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Time ticking on wrestling injuries

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The time was ticking on Jared Schell, and a decision had to be made.

To wrestle or not to wrestle? The senior's high school athletic career hung in the balance.

It was last year in the District 3 Class 3A Section V tournament heavyweight semifinals. Schell was on a mission to reach the state tournament, when he went down with a serious knee injury.

“I told him, ‘You have 20 seconds. Get to your feet or go home,’” said Chris Schell, Jared’s father and head coach at Red Lion.

To call it quits could mean the final match of Jared’s high school career; to continue wrestling could risk further injury.

Schell elected to go on.

“I’m not going home at all,” Jared said. “I’m going to finish this match and wrestle on. No matter what.”

Schell won that match, before taking a medical forfeit prior to the championship. He hasn't wrestled since.

Days later, Schell was diagnosed with a torn ACL. He continues rehabbing in hopes of getting back on the mat collegiately.

Chris Schell said his son wrestled through a torn labrum in his shoulder during his junior year and was just rounding into form his senior campaign when the injury occurred.

“He had goals,” Chris Schell said. “He was ranked fifth in the state at that point. One of his goals was to wrestle in states. He was three wins from 100.”

Chris Schell said he pushed his son to continue that day, but that it was ultimately Jared's decision. Either way, a significant decision had to be made while the clock ticked, and without the benefit of more in-depth medical testing. Wrestlers face a 90-second medical limit before the match is forfeited.

Such parameters present a unique set of challenges for training staffs, coaches and the student-athlete.

“Some say it’s a long time; some say it’s the blink of an eye," Chris Schell said. "I teach the kids to fight through adversity and fight pain. But if you have a question in your mind, don’t do it.”

The 1-minute, 30-second injury timeout rule makes wrestling different from other high school sports. In soccer, basketball and football, an injured athlete can be taken to the sideline or off the field entirely for in-depth medical evaluation. There are no time constraints during the process, and the athlete can be run through a series of tests before a final diagnosis is made. They’re subbed back in if they're good to go. If they aren’t, no penalty is assessed. While a team might  be competing without a key member, play resumes.

In wrestling, however, that is not the case.

“I’ve been in that situation a number of times,” said Brian Bixler, an orthopedic surgeon at OSS Health who works with athletes throughout southcentral Pennsylvania. “You get in there, you’re making a decision in what feels like one second. The ref is yelling, ‘Time, time.’ You know you’re on the clock.”

When to play, when not to play

Dallastown wrestler Drake Pew was injured against Spring Grove’s Jared Barley during a match in January.

Pew clearly hurt his left knee. The Dallastown medical staff tended to him, with Pew on the ground in noticeable pain. He eventually continued wrestling.

Pew further injured his knee – he said he was diagnosed with a Grade 2 MCL sprain – and missed the remainder of the regular season. He returned a month later to win the sectional tournament at 171 pounds before pulling out of the District 3 tournament to avoid further injury.

It was ultimately Pew's decision to continue wrestling that night, he said. He admitted to initially downplay the severity of the injury to stay on the mat.

Head coach Rob Jansen acknowledged that he might do things differently in hindsight, but  there’s “nothing you really can do now.”

“At the moment, all you go by is what your kid says. It wasn’t swollen or anything,” Jansen said. “If I had time travel, I would try to keep him from doing what hurt him in the first place.”

John Hosage, the PIAA statewide wrestling rules interpreter, described wrestlers as "bull-headed." He added that some won’t tell the truth when questioned during an injury timeout.

“They have to almost be crippled before they tell you they’re hurt or they don’t want to finish,” he said. “Different breed.”

Many in the wrestling community said, for that reason, it should not be the athlete's call to wrestle on.

Dylan Chatterton, a former Central York wrestler who currently competes at Shorter University in Georgia, said the coach or medical staff should determine the student-athlete’s health status.

“The wrestler, nine times out of 10, is not pulling himself,” Chatterton said.

William Vollmar, a medical doctor who specializes in family and sports medicine in Quarryville, was the on-site doctor at last weekend’s PIAA wrestling championships. Vollmar looks at a wrestler’s range of motion, full strength in the area of injury, and willingness to continue, he said.

“If you can make those three things go together, that athlete can play,” Vollmar said.

Head and neck injuries are automatic grounds for calling the match, both Vollmar and Bixler said.

“Most concussions don’t show you their signs right off the bat,” he said. “You go out there and you use your instincts and knowledge, and you try to make a decision on whether a kid is concussed or not.”

Pros and cons

Part of the reason there is a limit on injury time is to prevent wrestlers from using a break in the action to their benefit  – or waving the "whirlybird," as it's often described.

In the past, an injury timeout used to be three minutes long, and wrestlers had unlimited timeouts at their disposal, Hosage said.

Now, it's been shortened to 1:30, and each wrestler can use up to two per match.

A series of points are awarded to the offensive wrestler if the opposition calls for injury timeout in a near-fall position from 90 degrees and over. A second injury timeout also allows the offensive wrestler to resume competition in their position of choice; a third timeout results in automatic disqualification.

Chatterton thought 1:30 was enough time to evaluate a wrestling injury, he said, however, penalties should be stiff for wrestlers who elect to use the “whirlybird,” a reference to the hand motion used to indicate timeout.

“I’m not a fan of injury time,” Chatterton said. “It gives the opponent time to take a breather.”

A wrestler also has five allotted minutes during a match to help curtail a blood injury.

Still, Hosage said stiffer penalties could work both ways.

“I wouldn’t want the penalty so severe that a kid truly hurt is afraid to tell me because he doesn’t want to pay the penalty,” he said. “Very fine line.”

Many in the wrestling community said that, by and large, the injury timeout rule in place is as good an alternative as ever before.

"You got to have a line someplace," Hosage said. "If you watch this whole (PIAA) tournament, unless a kid breaks a leg or separates a shoulder, most of the time they have him back in time, and most of the time the kid finishes the match. So, I guess it kind of works."

In the end, wrestlers are built for battle in a physical sport.

Jared Schell said a part of him has second thoughts about his decision to wrestle with the knee injury, but that he also was happy he fought through the hardship.

“My dad told my brother and I growing up: Fight for what you want in life,” Jared Schell said. “Nothing can stop you. Only you can stop yourself.”

Chris Schell said people can second-guess the move if they choose.

“Wrestling is a great sport and relates to life, with ups, downs and adversity,” Chris Schell said. “You’ve got to find that determination. Wrestling does that. You’re the only person on that 10-foot circle, with your opponent.”