The reason I wrote about this is many people have asked me to share more stories instead of just learning content, and also many have asked: “Whatever really happened with your knee?” This is a great opportunity to answer both of these requests and also pay homage to the strongest individual I’ve ever known – my mom. The only thing more constant than my pain, anger, resentment, broken-heart, and self-pity was my mom’s presence during my entire infection nightmare, hell, my entire life.
Wrestlers talk about being tough, and a physical workout is one thing but to have continuous inner-strength is another. I believe mothers are in a role where the deepest of inner-strength is required. My mom certainly exemplifies an infinite well of spirit that most never tap into.
My mom has her toughest battle of her life right now with stage-four small-cell lung-cancer in both lungs and spreading. As I think back about the fortitude and backbone my mom has always shown and continues to show in-spite of her illness, I have to shake my head and know I’m truly in the presence of a loving warrior who’s shown what real braveness and moxie looks like.
I have the greatest respect for all and anyone with cancer; these people are the real examples of grit, guts, and courage. I mean, Lebron James plays a basketball game with a sore ankle, and he’s a warrior? Good grief! What a joke. Wrestlers will compete with major injuries and expect nothing less of themselves. If people really want examples of toughness, spend some time around wrestlers and if they want the bravest warrior of all, spend sometime around people with cancer.
It was 1988, and I was the number-one ranked 118-pounder in Division I college wrestling. In late January the All-Star college dual was in Cedar Falls, and I was up against #3 in the country Jack Cuvo. I had wrestled Cuvo earlier in November at the Sunkist International Tournament in Phoenix and won 15-3. I was always a better international-style wrestler vs. folkstyle.
There were years when Sunkist was just like the National Open. In late 1987 everyone was at the Sunkist tourney; it was a primer for the Olympic year. Tim Krieger and I were the only college guys in the finals.
Tim was up against Ed Urbano – NCAA Champion from Arizona State and I was up against Joe Gonzales. Joe was winning NCAA championships when I was finishing 3rd in the Osage Green Devil Tournament.
I was rolling around with Krieger getting warmed up, and he was messing around. Here I was getting ready for the biggest match in my career and Krieger was trying to tickle me. I remembered a few years earlier in Vets Auditorium training room on Saturday night of the finals, Krieger was chasing me around, and I was the next match up. Tim handled competition differently than I did; he knew what worked for him; Krieger was a top-five bad-ass in my book of all time, and my list has Arsen Fadzaev in it. I remember being in Erevan, Russia sitting in the sauna talking with Fadzaev in his broken English. It was a highlight for me at that time. I would go on to lose to Gonzalez by a score of 6-4. I was right there but being a sophomore in college, I panicked and lost to the former Olympian and world bronze medalist; but I got to feel him, and I was confident I would turn it around.
Back to the all-star meet against Cuvo. The match ended 10-8; Cuvo won fair and square. I never wrestled a guy who took as many shots as Cuvo. They weren’t outstanding shots by themselves, but he was relentless like no one I’d ever wrestled. He was also a college cross country all-American, so he had a motor. Cuvo would end up sitting with me at the banquet afterward, and although he was a strange dude, he was alright. I really didn’t want to talk after he just whooped me, but he was different like that.
After this loss, the coaches and I decided to get my knee scoped. I was in several times on Cuvo but could not drive to finish and my knee needed to be repaired. I will say this for the record – Cuvo outwrestled me and my knee had nothing to do with the loss. The loss occurred because at the end of seven minutes he had ten points and I had eight. My injured knee was a result of a match against Danny Knight a week earlier. I was 17-0-1 going into the loss against Cuvo. I hadn’t wrestled a lot of college matches because I had been wrestling freestyle and competing in Arizona and Ulan Bator, Mongolia for the World Cup. I ended up third with solid wins over good wrestlers from Japan and Cuba. I lost to the Russian Sergei Zombelov 5-3 for the third time.
I went in the following Saturday for surgery. We figured I would be back quickly. I remember Chris Lembeck being scoped on a Saturday and wrestling the next Saturday; so we were confident this was just a brief delay in our mission. The regular Doctor for UNI wrestlers was Dr. Gutari, but he was out of town, and Doctor Poe took over. I stayed the weekend with Bill Dawson, a friend of the UNI wrestling program. Saturday I felt fine due to the medication from the surgery. Boy, was this going to change in the next 24 hours.
Sunday morning I was not feeling the best. I never had a surgery before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The team was on a road-trip, so I went in for therapy with the head trainer Terry Noonan in the dome. By 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night the infection had set-in. I was in extreme pain, fever, cold sweats; I’m telling you – hell on earth.
I went in for treatment Monday with our wrestling trainer Kurtis Kidd and Mark Kwikkle. I was in agony, and by now my knee was incredibly swollen, and the three small incisions had yellow discharge vs. blood. I remember this vividly – we were trying to pedal a complete revolution on a stationary bike but my knee was so swollen and in pain, it wouldn’t bend; they athletic taped my foot to the pedal so it would not slide off and forced the revolution as my knee throbbed and discharged yellow fluid.
I never felt anything like this; I knew something wasn’t right. I had gotten word that maybe the coaches/trainers thought I was being a puss. It’s funny how they had the awareness to identify the possibility I was being weak but not the awareness to see a knee four times its regular size with yellow discharge and 104 fever.
Believe it or not, this was the scene for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The seconds were minutes and the minutes were hours of severe suffering as my fever increased, no appetite and becoming more mentally and emotionally removed. I weighed on Thursday, and I was 17 pounds lighter than I was on Saturday – the day of my surgery. We were also working on forced manipulation – they apply severe pressure on your knee to bend and get motion back. The problem was we were not breaking scar-tissue, we were adding agony forcing a knee joint filled with infection to bend.
All this time, days of fever, yellow discharge, severe swelling, Dr. Poe never requested me to come in, and the trainers must have thought nothing was wrong. Finally, on Thursday my mom called them and ordered them to take me to the hospital in Waterloo. Once I got there, I could see in the Doctor’s expression – holy sh%@!!! You need emergency surgery NOW!!!! All I cared about was if I was going to be able to compete the rest of the season. The next day I was told my season was over. You can say it’s just wrestling, or it’s just a season, but that’s way off. For me and many others, this is our life, our identity, our drive, purpose, and reason for living. I was only in college because of wrestling and would not have a college degree if it wasn’t for wrestling. It was like a death inside of me. Part of me did die, but I didn’t realize it until later. I needed every thought and my awareness of thoughts to be – “I will be back.”
I was in the hospital for two weeks and shortly after that was the NCAA tournament in Ames. A few nights before the tournament I went out with a few friends and my H.S. coach Bill Andrew who came in from Lafayette, Indiana. Coach Andrew, to this day, was the most effective direct coach I ever experienced. You may think this is out of loyalty, but it’s the absolute truth.
I sat up high in the auditorium in Ames watching the tournament unfold. It bothered me inside because I KNEW I should be out there and would have been out there winning if not for the colossal negligence of the UNI athletic training staff.
I was on crutches sitting alone and briefly locked eyes with Tim Ascherl who had just recently had a major injury to the spinal cord and Tim was in a wheelchair. I know at that time Tim thought he would be back and I thought I would be back for the National Open and Olympic Trials. I remember feeling awkward and bad for Tim. Although at that time, it was fresh for both of us and I’m certain we both had optimism about the future. Tim and I were friends for several years after that. I was very hopeful at this point. I knew I had to stay positive or I would destroy myself. The anger and resentment didn’t come until later in the year and years after that.
Cuvo easily won the NCAA tournament, and I couldn’t help think as I watched him win the tournament, “It should have been me out there.” I did see Cuvo in the hotel, and he was gracious.
I was checking my weight one day after watching a world-team workout. I only weighed 115. J Robinson was there as well, and I told him I’m down to weight and will be wrestling in the Open. J being kind of arrogant said, “there’s no way.” I was angry about this. I later learned J had staph infection as well.
Understand, staph infection has different degrees. If you have a surface infection that hasn’t spread to the joint and is treated quickly, you can minimize the damage, and since the signs are so severe and obvious, people living in the USA will get immediate medical care. The infection J had was not taken care of immediately, and mine was totally active and in full effect for six days before I got medical help. This would NEVER happen in any level of athletics today. As I said, the effects are so obvious and severe that infection is tended to within hours. J would later become a good friend due to me working his intensive camps and then coaching with J at Minnesota for nearly a decade. J would get an infection a second time years later; it’s so painful he asked for his will. I’m telling you if this infection gets into the joint or beyond, its torture and freaking hell on earth.
Spring followed, and I went home to Osage. We decided over this time to have a manipulation surgery where they put you out and break all the scar tissue so you can move your knee. The normal range of motion is 0 degrees straight, and 180 degrees fully bent. After you wake-up, they have a machine that moves your leg back and forth 0 –– 180 –– 0 –– 180 we did this for several days and took the machine home, and you sleep with your leg in it. It’s a pain in the ass, but if you don’t keep it active, the scar tissue builds quickly, and you lose motion. We did three different manipulations at different times to get/keep a range of motion; we were never successful. Due to the trauma and damage of the infection, we were never able to get beyond a range of motion of 20 degrees vs. 0 degree when extended and 60 degrees flexed vs. 180. I had my work cut out for me on the mat.
While still at home for spring break we got results on the weekend that the trauma from the manipulation had stirred up the infection that was not properly cleaned out of my knee in Waterloo. When my mom told me, my body just sank. I did not want to go through this again. It had taken so much out of me mentally, physically, and spiritually. However, now the infection had spread. I hadn’t felt it as much because I was in the hospital on medicine for the manipulation.
Now the effects of the medicine were wearing off, and the pain was setting back in. We had to rush to Rochester, Minnesota this time. The infection was in my body and had reached my kidneys. I was in danger and didn’t even know it until we saw Doctor Simms at The Mayo Clinic. Doctor Simms told me I was very sick and losing my leg was possible, and it may extend beyond that. I kept hoping this was a bad dream. I cried and told God I hated him. I was 21 years old laying in a freaking hospital bed in Rochester, Minnesota. I felt sorry for myself.
My weight had dropped to 96 pounds. I had been at 145 pounds at top weight while lifting heavy and now I lost 1/3 of my body weight due to this infection. I should be celebrating life and an NCAA title with my buddies in Cedar Falls this spring, and I was alone, very sick, weak, angry, resentful and full of self-pity. I still would catch myself and intervene saying, “I will get back on that stand.” Man, I was a long way from something like that. At least I was 22 pounds under instead of 27 pounds over and I was an average size 118-pounder.
I stayed in Rochester for two weeks while going into surgery three different times. When I left Rochester, I went home, and I had to take medicine daily through an IV for the next 60 days. This was late April of 1988, and I had taken all incompletes as a student from the University of Northern Iowa.
Check Back Soon For Part Two – The Comeback, Real-Life Realities, and Lessons
Mark Schwab was recently an assistant coach at the University of Northern Iowa. Previously he spent nine years as assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, helping the program to seven top-three team finishes at the NCAA Championships and two NCAA team titles. As a wrestler, Schwab was an All-American for the University of Northern Iowa during the late 1980s. Schwab earned his bachelor’s degree in 1990 from the University of Northern Iowa and his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 2003. Schwab returned to the University of Minnesota to get a second emphasis in sports psychology on his existing master’s and completed that in 2010. Email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more from Mark Schwab at markschwab118.wixsite.com/mysite