The Award-Winning Wrestling Team with Compassion
Competing in wrestling meets across the region, the composition of Horace Greeley’s team is like no other.
For the last four years, the Greeley wrestling team has been inclusive where the Quakers have students with special needs practicing and competing with the team. The three students this year aren’t just managers simply helping out, but athletes that put the same work and dedication into their craft just like every other wrestler on the team. Their addition has been both incredibly rare among local wrestling circles and undeniably beneficial.
“I think it changed the culture of our team in a positive way,” head coach Mike DeBellis said. “It seemed like the kids had more compassion for each other and tried to help each other more.” DeBellis has been coaching wrestling in the district for the past 16 years and currently teaches Introduction to Engineering, Robotics and Technology, and Design Integration classes at Greeley. He was this year’s recipient of the Ed Habermann Award from the Horace Greeley Scholarship Fund’s annual gala last month for being an exemplary role model for students in the district.
Awards Abound for the Quakers
While more compassion seems to be counterintuitive in a sport where a moment of mercy could spell disaster, the results for Greeley can’t be questioned. The past two seasons, senior Nicholas Ng, junior Ho Jin Lee, and sophomore Brady McCarthy, who all are special needs students, have been part of a team that has finished in the top ten both years in all of New York State.
Captain and senior Aaron Wolk was crowned state champion for his weight class at 172 pounds. He is the third Greeley wrestler to win the state championship. Previous state championship titles by a Greeley wrestler were won in 1978 and 1995. Wolk will continue wrestling next year at Brown University. Captain and senior Matt Schreiber took fifth overall for his weight class and captain and sophomore Isabella Garcia finished second in the New York girls state championship this year.
Lee, who has Down syndrome, joined the team four years ago. McCarthy, who also has Down syndrome and Ng, who is autistic, both joined the team two years ago. The three students are able to participate because assistant coach Anthony Tortora is certified to instruct students with disabilities. (He works as a physical education teacher in the Bronx with special needs students.)
The three boys are at practice daily, going through the same grind as everyone else and occasionally compete at meets in exhibitions matches against grapplers from other schools. All three boys are also certified to wrestle.
Brady’s father, Kevin, said wrestling has given Brady a boost in confidence and allowed him to meet more classmates he wouldn’t normally get to know. When Brady performed in a school play this year, many of his teammates attended the show.
Physically, it’s been great for him, and allowed him to be part of something bigger than himself. While Brady has played other sports, a certain temperament is needed to wrestle.
“He likes competing,” Kevin said of his son. “It made him a more complete person.”
DeBellis has made it clear anyone that wants to join the team is more than welcome. DeBellis has been known to recruit students in the hallway to join the team.
“Wrestling is a unique sport in that when you do it, you’re a wrestler for the rest of your life,” DeBellis said. “No matter what happens, you’re a wrestler and it’s a totally different sport than any other sport out there.”
“Wrestling really is the only sport where it is all-inclusive,” he added.
Trio Serves as Role Models for the Team
Tortora said the inclusion of McCarthy, Lee and Ng in the program lights up the day for every other wrestler in the room.
McCarthy has even become known for his pep talks at meets and being the most passionate person cheering for teammates. He’ll sit right next to the coaches while a teammate is on the mat and repeatedly tell him, “You can do it, you can do it.” His father encourages his son to, “be there, be vocal.”
And it certainty doesn’t go unnoticed. His teammates love watching him wrestle because there’s no denying how passionate he is. When Brady gets the opportunity to shine, he puts all his effort into it.
Schreiber said he’s learned to be more patient and pay attention to every minute aspect during practice. Wrestling can be a very detailed oriented sport, he noted, which requires his three disabled teammates to focus intensely. Garcia added while wrestling can be incredibly arduous, anyone with the right mindset and desire, like McCarthy, Lee and Ng, can participate. And Wolk said he’s learned to never give up. While it might take his three disabled teammates more time to grasp a new wrestling move, their attitude is only positive and optimistic.
There are no excuses for another wrestler who’s been given the gift of able body and mind to get frustrated or complain when there are three teammates with disabilities who refuse to settle. “They always have so much energy at every practice and it is great to see,” Wolk said. “It shows the rest of the team, don’t give up.”