- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - As the first deaf wrestler to put on a singlet for an Onslow County high school, Patrick Leombruno is a trailblazer and an inspiration - to everyone, it seems, but the 18-year-old Northside High School senior who barely nudges the scale past 100 pounds.

Others see the bigger picture. They see a teenager who despite being unable to hear his coach or the referee - much less the crowd - is competing in one of the most grueling of sports where the slightest of errors can lead to defeat in a blink.

What Leombruno sees is different. He sees himself for who he is, nothing more and nothing less. An inspiration?

“I don’t know what to say to that,” Leombruno said through interpreter Lynann Barnett as his teammates warmed up for practice in the school cafeteria. “I just accept who I am. It’s not a big deal. It’s who I am. I accept that.”

Leombruno has had to. He has been totally deaf since birth. He can read lips “all right, not great.” He also can feel sounds. For example, if the bass on the music played at practice is turned up, Leombruno said he can “feel the music.”

“But,” he added, “I hear nothing.”

Barnett, who teaches Leombruno and five other deaf and hard of hearing students at Northside, said Leombruno sees himself as “just a wrestler.”

“The deafness isn’t an issue,” she said. “Patrick is who he is.”

Coach Dave Pelsang agreed.

“To him, it’s almost like another day at the office,” Pelsang said. “He’s dealt with this. He’s learned to overcome and adapt.”

That isn’t lost on Pelsang or, the coach said, on Leombruno’s teammates.

“It taught the team a lesson that here’s someone who has a so-called handicap but just sees it as part of his every day life and just continues on,” Pelsang said. “He doesn’t make excuses for what we would see as an obstacle. He just goes forward.

“I think that’s a lesson for many young wrestlers and even for some old coaches.”

Leombruno, whose father and brother can hear normally while his mother is hard of hearing, was inspired to try the sport after watching a movie on television about a deaf wrestler. After moving into the area from New York, Leombruno wrestled in the seventh and eighth grade at Jacksonville Commons Middle School.

“I was really interested in wrestling,” he said.

But when he graduated and began attending Northside High School there was a problem. Weighing in the 90-pound range, he was told he was too light to wrestle, although there is no minimum weight required by the N.C. High School Athletic Association.

Pelsang, who wasn’t the coach at the time, said the former “young” coach may have just used that as a “soft brush off” because he wasn’t sure he could handle having a deaf wrestler on the team. Pelsang, who is in his second year as head coach, welcomed Leombruno aboard.

“From what I saw, the child showed a lot of spunk and put a lot of effort into it,” he said. “He certainly had four years of mat rust and had some challenges, but he took it pretty gamely and gave his best.”

If this were a movie, Leombruno might be undefeated - or prevail to win a championship of some sort. But this is real life, and Leombruno, who weighs 100.2 pounds and competes in the 106-pound class, is 5-12 this season heading into the recent NCHSAA 2-A regionals. Certainly, he would have liked to have won more, but he’s also comfortable with his performance to date.

“I’m learning a lot. I feel okay about it,” he said, referring to how he’s wrestled this season. “But I know this is a learning year. Of course, I would prefer to win. But it’s okay if I lose. I’m just enjoying the competition.”

Leombruno had never tried any sport until he took up wrestling, although he loves to hunt and while still living in New York killed a 15-point deer. As far as he knows, no one else in his family wrestled. Another first.

So what is it he likes about the sport?

“I like really hanging out with the team, being part of a team,” he said.

Often for first-time wrestlers there are concerns by either family and friends or the wrestler himself that he might get hurt. No one, Leombruno said, had any reservations about his trying the sport.

“No, no one,” he said. “Everybody’s fine about it.”

Especially Leombruno himself.

“Patrick’s not scared of anything,” Barnett said. “He’s pretty fearless.”

Pelsang seconded that. Still, there are precautions he takes before every match and during it as well. The coach informs the referee and the other team’s coach about Leombruno. Also, as Pelsang sits in his usual corner chair on the mat, an interpreter is opposite him to sign his instructions to Leombruno.

Also, referees work to make sure Leombruno can see them and will touch him at the end of each two-minute period or when otherwise they want the wrestlers to stop.

As for the opponent, Leombruno said some opponents may know he’s deaf, some may not. He doesn’t care one way or the other.

“We shake hands. It’s not a big deal,” Leombruno said. “I’m just another wrestler. The hearing person may be aware, but I don’t say anything about it.”

Nor does being unable to hear the crowd matter.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m completely deaf. I don’t care. I’m very focused.”

The reality is, however, that being deaf is a handicap on the mat. Wrestling coaches can be among the most animated of all coaches. They are quick to offer advice - loudly - or warn of an impending problem for their wrestler who may be oblivious to being in danger of winding up on his back.

While Pelsang can communicate that to Leombruno, it has to go through an interrupter, which takes time - time Leombruno might not have. There is also the issue of angles. As Leombruno battles on the mat, the interpreter circles on the outer border trying to keep Pelsang and Leombruno both in sight so to quickly relay any information Pelsang may want to give out.

“He’s almost wrestling in a vacuum in some cases,” Pelsang said. “You have bigger obstacles to hurdle beside the wrestler in front of you. It’s two wrestlers in the center as it is. … But in this sense the individual is even more isolated, and I think it takes more spirit to go out and face the battle.”

Leombruno was asked how much being deaf hurt him on the mat.

“I feel the hearing competitor has a little more of an advantage because they can hear,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. It’s who I am. I accept that.”

Pelsang praised his fellow coaches, their wrestlers and the referees for doing their part to try to “level the playing field.” But Pelsang certainly knows the mat isn’t level.

“Correct, but we all do the best we can,” he said. “It’s still a learning curve, but maybe more folks would be encouraged to give it a shot because Patrick did this. We as coaches could continue to learn to help them get to the next level, whatever that might be.”

While he can’t hear or speak, Leombruno’s body language speaks volumes. His facial expressions run the gamut. So, too, do his hand motions, whether he’s signing or not. Barnett said Leombruno is “full of personality” and communicates well despite his handicap.

“He has a great sense of humor. In the classroom he’s involved and participates in classroom discussions and groups (through an interpreter),” she added, although he also “hangs back” at times. “But he’s not intimidated by hearing people. He’s very comfortable in his own skin.”

Perhaps that’s why joining the Northside wrestling team was fairly seamless. Leombruno said he was accepted from the get-go by his teammates, who include 220-pound Meshack Smith. Smith is deaf in his right ear and learned sign language in middle school.

“Here at Northside,” Leombruno said, “they have never treated me any different.”

Smith said there was, however, an adjustment period.

“The team adjusted because they’re normally yelling and talking and telling people what to do,” Smith said. “So they usually look at me to try to get his attention and say, ‘You need to tell him to do this,’ All right, so I’ll sign to him and tell him to get down or do this. … I usually have to stomp the mat somewhere near him to get him to look at me. Then I have him mimic what I do.”

Leombruno, whose favorite moves are the cradle and single-leg takedown with a trip, also said he pays close attention visually to what’s going on at practice.

“I watch what other people are doing,” he said. “The coach will manipulate the limbs if he’s showing them a new move. There’s not really a need to communicate. I just use my eyes and their body and I watch the moves and I watch the facial expressions. So that way I know what’s going on.”

For all that he’s tried to teach Leombruno, Pelsang said he’s learned a lot as well, which has made him a better coach as well as referee - he officiates at the national and international level. He has worked to make sure wrestlers clearly hear his instructions as a coach or referee while also making sure his words are “clear and concise.”

The Monarchs, he added, also have taken a cue from Leombruno, much to Pelsang’s approval.

“It’s common for coaches to have signals from the corner during a match. Ironically, he was more adept at looking for the signals and taught some of the other kids to maybe pay more attention and look to the corner because that was the best time he could get any direction was when there was a slight break,” Pelsang said.

“But it was challenging. So I applaud his effort. He’s learned to adapt well and is a good student of the sport. It was rewarding for the coaching staff to see someone try as hard as he did and give his all and never show signs of giving up where there were certainly obstacles.”

Obstacles? It would seem in Leombruno’s mind there was no bigger obstacle on the mat than the opponent on the other side. What, he was asked, had he learned about himself during this season?

“I’ve learned to be strong in my life,” he said. “I’ve learned to be strong in everything.”

This season has also proven something else - to others if not Leombruno himself.

“Yes,” he said, “I do have the heart for wrestling.”


Information from: The Daily News, https://www.jdnews.com

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