As the referee blows the whistle to start the match, Liam Ollive hops to the ground, looking to take down his opponent.
Spinning around on the blue mat, he contorts his slender body, punctuated by taut muscles, wriggling to escape his adversary’s grip.
Despite losing a leg at the age of 8, the cost of winning his four-year battle with childhood cancer, the Beacon High School junior holds his own with any 99-pound grappler around.
The illness, his mother said, could not stop him from living.
“Even when he went through all his sickness, he has always been, ‘This is what happened. Let’s get through it. What’s next?’ ” said Martha Ollive, a beaming mother. “He definitely inspires me, every day, to do the things that I do.”
Although his mother was initially hesitant to allow Liam Ollive to compete in the physically demanding activity, Ollive has used wrestling to grow as a young man, while serving to inspire his teammates. His three years on the Bulldogs roster have helped bring normalcy to a life that still includes trips to Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for annual checkups.
“I like the individuality of it,” said Ollive, 17, whose left leg was amputated above the knee to prevent the spread of rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer of the soft tissues. “But I also like that you can contribute to the team.”
According to the American Cancer Society, there were 379 cases of pediatric cancer per every 1,000,000 children from 2006-10.
Rhabdomyosarcoma accounts for 3 percent of all childhood cancers, the American Cancer Society estimates, with more than half of rhabdomyosarcoma diagnoses occurring in children under the age of 10. The organization estimates about 350 new cases of rhabdomyosarcoma are diagnosed every year in America.
Having learned the finer points of the sport during his first two years in the Bulldogs’ wrestling program, Ollive has compiled several victories this season. Two weekends ago, he pinned his opponent’s shoulders to the mat at Ardsley High School’s annual Joe Radomski Memorial Tournament, taking third place in his weight division.
“He was glowing. Unbelievable,” said Martha Ollive, recalling watching her son’s victory. “The people in the stands were amazingly supportive of him. I just started crying.
“To go out there and do what he does, he doesn’t think he’s any different than anyone else.”
Just as important as Ollive’s contributions on the mat, though, is the emotional lift he brings his teammates, Ron Tompkins said.
“He’s usually the first one in the room (for practice),” the longtime Beacon wrestling coach said. “He cleans the mats, and just by him doing that, the other kids pick up that they have to do this. He kind of sets the example.”
Whether he’s running using his crutches or rotating into a shoulder roll with them to warm up, the other Bulldogs draw inspiration from their teammate.
“If he’s jogging, it sets the tone in the room: ‘I had better be jogging, because I have no excuse not to be,’ ” said Tompkins, adding the soft spoken Ollive lets his humble actions do his talking. “He’s very quiet, never says anything.
“They look up to him.”
First diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma as a 4-year-old, Ollive went through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate the disease. After four years, however, the cancer returned, and surgeons amputated his leg to purge the cancer from him.
“Liam was only 4 years old when I first began caring for him and 9 when he finished treatment for the relapse that he suffered at age 8,” said Dr. Leonard H. Wexler, Ollive’s oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. “He was and is a sweet, but quietly determined little boy. He was rather rambunctious as a 4-year-old; that ‘fire’ has mellowed and morphed into an iron resolution as a teen to not allow the different ability — it’s not a disability for him — of his amputation to prevent him from doing things that he wants to do.”
Though he uses a prosthetic device to walk, Ollive wrestles without it.
“It would be a disadvantage for him to wrestle with it; it was really made for walking,” explains his older brother John, adding Ollive moves “15 times faster without.” Plus, “there’s no way wearing a chunk of titanium is allowed.”
John Ollive wrestled for the Bulldogs before graduating from Beacon in 2003; his father similarly wrestled in his youth. Now a biology teacher and wrestling coach in the Chester Union Free School District, the older Ollive sibling thought his brother could benefit from taking part in the sport.
“He’s the one who suggested Liam go out for wrestling. He thought he would do good at it, because he’ll probably stay in the lower weight (class) all the way through senior year, so that would be a bit of an advantage for him,” Ollive’s father, also named John, said after recording his son’s recent match from the stands with his phone. “He seems to like it, and he can’t wait to go to practice. You know what sports are for kids. It’s the same thing. It just makes you feel better that you can do something.
“He seemed to like it. His enthusiasm was really high for it, really. So we said, ‘Good!’ because sometimes, especially when you start, it’s rough. You get beaten a lot, and you can see why people quit. But he was really going out there after it.”
The younger John Ollive was inspired by watching Anthony Robles, an Arizona State University grappler born with one leg, win the NCAA’s 125-pound national title.
“‘Liam can do that!’ ” he thought to himself after watching Robles win his championship in 2011. “He’s not going to be on the football or soccer or tennis team. But a sport like wrestling, he can do really well.”
Still, when Ollive first brought up the topic of hitting the mats, his mom, admittedly, had reservations.
“‘Um … well … do you really want to do this?’ ” Martha Ollive recalled asking her younger son. “I know he can do anything. He’s amazing. It took a while to get used to the thought of him wrestling. It took a couple years. It wasn’t until he got to high school when I said, ‘OK, give it a try.’ He really loves it, and he’s so happy.”
As his teammates jog around the circle to warm up before a meet, so does Ollive, his crutches by his side for support. When the Bulldogs bow down to stretch, Ollive touches the black-and-white wrestling shoe on his right foot with his right hand. He soon eases himself to the ground as the Bulldogs sit atop the mat in a butterfly position, pulling his right leg in and stretching his groin like everyone else.
“It’s just nice to watch your kid do anything, no different than anything else,” the Ollive patriarch said. “I just like the way he stuck with it. Now, he’s having a little success, so it’s good for him and fun for everybody to watch — no different than anyone else.”
During a recent match, Ollive sat at the end of Beacon’s bench, almost mesmerized, while waiting for his bout. As teammates rolled and struggled on the mat, his intense eyes widened, seemingly absorbing everything he saw to become a better wrestler.
When his turn in the ring comes around — his 99-pound bout was the seventh of 15 this night — Ollive is a study in balance and determination.
In a sport that’s predicated on leverage, Tompkins said Ollive can sometimes be at a disadvantage, able to only push off his right leg. Undaunted, the third-year wrestler fights valiantly to avoid a takedown before Arlington’s Dennis Robin eventually wraps his limbs around him.
Squirming, though, helps Ollive escape domination, though his opponent is relentless.
Arlington’s competitor soon weaves his way around Ollive’s body, forcing his shoulders to the floor to claim victory in 83 seconds.
Still each match brings improvement and respect.
“I want to become better. I’m working harder to become better,” said Ollive, who’s already seen progress in his development. “The only thing I was kind of good at were takedowns. Still, even then it was kind of hard to get a takedown. Nothing came really that easy.
“Once you get one move, then it sort of rolls into the next move.”
Fred Perry, who became Arlington’s varsity coach prior to the 1982-83 season, said Ollive impressed him with his determination.
“It’s really great to see somebody in that situation have the guts to go out there and actually wrestle, especially in a sport like this,” Perry said. “Wrestling is a very physical sport, and I give the kid so much credit.”
Sure, wrestling has helped develop Ollive’s body, but it’s also improved him as an all-around person, his brother said.
“He came out of his shell,” the younger John said. “When we were growing up, he’d talk to my family; but when we were around new people, he was very withdrawn and shy. Now he’s going out in front of the school and wrestling people! He’s got this crew of people he likes going to meets with.
“He’s excited to wake up Saturday morning and go to wrestling practice. He doesn’t want to miss a practice. He wants to be there.”
And he’ll probably be the first one there. As usual.
Whether it’s his coach, his teammates or opponents, Ollive said he’s happy to leave a good impression with everyone he encounters in the sport.
“It’s nice being an inspiration,” he said, “knowing you can make an impact on someone’s life in a positive way.”
Sean T. McMann: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @journalsean