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OAKLAND, Iowa — Collin Applegate waited nervously matside for his first wrestling match of the year.
Before the season began, everything had changed for the Riverside High School senior. His left leg was amputated just above the knee after a farm accident Oct. 8. He returned to wrestling exactly two months later, more mature and determined than ever.
And when you spend time with Collin, observe him interacting with friends, competing on the mat, moving on, you realize: Maybe nothing has changed after all.
Despite Collin's zeal for the sport, this is a story less about wrestling and more about a young man who inspires friends and family with his positive attitude and unwavering zest for life. An 18-year-old who returned to competition after only 60 days, perhaps to prove something to himself, perhaps simply because he loves wrestling and the camaraderie of his teammates. An athlete adamant about living a full, productive life.
"Collin has made this easier on all of us — his family, friends and community — by his positive attitude and ability to accept what happened,'' said his mother, Sheila Applegate. "If he was struggling with his ability to cope and move on with his life, we would all be struggling with him. He has proven to us that he will overcome this obstacle and succeed in whatever he chooses to do.''
Oct. 8 was like most fall Saturdays on the Applegates' 2,500-acre farm three miles west and one mile north of Oakland, a city of about 1,500 that is 30 miles east of Omaha. There was work to be done, and Collin was in the middle of it.
A few miles away, at a farm the family rents, Collin and a friend were hooking up a manure wagon to move it back home. Collin was between the tractor and the wagon when the tractor rolled back, crushing his lower left leg between the tractor hitch and the pump.
The boys immediately called for help on their cellphones. Collin's friend used his lifeguard training, telling Collin to take off his shirt and wrap it around the leg to slow the bleeding. He reassured Collin and remained on the line with 911 while waiting for an ambulance.
"I was screaming 'My leg's gone!' '' Collin said. "We were both really scared because we didn't know what to do. He was telling me to keep calm and hold his hand. Just stay calm.''
Paramedics flew Collin to Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, where doctors rushed him into the first of three surgeries, amputating his leg below the knee. They amputated above the knee in a later surgery.
Sheila Applegate and her husband, Dave, were attending a wedding in Des Moines. As they raced home, they knew their son's injury was severe but not life-threatening. They tried to reassure each other that it could have been worse.
They arrived to a room filled with distressed family and friends. When they finally saw Collin after the surgery, he revealed some of his character with his first words.
"The first thing he did was apologize,'' Sheila said. "The second thing he said was 'This was not (the friend's) fault.' "
Fellow Riverside senior Dallas Dietz, a close friend, was at work when he learned of the accident. His first sight of Collin at the hospital was an emotional moment.
"Even though I'm trying to be a big tough guy, I almost teared up a little when he saw me,'' said Dietz, who has hunted and fished and wrestled with his friend for years. "The first thing he said was 'I can't wrestle now.' ... I told him 'Don't think that.' ''
Collin was a district qualifier as a sophomore and junior at 103 pounds, finishing one step away from the state tournament. On the way home after being in the hospital for a little more than a week, he discussed his wrestling career with his father and decided he didn't want it to be over.
Riverside coach Mitch Anderson was excited that Collin wanted to rejoin the team. But they all soon faced the harsh reality of virtually starting from scratch.
"He's got to relearn almost everything,'' Anderson said. "What used to come to him almost naturally, he's got to refigure how to do now. There's situations that he gets in that he expects that lower extremity to be there, and it's not there and it's hard for him, frustrating for him.''
Collin read about Anthony Robles, the one-legged Arizona State University wrestler who won an NCAA championship last season. He has watched videos of Robles, trying to pick up some pointers. One big difference is that Robles was born without a leg.
Still, Collin presses on. When waiting for a drill in a recent practice, he leans on the crutches he always has nearby. Then he's scuffling with his workout partner, trying to get comfortable on the mat again. Everything is more awkward, and one of the difficulties is leverage. Without a lower leg he must shift his weight higher on an opponent when he's in the top position, or he'll lose control of him. It's not easy to master.
"I'm learning more and more stuff every day,'' Collin said.
Dietz, who qualified for the Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament in 2011, said he doesn't look far in the wrestling room to find inspiration.
"He's by far the toughest out of all of us,'' he said. "Some kids might not realize it, but you look over and you see Collin over there, one-legged, trying his hardest. And you think 'Well, I've got two legs. I should at least be trying harder than him.' ''
Last Monday, Collin began using a more-efficient high-tech prosthesis with a microprocessor knee and split-toe foot. It has a computer that analyzes each step he takes; the knee makes adjustments to ensure that it's always at the most stable and optimum setting for walking. The split-toe foot provides more flexibility to navigate uneven ground. That should make it easier to get around on the farm.
The new prosthesis has reduced his limp considerably and allows him more comfort as he does chores, goes to school, drives. He soon will begin physical therapy to improve his gait. Eventually he will be able to run, which excites him tremendously.
"He's young. He's healthy,'' his mother said. "We look at the future, and prosthetics are just changing so much. As a young man, just think in 20 years ... We just try to keep positive about it.''
Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed.
Collin still joins his buddies for hunting excursions, although now he uses a four-wheel utility vehicle to keep up. He's still active in FFA and 4-H. He's already working with the calves he'll show at the next county fair.
At a recent wrestling practice, the team went on a hilly run outside to the elementary building and back. Collin could have stayed in the gym and waited. He chose to shuffle along with his crutches, trailing the team with assistant Alex Oliver.
The family is grateful to the Riverside school district for its unyielding support.
On Dec. 8, Collin put his nerves and his prosthesis aside at his first meet of the year and pinned his first opponent, from Bedford/Lenox High School, in the first period. His teammates, at the edge of the mat throughout, mobbed him when it ended.
"I was amazed,'' he said.
He has won five of his eight matches to date, all junior varsity. He still hopes to earn a varsity spot before the sectional tournament Feb. 4.
Collin probably will attend Iowa Western Community College and study something agriculture-related. He expects to work in the ag industry. The farm is home.
Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed.
"This may have changed the way he does things, but I can't say it has slowed him down too much,'' Sheila Applegate said. "We're just very pleased with the maturity he's shown throughout this.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Collin won't have any trouble. He'll be successful. He's very personable. Whatever he does, he'll be successful at it. He's always been a fighter.''
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