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Tunnel Vision: Get to Know Maximillian Leete

American University's Maximillian Leete (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

If you have ever seen American University's Maximillian Leete wrestle, you may notice his matches are a little unique. You may notice his style is very "in your face" while grabbing wrists and trying to maintain hand control the entire time while in the neutral position. Then suddenly the opponent breaks Max's grip, freeing his arms. They separate right in the middle of the mat, and the whistle blows. The ref re-positions them in the middle. They both slightly grasp each other's wrist/hand area before the whistle blows to restart them.

This is one example of how the sport of wrestling has implemented a rule to allow athletes with certain disabilities (in this case, blindness) to compete, and succeed, in the sport. This reset in position is clearly stated in the handbook. According to the NCAA rule book, "…each wrestler shall have the fingers on one hand over and the fingers of the other hand under the opponent's fingers. Fingers shall not extend to the palms." Basically, the wrestlers must remain in constant contact with at least one hand without ever breaking apart once the whistle blows.

To get some more clarification on the rule, I spoke with NCAA Division 1 referee, Scott Bricker. Fortunately, he has refereed Max in the past, among other EIWA matches. He explained that before the individual match, he flips his disc. Whichever color earns choice, that wrestler gets to choose if they want to start with their right hand on top, or right hand underneath their opponent's. The position was explained to me by Scott, "if your right hand is on top of your opponent's, your left hand will be on the bottom of theirs, and vice versa." To better visualize for me, I imagine the over-under position, but with hands (one is over, the other is under). Once contact is broken, the wrestlers restart. Every restart, the wrestlers must reverse positions with their opponent's hands, in the scenario described above.

Because of Max's official diagnosis, his opponents must follow these sets of rules. Max stated his diagnosis is "Degenerative Myopia." Myopia, as some of you may know, is nearsightedness. Since his case is more severe than most, he is considered legally blind by today's standards. Degenerative, unfortunately, means that his case is getting worse as time passes. This condition is one you are born with and is also genetic on his mother's side. Max explained he has a cousin with the same condition, who is, interestingly, a D1 soccer prospect - as a goalie. Not kidding. The family's athletic abilities are impressive.

Maximillian Leete was a three-sport varsity athlete in all four years of high school. He understands the humor when he told me he was the tennis captain his senior year. His exact words after telling me this were "which is kind of funny." He was also one of the state's best field goal kickers. He was so talented, in fact, he was looking to kick for the football team and wrestle in college. He had a few options to do so but chose to wrestle at American. American University does not have a varsity football team, so his kicking days may be over. It is great to see his sense of humor about it. When he described his vision to me, "what I see is mostly shapes and colors, and shadowy figures." As an example, it starts every morning when he wakes up. If his glasses are not right by his nightstand, it can be a real struggle to find them. This is just one of the few issues he deals with on a daily basis due to his vision. It's certainly one of those things we all take for granted.

It was not until after his freshman year in high school that Maximillian even realized his diagnosis allowed him to "level the playing field" against his opponents, thanks to another EIWA assistant coach. Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov, the current assistant coach at Harvard University, helped Maximillian realize his full potential in the sport of wrestling. Leete's family is from the greater Boston area. Coach "Muz" runs a wrestling club, where Max has wrestled since he started at a young age.

Coincidentally, Muzaffar is an American University alum, where he was a two-time EIWA champion, one-time NCAA All-American and represented Uzbekistan at the Senior level. After discussions with the family, they all came to an agreement that he should start utilizing this specialized rule set, mostly as a form of safety for Max. As a former wrestler at this level, I can undoubtedly see why this is a danger for both wrestlers. With the emphasis on head injuries within the last decade, this is a no-brainer. I'm sure I am in the majority when I say, safety is the top priority.

As we discussed this topic for a few minutes, I finally summed up the audacity to ask (playing devil's advocate, of course) if he felt that forcing opponents to wrestle his style was an advantage to him. For the record, I gulped as I asked this hard-hitting question - not knowing how he'd handle it. He was a good sport and understood my point of view, while somewhat agreeing with me. "Some wrestlers, especially at the 125lb weight class, do not like to hand fight," he said. It's pretty evident that the lighter the weight class, the less hand fighting you see. He continued, "I've adapted to wrestle by feel. I am more comfortable in the upper body." You do not see many opponents who are able to sustain the constant pace and pressure Maximillian engulfs them in.

American University's Maximillian Leete (photo courtesy of Jay Mutchnik)

Unfortunately, Max did have to deal with negativity in high school every now and then. The accusations of him faking his disability (even with legal paperwork signed by doctors), and claiming this rule was "unfair" to the opponent would occur from unruly parents - not shocking right? He did not let it rattle him, as he kept wrestling unphased when it would happen. On a positive note, the outrageous claims have been pretty much non-existent at the college level. "Everyone is more understanding of the situation, and of the sport in general," he said. "From the whistle, it's all about the hand fight." I have to agree with him; it's still wrestling. After our conversation, I've concluded that, yes, this rule may be a slight advantage to him and his style - but, when compared to his opponent's ability to see, his advantage is far outweighed by the advantage of having full eyesight.

When it comes to coaching Max, you also need to adapt your way of doing things. Max, for obvious reasons, cannot sit and watch coaches explain technique at practice. They must physically do the move on Max. "I just have to be honest with them when I need to throw on my glasses and physically feel the move in order to learn it." When it comes to coaching during a match, Max has special nonverbal cues he orchestrates with his leaders in the corner. Since he cannot see the scoreboard, his coaches need to have excellent communication with him. A wrist tap to the corner is him asking for the time left in the period. A head tap is asking for the score and time. Maximillian praised Coach Joey Dance, who was a 2x All-American at Virginia Tech as a 125lb wrestler. The way Coach Dance, and the rest of the staff, have adapted to helping Max meet his needs is what was most impressive to him.

With only Coach Dance's fourth year of coaching in the books (his first at American), this is a unique circumstance to find yourself in as such a young coach at this level. Being able to adapt to something so unique, while still finding your feet in the coaching aspect is something worth noting. Coach Dance agreed that he has been "challenged to adapt" as well. It's a learning process for him as much as it is for Maximillian. Dance returned the praise, stating that Leete "always asks the right questions, and has put in countless hours on the mat to add to his technique." Coach Dance explained how the wrestler is constantly reaching out for individual work over the summer, which is evident by his fourth-place finish in freestyle at the U20 U.S. Championships during the early summer. The confidence within Max, himself, is growing according to Coach Joey Dance. Dance told me, "One of my favorite things about Max is that he always stays true to himself, no matter the situation."

This year's team and individual goals for Maximillian Leete prove his confidence may be higher than it's ever been. "There's no more excuses this year. No more 'first-season with a new staff' excuses. No more 'all freshman line-up' excuses. We had our growing year. It's time to go." He believes the Eagles of American University can be a .500 team this year. After winning only one dual meet last season, there is room to improve. Individually, he sees himself as an EIWA finalist and finding himself on the podium at NCAAs. "These are the goals I laid out with my coaches. Now, it's time to get myself in the best physical and mental shape to do that. I'm so excited for pre-season to begin."

When Maximillian is not on the mat, you can find him working towards his goal of becoming a registered yoga instructor. Personally, I'm a huge yoga fan for athletes - especially when it comes to wrestlers. The stretching helps with flexibility and, maybe the most underrated aspect, it helps with the mind helping visualize goals and assist with "shutting off outside noise" as he poetically describes. It is great for non-athletic goals too. He remembers his first hot yoga experience as "competitive against yourself" as he drew parallels to the sport of wrestling, he continued "…at the end of the day, that's all wrestling is." I concur. The training process in this sport is, largely, being better than you were yesterday. You need to have a competitive nature. Well put, by the astute young man!

Leete's hard work translates to the classroom as well. He was one of five American University wrestlers named to the NWCA D1 Scholar All-American Team. Sidenote, the team's combined GPA last season was 3.419, good enough for 15th best in the nation. His leadership will be expected next season to help lead the team down the right path to success. He is a pre-justice and law major, with a minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies. During his recruiting process, his main focus was academics, while wrestling was secondary. He mentioned looking at other academically prestigious universities like Brown and The University of Virginia. When asked why he chose American, he said the internships, and overall job opportunities in the nation's capital are unmatched. There are very few, if any, better cities to study pre-law as a college undergrad.

In the future, he plans to attend law school, furthering his education. "I'm very passionate about pursuing being a lawyer. There are always guest speakers in our classes that give honest opinions and reviews of the occupation from a day-to-day perspective." He mentioned former and current district attorneys, and public defenders, among others in similar careers, that have been speakers. For Max, his current focus is on family law or divorce law, connecting portions of his minor studies into his law career. "Anything with people and relationships and how we interact with each other," he explained was his passion. He would like to write, research, and publish papers on this exact topic. In a world where a majority of people (especially of college-age) interact via social media in short-form exchanges, it is refreshing to see someone like Maximillian interested in breaking that mold to understand it better. It takes one wrestler like Maximillian Leete to better your wrestling team. More importantly, it takes one person like Maximillian Leete to make the world a better place.

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