'One Of Us'

Special-needs wrestler Kelly Chambers battles with the best

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Kelly Chambers crouched over, extended his hands and stared straight into the eyes of Rifle's Cody Ward, one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state.

It was the start of the longest match the Steamboat special-needs student had ever wrestled.

At the end of the first period, Chambers walked off the mat gasping for air and asking his coach for water. Ward took Chambers through three periods of takedowns, escapes and near falls.

At the end of third period, exhausted from six intense minutes of wrestling and overwhelmed with the excitement of hearing the roar of the crowd, Chambers cried.

Like so many other moments, it wasn't Chambers' actions that surprised his teammates, parents and coaches that Jan. 17 night, but the generosity of the other wrestler. Ward, one of the top 112-pound wrestlers in Colorado, gave up a guaranteed pin to give the high school junior the first full match of his career.

"The kids have been outstanding. I met (Ward's) parents at the (Rifle Tournament) and just told them how proud they should be of him to take the time to do what he did. He's a state contender at 112 pounds and he didn't have to do that," Sailors coach Jay Muhme said.

In a sport where a six-minute, one-on-one battle does not leave a chance for athletes to hide behind teammates or coaches, wrestlers are a combination of mental and physical toughness. And while these Western Slope wrestlers share that athletic hardness, there is a definite soft spot when it comes to Chambers.

'One of us'

Although Chambers has learned about takedowns, riding on long bus trips and how to use his gym locker since joining the Steamboat wrestling team last year, he has also taught his teammates about what it means to be developmentally disabled.

"(Chambers) has a really strong personality. That has not changed," said his special education teacher, Brad Weber. "The change is seen more with the other kids. They are more open towards talking to him and working with him."

While Chambers might be distinguished from the other wrestlers by being the only Sailor allowed to rest his head against Muhme's lap when long meets tire him out and to throw some exaggerated WWF moves during practice, he is still very much a part of the wrestling team.

"Kelly is one of us," said Will Zimmerer, a junior wrestler, who at 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds towers over the 112-pound Chambers.

Chambers is one of five in the small but tight-knit group of Sailor wrestlers. In the past two seasons, Chambers has wrestled in varsity matches when his coaches have had the chance to contact the opposing wrestler and coach to explain Chambers' condition.

While the need to talk to the other team limits Chambers from wrestling in fast-paced tournaments, he comes to team practices, rides on the team bus and sits with the team at pep rallies.

"He's great. He's so much fun. When we're too serious, he lightens things up," Zimmerer said.

That lightheartedness is especially important to a team that has struggled from the first day of practice this November. As the Sailors' numbers dropped from 10 to seven to five wrestlers, Muhme said so did his wrestlers' spirits.

After one top wrestler left because of a knee injury and another quit in January, the Sailors no longer even look at team standings with just four wrestlers competing in tournaments.

But those low numbers also make it easy to incorporate a special-needs student into the Steamboat wrestling program.

"What you have to look at is the good," Muhme said. "So we don't have enough kids. The positive is that Kelly gets the chance to wrestle and that means more to him and his life than the kids not out wrestling."

Taking it to the mat

"It's a man's sport," Chambers gave as his reason for wanting to wrestle.

But growing up the youngest of four brothers, it is not much of a surprise that Chambers learned the basics of wrestling rolling around in his living room. He even watched his brothers, Chris and Brian, compete at the state tournament during their high school days at Steamboat.

"He was my No. 1 fan," said Chris Chambers, now a junior at Colorado State University. "Kelly came to every single match. He was down there on the mat cheering me on."

And now it is the Steamboat wrestling community that is cheering Chambers on.

Some of Chambers' match antics, such as striking WWF poses when he walks out on the mat to receive a forfeit or asking coaches for water in the middle of a match, receive chuckles from the crowd. But there is also a sense of awe in watching what most have never seen in Northwest Colorado a special-needs student wrestling a varsity match.

"Kelly may have a disability. But this is something he is capable of doing. It's a challenge to him and he has to work," Muhme said. "Just to see him out there is a success."

It took almost a year for Chambers to convince his mother, Val, to let him go out for the high school wrestling team. When Chambers entered high school the year after his brother graduated, he began pestering his parents and then-coach Chris Decker to join the team, Val Chambers said.

Despite fears that their son could get hurt, Chambers' parents agreed to let him go out for the team with the stipulation that he be expected to work hard at practice.

"He's very stubborn and he had it in his head he wanted to be on the wrestling team," Val Chambers said. "I give him credit. I thought that if they made him work hard at it, he'd quit."

But Chambers didn't.

Part of the team

Instead he started learning takedowns and escapes and found that high school wrestling was much different than the wrestling he idolized WWF and his hero, Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Although Chambers can be found occasionally lounging against mats, talking to the girls in the weight room nearby or watching basketball practice downstairs, his teammates expect him to practice with them.

"He goes out and tries to do stuff. He participates in practice. We want him to be a member of the team," said sophomore Dave Gittleson, a 119-pounder. "We want to keep him going. He knows what he can and cannot do."

Assistant coach Brian Smith, who teaches at Lowell Whiteman, said Chambers' strength is surprising and he can catch some of the wrestlers off-guard with a mean half-nelson.

Muhme recalled earlier in the season when the team traveled to Olathe and started on its traditional run to stretch out legs after the long bus ride down. But Muhme and Chambers ran separately jogging from telephone post to telephone post for at least a mile.

"I was amazed how far we went," Muhme said. "He was just so psyched to be part of the team."

Perhaps Chambers' crowning achievement came more than a week ago in Hayden's triangular meet when he earned a legitimate takedown against a Soroco wrestler. While the shocked wrestler quickly followed it up with a pin, for Chambers' coaches, it was a moral victory.

Regardless of the opponent, every time Chambers steps on the mat he is greeted with more cheering than any other wrestler in the gym. Hearing those cries of support fills Val Chambers with mixed emotions.

"I guess there are two sides to it," she said. "You really wish he'd be like everybody else's kid. Then you feel really grateful to see people make allowances for him and do things for him."

Defining the thrill

Winning is not the thrill for Chambers, whose smile is just as big when his hand is raised for accepting a forfeit as it is when he walks off the mat after being pinned in the first period. His thrill comes from being part of a team.

"Kelly doesn't have a competitive bone in his body," said Chambers' dad, Mike.

During last weekend's Special Olympic skiing event, instead of racing toward the finish line, Chambers stopped to help a girl who had fallen on the course.

Chambers has never won a match and probably never will. But that doesn't change the three little words he thinks every time he crouches over, extends his hands and stares into the eyes of his opponent:

"Go for it."

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