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|Wrestler with cerebral palsy defies odds, wrestles at 2013 Junior Nationals|
By Bryan Baumgartner USA Wrestling
Lucas Vialpando after wrestling in a high school junior varsity tournament.
FARGO, N.D. – The day before the 2013 Junior Freestyle National Championships kicked off in Fargo, N.D., members of Colorado’s national team ran through one final workout in preparation to take on the best high school wrestlers in the country.
After spending time drilling with partners, the wrestlers jogged to the other side of the gym to run sprints while Lucas Vialpando stayed behind to continue drilling from his knees with one of his coaches.
Lucas, 18, has overcome incredible odds to wrestle at one of the largest, most prestigious tournaments in the nation as he was born with cerebral palsy and cannot stand without using crutches.
“Doing the toughest sport alone is one thing, but coming to one of the biggest tournaments in the world is something else,” Lucas said. “I’ve been wrestling for six years and I didn’t want to come out here to just get the experience but to really show people that I can compete at a national level.”
Lucas weighed less than two pounds when he was born three months premature and died twice within the first 24 hours of his life. Lucas’s parents were told that their son would not live past the age of three if he didn’t get an emergency heart transplant.
“There’s a lot of my childhood that I don’t remember, and that I’ve forgot,” Lucas said. “Stuff like that is hard to deal with. I’m glad I forgot about it, but I’ve had a very tough childhood.”
As a boy who could not enjoy many of the common pleasures of life growing up, Lucas finds solace in wrestling.
“There were complications with my birth and it’s a tough thing to deal with day by day,” Lucas said. “As I was growing up, I wanted to do so many things that I couldn’t do. To come to tournaments like this and to compete is an amazing feeling.”
Wrestling has always been a family affair for the Vialpandos. Lucas’s father Russ wrestled at Rocky Ford High School in Colorado while his older brother Horatio qualified for the Colorado State Championships as a high school senior.
“I remember going to watch him [Horatio] once, and I remember going home and telling my dad that I wanted to do it,” Lucas said. “He wouldn’t let me do it but I kept asking him and asking him and telling him I could do it but he just kept telling me no.”
Russ was absolutely terrified when his son first asked him for permission to wrestle.
“I knew there would be kids that would try and take advantage of his situation and try to hurt him,” Russ said. “After about three months I agreed to let him wrestle because I knew the coach and he said he would make sure no one took advantage of Lucas.”
With his father’s permission, Lucas signed up to wrestle when he was in seventh grade at Sky Vista Middle School.
“My first day of practice in seventh grade was kind of intimidating at first because I didn’t know what to do,” Lucas said. “When you step out on that mat for the first time at practice it’s pretty tough.”
Lucas was calmed when he saw that a familiar face was his middle school coach.
“Jeff Buck was the coach of my middle school program and was also my brother’s old high school coach,” Lucas said. “He was a really great coach and always willing to work with me.”
Though Lucas was physically at a disadvantage, his work ethic quickly earned him respect from his middle school coaches and peers.
“As time went by I started to get noticed by everyone in that practice room and before I knew it there were coaches getting on their knees and working with me,” Lucas said. “I remember the first dual that year and I remember stepping out there and the whistle blowing. It was a tough match and my dad was there. I remember looking over at him after the match and he was crying. It was a great feeling.”
However, his work ethic did not lead to initial success on the mat. Lucas did not win a match in his three years competing in middle school. As frustrating as it was not winning, Lucas always kept in mind the advice his father gave him early on in his wrestling career.
“A win’s a win, but I remember the first thing my dad told me after a freestyle tournament. He said that no matter if I won or I lost that it was always a win in itself,” Lucas said. “A lot of kids think they’re great based off their records, based off how big they are or how much weight they cut. Until you step out there and wrestle a kid like me, you can’t say you’re the best. I’m not saying I’m the best, but once you wrestle me for six minutes you’ll have had one hell of a fight.”
Since Lucas cannot stand without his crutches he is forced to wrestle on his knees. This makes it incredibly difficult for him because many of the most common moves in wrestling occur when both wrestlers are standing. This proved to be especially difficult for Lucas when he competed in the 2013 Junior Greco-Roman National Championships in Fargo. He was eliminated from the tournament after losing his first two matches.
“If you’re in my case and the kid doesn’t start on his knees for Greco-Roman it’s particularly more complicated,” Lucas said. “If you’re an average, able bodied wrestler you have such a huge leverage advantage on me. If a kid stands up against me in Greco-Roman I try to isolate a wrist or an arm or get to the waist and keep going with him.”
Because of his non-traditional style, many of Lucas’s competitors do not know how to wrestle him.
“Sometimes they don’t even know what they got themselves in to,” Lucas said. “The first kid I wrestled for Greco didn’t know what to do. I remember looking up at him and he had no clue what to do.”
Throughout his middle school career, Lucas often found it difficult to find kids that would want to work out with him because of the unique style he was forced to wrestle with.
“There were some kids that didn’t want to train with me but I didn’t really care,” Lucas said. “If they didn’t want to train with me that was on them and I wasn’t going to sit in the corner and cry about it, I just got over it.”
High School was where Lucas really started seeing improvement in his wrestling. Lucas wrestled his freshman, sophomore and senior years for Eaglecrest High School and was forced to sit out his junior year due to a series of medical treatments. It was his freshman year when he finally had a breakthrough on the mat.
“I won my first match my freshman year. It was a pretty close match and I actually thought I was down until the whistle blew and the ref raised my arm,” Lucas said. “I looked in my corner and my brother and dad were there and it was an awesome feeling.”
It was a special moment for Russ who finally saw his son win after losing every match he had wrestled to that point.
“It was a wonderful, touching moment for me,” Russ said. “I was so happy to see him smile.”
During his senior year of high school, Lucas was invited to practice with the Chapparal Greco-Roman and freestyle club and train with coach Rod Padilla.
“I went to my first practice this year at my old high school and I realized it just wasn’t working,” Lucas said. “I came home and asked my dad if he would take me to Coach Padilla. I remember going in on the first day and it was a tough practice at first because I didn’t know who to work out with. The next couple weeks Coach Padilla really put in the time to coach me where other coaches never put in the time to.”
Lucas had previously known Coach Padilla and admired his sincerity and reputation as a coach.
“I remember when I started wrestling freestyle in high school seeing him all the time and thinking that he looked familiar,” Lucas said. “He was always in my corner and always telling me good job after my matches and that he was proud of me. Finally, he introduced himself to me and then it clicked in my head that he had been the referee in most of my middle school matches.”
Lucas quickly caught the eye of many people when he entered wrestling tournaments during the season.
“I remember going to a tournament in Santa Fe, New Mexico and I wrestled a guy who was an All American and National Champion,” Lucas said. “There were like 15-20 people standing by the mat and there was a standing ovation for me when I got off the mat after I lost. There were guys from the New Mexico National Guard coming up to me and shaking my hand. Stuff like that makes it that much more special for me.”
It was often difficult for Lucas because he did not win a lot of matches but one highlight of Lucas’s wrestling career came in his final high school tournament.
“I was at the junior varsity state tournament and after my last match the announcer came over and told me that they had awarded me the outstanding wrestler award and the whole gym just erupted,” Lucas said. “I remember going over to my dad and I hugged him and it was such an amazing feeling.”
Watching Lucas grow into a wrestler has been special to Russ and he has appreciated the way the wrestling community has treated his son.
“To see him partake in a sport where he didn’t have to have any special accommodations made for him has been incredible,” Russ said. “He’s never received any kind of special treatment and it has been all him out there on the mat.”
Wrestling has consistently served as a way for Lucas to escape all the troubles that he has endured growing up. Another hardship Lucas has endured came when his mother, Angaelle committed suicide in 1999 when he was three years old.
“I just remember coming home one day and my mom didn’t come home,” Lucas said. “That came out of nowhere. I think about it for the first five seconds of every day and then just have to put it in the back of my mind because that’s all I can do anymore. I didn’t know what happened for a long time, my dad just got really good at hiding it.”
It is one of the few memories Lucas has from his early childhood due to medical complications from his birth. The wrestling mat has always been a place where Lucas could get away from all the problems he has faced growing up and just focus on improving at the sport he loves.
“It’s really the one thing that makes me forget about my daily problems and what I’ve been through,” Lucas said. “I wake up for the day of a tournament and check my weight just like any of the other wrestlers, pop my headphones in and get ready for my matches.”
So Lucas was especially upset when in February the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that wrestling would not be included in the program for the 2020 Olympic Summer Games.
“As a wrestler I was pretty mad about it,” Lucas said. “But there were people telling me that I didn’t have to worry about it because there’s no way I would be in the Olympics. If they drop our sport, there are so many dreams that are going to be crushed including mine.”
Lucas was confused by the IOC’s decision because he has seen firsthand how all inclusive of a sport wrestling is.
“No matter what anybody tells you, regardless of your race, your disability, your sex or whatever it might be you can wrestle,” Lucas said. “If they tell you that you can’t do something, look them in the eye, go do what you do, prove them wrong and realize your dreams.”
While Lucas’s plans for after he wrestles in Fargo are uncertain, the recent Eaglecrest graduate does know that he wants to give back to the sport that has done so much for him.
“There are three coaches back in Colorado that have offered me positions to help coach their programs, Coach Padilla was one of them,” Lucas said. “I’ll probably end up coaching at Chapparal and helping out with their kids. I would give my heart for this sport.”
Whatever his future may hold, Lucas refuses to give up on his dreams no matter how many people refuse to believe in him.
“I have the desire to wrestle at the college level, but I don’t know if a coach is willing to put the time in to actually give me a chance,” Lucas said. “My dream is to travel with the World Team, with the Olympic Team. I really want to show the world what the sport of wrestling can do for a kid like me.”