Friday, February 20, 2009

High school wrestling team welcomes teammate with Down syndrome

From the Las Vegas Sun:

Billy Wolfbrandt (pictured) can't stop smiling as he goes through wrestling practice with the rest of his Faith Lutheran Jr/Sr High School teammates.

It doesn't matter if he is conditioning, stretching or learning new moves, if he makes a mistake, his teammates tell him. If Wolfbrandt, an eighth grader with special needs, requires more time to learn moves, the coaches work with him. When he scores points, cheers and high fives are aplenty.

Wolfbrandt is arguably the most-liked person in the wrestling room. He is inspired by the competition but likely not as much as those around Wolfbrandt are inspired by him. Neither Wolfbrandt nor Faith Lutheran will allow his Down syndrome stop him from pursuing his passion for sports, particularly wrestling.

"It's been a thrill seeing him wrestle," Wolfbrandt's father, Lew Wolfbrandt said. "Everyone has been so accepting of him and he's just had a blast doing it. Part of what works with him is he feeds off the hard action of wrestling. The soft-touch and delicate sports doesn't do with him."

Billy Wolfbrandt is one of four students at Faith Lutheran Jr/Sr High School's middle school involved in the Mark 10:14 Program, which includes special needs students in regular classroom environments and in extracurricular activities.

Other students in the program have participated in the school's art club, computer club, choir, and basketball and track teams. Billy Wolfbrandt decided to play football and wrestle.

"He's always liked sports," Lew Wolfbrandt said. "He likes watching it on TV. He's a hard one to sit and watch a football game with because he's yelling at the TV the whole time."

As a seventh grader, Billy Wolfbrandt played flag football and wrestled. This fall, he played on the Crusaders' eighth-grade tackle football team, seeing game time as a defensive tackle and on special teams.

Though he was somewhat uncomfortable at the beginning, Billy Wolfbrandt grew accustomed to being knocked down and wearing heavy pads. Teammates would make a habit of forming a circle around him and cheering.

But he has made his biggest strides in wrestling, his father said.

Last season, Lew Wolfbrandt said, Faith Lutheran wrestling coaches would inform opposing teams of his son's condition. His opponents would compete at half speed, allowing him the opportunity to execute moves he had learned.

But this year, Wolfbrandt has advanced enough that opponents wrestle him the same as any other match.

Faith Lutheran coach David Keavin still periodically teaches Woflbrandt moves at a slower pace than the rest of the team, but the coach said Wolfbrandt has improved "three fold" from a year ago.

"Last year, he was new to it and didn't know how to control himself in the wrestling room, but he's gotten a lot better," Keavin said. "He's got the fundamentals down now. It's easier trying to teach him a move when I say certain wrestling terms. Now he understands them and he'll do them right away."

Keavin said Billy Wolfbrandt, who wrestles at 140 pounds, is one of the strongest wrestlers Faith Lutheran's team has and opponents struggle to take him down. The coach hopes he will continue to wrestle at the high school level.

"I hope to see him there," Keavin said. "I've talked to the (high school) varsity coach. He's glad to have Billy when he gets to the high school level. They'll get him matches just like I do, and he should have the same fun he has up there as he does with us."

Lee Segalla, who is in charge of the Mark 10:14 Program, said Billy Wolfbrandt has continued to progress since joining the program, adding participating in athletics in a big reason for the success.

Before he joined the Mark 10:14 Progam, "he didn't know many kids or know much about school, but now he knows almost everyone by name and he does very good in class," said Chase Povlov, one of Wolfbrandt's classmates. "It's good he's trying to do what everyone else is doing, and I think it's really nice he's on the wrestling team."

Lew Wolfbrandt said one of the biggest rewards about his son's participation in sports is watching how much teammates, coaches, opponents and fans have welcomed his son.

"He hasn't won a match, but if you ask him, he's won every one of them," Lew Wolfbrandt said. "Last week, he scored a bunch of points and at the end of the match the whole crowd cheered because when he gets up — win, lose or draw — he puts his hands in the air with a big grin and was happy he was able to compete."