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Migliarese wrestled to overcome another foe
By Sandy Stevens
Editor’s Note: The following column appeared in WIN, Volume 20, Issue 2 and printed Nov. 27, 2013
Four years ago as he watched an ESPN documentary on Anthony Robles — the Arizona State NCAA wrestling champion who triumphed with just one leg — Cristian Migliarese’s life changed.
“Despite his difficulties, he was able to be successful,” Cristian said. “Instantly, I knew (wrestling) was something I could do.”
He couldn’t foresee, though, how many lives his own eventual triumph would touch or that his Medal of Courage Award speech at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame / Illinois Chapter’s Honors Banquet in October would embody all we champion about our sport.
When Cristian joined the Carmel Catholic High School wrestling team, he had just one goal: win a match. He’d never played a school sport, but he also faced another challenge.
He was diagnosed at birth with spina bifida, which caused nerve damage that affects his ability to control his legs. Leg braces and crutches aided him during the school day, but once Cristian crawled onto the wrestling mat, he used his upper body and hand strength to compensate.
At the Honors Banquet, Cristian related how it all began his freshman year.
“I started mentioning to my friends and teachers that I was interested in wrestling,” he recalled. “Word got back to Coach Bob Kuykendall.”
As he walked out of school one September day, Cristian heard someone call his name.
“It was Coach K,” he said. “He heard that I was interested in wrestling.
“I asked him if he thought this was possible. And he responded, ‘If you have the will, we will find a way.’ Little did I know that these words would change my life forever.”
After losing every match for three years, however, Cristian became discouraged and talked with his coach. “He told me not to quit because I was an inspiration to people and was accomplishing a lot more by simply going out there and wrestling,” Cristian said.
“The competitor in me simply wanted to win. Also, I was brought up with the idea that once you start something, you finish it.”
Finally, during his senior year, Cristian pinned his first opponent at a Thanksgiving week tournament to win the first match of his varsity career. Then the 120-pounder followed it up with another victory, also by a fall. His teammates and fans erupted in celebration.
“Growing up, I never thought this was possible,” Cristian said.
In his speech, Cristian paid tribute to Coach Kuykendall.
“This man taught me how to go from being a boy to a man,” Cristian said. “He showed me that wrestling is much more than just a sport. It is about being disciplined. It is about taking responsibility for yourself and stepping up and being a man.”
He also praised his parents, Frank and Julie Migliarese, and his teammates.
“They have supported me through the ups and downs and encouraged me to stick with the sport,” he said. “They taught me the importance of camaraderie and what it really means to be on a team.
“I’ve learned that anyone can overcome their difficulties as long as they put their mind to it. The sport of wrestling has given me much more than I could ever give back.”
Mike Clair, who has led the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s state chapter program for nearly two decades, estimates that he’s attended nearly two-thirds of the chapters’349 banquets held in 37 different states. He recently told the National Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors, “Cristian’s was the best Medal of Courage speech I have ever heard.”
While in high school, Cristian was a member of the National Honor Society, the Math Club and the Social Justice Club; an altar server at his church; and a regular volunteer at Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, a non-profit organization for kids with disabilities.
Now a freshman at Texas Christian University, he is majoring in journalism with an eye toward sports broadcasting. “I can’t compete, but that would be the next best job, talking about sports and analyzing them,” he explained.
He recently talked of the life lessons he’s gained through wrestling.
“Wrestling has taught me to be accountable, to step up and take responsibility,” he said, “and how to prioritize and manage my time. I can’t imagine where I’d be today without wrestling, because it’s impacted my life so much.”
Wrestling’s a Bear
Despite decades of announcing, I faced a one-of-a-kind wrestling match. It featured two hunky heavyweight combatants displaying more animal magnetism than any duo I’ve ever seen on a mat.
And each warrior weighed about 1,300 pounds.
I was in “The Polar Bear Capital of the World,” Churchill, Canada, a remote village (fly in or take a 300-mile train ride) on Hudson Bay. Riding in a “polar rover” over the frozen tundra, my 14 Natural Habitat Adventures companion travelers and I eyed dozens of the furry behemoths over three days in November.
Before the trip started, however, we’d all introduced ourselves, told where we hailed from and talked of our interests. I, of course, mentioned wrestling (and discovered that the son of a couple on the trip was a Canadian high school coach).
Consequently, when we came across two male bears sparring for fun and exercise, I heard, “Sandy, you need to commentate on this!”
So for a while I did, pointing out what resembled a handshake — with paws 12 inches wide — as well as takedowns, escapes, near falls and, yes, a true bear hug.
I couldn’t call a winner, though, because the bears were still going at it — 45 minutes later —as we drove away on other bear pursuits. n