Resilient Indianola wrestler Kobey Pritchard ready for state’s biggest stage

, | The Des Moines Register
INDIANOLA, Ia. — Kobey Pritchard’s wrestling talent got him to Wells Fargo Arena.

Indianola’s 106-pound sophomore offers that reminder, because he knows what fans will notice when he approaches the state tournament mats this weekend.

“Oh, it’s ‘One-legged kid goes to the state tournament,’ ” Pritchard said after practice Tuesday. “I saw that earlier. The only thing people need to know is that I’m going to try and win.”

Pritchard enters Thursday’s individual tournament with a 39-6 record and a No. 4 individual ranking in his first full varsity season.

“We expect him to do everything in practice, and he expects to do everything,” Indianola head coach Clint Manny said. “It’s a lot of pride, but he wants to be a part of it.”

The younger of Kristie Pritchard’s two sons is confident and approachable, but he prefers to rehash the history of his right leg quickly.

Ewing’s sarcoma in his femur. He was 5 years old. Doctors decided to remove it when he was 6.

“His surgery was on Friday morning, and by Sunday he was hanging upside-down on the rails at the nurses’ station,” Kristie Pritchard told the Indianola Record-Herald last season.

Amputation is emotionally confusing, especially for a kindergartner. Cancer stayed away. A prosthesis was uncomfortable, so he opted for arm crutches. Kobey has adjusted and can play sports, and the crutches work just fine, thank you for asking.

“Nobody was telling me that they felt bad for me, but everybody was doing it, and I felt that and just thought it was normal,” Pritchard said. “You just live with it and move on.”

Wrestling leans on intangible qualities that can make the sport approach religious devotion.

Toughness, determination, sweat, strength, technique, practice, self-reliance and motivation all drive the nearly 700 prep athletes who qualified for Iowa’s state tournament, but few carry the collective burden around with them like Pritchard.

His hands, wrists and forearms are shaped by the callouses that form when you sprint, lift weights and work out like any championship contender, but on crutches.

“Part of our job as coaches is to help him see that he’s dealt with a lot bigger things than this and done just fine,” Manny said. “This is a sport, for crying out loud. You can handle it.

“It squelches all the excuses around his teammates, that’s for sure.”

Pritchard has tried a gamut of sports and games, but nothing has quenched his thirst for competition like wrestling. He started with the junior high team in seventh grade and advanced to training with the area High Altitude Wrestling Club.

It drove him to an offseason of workouts, tournaments and development after struggling as a 120-pound replacement for Indianola as a freshman.

“In other sports, people would always blame me or I’d blame them,” Pritchard said. “Someone else is always doing the wrong thing. I hate to lose, and in wrestling, there’s no one to blame but me. There’s nothing to fix but myself.”

That raw emotion progressed into  motivation and confidence as victories stacked up.

“He got his butt kicked a little bit, and it frustrated him,” Manny said. “But that was just motivation for over the summer. He’s made himself into a pretty darn good wrestler in a short amount of time.”

The success of wrestlers with missing limbs isn’t new to the sport or even Indianola.

Nick Ackerman won an NCAA Division III national title and the Hodge Award (wrestling’s Heisman Trophy) at Simpson College in 2001 as a double amputee. Ackerman finished sixth with Colfax-Mingo in the 1997 state tournament. Dubuque Senior’s Dan Klavitter was born with only a partial formation of one leg and finished as 3A runner-up at 103 in 2004. The year before, Andy Roush of Wilton, who had one leg, finished third in the state tournament.

Arizona State’s Anthony Robles set the stage for one-legged wrestlers with his 2011 Division I national title at 125. Pritchard met and spoke with the three-time all-American at a book signing.

“He’s who I base my style off of,” Pritchard said. “I used to watch videos of him all the time.”

Like Robles, it’s down on the mat that the 16-year-old’s missing leg morphs into a decisive advantage. Opponents attempting to shoot in on his left leg for a takedown often find themselves battling from the bottom.

“I never shoot on him because it’s just too risky,” said Indianola classmate and training partner Riley Seger.

“When he shoots, I try and time it just so I can get down and keep him from getting my leg. Once he gets to your leg or if he gets a wrist, you’re going down.”

Pritchard needed just 2 minutes, 9 seconds to record two pins at districts last week and advance to Des Moines as a top seed. Another pin at regional duals helped Indianola advance to Wednesday’s team tournament for the first time since 2010.

“We fought him hard a couple matches but he overpowered us,” Johnston coach Aaron Tecklenburg said. “As a wrestling coach you’re always pulling for your own guy, but he’s one of those kids that you enjoying watching compete. Regardless of his situation, I just like to watch good wrestling and he’s a solid, quality wrestler.”

Strategies to avoid Pritchard’s unorthodox takedowns and tilts are easier said than done.

“He’s used to wrestling in some positions that most other guys just aren’t used to,” West Des Moines Valley coach Travis Young said. “He’s very good on top, he’s a very good rider and really has a tremendous tilt.”

Pritchard has the height and upper-body strength of a grappler a couple of weight classes higher. But it’s neither advantage nor disadvantage; he’s just different.

“That kid’s stronger than everybody because he spent half the summer on a pull-up bar and the other half pulling dumbbells,” Manny said. “We did a lot of lifts that were specifically for Kobey and to help him with grip strength. It’s not just because he’s bigger that he’s stronger.”

The most unusual skill he may bring to the mat at 106 is simply being impossible to duplicate on the scout team.

“He’s not like any other opponent you’re going to wrestle and he’s got a lot of talent to go with that,” Tecklenburg said. “We don’t tell our guy to prepare any differently in terms of how we approach the match, but to understand there are going to be some elements that are going to change.”

Pritchard opens Thursday afternoon against Jacob Close (28-10), a junior from Western Dubuque. The top two ranked wrestlers at 106 — Waukee’s Kyle Biscoglia (50-1) and Fort Dodge’s Drew Bennett (38-2) — are on the other side of the bracket. That would seem to bode well for his high aspirations for this week and beyond.

“The top level is where he needs to start beating those guys,” Manny said.

“He doesn’t really care about No. 5 through 8 anymore. Now that he’s pinned those guys, that’s the level he wants to be at. He’s been very vocal about his goals: wrestling in a national tournament, becoming an NCAA champ, not just a state champ.”

Pritchard still perceives doubt and judgment around him because of his missing leg, laid bare by the sport he’s come to love. That may change in the two high school seasons he’s got left.

For now, he’d settled for being judged by fans on Saturday’s podium.

“I feel it every day,” he said. “Not in my (wrestling) room, but every time I go to a tournament, little kids will come up and talk to me and ask what happened to my leg.

“I remember once a kid told me I was going to get beat because of it. Then I won the tournament. He came up to me after. He was like, ‘Oh, you’re good!’ I just said, ‘Thank you.’

“I feel like I can beat just about everyone at this tournament, and the ones I haven’t beaten, I feel like I can. Usually I’m angry if I’ve lost, but I’m more confident about myself. I feel different than I ever have before.”