WARREN — He had a solid record on the mat in his lone year as a wrestler for Warren De La Salle, but having his hand raised after besting an opponent isn’t the only reason Pilots senior 135-pound grappler Jesus Villa hears cheers from the crowd.
Villa, a Clinton Township resident, was born without tibias, or shin bones, and therefore he had both of his legs amputated when he was 2 years old.
Villa — born in the Dominican Republic and brought to the United States by Clinton Township couple Jim and Marge Badowski via the Healing the Children Organization, which helps children with serious medical conditions — has refused to let his disability stop him from living. The senior has played wheelchair basketball for more than a decade. He also plays sled hockey at Great Lakes Sports in Fraser.
“(De La Salle wrestling coach Dennis Parks) has been trying to get me to wrestle since my freshman year,” said Villa, whose team saw its season end in the regional round of the Michigan High School Athletic Association state tournament.
“Some friends pushed me, too, so I decided to try it out. I wanted to do it before, but I couldn’t because of basketball. I was finally able to fit everything into my schedule this year. And my grades are pretty good, so that made it easier for my parents to let me try (wrestling) out.”
Marge Badowski said she and her husband didn’t fully adopt Villa out of respect for his relationship with family in the Dominican Republic, but “we treat him like he’s our own son.” She said the way Villa took to wrestling is awe-inspiring. She said he learned the sport with relative ease.
“It’s one thing to see him excel in a disabled-body sport like wheelchair basketball,” Marge Badowski said, “but to see him play a sport with able-bodied boys and be good at it — that’s something special.”
Parks, in his fourth year as Pilots wrestling coach, said he told Villa his handicap could serve as a positive on the wrestling mat. The 18-year-old has a very strong upper body and looked to use that to his advantage during his matches.
“(Villa) is one of those kids who works really hard at everything he tries, and he usually ends up excelling at it,” Parks said.
On Feb. 6, Villa went 2-0 in helping De La Salle capture a Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 1 district title. He wasn’t always as successful on the mat, though.
The senior, who will attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, clearly recalls his first practice. He said he worked muscles he didn’t even know he had. Villa added the initial practice was frustrating because it seemed none of the moves he tried worked.
“But as the season went along, I started to find out what worked for me — trying to stay low, get on top of guys and cradle them,” Villa said. “Wrestling is a tough sport for anybody, but it’s even tougher trying it for the first time as a senior in high school.”
Villa rolls his eyes when recalling his first match. He said it was “pretty scary” going out on the mat for the first time. He remembers hearing cheers from the crowd, but the match went about as well as you expect for a wrestler his first time out.
“I lost 16-1, but I made it all three rounds,” Villa said. “The guy I wrestled is probably one of the best wrestlers in the state. I was doing everything I could to not get pinned.”
The senior has improved by leaps and bounds, according to Parks, who said he admires Villa’s work ethic. Parks also said Villa has been a joy to have on the team.
“He’s been a pleasure to work with and has become better than a lot of guys who wrestle on two legs,” Parks said. “He’s a lot of fun to have around, and he’s a very coachable wrestler. He takes everything in and uses it to his advantage.”
Villa said his parents watched his battle at every match. He said they’re proud of him, but watching him on the mat wasn’t easy.
“My dad said that, had I started wrestling as a freshman, he would have had a heart attack by now,” Villa said.
While he may have carved out a niche on the mat, Villa’s passion is for basketball. He played with the Sterling Heights Challengers Junior Wheelchair basketball team for 10 years and has been a member of the Detroit Diehards — in conjunction with the DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association — for the last two years.
Villa also made the first cut for the U.S.A. U23 Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team and has hopes of competing in the summer Olympics. The second cut, from 18 to 12 players, will be made in June in Arlington, Texas.
“I was rated top five out of 30 players during the first tryout,” Villa said.
At the University of Illinois, Villa will play for the Illini wheelchair basketball team.
“I chose basketball of all the other things because I have some goals I want to reach,” Villa said. “I have a lot of fun with everything. I have a lot of support and encouragement, and that makes everything easier.”