Physical challenges don't keep down Carmel wrestler
On bright gold and brown mats in Carmel Catholic's second-floor wrestling room, Cristian Migliarese walks the walk. He crawls, actually.
The diminutive senior with the torso shaped like a "V," which may as well stand for victory, is too modest to talk the talk.
And, please, don't pity him because he uses crutches to traverse wherever he roams.
"My parents (Frank and Julie) have told me that I'm an inspiration by just going out there, but I don't look at myself as any more inspirational than any of these guys who are going out there," Migliarese, who was born with spina bifida, said during practice Wednesday. "I just want to go out there and compete, and win."
That, he's done.
Ahem, please note the "win" part.
During Carmel's tournament earlier this season, Migliarese saw a dream realized when he won the first match of his varsity career. Competing at 120 pounds, he pinned a St. Rita wrestler.
Forget walking. Migliarese was so euphoric that he could have flown.
"I took him down, got his legs and put a half (Nelson) on him," Migliarese said. "I knew I had it right there. When the ref called it, I looked up at the stands and everybody was cheering. When I got up from the mat, I saw all my teammates there. I was overcome with emotion. They picked me up and started hugging me. I was laughing and crying at the same time. It was unbelievable."
"It was glorious," Carmel coach Bob Kuykendall said. "It brings the human race up. It made everybody in the building a little bit better person for having been a part of it. What he didn't realize was, he had already won, without even getting his hand raised, just by competing."
The next day, the likable kid with the wavy black hair and equally dark eyes charmed again.
Migliarese won, again. By pin, again.
"It truly is a great story," said Kuykendall, who can relate to Migliarese maybe more than anybody, considering he's also overcome a disability to excel in the sport. "It reminds you of why you do what you do. It's not about winning and losing. It's about helping kids become adults, and Cristian's a great example of that. He's come a long way in four years."
Migliarese doesn't need to look outside of Carmel's wrestling room for a role model, although he points out that former NCAA champ Anthony Robles (Arizona State), who has one leg, inspired him. Kuykendall snapped his Achilles tendon when he was in the eighth grade. The injury never healed properly and he has walked with a severe limp ever since. But he wrestled four years at Maine West and four years at Knox College.
"They told me I would never play sports again," Kuykendall said. "But I don't believe in that. ... Life is going to deal you some bad cards, and you better fight through them. You try to make the best hand you can. That's my attitude toward life. And I picked all that up in wrestling. I don't know where I would be without it."
Migliarese had never wrestled before high school, but his brother, Frank, had gone to Carmel and knew of Kuykendall.
"He told me about Coach K and said I should give wrestling a shot," said Migliarese, a Hawthorn Woods resident and the youngest of three children of Frank and Julie. "(Kuykendall) is one of the main reasons why I got into the sport because I knew what he was going through. We could relate to each other. He found a way to do it. He's been a real inspiration for me to try (wrestling). He's pushed me through it all."
Carmel senior Jimmy Dandino met Migliarese their freshman year and saw a short kid with a big heart.
"He's got a lot of heart, more than pretty much anyone out there," said Dandino, a 160-pounder who's 15-5. "(Freshman year), I was curious to know what stuff he was going to do because I had never seen anyone wrestle like that. He's worked really hard to learn stuff."
The spina bifida caused nerve damage that affects the 5-foot-4 Migliarese's ability to control his legs. Once he ditches his leg braces and crutches and crawls onto the wrestling mat, he uses his strong upper body and hands to compensate.
"He's got a lot of upper-body strength," Dandino said. "So with gripping people, he's got a lot of strength."
Migliarese started using a walker at age 5, before graduating to crutches. He hasn't let his disability bring his life to a crawl. Besides wrestling, he's involved in a couple of clubs at Carmel and is a National Honor Society member. A big sports fan, he wants to study broadcast journalism in college.
Last year, however, Migliarese's frustration with wrestling was growing. He had yet to experience victory. It didn't seem to matter that people like Kuykendall were telling him that he was showing courage just by showing up every day and getting on the mat.
Then came a pivotal match.
"I was feeling confident going into it," Migliarese said. "I got pinned in like 30 seconds. I was feeling really down about myself. I was thinking about quitting. But Coach Kuykendall said, 'You've come so far. You've accomplished so much. Why would you quit now?' "
Migliarese reflected on that conversation with his coach last month after he notched his first pin.
"I told him, 'You must have told me that for a reason,' " said Migliarese, smiling. "That first win, had I quit (last season), I would have never had gotten to know what that felt like."
On that glorious day, Cristian Migliarese never stood taller.
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