A whole-hearted victory

Sean Ammerman

Wrestler overcomes health problems, heads to Nationals

By edging out a 2-1 victory last Saturday in the Mid-American Conference finals at 157 pounds, sophomore Kurt Gross secured his first spot in the NCAA Division I National Championships.

Winning the trip to Oklahoma City, along with a chance to represent Kent State and become an All-American wrestler, had been his goal from the outset of the season, Gross said. But that goal was a heartbeat away from not being fulfilled.

Three years ago, the morning after a high school wrestling tournament, Gross woke up with a cloudy and dizzy feeling in his head. He got a drink of water, but as he sipped, most of it dribbled down his face.

“I told my mom, ‘I don’t feel good,'” Gross said. “My dad came in the living room and looked at me and said the whole left side of my face was drooped down.”

When his dad asked him to move his left hand and he couldn’t do it, Gross said his family rushed him to the hospital.

The doctors told him he had a small stroke – small, because it only lasted about 7 seconds.

Gross said he was devastated, assuming this would mean giving up the sport he had competed in since second grade.

“Inside my head I thought I was done forever,” he said. “I was a mess.”

The exact cause of the stroke was never determined, Gross said. It could have been from cutting too much weight, a blow he suffered in a match or a blood clot in his leg.

After going to a number of specialists, Gross said a cardiologist found a small hole in his heart, another possible cause. The cardiologist said he would clear him to wrestle if Gross would agree to have surgery on it. He got a second opinion and was advised to quit the sport.

“I felt I couldn’t let go of wrestling,” he said. “My dad was OK with me going back. My mom was the nervous one.”

In a surgery that went in through his groin and then through an artery to his heart, the doctors implanted a titanium cover on the hole.

It was during his recovery that Gross visited Kent State and Kent State head coach Jim Andrassy for the first time. Andrassy said he never heard of him and wasn’t impressed with an injured wrestler.

“When he walked into my office I didn’t think he was any good,” Andrassy said. “He was injured most of the year, so I didn’t get to see him.”

After missing two months of his senior wrestling season at Padua Franciscan High School in North Royalton, Gross returned to the mat in time to compete in sectionals.

While Gross claimed to be out of shape and didn’t feel he made a full recovery until the following season, on paper he didn’t miss a beat. He placed first in the Division II State Tournament at 140 pounds and went on to become an All-American at Senior Nationals.

“We saw that he won, and we remembered that it was the kid that stopped by my office,” Andrassy said. “When he proved he could wrestle with the best, we really stepped up the recruiting.”

With a 26-7 record this year, the third best on the team, Andrassy said he wasn’t worried about Gross joining the squad because he had already proven his condition would not be a factor. In fact, Andrassy said Gross maintains an edge over competition through his endurance.

“He can wrestle deep into a seven-minute match,” he said. “He’s probably in the best shape of anyone on the team.”

Andrassy said he also has a reputation for being the team goof-ball. Gross said he just likes to enjoy himself.

“I’m the one who gets in trouble for smiling all the time,” Gross said. “The coach will be yelling, and I’ll be smiling.”

To help reduce the possibility of reoccurring problems, Gross takes an aspirin every day to thin his blood. He is not constantly worried about his condition, he said, but is more aware of his overall health and realizes the stroke could have been a lot worse.

“The same time I had a stroke, a kid from Baldwin Wallace college had one,” Gross said. “And at the same time I was winning States, he was going through speech therapy.”

The first day of the National Tournament begins tomorrow at noon in Oklahoma City. Gross will be representing the Flashes there along with seniors Alex Camargo and Jason Bake and juniors Chad Sportelli and Aaron Miller.

Contact wrestling reporter Sean Ammerman at [email protected].