Kanton DeClercq was helped out of his wheelchair and taken to the circle in the center of the wrestling mat.
When the referee’s whistle blew, the fifth-grader from Tecumseh was no longer bound by cerebral palsy, a disease he’s had since birth.
DeClercq was what he always dreamed of being — a wrestler. Just like his heroes in the WWE. Just like his friends at school.
For 45 seconds during a match on Feb. 7 in Tecumseh, he got to experience what his peers take for granted.
DeClercq won the match with a pin, was lifted triumphantly by his coach, Ryan Rhodes, and pumped his arms in the air.
More than a few tears were shed by those in attendance.
Being on the mat “feels good, because to me it feels like home,” DeClercq said.
Imagine being the parent of a son who is unable to walk and watching the scene unfold from the bleachers.
“It was amazing,” said his father, Kevin. “I’m halfway into tears watching this man’s face light up after winning. With the energy in the crowd and everyone just cheering him on, the coach going over and picking him up, it was amazing … amazing.”
DeClercq is one half of the remarkable story that unfolded in the Tecumseh gym that afternoon.
The other is his opponent, Levi Podhola, a seventh-grader at Pathfinder School in Pinckney.
Podhola, who already wrestled, didn’t hesitate when asked to take the mat against DeClercq in an exhibition match at the end of the meet. Because DeClercq is in fifth grade, he technically can’t compete for one more year. He joined the team this winter and has been practicing, but hadn’t had a match.
“Before the match, we were kind of standing there getting the boys ready matside,” Pathfinder coach TJ VanDoren said. “The coach from Tecumseh said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a kid who has been with us all season. He’s worked on his moves and hasn’t had a match yet this year. We were wondering if you could send someone out there to wrestle him. Kanton has got cerebral palsy. He’s in a wheelchair. I just want someone to go out there for 30, 45 seconds in front of a crowd, in front of a ref and get the real experience.’ Of course, I told him, ‘Absolutely.’”
Podhola received no instructions on how to approach the match, but the way he rose to the moment has been inspiring.
“It was really cool, actually,” Podhola said. “He was just laying on top of me at the beginning. Then I started coaching him through, like putting the half in, because I heard a bunch of people yelling, ‘Half! Half! Half!’ So I stuck my arm out a little bit and told him to put his arm under my arm and rest his hand on my head and drive me onto my back, and that’s what he did.”
DeClercq earned his opponent’s respect.
“He wrestled hard and he’s a worthy opponent,” Podhola said.
Back in Pinckney, Podhola’s parents awaited word of the match. They were unable to attend because it started while they were still at work and was nearly an hour away.
Jessica Podhola called a friend who was at the match to get the details of her sons’ matches. Cooper Podhola is a sixth-grader on the wrestling team.
The friend offered some of the basics about the meet.
“She said ‘The boys did real good, this happened, this happened, but I’ll let Levi tell you about his last match,’” Jessica said. “I thought, ‘That’s kind of funny. Normally she’ll tell me.’”
When Levi walked in the door, his mother had to know what the mystery was about.
“I just told her that I probably had one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, then told her about the match,” Levi said.
Soon thereafter, the mother of another wrestler texted Jessica a video of the match.
“I watched it,” she said. “That’s when I started crying.”
VanDoren said that nobody who was in the gym that day will ever forget the display of determination and humanity by these youngsters.
“It was one of those surreal moments, one of the things you see in a movie,” he said. “They send the kid out there and Levi goes out there and a hush falls over the crowd and everyone’s very interested in what’s going on. The ref blows his whistle and the crowd starts cheering. It was really awesome at the end when he starts to turn Levi for the pin. Everyone erupted.
“The teachable moment would honestly be that there’s bigger things than wins and losses in wrestling. After the match, I told Levi I was so proud of him and had a ton of respect for him.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Kanton, too. Just to be a wrestler, you’re going to earn respect from other wrestlers, because of how hard it is. For someone in his situation to come out and wrestle, that’s crazy. The kid deserves all the respect in the world.”