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March 06, 2014 8:59 am

From the emergency room to the podium

Written by Dante Geoffrey

NWC 149-pound sophomore Jeff McCormick pushes Daniel Pak of Gloucester Community College into the mat during McCormick’s 3-2 victory in the third-place bout of Saturday’s NJCAA Wrestling Championships in Spokane. NWC 149-pound sophomore Jeff McCormick pushes Daniel Pak of Gloucester Community College into the mat during McCormick’s 3-2 victory in the third-place bout of Saturday’s NJCAA Wrestling Championships in Spokane. Tribune photo by Dante Geoffrey

Northwest wrestler rides the road to recovery all the way to Nationals  

For a top college athlete, the last thing on your mind is the idea that your body can fail you.

The constant upkeep of your body’s health absorbs an inordinate amount of your time, because without a body formed by rigorous maintenance you wouldn’t be considered one of the nation’s best wrestlers at one of the nation’s best junior college wrestling programs.

Your body is what people notice first. It is the physical embodiment of your strength, it fills out your form-fitting uniform and it is envied by others.

But for Northwest College’s Jeff McCormick, it was his mind that helped him return to the mat after he was blindsided by a ruptured appendix in early January. It almost cost him his athletic career, and much more.

“I was actually told I probably should have died,” McCormick said in a Spokane hotel room on Feb. 27, the day before the NJCAA Wrestling Championships, which began less than two months after the All-American underwent emergency surgery.

A native of Kamas, Utah, McCormick was home for the holidays when he first noticed something was off.

“I was having a lot of pain, a lot of stomach pain,” he said.

So he sought help at a local health center, where his condition was brushed off as a common occurrence.

“I was misdiagnosed when I first went to the clinic in Utah,” McCormick said. “That’s when we first thought it was a kidney stone.”

McCormick traveled back to Powell to rejoin his team and to begin the fall semester. But things got much worse in a hurry.

The pain got to be so intense that McCormick had his friend take him to the Powell Valley Healthcare.

“The morning I went to the hospital ... I was getting so sick I could barely stand up straight,” McCormick explained. “I was having trouble walking and understanding what was going on.”

What was going on was certainly no kidney stone.

“They figured out really quick that my appendix had burst and had been burst for three days,” McCormick said.

After discussing it with his parents, McCormick flew to Salt Lake City where he could see a specialist and be near his family. He was breathing rapidly and drifting in and out of consciousness when he was told on Jan. 4 he would have to go under the knife immediately.

“They had to go in because things had gotten a lot more complicated,” McCormick said.

His kidneys and intestines had been infected, and he didn’t have much time. McCormick was told the only reason he survived long enough to enter surgery was because his body was in peak physical condition.

“Because I was so healthy and in such good shape, that’s why I lived,” McCormick said.

And if he wasn’t an athlete?

“It would’ve killed me,” he said.

McCormick survived, but his wrestling career seemed, if not dead on arrival, at least MIA.

“Just the fact that I worked so hard and, not even getting the chance at regionals or nationals was pretty devastating,” McCormick said.

His recovery time was six weeks, exactly the amount of time between the date of his surgery and the West District Tournament in Rock Springs, where wrestlers from the region hoped to stamp their ticket to Nationals.

But there was little hope for McCormick, who lost 17 pounds in the four days following his surgery.

“It took everything out of me,” McCormick said. “Even getting out of the hospital bed and walking 30 feet down the hall and back physically exhausted me.”

Even his head coach, Jim Zeigler, knew the Trappers would likely be without one of their best wrestlers and most beloved teammates for the remainder of the season.

“You’re looking at a couple months of recovery time,” Zeigler said. “It doesn’t seem realistic.”

But another year cut short by medical issues would just not do.

McCormick’s 2012-13 season was derailed by a torn meniscus, which forced him to sit out the rest of the year as a medical redshirt. This time, he was a redshirt sophomore, and out of options.

“Kind of makes you wonder if I was not meant to wrestle,” McCormick said with a lighthearted tone now that he had proven he was more than capable.

‘Let’s do it’

About three weeks after being released from the hospital, as the Trappers prepared to host the Apodaca Duals, Zeigler called McCormick, now back in Powell, into his office. Zeigler floated the idea of McCormick beginning light workouts with the possibility of competing at regionals in mind.

“Let’s do it,” McCormick told his coach.

He started with light cardio and dumbbell work. More taxing workout staples like squats and bench presses were out of the question.

“If I strained myself too much I could herniate the incision,” he said.

It was a slow process that culminated in his medical clearance on Feb. 14, the day before the regional tournament in Rock Springs.

After McCormick’s weight loss, he could no longer wrestle in the 157-pound class in which he rose to No. 2 in the polls. He would enter regionals as Northwest’s man at 149 pounds.

A weight change that late in the season could throw a wrestler for a loop, but McCormick found the positives.

While McCormick is naturally around 157 pounds, his opponents were often bigger guys who cut weight to get to his class.

“I was small for 157 so being at 149 is a lot better,” McCormick said. “The guys are more my size.”

The plan at regionals was simple: wrestle as well as your body allows and try to buy yourself two more weeks to prepare.

“Our goal was to qualify for nationals and we were looking at it as no matter what happens it’s a win that I get to finish the year on the mat,” McCormick said.

That he was the last man standing on that mat was a remarkable bonus. McCormick won the 149-pound regional championship by beating Clackamas’ Kenny Martin, who was, at the time, the No. 2-ranked wrestler in the class. It was more than anyone could have imagined for McCormick, and served as the inspiration the Northwest squad needed to pull out of a month-long slump and qualify all 10 starters for Nationals.

It made the rest of the team think, “I have no excuse to not give it everything I got,” Zeigler said. “It really set a tone for the team.”

Assistant coach Bernie Dupuy said McCormick’s inclusion at Nationals was a must for Northwest.

“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Dupuy said.

But the fairy tale seemed to come to a premature end when McCormick lost his first match in Spokane to eventual title-winner Nosomy Pozo of North Iowa. A national title was no longer a possibility.

But that loss was just the end of the second act, with the happy ending still to come. McCormick moved to the consolation bracket and reeled off five wins in a row, including victories over the No. 1-, 2-, 5-, and 10-ranked wrestlers.

His final bout as a Trapper came in the bracket’s third-place match against No. 8 Daniel Pak of Gloucester Community College, a New Jersey school.

It was a long and grueling path to a top-three finish for a wrestler hoping for quick matches, and few of them.

“I get tired a lot quicker,” McCormick said before the tournament. “I really have to manage my match and my energy level throughout the day.”

In another situation at another tournament, McCormick may not have been able to persevere, but with his team embroiled in a tight race for second place with Clackamas, McCormick pushed on.

“I think if Jeff were solo, it’s harder to muster up that strength,” Zeigler said. “Because he was cooked.”

McCormick couldn’t give up two rounds short of the end. His team needed him, and he needed to prove something to himself.

“I have very high expectations for this tournament,” McCormick said. “Just getting here isn’t enough for me.”

McCormick now wears a scar that runs from the bottom of his belly button to underneath his waist line. In a teammate’s hotel room he gently runs his finger along it, still clearly getting acquainted with his involuntary body modification. It’s not quite as hip as a tattoo, but it will serve as a lifelong reminder of his near-death experience, and will understandably affect whether or not he continues to wrestle after leaving Northwest College. Not because of fear of further injury, but because after wrestling for “as long as I can remember,” he’s open to what else life can offer.

“Health concerns are always an issue but it’s basically (figuring out) what I want to do for my life,” he said.

In his third-place bout, McCormick’s chin was hit as he and Pak tumbled outside the circle. McCormick was slow to get up, and for those who didn’t see what caused his dizziness, the sight of the Trapper staggering on the mat, swaying his weary arms for balance and eventually leaning on his coach to stay upright, put fear into their hearts.

“I thought it was your body quitting on you,” Zeigler told McCormick during the team’s bus ride back to Powell Sunday.

“Me too,” a handful of Trapper wrestlers agreed.

But McCormick already dealt with a faulty body.

He’s yet to experience any quit in his mind.

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