John F. Russell: Not your typical wrestler

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— Kelly Chambers wasn’t your typical high school wrestler.

He didn’t win a lot of matches, he didn’t throw his opponents to the floor with crazy moves, and he didn’t bring home any state championship titles.

As a wrestler at Steam­boat Springs High School, Kelly tried, but he never qualified for the state finals.

Sure, every time Kelly stepped on the mat he wanted to win, but his ultimate goal wasn’t victory. For him, it was about being a part of something, for him, it was simply about participating in a high school sport.

Because of his passion for wrestling, Kelly found acceptance and support from his teammates and earned the respect of his opponents.

In the end, it was the sport that was important, not winning — and certainly not the fact that Kelly has Down syndrome.

Kelly never let Down syndrome stop him from wrestling. His family didn’t let Down syndrome discourage him from trying, and his teammates were not about to let Down syndrome stop Kelly from being a part of the high school team. These actions may have seemed small at the time, but those gestures still are being felt today.

What Kelly did as a wrestler at Steamboat Springs High School made an impression bigger than Shaq­­­uil­­le O’Neil’s footprint. He finished high school in 2003, but his story is what high school athletics should aspire to be.

Jay Muhme, who coached the Sailors until a few years ago, said he still bumps into Kelly, and the two usually share stories of the old days.

Muhme said Kelly’s story goes beyond Down syndrome to a core love of wrestling that is common among former athletes. It’s the same passion that brought Muhme back to the mat to coach and the same passion that fuels a proud tradition of wrestling that spans generations in the Yampa Valley.

“Kelly loves wrestling. Kelly loved being a part of the team,” Muhme said.

The former coach said he was lifted by the way his own wrestlers, and those from other teams, opened their arms to Kelly. He said when Kelly stepped onto the mat, he was no longer a person with special needs. He was a teammate, he was an athlete and he was a competitor.

“Wrestling made a huge impression on him,” said Kelly’s mom, Val. “Everyone treated Kelly so well, and it had a very positive effect.”

It’s not surprising that Kelly, who now is 28, still loves wrestling. He keeps news­­­paper clippings from his high school days on the wall of his room, along with posters of his favorite stars from World Wrestling Entertain­­ment.

Kelly’s story reminds us all that it’s the little things that are important in high school sports.

It reminds us that there are times when we need to look past an athlete’s physical limitations to a bigger picture, where sports inspire us to live out our dreams, even when victory seems out of reach.

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