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I heard the crack before I hit the mat. It happened in a flash. One second I was sizing up the other wrestler—115 pounds tops, breathing heavy through his mouthguard, someone I could outlast on points if I didn’t pin him fast—the next I was crashing to the ground as he pile-drove me off my feet.
I felt a pop in my chest like my lungs had burst. The ref stood over me but I couldn’t hear what he was shouting. I stared up at the gym ceiling, my head spinning as I wondered why it was so hard to breath—and why it felt like a knife was wedged in my ribs.
When you lace up a cleat or strap on a helmet, part of you knows that the dirty secret of sports—the flip side of winning trophies and cheering teammates—is the risk of an injury. Every wrestler, runner and gymnast knows that he or she is an Achilles tear away from an ER visit and the end of their season.
But when you’ve wrapped your identity around a skill you can no longer perform—like a broken-ribbed wrestler or a tongue-tied debater or a singer who can’t hit a high note—you start wondering who you really are. My grandfather was a wrestler. My dad was all-world in every sport from football to Frisbee. My family had just moved from Delaware to Florida and I wasn’t fitting in to begin with. But on the wrestling mat I wasn’t skinny or awkward. I was a 113-pound freestyler with a killer double leg takedown.
A broken rib meant a lengthy hospital stay and a lost school semester. Each time I’d get friendly with classmates or catch up on freshman biology, a stabbing pain in my side sent me back for another MRI. Each time I thought about rejoining the wrestling team, I heard the stick-snapping sound of my rib cracking.
Luckily, I was surrounded by friends and family who wouldn’t let me wallow in self-pity. My parents helped me change my perspective. My mother encouraged me to set daily goals, like completing a chapter in my geometry textbook or walking a mile on my high school track. My father taught me positive self-talk. He told me to eliminate the word “try” from my vocabulary—or, as he joked in his Yoda-voice, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” My coach confided that he has struggles too. He battles a muscle disease called Myasthenia Gravis, which once left him paralyzed for a year.
Being a wrestler had been my identity. But maybe, I thought, my best quality wasn’t a half-nelson. Maybe it was my calm demeanor when I’m down on points late in a match—a coolness under pressure that comes in handy when there are two minutes to the bell and I have three questions left on a test. Maybe it was being a good teammate—the same role I play when I help senior citizens at my grandmother’s church services. Maybe it’s the lessons I’ve learned from wrestling—that I might fail more than I succeed, that my efforts matter as much as my results, and that wrestling is what I do, but it doesn’t have to be who I am.
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