Deitchler making peace with early retirement

BY foxsports • January 20, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — The sport took him at an early age.

It
sounds funny, a sport taking a child, but for Jake Deitchler, falling in
love with wrestling was an almost passive event. The day he was born,
Deitchler's father, Jason Deitchler, left for his own collegiate
wrestling meet, and the toddler spent the first few years of his life in
the midst of his father's teammates.

Deitchler began wrestling
in first grade and won three Minnesota state championships at Anoka High
School. In 2008, he became the youngest man to make the U.S. Olympic
wrestling team since 1976 and competed in the 145.5-pound Greco-Roman
division.

All that before even starting college.

College
is the time when most talented wrestlers thrive, when the best high
school state champions compete for national titles. But for Deitchler,
who started at the University of Minnesota in 2009, it's been a far
different experience. After redshirting his first year, Deitchler began
to feel the symptoms of a series of concussions, and he sat out the
2010-11 season. After being cleared to compete this year, Deitchler was
ranked eighth in the nation in the 157-pound weight class and saw
limited competition before making the decision to permanently retire
from the sport in December.

It's as if his whole career was on
fast-forward. The Olympics at 18, a barrage of health concerns and
testing, and then retirement just four years later.

"I don't feel
young," said Deitchler, who finished 12th in his weight class in
Beijing. "By the age of 22, I'm retired from my sport. Most people in my
sport peak at 27 on average. I peaked when I was 18 years old."

When
he puts it that bluntly, he almost seems incredulous, as if he still
might need to ask if all this actually happened. But really, Deitchler,
who estimates that he's suffered about 10 concussions, has coped with
the past two years with the utmost maturity. After everything he's gone
through, he's grateful to have a verdict about his future, but he knows
that going forward and re-defining that future might be difficult.

A test case for wresting

During
the past two years of Deitchler's career, two men have spent days by
his side, traveling with him to doctors' appointments in Pittsburgh and
watching his progress. Both Jason Deitchler and Gophers wrestling coach J
Robinson have been with the young wrestler through it all, and each
learned a lot about himself and concussions through the process.

At
just about the same time Deitchler began to experience the long-term
effects of repeated concussions, brain injury in athletes became a
popular issue. The NFL began imposing new sanctions and rules to cut
down on concussions, and the work at the Center for the Study of
Traumatic Encephalopathy — often called the NFL brain bank — in
Massachusetts became more and more well-known. With the deaths of NHL
enforcer Derek Boogaard and retired NFL safety Dave Duerson in 2011,
brain injuries became further linked with hockey and football, and
concussion prevention has become a big part of both sports.

Despite
the innate physicality of wrestling, it hasn't been bombarded with
concussion awareness quite like other contact sports. Stricter
concussion guidelines have been implemented mostly on the high school
level, but the sport still manages to operate without the taint brain
injury has lent to other activities, especially football.

That,
perhaps, explains Robinson's skepticism about the prevalence of
concussions today. In his 26th year coaching the Gophers, Robinson has
had two other Minnesota wrestlers retire due to complications from
concussions. Still, though, he's leery of the uptick in concussion
reporting in recent years and said injury trends can trigger a bandwagon
effect.

"Instead of looking at the facts and digging into it and
doing some research on it, what society has a tendency to do is
overreact," Robinson said. "So now you have all kinds of kids, all kinds
of concussions."

Robinson compared concussions to phenomena like
PTSD and ADD, which have also seemed to become more prevalent in recent
years. The coach undoubtedly believes those diseases exist, but he
seemed skeptical of the spike in reporting them. It might seem cold, but
Robinson is a big-picture kind of guy who looks at the world in a more
static light than most.

"The Romans had the coliseum; we have the
Metrodome," Robinson said. "They had gladiators; we have NFL football.
They had chariot races; we got NASCAR. They got a sack of grain for
every citizen; we got food stamps."

The recent increased increase
of brain injuries in athletes doesn't fit well into that kind of
worldview, in which things evolve but never truly change.

Jason
Deitchler is less skeptical, though, as one would expect from a father
who has seen the effects of concussions first-hand. A two-time NAIA
All-American wrestler, Jason Deitchler remembers injuries in the early
1990s as very different from those of today. He blew out both of his
knees in college, and that was the most common injury he can remember
among his teammates. Still, to him, concussions aren't something to be
skeptical about. The increase is strange, he said, but he doesn't think
about it any further than that.

"We were really concerned, just
for his future," Jason Deitchler said of he and his family's initial
worries about his son. "We wanted to make sure that he's going to be 100
percent for the rest of his life, have a productive family life, be a
good husband, father, the whole works."

What's interesting,
though, is that Robinson felt exactly the same. Despite his skepticism
about concussions in general, the coach could not have been more
compassionate toward Deitchler. For Robinson, the only cure for doubt is
information, concrete tests and results, and that's exactly what he
arranged for Deitchler in the days and weeks after he began exhibiting
symptoms of concussions.
And so, with a human face, the face of a wrestler with rare talent, concussions became real for Robinson.

When toughness isn't an asset

In
the days and weeks after Deitchler began experiencing the symptoms of
repeated concussions, those around him knew they needed to take action.
Some mornings, the wrestler would walk downstairs only to forget why
he'd done so. One day, he drove down the wrong side of the street on his
moped. Warning signs were everywhere, but at first communication
between Deitchler, his father and the team was difficult.

Wrestlers
are taught to be tough, Robinson said, to live tough. They're
accustomed to cutting weight, to not eating the day before an event.
They live in a world in which they almost never feel exactly normal,
making it even harder for them to realize that something unusual might
be wrong.

"Wrestling is a lot different than the other sports
because the symptoms that you have sometimes might be masked by all the
things that you do," Robinson said.

It didn't take long, though,
for Deitchler's family and the Gophers wrestling staff to begin
communicating and piecing together what they'd seen and heard from the
wrestler. That's when Robinson and the school stepped in, arranging a
trip to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Medicine
Concussion program, where Deitchler met with Dr. Michael Collins, Ph.D.
In Pittsburgh, Deitchler took the ImPACT test, a sort of video game that
first measures baseline mental function in athletes and then can be
used to gauge the existence and severity of concussions. After going
over Deitchler's results, Collins advised the wrestler to sit out what
should have been his redshirt freshman season in order to give his brain
the time needed to recover.

Collins' advice is the same that
should be given to all athletes suffering from concussions. When Jason
Deitchler blew out his knees, he rested and rehabbed before he returned.
But because concussions are invisible — there is no mangled limb or
cast to advertise their presence — many coaches treat recovery
differently, putting athletes back into competition too fast.

After
his year off, Deitchler was cleared to return for the 2011-12 season.
He began strong, winning his weight class at the Bison Open in Fargo,
N.D. But soon, Deitchler began exhibiting the same symptoms as he had
before, and he returned to Collins for more testing. Those tests
indicated that Deitchler had regressed. The progress he'd made in the
previous year was gone, and a decision needed to be made.

It was time for Deitchler to quit.

Making a decision, moving forward

For
Deitchler, the decision was a long time coming. It was almost a
foregone conclusion in the wrestler's mind. He knew the odds were
against him, but the sport meant too much to just give up without
resistance.

"This isn't something that was just all of the sudden
you're not going to compete," Robinson said. "He's been dealing with
this, trying to get back. …  The scales have been tipped towards not
getting back for a long time. He's been fighting to get back."

For
Deitchler, the decision became easier when he looked not at what he was
giving up but at what he would gain. From the outset of symptoms,
Deitchler began doing research on concussions. He learned about the
brain bank, about the damage doctors had found in athletes' brains.
Deitchler realized that though he was in peak physical shape, he still
wasn't healthy, and becoming healthy again became his top priority.

After
all the tests, after being reduced to a set of data and output,
Deitchler is thankful to finally have answers. He knows where he stands,
and he knows how much his mental health can improve. He knows what it
takes to get there.

But he'll have to go through that recovery
without competing in the sport that has been the backbone of his daily
life for more than 15 years. That's a daunting task, and Robinson said
he and Deitchler have talked at length about where to go from here.
Deitchler will have to find a way to channel the competitive intensity
of wrestling into something else, and it may take him time to find that
new passion.

"One door closes," Deitchler said. "That was wrestling in my career, personally."

Deitchler
doesn't know yet what that next door will be, and Robinson — who seems
to have a metaphor for just about everything — stressed that Deitchler
might have to spend some time in the hallway before he finds a new door
to walk through.

There's a hidden positive to it all, though:
Deitchler is just 22. He still has two years before he finishes his
communications degree and is now in the same situation as many of his
classmates who are also figuring out what they want to do next. This all
could have happened in four or five years, when his options would
undoubtedly be more limited.

That's easy for Deitchler to see,
but for his father, there's always a nagging thought in the back of his
mind. Although he's grateful his son was able to accomplish so much
before concussions struck, Jason Deitchler sometimes finds himself
wondering, what if?

"It's just something always behind me that
I'm thinking about how good he could have been," Jason Deitchler said.
"He just had so much love for the sport, so much passion for even
training. I've been wrestling my whole life, and I never had a passion
like that. I never had a passion to work out and to train and to be the
best like that. I've never even seen a kid that loved it that much."

That's
why Deitchler still can't quite give it up. He hasn't ruled out a
career in sales — or really anything else that strikes him as
interesting during the remainder of his time in college  —but for now he
plans to start coaching wrestling in his spare time. He wants to raise
awareness about concussions, but no part of his years-long struggle has
changed his love of the sport. He said that whenever he has children,
he'd love for them to wrestle, and just a few weeks after his
retirement, he's already able to see the bigger picture.

"I'm so
grateful that I wrestled," Deitchler said. "Wrestling has changed my
life. It's funny, I remember being 18 and hearing the older guys say
that wrestling changed their lives, that the principles carry on. And I
was like, 'Yeah, right.' Now, I know exactly what they meant."

Somehow,
through all of this, Deitchler has been the person who seems the least
worried. When his family met to talk about what they'd do without the
sport that's almost defined their relationship, Deitchler was the one
saying it would all be okay. He's learning to appreciate the little
things, like having time to enjoy his coffee in the morning and being
able to share his love of wrestling with children.

So, yes,
Deitchler feels older than his 22 years. And of course he thinks what
happened was unfair. But he's not bitter, and wrestling, the sport that
he says "took him" so many years ago, still hasn't fully released its
grip.

For now, he's not going to let it.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter


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