as he continued his academic and mat career at Iowa State, wrestling for head coach Harold Nichols. As a Cyclone, Anderson was a three-time NCAA All-American (1958-1960), winning the NCAA title at 130 pounds in 1958 and at 137 in 1960. He was also a two-time Big Eight conference champ.

After graduating from Iowa State in 1960, Les Anderson launched his long coaching career as head wrestling coach at Blue Earth High School. In four seasons with Anderson at the helm, Blue Earth always finished among the top ten high schools in Minnesota.

In 1964, Anderson returned to his alma mater to serve as assistant coach to Harold Nichols for a decade before becoming head coach at University of Washington until that program was eliminated. The Iowa native returned to Iowa State in 1977, where he continued to assist Nichols, then successor coach Jim Gibbons. During Anderson's time on the coaching staff, the Cyclones were five-time NCAA team titlewinners, placing second six times, and coming in third four times.

Anderson has been honored by a number of Halls of Fame, including the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1984, the Iowa High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1985, and, in 2004, the Iowa State Athletic Hall of Fame, and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Anderson continues to be involved in amateur wrestling. In addition to participating in wrestling camps and producing instructional materials, in 2010 the former Cyclone wrestler/coach launched TheWrestlingSite.com which provides online training videos as well as recruitment tools that help high school wrestlers "get noticed" by college coaches.

Jack VanBebber: From crushing injury, Olympic gold

Jack VanBebber survived a near-fatal accident as a child ... yet went on to achieve the highest levels of success in wrestling at the top college program of the era, then win an Olympic gold medal.

VanBebber was born on a farm outside Perry, Okla. -- the birthplace of another amateur wrestling great, Dan Hodge -- in 1907. When he was six years old, VanBebber fell off a farm wagon and was run over by one of the wheels. The metal rim pushed his breastbone back towards his spine. The family doctor was concerned about damage to the heart and lungs, and what kind of life Jack would lead if he were to survive, saying he might be a cripple for life.

Jack VanBebber
Recovery took seven years, with repeated health setbacks that caused Jack VanBebber to miss nearly two full years of school. However, he made it to eighth grade, where an incident introduced him to wrestling.

In junior high, VanBebber got into a fight on the playground. The wrestling coach, Frank Briscoe, made the two combatants put on boxing gloves to settle things under supervision. The 5'7", 107-pound VanBebber got knocked out ... but the coach saw something in the youngster. Briscoe encouraged VanBebber to build up his strength and stamina with a walking and exercise program. VanBebber set his sights on making the high school wrestling team ... earning a spot on the practice squad his freshman and sophomore years. By junior year, he made the varsity team at Perry High School, where, in his two seasons, he had a perfect record, and Oklahoma state titles.

After graduating from Perry in 1927, VanBebber enrolled at Oklahoma State (then called Oklahoma A&M) where he wrestled for legendary coach Ed Gallagher. VanBebber was at the Stillwater school during the depths of the Great Depression; back then, there were no full-ride scholarships for wrestlers, nor was there financial aid. In addition to classes and wrestling, VanBebber held down three jobs at once, including working nights at a funeral home.

Jack VanBebber was an integral ingredient to the success of Oklahoma State wrestling during its time as the No. 1 collegiate mat program in the nation. In his three years as the starter at 165 pounds, VanBebber never lost a match, winning NCAA titles in 1929-1931 ... and becoming only the second three-time NCAA champ. What's more, VanBebber claimed three National AAU mat titles.

In 1932, VanBebber set his sights on wrestling at the Olympics, held that year in Los Angeles. The former Cowboy overcame some incredible obstacles at the 1932 Games -- getting slugged by a Canadian opponent, then nearly missing the gold-medal match because of a time change. VanBebber made it to the arena in the nick of time, then upset mat veteran Eino Leino of Finland -- owner of a bronze, silver and gold medal from the three previous Olympics -- to bring home the gold medal in freestyle.

After the Olympics, Jack VanBebber became an instructor and wrestling coach at Texas Tech. A couple years later, he was hired by Phillips Petroleum, where he met his wife Julia (who wrote a book about him titled A Distant Flame. Other than time in the Army during World War II, VanBebber worked at Phillips until his retirement in 1972. Despite his near-fatal accident as a six-year-old, VanBebber had a long and healthy life. He passed away in 1986 at age 79.

Jack VanBebber was welcomed as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in its inaugural year, 1976.

Rulon Gardner: Despite learning disability, tamed the Siberian Tiger

More than a decade after winning an Olympic gold medal, Rulon Gardner is still one of the most recognized, respected and beloved individuals in amateur wrestling. The Wyoming dairy farmer who defeated the unbeatable Alexander Karelin of Russia -- known as the Siberian Tiger -- at the 2000 Sydney Olympics has overcome incredible obstacles in his life, including near-death experiences involving motorcycles and snowmobiles.

Rulon Gardner
Yet many of the most knowledgeable wrestling fans may not realize that Gardner has battled -- and beat -- an opponent his entire life: a learning disability.

Here's how Gardner shared his story in his 2005 book Never Stop Pushing:

When I started kindergarten ... almost immediately I was diagnosed with a learning disability and targeted for special education ...

I wasn't at the same level as kids my age. The other students always seemed smarter, faster. Everyone was a better reader than I was. I couldn't spell simple words, couldn't keep up in most of the learning exercises. I had a hard time absorbing and applying what the teachers were telling us.

... The other kids sensed I wasn't able to keep up. Some wanted to help me; others would ignore me, making me feel invisible. Some would laugh at me.


In high school, Rulon Gardner excelled in sports, earning letters in wrestling, football, and track and field. He won the heavyweight title at the Wyoming state wrestling championships in 1989. However, the classroom was loaded with even tougher challenges. Throughout high school, Gardner's reading level was that of a fifth-grader. Guidance counselors told him he'd never finish college.

But he did ... starting first at Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho), then transferring to the University of Nebraska, where, with hard work and tutoring, he graduated with a degree in physical education at age 24. During that time, Gardner wrestled for the Cornhuskers, where he earned All-American honors by placing fourth in the heavyweight bracket at the 1993 NCAAs.

Gardner was a two-time Olympian, earning a bronze medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2004 Athens Olympics. However, his performance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was the stuff of legend. In the gold-medal match, the then-30-year-old Gardner faced the fearsome Karelin, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who had not lost a match in thirteen years, and had not been scored on in six years. Karelin was known as the Siberian Tiger for his fierce, take-no-prisoners wrestling style ... and The Experiment for his carved-from-granite musculature. However, Gardner found a way to wear down the Tiger, winning the gold medal. Among the other honors Gardner earned in 2001: the James Sullivan Award for amateur athlete of the year, the ESPY for U.S. Olympic male athlete of the year, and the Jesse Owens Award. In 2010, Gardner was welcomed as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

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