Saturday, February 20, 2010

Amputee HS wrestler in Iowa says he keeps his focus on good grades and wrestling

From Sean Keeler's column in the Des Moines Register:

Welcome to the party, The Greatest Show on Foam.

Welcome to the roar, the chaos, the thump-thump-thumping of palms on vinyl, the elation, the blood, the sweat and the tears.

The circus that is the 2010 state wrestling tournament begins today at Wells Fargo Arena, loud and brash as ever.

Welcome to history. Legacies. This is the 90th Iowa high school wrestling meet, the 85th under the Iowa High School Athletic Association. It's Don Bosco of Gilbertville going for five consecutive team titles and Nick Moore's quest for four. It's three classes; 14 weights; 336 medals waiting to be awarded; 672 participants; and thousands shredding their lungs.

But it's more than numbers, isn't it? It's about people.

It's about Preston Hoebelheinrich (pictured), who is making his state debut in Class 2-A at 119 pounds. He's also a double-amputee and driven like an '82 Dodge Rampage.

"Wrestling is everything to me," says Hoebelheinrich, 16, a sophomore from Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley High School. "Wrestling and grades."

When he's not studying, he's lifting weights or trying new moves on little brother Austin. During preseason drills, Hoebelheinrich trained so intensely that he accidentally re-opened a surgical scar at the bottom of his right leg.

"If I can give the biggest compliment, it's that while he gets a lot of attention, he doesn't seek it out," Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley coach Stan De Zeeuw says of Hoebelheinrich, who had both lower legs removed at age 6 because of bacterial spiral meningitis.

"As a sophomore, they voted him captain," he says. "If they didn't vote for him, I would have picked him."

Each wrestler's road to state is marked with twists and turns. For Hoebelheinrich, there was first grade, when he took up wrestling at the urging of his stepfather, and found himself hooked.

"It's not like — and I'm not trying to put anything down — but basketball players, you just go for practice and afterward, you go and pig out and do whatever," says Hoebelheinrich, who has a 28-11 record.

"In wrestling, you have to go to practice. It's like an all-day thing. You have to think about it all the time. I love the dedication."

Rewind to last weekend, and the quadruple-overtime victory in the district championship against Hunter Langley of Sergeant Bluff-Luton that sent him here.

Which, given the poster that hangs in Hoebelheinrich's room, is only appropriate. It reads, "With Courage, Anything Is Possible," and it's lined with photos of Nick Ackerman of Colfax-Mingo High School, the former NCAA wrestling champion at Simpson College and a double-amputee himself. His mantra and his hero.

The two met for the first time last summer in Indianola, before one of Simpson's wrestling camps, a session arranged by Hoebelheinrich's coaches and parents.

"I could see a lot of myself in him," says Ackerman, who works at a Davenport prosthetics company. "The way he moved, the way he takes shots, the way he rides, and was able to give him tips on what worked well for me."

Worked well for Hoebelheinrich, too. Heck, it still does.

"It's kind of hard to wrestle him, because I can never get down far enough to get a takedown," says Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley freshman Hunter Berkenpas, one of Hoebelheinrich's best friends on the team.

"And he's really strong. I can never get him down," he says.

Although, a few things do bug him. De Zeeuw recalled one practice, a few months ago, when Hoebelheinrich walked in with a sad face. The coach asked how the day's big test had gone.

Hoebelheinrich replied, "I just flunked it."

De Zeeuw said, "Holy cow. What percent did you get?"

Hoebelheinrich said, "I got an 87."

De Zeeuw blinked. "That's not flunking."

Hoebelheinrich looked at him. "For me, it is."

Welcome to perfection. Ladies and gentlemen, clear the mats.