- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

MISHAWAKA, Ind. (AP) - Two months after the prep wrestling season ended, Evan Light’s routine is pretty much the same.

Practice. Condition. Work hard. Get 1 percent better than yesterday.

Nothing gets in the way of the Penn High School freshman’s daily regimen. The 113-pounder came through his first varsity season with his dreams intact and, any questions he might have had, answered.

He has proven that, in a sport like wrestling that is obsessed by pounds and often decided by inches, a couple of feet don’t really matter.

At least, that’s Light’s take on his plight.

Perceptive and engaging beyond his years, the 16-year-old is well past the self-conscious stage when it comes to reactions to having lost both his legs about 18 inches below the knee.

How’d it happen?

“You want me to tell you what I tell people, or the truth?” said Light, with a mischievous smile.

OK, I’ll bite. What’s the story?

“Shark attack!” he said with a loud chuckle.

And. the truth?

As a baby in his native India, Light was in a serious car accident in which he lost both legs.

“I was so young, I never knew what it was like to have legs,” Light said.

Shortly after the accident, which claimed his birth mother, Evan was adopted by Randy and Jennifer Light and brought to South Bend. By sixth grade, the family had moved into the Penn district and Evan discovered wrestling.

“When I first started, I had foam and duct tape” around the stumps of his legs, Light said. “It wasn’t very pretty, but it got the job done.”

Outside of the wrestling room, Light, who has a 3.3 GPA, looks like any other clueless freshman while walking the halls with prosthetics. IHSAA rules don’t allow wrestlers to use prosthetics. That’s OK. Light’s speed, agility and low center of gravity on his stumps - outfitted with custom-designed shoes - actually give him an advantage over able-bodied wrestlers.

“When he’s in a neutral position (facing his opponent), Evan has an edge because he’s lower,” said Steve Stahl, the owner/manager of Rockstar Health and Performance, who works with all the Penn wrestlers. “His problem is finishing (after the takedown). He doesn’t have the leverage to finish a guy off for the pin, so he has to do other moves.”

Penn won the 2015 state wrestling title and was a contender on the final day this year. Freshmen, especially those without feet, don’t normally make an immediate impact in a program loaded with talent.

Light posted a 14-7 varsity record, but wasn’t part of the tournament team that made the run at the repeat. Just getting that seasoning against top-notch competition will pay dividends down the road.

“I saw something in Evan when he was in sixth grade (club wrestling) that told me he was going to be special,” said Penn coach Brad Harper.

Harper didn’t notice anything from the waist down. All he saw was heart.

“The determination, the work ethic, that’s what you see from the guys who are going to be special in your program,” Harper said. “When he steps onto the mat, Evan doesn’t care who you are. He’s confident in his ability.”

“My plan is to work hard and get good on top (in a wrestling position),” Light said. “I will never have leverage. But, I will always have the attitude that I’m not going to stay down.”

Attitude, as they say, is everything.

At such a tender age, Light has come to realize that he - and only he - controls his perception of the world around him.

That has played a significant role in his development.

“I’ve never said, ‘Why me?’” Light said. “I look around and see people who are much worse off than I am.

“If you think negative thoughts, you’re not going to do well. If you think positive thoughts, you will do well.

“I never think about what it would be like to have feet. No reason to complain because I’ll never get it. Why waste my time being negative?”

Stahl said that, while Light is working out with his teammates at Rockstar, occasionally the gym’s regular clients will comment about him being an inspiration to them. His work ethic and intensity immediately grab their attention.

“I hear that from people,” Light said, showing a bit of embarrassment. “I just go with it. I’m the one who’s inspired - by my parents, the way they work.”

And then there’s, as Light calls him, “My man Nick.”

Nick Ackerman is as perfect a role model for Evan as anyone in the world.

When the 36-year-old Ackerman was a baby, he lost both legs below the knee while dealing with meningitis. He overcame the disability to be an active boy, participating in all sports. Ackerman would snap the legs off his G.I. Joe action figures.

“That was my normal,” Ackerman said.

He fell in love with wrestling. After battles filled with plenty of setbacks while at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, he rose to the top of the heap by winning the NCAA Division III 174-pound national championship in 2001.

Now the director of prosthetics at American Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc., in Davenport, Iowa, Ackerman was located by the most fortunate Google search the Light family ever made.

“To be a success, you’ve gotta have the internal drive and motivation to push through some pretty tough workouts in the wrestling room,” Ackerman said. “Evan has that in a pretty significant way.

“As you progress in wrestling, mental and physical changes happen. You start to feed off the drive and perseverance. Evan’s roped into that right now. The more you work, the more success you have.”

Evan, who wants to design prosthetics when his wrestling and school days are over, and Nick have collaborated to develop Evan’s nifty new wrestling shoes, a far cry from foam and duct tape.

“Whatever Evan does in the next few years in wrestling, or the rest of his life, will be worth watching,” said Ackerman. “He’s a great kid who’s going to do great things.”

Before anyone can be great, they must excel at the mundane.

A solid freshman year established a sturdy foundation, but there’s no guarantee three years loaded with impressive achievement will follow.

All Evan can do is to continue to do his best to prepare for the challenges ahead.

Sprints to the brink of exhaustion. Lugging 25-pound plates in each hand to enhance the vice-like grip. Constant work on the upper body. All without a whimper.

“Evan trains like everyone else,” Harper said.

“We modify Evan’s workouts a little, but it’s not like we back off,” said Stahl. “We just do more wrestling-specific exercises with him.”

“I love wrestling because there’s no one else out there,” Light said. “It’s all on you. You can’t blame anyone else for what happens.

“Coach Harper has always believed in me. That’s where my motivation comes from. I owe him for everything he’s invested in me.”

No need for feet with such a stout heart.

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1ZyFwv4

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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