Wrestler recovers after a double-leg takedown.


Preston Hoebelheinrich is down on his knees. He reaches for his opponent’s ankle, drives a shoulder into the same leg, and knocks him to a sitting position on the mat. Hoebelheinrich then grabs the young man from behind, gaining the advantage, and scores two points for the takedown.

Though his challenger most likely expected this move, its swift execution nonetheless took him by surprise. Hoebelheinrich is quick, especially for a wrestler whose legs end just past his knees. Before the match, he had removed his cross necklace and kissed it, a reminder that someone like him might just as easily not be somewhere like here.

“I do this so God knows I’m out there wrestling for him,” Hoebelheinrich says, “to let him know I thank him for giving me these chances. He could have let me die.”

When Hoebelheinrich was six years old, he fell ill one day with flu-like symptoms. By the time his mother brought him home from a day at Grandma’s house, the young boy was covered in bruises.

The family rushed him to urgent care in Rock Valley, Iowa, their hometown, and immediately doctors sent him to a larger hospital in Sioux City. From there, he was life-flighted to Sioux Falls, where specialists told Hoebelheinrich’s mother her son was dying.

Amputation was the only way to save him from the bacterial spinal meningitis traveling quickly through his small body. That same day, surgeons took his legs and any memory of a childhood spent with them.

“I don’t remember anything before I got sick,” he says. “I remember waking up and not having legs, and that’s the way I was. It was like I was born.”

With the help of prosthetics, Hoebelheinrich played a variety of sports as a child, but by middle school, wrestling won out. The requisite combination of mental and physical discipline appealed to him, a self-described “chubby nerd.”

In eighth grade, Hoebelheinrich wrestled at 155 pounds and 37 percent body fat. By ninth grade, he was down to 119 and winning enough matches to qualify for districts, an unusual achievement for a freshman. Sophomore year, he was a muscular 140 pounds, the captain of his team, and on his way to the first of three Iowa state tournaments.

Hoebelheinrich is not the first amputee to excel at wrestling. Nick Ackerman is a fellow Iowan who also lost his lower legs to spinal meningitis as a boy and went on to be a national champion in NCAA Div. III. The two met for a few hours to practice exploiting the advantage of already being low to the ground.

“It’s insane how much I improved,” says Hoebelheinrich. Later, he’d meet with another NCAA champ, Anthony Robles, who was born with one leg. Robles taught Hoebelheinrich some additional strategies he’s saving for the Northwestern mats.

NWC recruited the wrestler just out of high school, but a pair of shoulder surgeries has kept him sidelined as a freshman. Nonetheless, Coach Rik Dahl is confident that once recovered, Hoebelheinrich will contribute to the team in a way few others can.

“What impressed me about Preston and what made us go after him so hard was his ability to overcome,” says Dahl. “We saw the way he was an inspiration for those on his high school team because of his drive to succeed and his tenacious work ethic, and we believed he could continue to grow here while adding to the culture of our program.”

This tenacity is evident in his training. When not injured, Hoebelheinrich incorporates a mix of wrestling drills, swimming, weights and running with a special pair of prosthetics.

His perspective, too, shows a certain resolve: Hoebelheinrich is not convinced he deserves special attention for being an amputee. He’s just living life as he wants to, he says, and it’s just “not that big of a deal.”

“I don’t share my story so people can think, ‘Oh, this kid has gone through a lot. Let’s be nice to him,’” he says. “I like sharing it so they can say, ‘This kid did this. Let’s stop feeling sorry for ourselves.’ So they learn that anything is possible.”

Things that are possible, however, don’t come without hard work. It’s been a challenge for Hoebelheinrich to learn to walk with prosthetics, and after 13 years, he still needs a railing to navigate stairs.

Perhaps that’s why he’s drawn to the freedom found on a wrestling mat. It is there that he, like the biblical Jacob, has fought hard for his blessing.

“Losing my legs has shaped who I am today,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that Christ puts obstacles in your way to see who you become.”

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